On June 9th, we celebrate the feast day of St. Columba, the patron saint of Derry, floods, books, poets, Ireland and Scotland. The saint is associated with a series of miracles, including the first historical encounter with the Loch Ness Monster. While Columba and his men were sailing the sea to Scotland, the beast made itself known. Columba, unafraid, raised his hand to make the sign of the cross and said, “You will go no further, and won’t touch the man; go back at once.” The beast, upon hearing Columba’s voice, retreated to the sea in terror. This act is often quoted as a reason why many pagans converted to Christianity. But to understand who Columba was, and why he is so important, we must return to the oft forgotten role of the Irish monks in history, and how they laid the foundation for the making of the western world.
When the Roman Empire fell in the fifth century due to the Germanic uprising that threatened the empire for nearly seventy years—taking Rome in 410, and successfully overthrowing the Emperor Romulus Augustulus in 476—it laid the groundwork for this barbarian group to run rampant around the continent, looting and burning what they found. Historical texts, of both pagan and Christian origins, began a long standing battle to survive; but a small group of Irish monks—from the sixth century onward—would transcend the threats and save the work that would one day instill the west’s foundation.
One of the most well known of these monks was St Columba, or St Colmcille, one of the three patron saints of Ireland. Born in 521 AD, near Lough Gartan in Co Donegal, he was the nephew of Niall of the Nine Hostages: the most prolific Gaelic warrior chief who is said to have nearly three million descendants in Ireland today. Born to be a chief himself, Columba was called elsewhere very early in life; and although we know him as the Christian saint and missionary, his roots are in the pagan clan Uí Niell, and he was built to be a warrior.
Columba entered the priesthood at the age of 20 when he became a student at Clonard Abbey, in modern day Co Meath. Columba inherited land in Derry from a prince cousin of his, and decided to use the land to start a monastery. He began traveling through Northern Ireland teaching the pagans about Christianity. He went on to found 30 monasteries in just 10 years.
In these monasteries, and various others around Ireland, monks built scriptoriums, or ‘places of writing.’ While studying under St Finnian of Clonard, St Columba got in trouble for copying down the manuscript of a psalter that Finnian had brought back from Rome, with the intention of keeping it for himself. St Finnian disputed that desire, claiming the text was only his to keep. The decision was then brought before the High King of Ireland at the time, King Diarmait, who would take St. Finnian’s side. This psalter is often associated with the Cathach of Columba, the oldest surviving Irish manuscript, and the relic most associated with the saint. Though it is unproven whether they are the same.
St. Columba’s tension with the King rose further when Prince Curnan of Connaught fatally injured a rival in a hurling match and sought refuge with Columba. The King’s men found Curnan, dragged him from sanctuary, and killed him. This violated a sacred rule of the time that prohibited anyone from going in to capture a fugitive when taking refuge; they had to wait outside. The fugitive would then have 40 days to decide whether to face trial or leave the country. King Diarmait’s blatant disrespect of the rules pushed Columba over the edge. These two events would incite the battle of Cul Dreimhne in what is now Co Sligo, between Columba’s men and the King’s. Columba would hail victorious, staying true to his warrior roots, but thousands would die as a result of the battle he chose. Heavy with guilt and facing accusations from fellow monks of being the sole reason for the Christian bloodshed, Columba sought counsel from a holy monk, St Molaise. The monk banished him from Ireland as punishment, and a heartbroken Columba accepted the command and went forth. He settled on the isle of Iona, continuing his preaching with the building of his own abbey. He spent every day longing for Ireland, and even wrote poetry to cope with the loss.
He would return to his homeland only once more in his lifetime. Upon hearing about the dispute between the high king and the league of poets, he returned to Ireland to mediate between the two. Faithful to his agreement to never see Ireland again, he made the trip blindfolded. When there, he spoke fervently and with conviction. The quarrel dissolved as a result of his speech. He spent the rest of his life in Iona continuing his work as a preacher, teaching his followers to read and write the scriptures.
Columba died in 597 AD, and Amra Choluim Chille, or ‘Elegy of Saint Columba,’ was written shortly after his passing. This poem is the first recorded Irish poem in history, written by Irish poet and saint, Dallán Forgaill. The monks of Columba would go on to be responsible for The Book of Kells, an illuminated manuscript of the four Gospels of the New Testament. Although many texts were destroyed when the Vikings would raid in the seventh and eighth century, this book would survive miraculously through the ages and even be found after one incident of robbery in the twelfth century, buried in the earth with the cover of gold and jewels missing.
Not only did Irish monks, before and after St Columba, save the Irish language and preserve the foundational texts of the western world, they are also responsible for transcribing the stories of the Irish lands before the spread of Christianity. Those stories were divided into four groups, or cycles: The Mythological Cycle, The Ulster Cycle, The Fenian Cycle, and The Cycle of the Kings. Ironically, the Irish monks are the reason we can read, celebrate, and remember a time before the monotheistic viewpoint. Without their endeavor, the sacred stories of Ireland’s land would have been lost forever.
This series is in honor of those monks, and the stories they saved.
Today you can find the Cathach of Columba in the Royal Irish Academy in Dublin, and the original Book of Kells at Trinity College in Dublin. You can visit the towers these monks built throughout Ireland today. Most notably, in Kilmacduagh, Glendalough, Cashel, Offally, Waterford, and Clare.