Image of Painting of Colmcille situated in St. Eunans Cathederal
Painting of Colmcille situated in St. Eunans Cathederal

Also widely known as St. Columba, Colmcille was born on the 7th of December 521 in Gartan.  A Christian Abbot and Missionary he is renowned for the spread of Christianity to Scotland, and the founding of the famous monastery on Iona.  A great great grandson of Niall of the Nine Hostages, he was actually christened as 'Crimthann', which means ‘fox’ because of his red hair.  However, as this was seen by some to have pagan connotations, his later nickname became ‘Colmcille’ meaning ‘Dove of the Church’.  Incidentally Columba in Latin also means ‘Dove’.   

As a boy he entered the school in Movilla, Co. Down under the tutelage of St. Finnian.  Thus began a long and eventful life as a monk and missionary.  When his training at Movilla was complete he studied for a time with a bard known as Gemman in Leinster before moving to Clonard Monastery in Co. Meath.  Here he studied under a second, more famous St Finnian.  He travelled to the monastery in Glasnevin but was shortly sent home due to the arrival of the plague.

This was to be the end of his education, so to speak.  He was granted land by a local king on the banks of the river Foyle and there he founded a monastery.  The small community here eventually grew into what we now know as the City of Derry.  He continued to found churches and monasteries all over Ireland, including Swords and Kells.

Some time around 560 he quarrelled with his early teacher Finnian of Movilla over a copy of the book of Psalms.  Colmcille had made a copy of it (no easy task in those days) without authorisation and as such, Finnian had claimed ownership of both the original and the copy.  It came to the High King Diarmait MacCearbhaill to settle the dispute.  Diarmait sided with Finnian.  He stated:

‘To every cow belongs her calf, therefore to every book belongs its copy’

To make matters worse, in a separate incident Diarmait had Prince Curnan of Connaught seized and killed while he was under Colmcilles protection.  It is said they pulled the young man from his arms and murdered him in front of him.  This, even for the Dove of the Church, was unforgivable.

He implored his kinsmen of Clan Neill in the north and the men of Connaught to seek justice for the wrongdoings of the king, leading to the Battle of Cúl Dreimhne in 561.  Colmcille stood vigil on the battlefield throughout the conflict praying for victory.  It seems his prayers were answered.  The high king's army of three thousand men was entirely massacred with only one casualty on the side of the opposition.

For his part in the battle, Colmcille was threatened with excommunication from the church.  With the help of his friend Brendan of Birr he convinced them otherwise.  The deaths of the men at the battle weighing heavy on his conscience, he resolved to go into exile and win for Christ as many souls had been lost that day.  Along with twelve other monks he arrived in Scotland in 563.  A meeting with the Gaelic King Conall MacComhgall results in a grant of land on an island called Iona.  It is here he founded the famous abbey where a thriving community develops and he is much loved.

He became a great friend of King Conall and travelled Scotland preaching Christianity to the pagan Pictish population.  His diplomatic and oratory skills were much admired by Gaels and Picts alike and he became a respected figure in the politics between the two.  He only returned to Ireland once in the rest of his lifetime to found a monastery at Durrow, Co. Offaly in 585. 

Colmcille passed away peacefully on the 9th of June 597 in the church on Iona and was buried there by his monks.  He was loved and revered by people then and up until this day, as his name can be seen in placenames, churches and chapels, schools and sports teams.  He is the patron saint of Derry, Ulster, Scotland and one of the three patron saints of Ireland.