St Columba (Colmcille) of Iona

St Columba (Colmcille)

St Columba also known as Colmcille was born on the 7th December 521 in Gartan, Ulster (in today’s County Donegal).

His father, Phelim McFergus, was a great grandson of Niall of the nine hostages and his mother, Eithne, was from a noble family of Leinster.

Early Life of St Columba

As a young child he spent most of his time at the nearby little church and was called Colmcille meaning “little dove” a name he is still known as in Ireland. He first studied at Kilmacrennan and with the Druidic tradition collapsing in Ireland due to the spread of Christianity and the study of Latin and Christian theology flourishing Columba was sent onto study at the monastic school of Moville. After his training at Moville he  moved onto  Clonard monastery where his studies was led by St. Finian and he was ordained as a priest by the Bishop of Clonfad, Saint Etchen.

Was Columcille’s first monastery in Derry?

Its believed that after leaving Glasnevin monastery St Columba travelled North to an area called Doire Calgach (oakwood of Calgach) known today as Derry,  the oldest continuously inhabited places in Ireland, where he supposedly  founded his first monastic Church known as Dubh Regles (The Black Church) in 546 AD.

Local historians believe though it wasn’t until later a Christian monastery was founded on the hill of Derry after a local King donated the site. Although the monastery belonged to the federation of Columban churches who seen St Columba as their spiritual leader its believed the church was have been very small at the beginning but may have lasted into the middle ages and evolved into the Augustinian congregation.

Battle of Cul Dreimhne

Tradition states that Columba disputed with St. Finian of Moville over a psalter (a volume containing the book of psalms and other devotional material). Columba had borrowed the book from St. Finian and had copied the manuscript intending to keep it but St. Finian disputed his right to keep the copy.

The High King of Ireland at the time of the dispute,  Diarmaid Mac Cerbhaill, passed sentence by saying:

‘To every cow belongs her calf, therefore to every book belongs its copy’

You could say this was possibly the first case of law against copyright.

Around the same time Diarmaid executed  a young prince of Connaught who was  under the protection of Colum Cille which angered the Northern  Clan Neill and the Connaught men. In revenge they fought King Diarmaid in the Battle of  Cul Dreimhne in 561 AD who had lost over 3000 men.

Columcille travels to Iona

Two years after the Battle of  Cul Dreimhne Columba set sail for the island of Iona with 12 other colleagues. On Iona he founded a monastery that became famous as a centre for Celtic Christianity, many believed this is where the Books of Kells had been created.

Columba travelled to mainland Scotland but on visit to King Bridei of the Picts he found the gates of their stronghold bolted shut. On performing the sign of the cross the gates flung open on their own accord which was seen as a miracle by many. After this King Bridei decided to listen to Columba and was then baptised with many people soon following. He spent the rest of his life travelling Scotland and preach to whoever would listen. Whenever he wasn’t travelling he would return to Iona and led a monastic life and teaching the word of the lord.

8th June, 597, Saint Columba passed away in Iona where he was buried. 100 years later his remains were removed to Ireland after the threat from Vikings but to this day nobody knows their exact location.

Without a doubt Saint Columba was a remarkable person who travelled all over Ireland & Scotland helping to spread Christianity and was responsible for the founding of many churches and monasteries in Ireland.  His feast day is celebrated on 9th June.

Sources and related links

Our Venerable and God-Bearing Father Columba of Iona, enlighther of Scotland (521-597) – www.stcolumbamonastery.org

Annals of the Four Masters – www.ucc.ie

The Annals of Ulster – www.ucc.ie

History of Long Tower Parish www.longtowerchurch.org

History of Derry – www.geographia.com

King Bridei of the Picts – www.ltscotland.org.uk

This article was first published on 16-05-2010 and last modified on 30-07-2017.

About the Author

Brian O’Neill
With a passion for traditional music Brian is never one to miss a good session. When not studying for exams he spends his time playing the bodhrán, something he's be doing since a kid. Brian is a regular contributor and author for YourIrish.com