Saint Columba (Irish: Colm Cille, 'church dove'; 7 December 521 – 9 June 597) was an Irish abbot and missionary credited with spreading Christianity in present-day Scotland. He founded the important abbey on Iona, which became a dominant religious and political institution in the region for centuries. He is the Patron Saint of Derry. He was highly regarded by both the Gaels of Dál Riata and the Picts, and is remembered today as a Christian saint and one of the Twelve Apostles of Ireland.
Columba reportedly studied under some of Ireland's most prominent church figures and founded several monasteries in the country. Around 563 he and his twelve companions sailed to Iona in Scotland, then part of the Irish kingdom of Dál Riata, where they founded a new abbey as a base for spreading Christianity among the northern Pictish kingdoms who were pagan. He remained active in Irish politics, though he spent most of the remainder of his life in Scotland. Three surviving early medieval Latin hymns may be attributed to him.
Columba was born to Fedlimid and Eithne of the Cenel Conaill in Gartan, near Lough Gartan, in modern County Donegal, Ulster in the north of Ireland. On his father's side, he was great-great-grandson of Niall of the Nine Hostages, an Irish high king of the 5th century. He was baptised in Temple-Douglas, in the County Donegal parish of Conwal (mid-way between Gartan and Letterkenny), by his teacher and foster-uncle Saint Crunathan.
When sufficiently advanced in letters he entered the monastic school of Moville under St. Finnian who had studied at St. Ninian's "Magnum Monasterium" on the shores of Galloway. He was about twenty, and a deacon when, having completed his training at Moville, he travelled southwards into Leinster, where he became a pupil of an aged bard named Gemman. On leaving him, Columba entered the monastery of Clonard, governed at that time by Finnian, noted for sanctity and learning. Here he imbibed the traditions of the Welsh Church, for Finnian had been trained in the schools of St. David.
In early Christian Ireland the druidic tradition collapsed due to the spread of the new Christian faith. The study of Latin learning and Christian theology in monasteries flourished. Columba became a pupil at the monastic school at Clonard Abbey, situated on the River Boyne in modern County Meath. During the sixth century, some of the most significant names in the history of Irish Christianity studied at the Clonard monastery. It is said that the average number of scholars under instruction at Clonard was 3,000. Twelve students who studied under St. Finnian became known as the Twelve Apostles of Ireland; Columba was one of them. He became a monk and eventually was ordained a priest.
Another preceptor of Columba was St. Mobhi, whose monastery at Glasnevin was frequented by such famous men as St. Canice, St. Comgall, and St. Ciaran. A pestilence which devastated Ireland in 544 caused the dispersion of Mobhi's disciples, and Columba returned to Ulster, the land of his kindred. He was a striking figure of great stature and powerful build, with a loud, melodious voice which could be heard from one hilltop to another. The following years were marked by the foundation of several important monasteries, Derry, Durrow, Kells, and Swords. While at Derry it is said that he planned a pilgrimage to Rome and Jerusalem, but did not proceed farther than Tours. Thence he brought a copy of those gospels that had lain on the bosom of St. Martin for the space of 100 years. This relic was deposited in Derry.
Tradition asserts that, sometime around 560, he became involved in a quarrel with Saint Finnian of Movilla Abbey over a psalter. Columba copied the manuscript at the scriptorium under Saint Finnian, intending to keep the copy. Saint Finnian disputed his right to keep the copy. The dispute eventually led to the pitched Battle of Cúl Dreimhne in 561, during which many men were killed. A second grievance that he led him to induce the clan Neill to rise and engage in battle against King Diarmait at Cooldrevny in 561 was the king's violation of the right of sanctuary belonging to Columba's person as a monk on the occasion of the murder of Prince Curnan, the saint's kinsman. Prince Curnan of Connaught, who had fatally injured a rival in a hurling match and had taken refuge with Columba, was dragged from his protector's arms and slain by Diarmaid's men, in defiance of the rights of sanctuary.
A synod of clerics and scholars threatened to excommunicate him for these deaths, but St. Brendan of Birr spoke on his behalf with the result that he was allowed to go into exile instead. Columba's own conscience was uneasy, and on the advice of an aged hermit, Molaise, he resolved to expiate his offense by going into exile and win for Christ as many souls as had perished in the terrible battle of Cuil Dremne. He left Ireland, to return only once, many years later. Columba's copy of the psalter has been traditionally associated with the Cathach of St. Columba.
