scholar, prince, diplomat; Colmcille is a man of many
parts. Tall, strong, and a powerful presence, he casts
a long shadow over the Ireland of his day, mixing in the
affairs of state and winning hearts to God. There is more
folklore and legend about this man than of any other personalities
of the early Church.
His story begins in Gartan, Co Donegal,
where he is born into the northern branch of the O'Neills
in 521. His mother, Eithne, is a princess from Leinster,
and his father, Fedelmidh, is the great grandson of
Niall of the Nine Hostages, the pagan king who brought
Saint Patrick to bondage in Ireland. Colmcille bridges
is originally christened Crimhthann (meaning 'Fox'), and
baptised at Templedouglas. As with other princes, he is
sent for fosterage in his youth, and spends some years
at the house of Cruithnechan, a holy man. In time, 'Crimhthann'
starts to appear a pagan misnomer, as the young prince
spends many happy hours praying and meditating in church.
People start to call him Colmcille, meaning 'Dove of the
Colmcille's education is an odyssey,
beginning in Moville on Strangford Lough, under the
tutelage of one Saint Finnian, before moving south to
Leinster, where he studies under the bard, Gemman. From
here, Colmcille journeys to Clonard monastery in Co
Meath, where he learns from the other, more famous Saint
Finnian. The final stop in Colmcille's education is
at Saint Mobhí's school in Glasnevin, but his
time here is cut short by the arrival of the plague
in Leinster. Like others, he is sent home for his own
good, and goes with some companions to Donegal.
good family connections serve him well in the northwest,
where he is granted a portion of land in a place called
Daire Calgach, on the west bank of the Foyle. He builds
a church here called Dubh Regles. 'Daire' is the old
Irish word for oak tree, and in time it gives its name
to the city of Derry.
Although Derry is the place most associated
with Colmcille in Ireland, he is too energetic to limit
himself to one theatre of operations. He travels far
and wide in Ireland, founding monasteries and churches,
journeying to such places as Moone in Co Kildare, Swords
Co Dublin, and the Burren in Co Clare. Colmcille makes
a strong impression wherever he goes, imprinting himself
on the imaginations of those he meets, and those who have
yet to be born.
is his life till the age of forty, when events take
a peculiar turn. Colmcille enters into a dispute with
his old teacher, Finnian of Moville, over the copying
of a book of psalms. Finnian wants both his original
edition, plus Colmcille's copy of it. The high king,
Diarmait MacCearbhaill, decides in favour of Finnian
at Tara, thus souring relations between the royal household
and Colmcille. Relations are strained to breaking point
in a separate incident, when Diarmait kills a young
man under Colmcille's protection. The young man in question
was the son of the king of Connacht, and Colmcille loses
no time in escaping to the northwest to put into motion
the wheels of justice.
The northern O'Neills are determined
on vengeance, and they travel southwards, encountering
the army of Diarmait Mac Cearbhaill at Cúl Dreimhne,
in the shadow of Ben Bulben in Co Sligo. Throughout
the ensuing battle, Colmcille stands in cross-vigil
at the rear of the northern force, praying constantly.
His prayers are answered: the high king's army of three
thousand men is massacred, with only one casualty on
the side of the O'Neills.
overt involvement in such worldly matters does not sit
well with his religious contemporaries, who voice their
disapproval. Colmcille has time to reflect on the course
of events, and decides to leave for a life elsewhere.
Two years after the battle at Cúl Dreimhne, he
sets sail with twelve clansmen for Scotland, to be "a
pilgrim for Christ".
Derry is a painful leave-taking for Colmcille, and the
night before departure is spent lying on Leac na Cumha
(the flagstone of loneliness) in his birthplace of Gartan.
Colmcille arrives in Argyll, where he
makes contact with king Conall MacComhgall of Dal Riada,
a territory incorporating the southwest of Scotland
and northeast of Ireland. King Conall generously grants
him the island of Iona off the Scottish west coast,
on which to found his monastery.
from the usual humble monastic beginnings of wattle huts,
Iona quickly becomes a thriving concern. Fertile land,
and a plentiful supply of timber mean that the community
has all it needs to survive. Colmcille oversees the operation
from the vantage point of his abbacy, at the same time,
busying himself with work in the scriptorium, and maintaining
his own unstinting prayer-life.
And yet, for all this energy and strength, Colmcille is
also a very sensitive man, greatly concerned for his monks,
and easy to tears for the plight of others.
Colmcille's diplomatic skills find an outlet for themselves
in this new station. He makes the long and hazardous journey
over the Grampians to Brude Mac Maelchon, the king of
the Picts, a people recently at war with Dal Riada. Even
the pagan Brude is impressed with Colmcille, thus paving
the way for the eventual conversion of his subjects. Colmcille
is often called upon to act as a go-between for king Conall
of Dal Riada and Brude. Indeed, such is the level of trust
and esteem, that when Conall dies, it falls to Colmcille
to choose between the deceased king's nephews for a successor.
his life is in Scotland now, he makes occasional journeys
home, taking part in a convention of kings at Drum Ceatt
near Limavady, Co Derry, in 574, and founding a monastery
at Durrow, Co Offaly in 585. There is no rest for the
virtuous, it seems.
when it comes, is of the permanent kind. After Easter
in 597, in his 76th year, Colmcille senses his end coming.
On his last day, he takes one final look at the monastery
and farm and blesses the endeavours of those who will
continue his work. He arrives for the midnight office
ahead of the rest of the community at the church. By the
time the monks come for prayer, their abbot is lying slumped
at the altar.