Emerald Isle

St Colmcille of Iona

Irish and Celtic myths and legends, Irish folklore and Irish fairy tales from the Historical Cycle

St Colmcille is one of the three patron saints of Ireland, and his life is the subject of story and

St Colmcille is one of the three patron saints of Ireland, and his life is the subject of story and legend. It was by his efforts that Christianity spread not only through Ireland but also Scotland, England and parts of Europe too! He was a tall and powerfully built man with a rich and melodious voice which, it was said, could be heard from one hilltop to another.

He is credited with the revival of monasticism in western Europe and is sometimes shown with a basket of bread and an orb of the world in a ray of light.

The Saint was born on December the 7th, 521 Anno Domine, in a place called Gartan in County Donegal, to a wealthy family, associated with the powerful O'Neills, Kings of Ireland. His parents were Fedlimid and Eithne of the Cenel Conaill clan, and some think his given name at birth was  Crimthann meaning “the fox”, only being changed to Colmcille, which means “the dove” later.

When he was but a young lad he was given in foster care to Saint Finnian in Moville, who had himself studied at the great monastery in Galloway. He spent many happy hours praying and meditating in church, and stayed there until the age of twenty when he went to Leinster. His purpose was to study under an elder bard by the name of Gemman, which would have been unusual for an aspiring monk, and even more so since the Druidic tradition was well on its way to complete collapse with the advent of Christianity.

Then he went to the monastery at Clonard, under the tutelage of another Saint Finnian, who was well reputed for both his scholarship and his sanctity, along with three hundred others, and it was here that he renounced all claims to his noble heritage. He was one of twelve chief students of St Finnian who became known as the Twelve Apostles of Ireland.

He then went to the monastery at Glasnevin under Saint Mobhi, a famous place of learning at the time, where he became a monk and was ordained. In the year 544 AD the monastery was emptied by a terrible plague which wracked Ireland, and he returned to his northern home.

Such was the joy and benefit he had found in his monastic journey that he began to build other monasteries around the country, and by the time he was 25, he had founded no less than 27, as far abroad as the Burren in County Clare, and Dublin!

Yet even he had weaknesses, as everyone does, and one of his was his love for fine books and richly illuminated manuscripts. And this caused him no end of trouble, as a book called the Psalter of the O'Donnells, or the Battle Book of the O'Donnells, caught his eye. This was a beautiful book the O'Donnell clan would bring with them whenever they marched off to fight someone.

He went back to his old teacher's Abbey in Movilla around 560 AD, and began to secretly transcribe the Psalter while he stayed there, only being discovered after a curious monk peered through the keyhole when he was working late at night.

Well, I can tell you that Finnian was no less enamoured of fine books than Colmcille, and when he heard a copy was being made, he waited until it was finished, then told Colmcille that he couldn't depart with it, but must hand it over! Colmcille refused, but the Abbot had recourse to King Diarmuid, who ordered the book turned over, and this dispute was caught up in other arguments that led to tragic consequences.

Shortly after, Colmcille gave refuge to a young man called Prince Curnan of Connacht who had accidentally killed one of his rivals in a game of hurling, but King Diarmuid violated the ancient laws of sanctuary and dragged the youth from Colmcille's arms, killing him on the spot!

Saint Colmcille denounced this action far and wide, rousing up anger against the king, and soon after there was a fierce battle between the O'Neills and King Diarmuid in Cairbre Drom Cliabh, or Drumcliff in county Sligo, in the shadow of Ben Bulben, where many were killed as King Diarmuid's army was massacred with the loss of only a single O'Neill.

Afterwards a synod of priests and bishops was convened to judge whether Colmcille should have meddled in the affairs of the world or not, but they reached no conclusion after Brenadan of Birr spoke up in support of the Saint.

But Colmcille's own conscience was deeply troubled, and in his remorse he listened to the words of the hermit whose name was Molaise, and decided to leave Ireland, swearing never to set eyes on it again. Without further ado save only to lie once more on the Stone of Loneliness, in 563 AD he and twelve of his followers got in a leather currach and set off from Stroove beach in Inishowen.

At first he landed in Kintyre, but he could still see Ireland from that spot, so he went away northwards along the west coast of Scotland. There he met his kinsman, the King of the Dal Riada, whose name was Conall mac Comgaill, who gave to him the island of Iona for his use.

And so was founded the famous monastery and missionary school on Iona, which was a centre of learning and scholarship in Europe for centuries, becoming the centre of Celtic Christianity and one of the strongest influences in the conversion of the Picts, Scots, and Northern English, until it was later sacked by the Vikings.

While in his earlier life the Saint was known to be short tempered at times, his experiences had taught him humility, and his life on Iona gave him charity, that he would weep for the hardships of others and never turn away a hand in need of help.

As both a holy man and a man of learning, he quickly became established among the tribes and clans of Scotland as a diplomat, which was no mean feat given the incendiary character of the Picts who lived there.

He travelled over the Grampian mountains to engage in peace talks with the pagan King Bridei, who had been at war with the Dal Riada, where he so impressed the king and his subjects with his learning and the wonders he worked that they ended up converting to Christianity. He was often called upon to be an intermediary between the two kingdoms, and may well have made up for his earlier indiscretion by the peace he forged in the north.

Once he was well established at Iona, he spread the faith quickly throughout what we today call Britain, even in those parts which has relapsed into paganism, anointing King Aidan of Argyll upon the famous stone of Scone.

Some of the miracles he worked included appearing in a dream to King Oswald of Northumbria, telling him that his victory in the battle of Heavenfield would be certain if he and his people converted, and so it was done.

He also prophecised that a man he had sent to do penance would turn aside from his task and therefore die, and so it happened as well. He healed many, expelled evil spirits from those they tormented, calmed storms and wild beasts, and even brought the dead back to life! Not all of his miracles are so grand, mind you, such as when he casts a demon out of a bucket and restored the spilt milk to its container.

One of his most famous acts was when he went to to toe with Nessie, the Loch Ness monster! So the story goes, he encountered a group of Picts burying a man who had been killed by some strange water serpent in the loch, and when his own disciple named Lugne decided to take a swim in the river Ness, the beast appeared again, hungry for another bite!

But Colmcille made the sign of the Cross and the shouted, "Thou shalt go no further, nor touch the man - go back with all speed." The beast fled, vanishing as though a chain around its neck had pulled it back below the waves, and the watching Picts gave glory to God.

But despite everything, he did return to Ireland a few times, most notably when the High King was about to abolish the Bardic college due to the extortionate fees they were charging on threat of slander and libel. Saint Colmcille remained true to his oath, wearing a blindfold the whole time of his visit, so that he might never see Ireland again.

He persuaded all those present to preserve the Bards and File, telling them that the whole of Gaelic culture relied upon their scholarship being passed on, and his words echoed for many centuries thereafter.

He was a poet and an artist of skill, and some of his works remain with us today, covering some three hundred books. He is also the patron Saint of Derry.

He passed away at the age of 75, on the 9th of June in 597 AD, having foretold his own death the day before. After his soul had left this body, his face stayed as though warm still, and he had the appearance of one alive and sleeping.

Alone with none but Thee, my God,
I journey on my way;
What need I fear when Thou art near,
Oh King of night and day?
More safe am I within Thy hand
Than if a host did round me stand

- Attributed to Saint Colmcille

Derry can be found on the map below.

More Tales from the Historical Cycle

If you'd like to leave a tip, just click here!

Archaeological information is licensed for re-use under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International licence from the National Monuments Service - Archaeological Survey of Ireland.

Note that this license DOES NOT EXTEND to folkloric, mythological and related information on the site. That data remains under full private copyright protection