In 563, he travelled to Scotland with twelve companions, in a wicker coracle covered with leather, and according to legend he first landed on the Kintyre Peninsula, near Southend. However, being still in sight of his native land, he moved further north up the west coast of Scotland. The island of Iona was made over to him by his kinsman Conall, king of the British Dalriada, who perhaps had invited him to come to Scotland in the first place. However, there is a sense in which he was not leaving his native people, as the Irish Gaels had been colonizing the west coast of Scotland for the previous couple of centuries. Aside from the services he provided guiding the only centre of literacy in the region, his reputation as a holy man led to his role as a diplomat among the tribes; there are also many stories of miracles which he performed during his work to convert the Picts, the most famous being his encounter with the Loch Ness Monster in 565 AD, where he banished a ferocious "water beast" to the depths of the River Ness after it had killed a Pict and then tried to attack Columba's disciple (see Vita Columbae Book 2 below). He visited the pagan King Bridei, King of Fortriu, at his base in Inverness, winning the Bridei's respect, although not his conversion. He subsequently played a major role in the politics of the country. He was also very energetic in his work as a missionary, and, in addition to founding several churches in the Hebrides, he worked to turn his monastery at Iona into a school for missionaries. He was a renowned man of letters, having written several hymns and being credited with having transcribed 300 books. One of the few, if not the only, times he left Scotland was towards the end of his life, when he returned to Ireland to found the monastery at Durrow.
Columba died on Iona and was buried in AD 597 by his monks in the abbey he created. In AD 794, the Vikings descended on Iona. Columba's relics were finally removed in AD 849 and divided between Scotland and Ireland. The parts of the relics which went to Ireland are reputed to be buried in Downpatrick, County Down, with St. Patrick and St. Brigid or at Saul Church neighbouring Downpatrick. (Names of Iona), Inchcolm and Eilean Chaluim Chille.
Columba is credited as being a leading figure in the revitalization of monasticism. It is known that Clan MacCallum and Clan Malcolm are descended from the original followers of Columba, It is also said that Clan Robertson are heirs of Columba. Clan MacKinnon may also have some claim to being spiritual descendants of St Columcille as after he founded his monastery on Isle Iona, the MacKinnons were the abbots of the Church for centuries. This would also account for the fact that Clan MacKinnon is amongst the ancient clans of Scotland.
The cathedral of the Catholic Diocese of Argyll and the Isles is placed under the patronage of St. Columba, as are numerous Catholic schools and parishes throughout the nation. The Scottish Episcopal Church and Church of Scotland also have parishes dedicated to him. The village of Kilmacolm in Renfrewshire is also derived from Columba's name.
Columba is the patron-saint of the city of Derry, where he founded a monastic settlement in c.AD 540. The name of the city in Irish is Doire Colmcille and is derived from the native oak trees in the area and the city's association with Columba. The Catholic Church of Saint Columba's Long Tower stands at the spot of this original settlement. The Church of Ireland Cathedral in Derry is dedicated to St Columba. St. Colmcilles Primary School and St. Colmcilles Community School are two schools in Knocklyon, Dublin, named after St. Colmcille, with the former having an annual day dedicated to the saint on 9 June. Aer Lingus, Ireland's national flag carrier has named one of its Airbus A330 aircraft in commemoration of the saint (reg: EI-DUO).
As of 2011, Canadians who are of Scottish ancestry are the third largest ethnic group in the country and thus Columba's name is to be found attached to Catholic, Anglican and Presbyterian parishes. This is particularly the case in eastern Canada apart from Quebec which is French-speaking.
Throughout the U.S.A. there are numerous parishes within the Catholic and Episcopalian denominations dedicated to Columba. Within the Protestant tradition the Presbyterian Church (which has its roots in Scottish Presbyterianism) also has parishes named in honour of Columba. There is even an Orthodox Church monastery dedicated to the saint in the Massachusetts town of Southbridge. St. Columba is the Patron Saint of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Youngstown, OH. The Cathedral there is named for him.