Home  »  Volume VI: June  »  St. Columba, or Columkille, Abbot in Ireland

Rev. Alban Butler (1711–73). Volume VI: June. The Lives of the Saints. 1866.

June 9

St. Columba, or Columkille, Abbot in Ireland

        From Bede, Hist. l. 3, c. 4, and his life, written by Cummeneus, surnamed Albus, abbot of Hy, (who, according to the Four Masters, died in 668, extant in Mabillon, sæc. Ben. 1, p. 361, and the same enlarged into three books by Adamnon, abbot of Hy in 700, 1 published by Canisius, Lect. Antiq. t. 5, and by Surius. Both these lives abound with relations of wonderful miracles. William, bishop of Derry, in his Irish Historical Library, p. 85, mentions a poem of good authority, called the Amrha, or Vision of St. Columkille, which was written soon after his death, and which records his principal actions conformable to these authors. See also Bishop Tanner de Scriptor. Brit. p. 192. Sir James Ware, l. 1, Scriptor. Hibern. p. 14. Item in Monasteriologiâ, Hibernicâ, p. 186. Colgan in MSS. ad 9 Jun. The works ascribed to him in an Irish MS. in the Bodleian library, Oxford; and Leabhar Lecan, i. e. Book of Lecane, a very old and precious Irish MS. of Antiquities of that island in the Irish college at Paris, p. 58.

A.D. 597.

