Columba of Iona

Abbot, Missionary


St Columba
St Columba

Picture courtesy of pinterest

Although usually associated with Scotland, Columba was born in Ireland of royal blood in he was the grandson of the Irish King Niall. He was educated in a school attached to one of the monasteries founded by Patrick. He grew up in County Donegal and, when his schooling was hastily concluded by an outbreak of plague, he toured the northern regions of Ireland for 15 years, preaching the gospel and establishing Christian communities. He established the monasteries of Derry and Durrow, and possibly Kells as well.

He left Ireland in 563 for Scotland, not as a missionary but as an act of self-imposed penance for a mess he had caused at home. He had upset the king of Ireland by refusing to hand over a copy of the Gospels he had illegally copied, this led to a pitched battle in which Columba’s warrior family prevailed. Full of remorse for his actions and the deaths he had ultimately caused he fled, taking 12 companions with him, they arrived on the island of Iona, off the coast of Scotland, on the eve of Pentecost, and settled there as it was the first place he found from where he couldn’t see his native Ireland.

St. Columba set about building Iona’s original abbey from clay and wood. The life was hard, simple and austere: tilling the difficult soil and fishing the cold seas, coupled with a rigorous round of prayers and copying Christian manuscripts. St. Columba was an excellent scribe and created many manuscripts. He compiled a Hymnal for the Week, and according to his biographers, he was the author of commentaries on the Bible, prayers, hymns, and poems. But the most outstanding is, beyond all doubt, the “Cathach of Columba”—a splendid copy of the Gospel on vellum created by Columba himself before 561. This great relic, the earliest Irish manuscript of this kind, still exists and is kept at the Royal Irish Academy in Dublin.

Columba was quite stern and hot-tempered in his youth, but with time he softened, becoming gentle and merciful. His humility and kindness extended not only to the monastery brethren, but to every stranger. Iona became the base for evangelistic missions to the Picts in Caledonia. Columba had to combat the power and influence of the Druids, but gradually Iona became the most important centre for evangelisation of the northern regions of Britain. He succeeded in converting Brude, the king of the Picts. In 574 Aidan of Dalriada, the Irish king, came to Columba for consecration.

Columba and his successors established a number of monasteries in Scotland. Due to Columba’s influence the Church in Scotland became as strong as that of Ireland. By tradition bishops obeyed Abbot Columba, and after his death Scottish hierarchs continued to obey abbots of Iona. His influence in Ireland included some continuing control over the monasteries he had established there. St Columba also left a legacy behind him at Iona.

Over the centuries the monks of Iona produced countless elaborate carvings, manuscripts and Celtic crosses. Perhaps their greatest work was the exquisite. 'Book of Kells', which dates from 800 AD, currently on display in Trinity College, Dublin. Shortly after this in 806 AD came the first of the Viking raids when many of the monks were slaughtered and their work destroyed, to protect St Colombra’s bones they were translated to Dunkeld at this time.

No part of St. Columba’s original buildings have survived, however on the left hand side of the Abbey entrance can be seen a small roofed chamber which is claimed to mark the site of the saint’s tomb.

BORN: 7 December 521 AD, Gartan, Scotia (Ireland)

DIED: 9 June 597 AD, Iona, United Kingdom