On this day: St. Columcille

by Gerelyn Hollingsworth

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On this day we celebrate "the greatest Irish figure after Patrick, Columcille, prince of Clan Conaill, born in the royal enclosure of Gartan, on December 7, 521, less than ninety years after Patrick's arrival as bishop.

"Though he could have been a king, maybe even high king, Columcille chose to become a monk. His real name, Crimthann, or Fox, holds an echo of the ancient mythology, and he was probably red-haired." Page 169.

--How the Irish Saved Civilization, by Thomas Cahill, Doubleday, 1975. (Search term: fox.)

"An intense man, Columcille loved beautiful things, the heritage no doubt of his privileged childhood, and was especially sensitive to the genius loci of Derry--'angel-haunted Derry,' he called it . . . and of which he sang in sensuous poetry that can stand beside any in the early Irish canon. But if Columcille loved anything more than his native place, he loved books, especially beautifully designed manuscripts. As a student, he had fallen in love with his master's psalter, a uniquely decorated book of great price. He resolved to make his own copy by stealth, . . . Columcille was found out and brought before King Diarmait, who issued his famous decision: 'To every cow her calf; to every book its copy.' It was history's first copyright case". Pp. 169-170.

Sometime later, Columcille took up arms against Diarmait to avenge the death of one of his followers. Columcille lost only one man in the battle, to the enemies' 3000, and as part of the spoils, he got the psalter. But monks were not permitted to engage in armed conflict. As part of his punishment, he was exiled from Ireland. With twelve companions, he sailed for the island of Iona, a journey "which would forever change the course of western history". P. 171

Columcille more than fulfilled his sentence of making as many new converts as men he had killed. He and his monks made learning available to the tribes of Britain and Europe. He returned to Ireland twice. To read about his defense of the bards, see page 186. On that page, also, is an account of his farewell to his monks and to the monastery's packhorse. Columcille died on June 9, 597. (Search term: bards.)

Click here for images of St. Columba.

Life of St. Columba, by Adomnan of Iona, translated by Richard Sharpe, Penguin Classics, 1995, was written just a century after Columcille's death.

"St. Columcille of Iona", by Bridget Haggerty, is a good summary of the life and work of the Apostle of Scotland.

Click here for the Catholic Encyclopedia article on St. Columba and here for Wikipedia. On that page is a beautiful picture of St. Columba Bidding Farewell to the White Horse, by John Duncan.

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