ST. COLUMBKILLE is one of three great saints of Ireland and was the first missionary to Scotland. Born in 521 in Donegal, Ireland to a family connected to kings and princes, Columb was a man gifted with incredible talents. He wrote poetry and music, established churches and monasteries, preached the gospel and painted manuscripts. St. Adamnan, his biographer wrote of him: "He had the face of an angel; he was of an excellent nature, polished in speech, holy in deed, great in counsel . . . loving unto all." He is personally described as "A man well-formed, with powerful frame; his skin was white, his face broad and fair and radiant, lit up with large, gray, luminous eyes.”
From an early age Columb seemed destined for the priesthood, his family sent him off to study under the future St. Finnian and at Clonard Abbey he surrendered his princely claims, became a monk and was ordained. He spent the next 15 years preaching and teaching in Ireland. As was the custom in those days, he combined study and prayer with manual labor. By his own natural gifts as well as by the good fortune of his birth, he soon gained ascendancy as a monk of unusual distinction. By the time he was 25, he had founded no less than 27 Irish monasteries, including those at Derry, Durrow, and Kells, as well as some 40 churches. His work for the Church gained him the addition of “kille” to his name. Columb means “dove” in Gaelic and kille is “church”, so he came to be known as the “church’s dove”. Columb lived, with every ounce of his energy, the commission of Jesus to “go and make disciples.”
There is a famous tale about Columbkille that stands as one of the first copyright cases on record: Columbkille was so anxious to have a copy of Finnian’s Psalter that he shut himself up at night in the church that contained it and secretly transcribed it by hand. He was discovered by a monk who watched him through the keyhole and reported it to his superior. Bibles and prayer books were so scarce in those days that Abbot Finnian claimed the copy, refusing to allow it to leave the monastery. Columbkille refused to surrender it until he was obliged to do so, under protest, on Finnian's appeal to King Diarmaid, who said, "To every cow its calf," meaning to every book its copy.
While historically a bit unclear, an unfortunate period followed, during which, owing to Columbkille's protection of a refugee and his impassioned denunciation of an injustice by King Diarmaid, war broke out between the clans of Ireland, and Columbkille became an exile of his own accord. Filled with remorse on account of those who had been slain in battle and condemned by many of his own friends, he experienced a change of heart and an irresistible call to preach to those who had not heard the gospel. In 563, at the age of 42, he left Ireland with 12 companions and landed on an island now known as Iona. Here on this desolate rock, only three miles long and two miles wide, in the northern sea off the southwest corner of Mull, Scotland, he began his work; and, Iona became a center of Christian learning. It became the heart of Celtic Christianity and a potent factor in the conversion of the Picts, Scots, and Northern English. Monks from the monasteries established by Columbkille would later travel to mainland Europe and Christianize the Frank and Germanic tribes.
There are many miracles and incredible events recorded by St. Adamnan in his biography of St. Columbkille and they make for interesting reading. If you wish to believe it, he is one of the first people to encounter the Loch Ness monster. His memory remains a potent force in Celtic lands and his poetry and songs are still sung:
I journey on my way;
what need I fear when Thou art near,
O King of night and day?"