Saints for Our Times: St. Columba of Iona brought the Gospel to Scotland
By Mary Lou Gibson
St. Columba of Iona was a “larger than life” personality who lit up sixth century Ireland and Scotland with a major literary dispute that caused a war between feuding Irish families and led to his exile on a remote island of southwest Scotland.
He was born at Gartan (County Donegal) into the royal Irish clan of O’Neill in 521. He trained as a monk under Finnian of Moville. Paul Burns writes in “Butler’s Lives of the Saints” that when he was ordained, his family gave him a fort at Daire Calgach, now Derry, and this became his first monastery.
His love of books and learning got him into big trouble when he took a rare copy of St. Jerome’s Psalter and secretly made a copy of it, without the owner’s permission. Finnian claimed the copy as his and took his case to King Diarmid. Sean Kelly and Rosemary Rogers write in “Saints Preserve Us!” that this led to history’s first copyright lawsuit and trial.
When the king decided the case against Columba, all hell (quite literally) broke out. Columba’s clan went to war with King Diarmid’s followers and 3,000 died in battle. Burns wrote that Columba was held responsible and would have been excommunicated if St. Brendan had not interceded for him. So, why was this such a big deal? Well, the printing press had not yet been invented and all manuscripts and other documents had to be copied by hand which made them very valuable. Even making the ink took time.
And so began the next chapter in Columba’s life. He and 12 relatives sailed for Scotland in 561, and landed on a small island off the southwest corner of Mull and built a monastery that became known as Iona. For the next 30 years, Columba worked to evangelize the Picts, Strathclyde Britons, Lothian Saxons and fellow Irish settlers converting many. Dom Basil Watkins writes in “The Book of Saints” that these four races made up the future kingdom of Scotland.
Columba continued to spend much of his time copying manuscripts, some of which are the earliest existing examples of Irish handwriting, according to editor Bernard Bangley writing in “Butler’s Lives of the Saints.” Much of what we know of Columba’s life was written decades later by Adomnán of Iona, his successor as abbot.
When he wasn’t writing poetry or copying manuscripts, Columba was building monasteries, training members and working with neighboring rulers to solve problems. David Farmer writes in the “Oxford Dictionary of Saints” that Columba converted Brude, King of the Picts, and consecrated the Irish King Aidan of Dalriad. Farmer describes him as a tall, striking figure of powerful build and impressive presence who combined the skills of a scholar, poet and ruler with a fervent commitment to God’s cause.
His copy of the “Cathach,” a sixth century psalter became the battle book of the O’Neill clan. For centuries, they carried it with them into many victorious battles. It is now on display at the Royal Irish Academy.
While Iona remained Columba’s headquarters, he returned to Ireland many times. Tom Cowan describes one event in “The Way of the Saints” when Columba argued successfully against a movement to strip Irish poets of some of their privileges. He believed that the poet played an important role in Celtic society, carrying on many of the spiritual and healing traditions of the druids.
When Columba died in 597, he had opened a whole new field for the Christian faith. Columba’s name is everywhere in Scotland. With the Gospel, his monks brought culture as well, books and learning, music and poetry.
His memory lived on in the approximately 27 monasteries and 40 churches he established. Even the name “Scotland” comes from Columba, for in those days, “Scoti” or “Scotus” meant “Irish.”
Columba’s monastic rule was followed by many monasteries in Western Europe until it was superseded by the less rigorous rule of St. Benedict.
Although Irish by birth, Columba is one of the most celebrated of the Scottish saints and there are many churches on the Scottish mainland dedicated to him. His feast day is June 9; it is not on the General Roman Calendar. He is the patron of Ireland, Scotland, poets, and also of computer hackers and plagiarists.