St. Colmcille
     Saint, 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 two worlds.

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     He 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 Church'.

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.

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     Colmcille's 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

in 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.
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     Such 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.

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     Colmcille's 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".

Leaving 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.

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     Starting 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.
Inevitably, 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.
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     Although 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.

Rest, 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.
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