ST. COLUMBA, commonly pronounced COLME, was one of the greatest patriarchs of the monastic Order in Ireland, and the apostle of the Picts. To distinguish him from other saints of the same name, he was surnamed Columkille, from the great number of monastic cells, called by the Irish Killes, of which he was the founder. He was of most noble extraction from Neil, and was born at Gartan, in the county of Tyrconnel, in 521. He learned from his childhood that there is nothing great, nothing worth our esteem or pursuit, which does not advance the divine love in our souls, to which he totally devoted himself with an entire disengagement of his heart from the world, and in perfect purity of mind and body. He learned the divine scriptures and the lessons of an ascetic life under the holy bishop St. Finian, in his great school of Cluain-iraird. Being advanced to the Order of priesthood in 546, he began to give admirable lessons of piety and sacred learning, and in a short time formed many disciples. He founded, about the year 550, the great monastery of Dair-Magh, now called Durrogh, 2 which original name signifies Field of Oaks, and besides many smaller, those of Doire or Derry in Ulster, and of Sord or Swords, about six miles from Dublin. 3 St. Columba composed a rule which, as Usher, Tanner, and Sir James Ware inform us, is still extant in the old Irish. This rule he settled in the hundred monasteries which he founded in Ireland and Scotland. It was chiefly borrowed from the ancient oriental monastic institutes, as the inquisitive Sir Roger Twisden observes, 4 of all the old British and Irish monastic Orders.
  King Dermot or Dermitius, being offended at the zeal of St. Columba in reproving public vices, the holy abbot left his native country, and passed into North-Britain, now called Scotland. 5 He took along with him twelve disciples, and arrived there, according to Bede, in the year of Christ 565, the ninth of the reign of Bridius, the son of Meilochon, the most powerful king of the Picts; which nation the saint converted from idolatry to the faith of Christ by his preaching, virtues, and miracles. But this we are to understand only of the northern Picts and the Highlanders, separated from the others by Mount Grampus, the highest part of which is called Drum-Albin; for Bede tells us, in the same place that the southern Picts had received the faith long before by the preaching of St. Ninyas, the first bishop of Whitherne in Galloway; whose life see September 16th.  2
  The Picts having embraced the faith, gave St. Columba the little island of Hy or Iona, called from him Y-colm-kille, twelve miles from the land, in which he built the great monastery which was for several ages the chief seminary of North-Britain, and continued long the burying place of the kings of Scotland, with the bodies of innumerable saints, which rested in that place. 6 Out of this nursery St. Columba founded several other monasteries in Scotland. In the same school were educated the holy bishops Aidan, Finian, and Colman, who converted to the faith the English Northumbers. This great monastery several ages afterwards embraced the rule of St. Bennet. 7  3
  St. Columba’s manner of living was always most austere. He lay on the bare floor with a stone for his pillow, and never interrupted his fast. Yet his devotion was neither morose nor severe. His countenance always appeared wonderfully cheerful, and bespoke to all that beheld him the constant interior serenity of his holy soul, and the unspeakable joy with which it overflowed from the presence of the Holy Ghost. Such was his fervour, that in whatever he did, he seemed to exceed the strength of man; and as much as in him lay he strove to suffer no moment of his precious time to pass without employing it for the honour of God, principally either in praying, reading, writing, or preaching. His incomparable mildness and charity towards all men, and on all occasions, won the hearts of all who conversed with him; and his virtues, miracles, and extraordinary gift of prophecy, commanded the veneration of all ranks of men. He was of such authority, that neither king nor people did anything without his consent. When King Aedhan or Aidanus succeeded to his cousin Conall in the throne of British Scotland in 574, he received the royal insignia from St. Columba. Four years before he died, St. Columba was favoured with a vision of angels which left him in many tears, because he learned from those heavenly messengers that God, moved by the prayers of the British and Scottish churches, would prolong his exile on earth yet four years. Having continued his labours in Scotland thirty-four years, he clearly and openly foretold his death, and on Saturday the 9th of June said to his disciple Diermit: “This day is called the Sabbath, that is, the day of rest, and such will it truly be to me; for it will put an end to my labours.” He was the first in the church at Matins at midnight; but knelt before the altar, received the viaticum, and having given his blessing to his spiritual children, sweetly slept in the Lord in the year 597, the seventy-seventh of his age. His body was buried in this island, but some ages after removed to Down in Ulster, and laid in one vault with the remains of St. Patrick and St. Brigit. The great monastery of Durrogh, in King’s County, afterwards embraced the rule of the Canons Regular, as did also the houses founded by St. Brendan, St. Comgal, &c. He was honoured both in Ireland and Scotland, among the principal patrons of those countries, and is commemorated in the Roman Martyrology on the 9th of June, but in some calendars on the 7th, which seems to have been the day of his death. 8  4
  How many saints hid themselves in solitudes, that they might devote themselves wholly to the service of God! But many, even after a Christian education, pass their whole lives in dissipation and vanity, without being able to find leisure for a daily serious meditation or the reading of a good book, as if they made it their study to unlearn the only thing which it concerns them to know, and to lose the only thing for which they exist—religion, or the worship of God.  5
Note 1. See the life of this St. Adamnon on the 23d of September. [back]
Note 2. This Monastery of Durrogh, situated in King’s County, had afterwards embraced the Order of Regular Canons, according to the rule of St. Austin. See Sir James Ware, Antiquit. Hiber. c. 17, p. 186. This diligent antiquary mentions a MS. copy of the four gospels, of St. Jerom’s translation, adorned with silver plates, which was formerly preserved in this abbey, and is still extant; in the beginning of which is an inscription, which testifies that it was written by St. Columba in the space of twelve days. [back]
Note 3. Sord, though now in Leinster, was at that time in the kingdom of Meath: for Meath was a distinct province for many ages, and was annexed to Leinster only since the arrival of the English. [back]
Note 4. In his Rise of the Monastic State, p. 36. [back]
