Jun 092015
 

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Today is the feast of Saint Columba (Irish: Colm Cille, ‘church dove’;7 December 521 – 9 June 597), an Irish abbot and missionary credited with spreading Christianity in present-day Scotland. He founded the 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 one of the Twelve Apostles of Ireland. His ministry in Scotland coincided with the complex ethnic battles out of which emerged modern Scots – a story for another time.

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 crossed to Dunaverty near Southend, Argyll in Kintyre before settling in 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 are attributed to him.

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The main source of information about Saint Columba’s life is the Vita Columbae (“Life of Columba”), a hagiography written in the style of “saints’ lives” narratives that had become widespread throughout medieval Europe. These accounts were written in Latin and served as formal ecclesiastical collections of the deeds and miracles attributed to the saints, both during his or her life or after death. The canonization of a saint, especially one who had lived on the fringes of the medieval Christian world like Saint Columba, required a well-written hagiography to be submitted to Rome, but popular belief and local cults of sainthood often led to the veneration of these men and women without official approval from the Catholic Church.

Writing a century after the death of Saint Columba, the author Adomnán (also known as Eunan), served as the ninth Abbot of Iona until his death in 704. It is generally believed that Adomnán drew extensively from an existing body of accounts regarding the life of Saint Columba, including a Latin collection entitled “De uirtutibus sancti Columbae”, composed c. 640. This earlier work is attributed to Cummene Find, who became the abbot of Iona and served as the leader of the monastic island community from 656 until his death in 668 A.D. or 669.

While the Vita Columbae often conflicts with contemporaneous accounts of various battles, figures, and dates, it remains the most important surviving work from early medieval Scotland, and provides a wealth of knowledge regarding the Picts and other ethnic and political groups from this time period. The Vita also offers a valuable insight into the monastic practices of Iona and the daily life of the early medieval Gaelic monks.

Columba was born to Fedlimid and Eithne of the Cenel Conaill in Gartan, near Lough Gartan, in modern County Donegal, in 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 reading and writing he entered the monastic school of Movilla, at Newtownards, 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 Movilla, 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 absorbed the traditions of the Welsh Church from Finnian whohad 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 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. Columba was one of twelve students of St. Finnian who became known as the Twelve Apostles of Ireland. He became a monk and eventually was ordained a priest.

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Another preceptor of Columba was St. Mobhi, whose monastery at Glasnevin was frequented by such famous men as St. Canice,