Columba of Iona

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The Venerable Columba of Iona, Enlightener of Scotland (December 7, 521 - June 9, 597) (also known as Columcille, meaning "Dove of the Church") was an Irish missionary who helped re-introduce Christianity to Scotland and the north of England.

The primary source on the life of St. Columba is the Life of St. Columba, a hagiography by St. Adomnan of Iona.


He was born to Fedhlimidh and Eithne of the Ui Neill clan in Gartan, near Lough Gartan, Donegal. On his father's side he was great-great-grandson of Niall of the Nine Hostages, an Irish king of the fourth century. He became a monk and soon rose in the church hierarchy to the rank of priest. Tradition asserts that, sometime around 560, he became involved in a copyright wrangle with St. Finnian of Moville over a psalter. The dispute eventually led to the pitched Battle of Cul Dremhe in 561, during which many men were killed. (Columba's copy of the psalter has been traditionally associated with the Cathach of St. Columba.) As penance for these deaths, Columba was ordered to make the same number of new converts as had been killed. He was also ordered to leave Ireland and move such that he could not see his native country.

St. Columba's Bay, where the saint first landed on Iona

He travelled to Scotland, where it is reputed he first landed at the southern tip of the Kintyre peninsula, near Southend. However, being still in sight of his native land he moved further north up the west coast of Scotland. In 563 he founded a monastery on the island of Iona off the west coast of Scotland which became the centre of his evangelising mission to Scotland. There are many stories of miracles which he performed during his mission to convert the Picts.

Columba is also the source of the first known reference to the Loch Ness Monster. According to the story, in 565 he came across a group of Picts who were burying a man killed by the monster, and brought the man back to life. In another version, he is said to have saved the man while the man was being attacked, driving away the monster with the sign of the cross.

St. Columba's feast day is June 9, and with St. Patrick of Ireland (March 17) and St. Brigid of Kildaire (February 1) is one of the three patron saints of Ireland. The three are buried together in Downpatrick in County Down, deep within the famous Hill of Down.

Columba is not to be confused with his disciple, St. Columbanus.

Books

The Life of St. Columba by St. Adomnan is available in paperback (ISBN 0140444629).

A somewhat fictionalized account of his life was published in 1990 by John Desjarlais, entitled The Throne of Tara (ISBN 0891075747).

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