Note 5. The Scots settled first in Ireland, which from them obtained the name of Scotia. They were a colony from Spain, who invaded that island in an early age, and probably were of Scythian origin; for their name seems to be of the same original with that of the Scythians, derived perhaps from the Teutonic or Saxon word Scytan, to shoot; in which martial exercise all the northern nations excelled. Bede tells us the Picts were Scythians; but probably applied to them what belonged to the Scots; for the Picts seem to have been Britons, and were perhaps the original inhabitants of that country. At least they were established there long before the Scots, who, according to their annals, invaded them from Ireland; but were at first repulsed. Some time after, the Picts or Northern Britons, seeing themselves threatened by the English-Saxons who had conquered the southern part of the island, seem to have invited over the Scots from Ireland to their assistance. At least these under King Fergus, about the year 503, erected their kingdom in part of Scotland, called Dalriada, from Dal, a word in their language, signifying a part, and Reuda, their leader, as Bede informs us. Bishop Usher gives to the kingdom of the Dalriadens, or Scots in Dalriada, the provinces of Kintire, Knapdale, Lorn, Argyll, Braid-Albin, and some of the isles. The Scots and Picts lived good neighbours till about the year 840, when Kenneth II. king of these Scots, in a great battle, slew Drusken, king of the Picts, with a good part of his nobility, and conquered the whole country north of Graham’s Dyke. About the year 900, the Scots became masters of the rest of the country, which from that time took the name of Scotland, the distinction of Picts being extinct with their kingdom. Some modern critics reject as fabulous the list of thirty-nine Scottish kings from Fergus I. who was said to have reigned contemporary to Alexander the Great, three hundred and thirty years before Christ. Consequently they reckon Fergus, son of Erch, commonly called Fergus II. the first king of the Scots in that country; and whereas he was placed by some in 403, they fix the beginning of his reign in 503, which the chronology of his immediate successors seems to point out. Among the Picts in Cæsar’s time it was the fashion to paint their bodies.
  When the southern Britons had imitated the Roman manners, the unconquered inhabitants of the north retained still the custom of having their bodies painted; whence they were called Picti; which name does not seem older than the third century, for it is first found in the orator Eumenius. Among these the Ladeni inhabited the southern part of what is now called Scotland, and the rough Caledonians occupied the highlands, and the great Caledonian forest extended northward from the Frith. These woods and mountains were their shelter, and their snows affrighted the Romans, who left them in the enjoyment of their barbarism and liberty. To check their inroads, and to fix the boundaries of the Roman dominions, the Emperor Adrian, in the year 123, caused a wall of turf to be made, sixty-eight English miles long, from Tinmouth to Solway Frith. Antoninus Pius extended these limits further, and shutting out only the Caledonians, he directed a second wall of turf to be raised thirty-six English miles long, from Abercurning, now Abercorn, on the Frith of the river Forth to the river Clyde, near old Kirk-Patrick. Grime or Graham, the valiant regent of the kingdom of the Scots during the minority of King Eugenius, commonly called the Second, razed this wall in his wars against the Picts, or, according to others, against those Britons that were subject to the Romans, who were soon after compelled to call in the Saxons to succour them against the Picts. The ruins of this wall are at this day called Graham’s-Dyke, which name some derive from this Graham, others from Mount Grampus, now Grantzbaine. This wall of Antoninus did not long remain the boundary of the Roman province, which in 210, the Emperor Severus, after making a progress with his army to the north of Scotland, brought back to Adrian’s wall, in the country now called Northumberland. From the same extremities, but upon new foundations yet to be traced, he built a new wall of stone, fenced with towers and a vallum: a work so stately, that it is called by Spartian, The Glory of Severus’s reign. See Mr. Alexander Gordon, Itinerarium Septentrionale, or Journey through Part of Scotland, &c. And Mr. Thomas Innes, in his Critical Essay on the Ancient Inhabitants of Scotland, Chamberlaine, &c. The most complete description and history of the Picts’ Wall is that published in 1753, in 4to. by John Warburton, Somerset Herald, under the title Vallum Romanum, &c. [back]
Note 6. The isle of St. Colm is near three miles long, and above a mile broad. Among the ruins of the old cloister of St. Colm, there remains a church-yard, in the west part of which are the tombs of forty-eight kings of Scotland in the middle; on the right side, those of four kings of Ireland, and on the left those of eight kings of Norway. All the noble families of the Western Islands have their particular burying places in the rest of the church-yard. See Lewis’s Ancient History of Great Britain, p. 236, and Martin’s Description of the Western Islands. [back]
Note 7. Bede writes, (l. 3, c. 4,) that from St. Columba, who never was bishop, it continued a custom that the whole island, even the bishops, by an unusual law were subject to the abbot. Of this passage, the Calvinists avail themselves, as if it made against the superiority of bishops in the church. But Bishop Usher (De Britan. Eccl. Antiqu. c. 16,) justly observes, that this superiority was only of civil jurisdiction, not of Order; for the Ulster Annals mention that this little island had always a bishop who resided in it, either in or near the monastery. Also Adamnan, in his life of St. Columba, (l. 3,) says, that St. Columba refused to officiate at the altar in the presence of a bishop, who out of humility had concealed himself, nor would he receive the communion with him, but out of respect to his dignity obliged him to celebrate himself. And Bishop Lloyd, in his historical account of church government, demonstrates (ch. 5, 6, 7,) that no other church government but episcopal was ever settled among the Picts, Scots, or Saxons. A veneration for St. Columba introduced a superiority of civil jurisdiction over the bishops who were taken from among his monks and disciples, and retained their former respect for their old superior the abbot. In the MS. life of St. Columba, by O’Donall, it is asserted that the saint in the year 544, being a prince of the royal family, was offered the crown of Ireland, and that Dermod Mac Cerball his competitor succeeded only because our holy abbot preferred the cowl to a diadem. This circumstance of his princely extraction may afford one good reason why the northern bishops were subject to his (civil) jurisdiction. [back]
Note 8. Sir James Ware, (lib. l. Descrip. Hib. p. 15,) gives the catalogue of his works, which are still extant, as follows: A monastic rule, commonly entitled Columkille: a hymn on St. Kiaran, and three other hymns. [back]