By Ibar Quirke
St Colmcille – abbot, educator, poet, prophet, and stalwart of the Hiberno-Scottish Mission – was born on 7th December 521 in Gartan, Co Donegal, Ireland, into the household of Fedlimid and Eithne of the Cenel Conaill. Baptised by his teacher and foster-uncle Cruithneachán, he was given the name Crimthann (meaning 'fox'), but later became known as Colmcille, Colm of the Church, amongst his contemporaries. These people observed his daily practice of reading the psalms - a rehearsal for the adulthood which he successfully sought – preparation for, and later acceptance into, a life of frugal monasticism, a personal decision borne out of much prayer and contemplation, one which some of his kinsfolk saw as unusual for a great-great-grandson of the legendary 5th century High King Niall of the Nine Hostages, whose Uí Néill dynasty would dominate the northern half of Ireland from the 6th century until the 10th century. St Colmcille was trained in the monastic life by St Finnian of Moville, and St Finnian of Clonard, and in the art of poetry by the Leinster bard Gemman, in whose company he witnessed a murder and thereafter vowed that the soul of a young murder-victim (female) would enter Heaven whilst that of the perpetrator (male) would be destined for hell – a prophecy which, even in youth, ensured the rapid spread of his fame as a wonder-worker throughout the lands in which he would work and serve. At Moville, St Colmcille was said to have transformed spring water into Communion wine by the strength of his prayers.
St Colmcille was educated to benefit the human and divine formation of those who entrusted the care of their souls – and the souls of others – to his direction. To this end, he established his first monastery at Derry in 548, a city of which he is still the Patron, before establishing a monastery at Durrow, Co Offaly, which became famous for the Book which is – in and of itself – a fine example of the Insular Style of illuminated manuscripts. St Colmcille and his Companions – the Twelve Apostles of Ireland – were greatly successful in their mission, one which they sought to extend to the multilingual island of Iona, ruled by King Conaill of Dalriada; in addition to the indigenous Scottish Gaelic language which was spoken there, Irish Gaelic, Pictish, Latin, Welsh, and Anglo-Saxon were spoken and/or understood to varying degrees of comprehension resulting from the many groups who had established themselves there either through conquest or through the more benign purposes for which the Hiberno-Scottish Mission had originally commenced its missionary-activity.
The foundation of the original Iona Abbey can be traced right back to the arrival of St Colmcille and his Companions in 563, following a war waged against the forces of High King Diarmuid, who himself was responsible for slaying a youth to whom he had given sanctuary, resulting in hundreds of deaths, a war which historians trace to the refusal of St Colmcille to return a copy of the psalms to St Finnian of Moville from whom they had been secretly copied; the defeat of Diarmuid at Cuildreimhne, Co Sligo, drove him into exile amongst the Picts of Scotland, once he refused to make amends by converting an equal number of Irish pagans to those who were slain in battle – amongst his strategically-minded conversions in Scotland was that of Brude, king of the Picts, reducing the threat of attacks against Christian Dalriada, from which he negotiated the Scottish kingdom’s independence at the Drum Ceatt convention of 575, during which – ever the poet – he also persuaded King Aedh to preserve the bards of Ireland, well-known for highlighting the vagaries of courtly life through satirical verse!
St Colmcille returned to his headquarters at Iona Abbey to die, on 9 June 597. He was succeeded by St Baithéne mac Brénaind. St Colmcille’s legacy was preserved under the leadership of their new Superior; and – on the strength of their preaching and teaching – some converts sought to link the “Superman” powers of this man and his movement with their own, ancient, indigenous deities – Scandinavian Thor, and Celtic Lug. Inspired by the strength of St Colmcille’s missionary apostolate, some monks journeyed forth from Iona to establish monasteries in Belgium, France, and Switzerland. In his Vita Columbae, the monk St Adomnán (who died in 704), described prophecies attributed to St Colmcille – amongst which was: “The trees will not bear the usual quantity of fruit, fisheries will become unproductive and the earth will not yield its usual abundance. Inclement weather and famine will come and fishes will forsake the rivers. The people, oppressed for want of food, will pine to death. Dreadful storms and hurricanes will afflict them. Numberless diseases will then prevail.'' Such prophecies were also popularised through the Prophecies of Colmcille, published by Nicholas O’Kearney in 1856 and reprinted many times – not least for the legend which stated that St Colmcille was said to have warded-off the Lough Ness monster with the Sign of the Cross!
The legacy of St Colmcille continues to inspire people of faith today, as evidenced through the work of the Iona Community, founded in 1938 by Church of Scotland minister and pacifist George MacLeod. This Community includes Christians from across all denominations, and its main agenda in the life of the Church is a focus on contemporary issues of justice and peace.