Columcille was also a poet who had learned Irish history and
poetry from a bard named Gemman. In addition, he loved fine
books and manuscripts. One of the famous books associated with
Columcille is the Psaltair, which was traditionally the Battle
Book of the O'Donnells, his kinsmen, who carried it into battle.
Psaltair is the basis for one of the most famous legends of
said that on one occasion, so anxious was Columcille to have a
copy of the Psalter that he shut himself up for a whole night in
the church that contained it, transcribing it laboriously by
hand. He was discovered by a monk who watched him through the
keyhole and reported it to his superior, Finnian of Moville. The
Scriptures were so scarce in those days that the abbot claimed
the copy, refusing to allow it to leave the monastery.
Columcille refused to surrender it, until he was obliged to do
so, under protest, on the abbot's appeal to the High King
sad period in Columcille's life followed. Because he had
protected a refugee and denounced an injustice by King Diarmaid,
war broke out between the clans of Ireland. Filled with remorse
on account of those who had been slain in the battle of
Cooldrevne and condemned by many of his own friends, he
experienced a profound conversion and an irresistible call to
preach to the heathen. So, even though he loved Ireland with all
of his heart, Columcille made the profound decision to become an
563, he and 12 companions crossed the Irish Sea in a coracle,
which is similar to a curragh, and landed on a deserted island
now known as Iona (Holy Island). It was here, on this tiny isle
off the coast of Scotland, that he began his work. Eventually,
Iona became the heart of Celtic Christianity and its existence
was one of the strongest influences in the conversion of the
Picts, Scots, and Northern English.
Iona, numerous other settlements were founded, and Columcille
himself penetrated the wildest glens of Scotland and the
farthest Outer Hebrides. He established the Caledonian Church
and it is said that he anointed King Aidan of Argyll upon the
famous stone of Scone, which is now in Westminster Abbey. The
Pictish King Brude and his people were also converted by
Columcille's many miracles, including driving away a water
"monster" from the River Ness with the Sign of the Cross.
though he was far away in Scotland, Columcille appears to have
retained control over his monasteries in Ireland. In 580, he
returned to his native land to take part in the assembly of
Druim-Cetta in Ulster, where he mediated about the obligations
of the Irish in Scotland to those in Ireland. It was decided
that they should furnish a fleet, but not an army, for the Irish
high-king. During the same assembly, Columcille, who was a bard
himself, intervened to effectively swing the nation away from
its declared intention of suppressing the Bardic Order.
Columcille persuaded them that the whole future of Gaelic
culture demanded that the scholarship of the bards be preserved.
His prestige was such that his views prevailed and assured the
presence of educated laity in Irish Christian society.
man himself and his personality, it is said that he was
"well-formed, with a powerful frame; his skin was white, his
face broad and fair and radiant, lit up with large, gray,
luminous eyes..." Saint Adamnan, his biographer wrote of him:
"He had the face of an angel; he was of an excellent nature,
polished in speech, holy in deed, great in counsel... loving
clear that Columcille's temperament changed dramatically during
his life. Although his name means "dove", in his early years, he
had a quick temper and was extremely stern with his monks;
gradually, he softened and later in life, he was as gentle
toward them as he had always been with children and animals.
Columcille had great qualities, but ultimately, his chief virtue
lay in the conquest of his own passionate nature and in the love
and sympathy that flowed from his eager and radiant spirit.
A poet and an artist who did illumination — perhaps some of
those in the Book of Kells itself—his skill as a scribe can be
seen in the Cathach of Columba (Columcille) at the Irish Academy
(below) . The oldest surviving example of Irish illumination, it
was eventually enshrined in silver and bronze and venerated in
June 8, 597, Columcille was copying out the psalms once again.
At the verse, "They that love the Lord shall lack no good
thing," he stopped, and said that his cousin, Saint Baithin must
do the rest. Columcille died the next day at the foot of the
altar. He was first buried at Iona, but 200 years later the
Danes destroyed the monastery. His relics were taken to Dunkeld
year Columcille died was the same year in which Saint Gregory
the Great sent Saint Augustine of Canterbury to convert England.
Perhaps because the Roman party gained ascendancy at the Synod
of Whitby, much of the credit that belongs to Saint Columcille
and his followers for the conversion of Britain has been
attributed to St. Augustine. It should not be forgotten that
both saints played pivotal roles in spreading Christianity
throughout the British Isles.
art, Saint Columcille is sometimes depicted with a basket of
bread and an orb of the world in a ray of light. He might also
be pictured with an old, white horse. He is venerated in Dunkeld,
Ireland and also as the Apostle of Scotland.