Saint Columba is probably one of Ireland’s and Scotland’s most well-known saints. Rivaling saints Patrick and Bridget. St. Columba was responsible for the founding of many monasteries all across Ireland and Scotland. The most notable being the monastery on the isle of Iona which is situated on the west coast of Scotland. In county Meath in the monastery of Kells, the legendary manuscript called the book of Kells was penned. Thus the book of Kells was birthed which remains to this day one of Ireland’s most prized treasures of the Celtic Christian age and currently resides as a popular tourist attraction at Trinity College, Dublin.

Saint Columba’s Early Life

Saint Columba was born near lough Gartan county Donegal on December 7th, 521AD His parents were Fedlimid and Eithne and on his paternal side he is the great-great-grandson of Niall of nine hostages, the high king who ruled Ireland during the 5th century famous for enslaving Saint Patrick. He was baptized in Temple Douglas in the parish of Conwall by his foster uncle Cruithnechan. Columba entered the monastic school of Movilla as soon as his literacy skills were deemed up to scratch. At the age of twenty, Columba graduated as a deacon and traveled south to become a student of an old ageing bard called Gumman. When he left Gumman, he entered the monastery of Clonard. The Clonard Abbey was a beacon of knowledge at the time. In Clonard, some of the most renowned theologians, clergy and philosophers of the early Celtic Christian period studied there. It was there that Columba was ordained a priest.

Image of Saint Columba
Stained Glass Representation of Saint Columba

The Monastery of Clonard

The abbey of Clonard was founded in 520AD by St Finnian. The site was initially a single beehive cell in which the saint lived and worshiped in before it grew into a full-fledged monastery. St Finnian was apparently guided to the site by an angel in a dream. Clonard was situated along the Esker Riada one of the most prominent roads in Ireland at the time. At its height, the monastery allegedly housed 3,000 pupils, an enormous number at the time, making it one of the most successful monastic schools in Europe. Sadly, however, all good things must come to an end and like most monasteries, at the time it met its final fate being pillaged by Vikings.

Columba’s Missionary Years

After he left Clonard Abbey, Columba returned to his native Ulster. Over the following years, Columba proceeded to establish several monasteries across Ireland, such as the monastery of Derry, the monastery of Durrow, the monastery of Kells, the monastery of Swords, and the monastery of Dummcliff. In 563AD, he traveled to Scotland, with twelve companions. It is believed that they traveled in a small currach which is a small basket-shaped wooden boat covered in leather or animal hides to make it watertight. He landed on Kintyre, however, he decided to move further north up the west coast of Scotland. He founded several more monasteries in the outer Hebrides. The most notable being the monastery on the isle of Iona. The various monasteries provided the only literacy services in the region for a while and helped educate the Gaels of Dal Rialta.

St. Colomba’s reputation as a holy man and an educator led to Columba having a prominent role in tribal politics. He often served as a diplomat between the Gaels of western Scotland and the Picts of eastern Scotland. He was even rumored to banish a famous sea monster to the depths of the Lough Ness. Columba was a great man of letters and he is believed to have penned several hymns as well as transcribe over 300 biblical works. Columba died in 597AD and was buried in Iona 200 years before the Vikings pillaged Iona like vultures over an animal carcass

The Monastery of Iona

The monastery of Iona is one of Scotland’s most famous monasteries founded by the legendary St. Columba. It is situated just off the Isle of mull which is off the coast of western Scotland. The monastery of Iona is one of the oldest Christian holy centres in western Europe. The abbey remains a significant place of pilgrimage in western Christian culture.

As we have discussed before, St Columba founded Iona with 12 companions during his stint as a missionary. The monastery quickly became a place of the high regard with the Christian Gaels of western Scotland, the Picts of northeastern Scotland, the Britons of southwestern Scotland, as well as the Anglo-Saxons of southeastern Scotland.

Columba envisioned the monastery of Iona to be a little Jerusalem of the British isles. And that it would also act as local government service where the monks would also act diplomats between the geals and scots who would often quarrel. The monastery also provided educational services for local people. At the time most people who could afford sent at least one child to the monastery to train them to become monks. The monastery proved to be successful as there was a lot of monks there studying Christian theology, The practices of the Celtic Christian church and Latin.

The Isle was first raided by Vikings in 795AD. These formidable Norseman were just beginning their total massacre of the monasteries of Western Europe, which struck fear into the hearts of many. However, the monks of Iona stayed on despite enduring horrific attacks. The most notable being in 795AD, 802AD, 806AD, and 825AD. After all this, the monks finally had endured enough and most of them fled Iona. They brought the relics to be housed in Ireland where they would be safe. Some even went on to establish monasteries throughout Europe. The most notable being in Belgium, Switzerland, and France.

Saint Columba’s Legacy

Columba’s legacy throughout the Celtic lands is very profound. He founded several monasteries throughout Ireland and Scotland that provided a beacon of education for hundreds of young men as well as a refuge for the sick, poor and elderly. The holy man is the patron saint of Derry as well as being one of Ireland’s top three saints alongside Saint Bridget and Saint Patrick. To this day, primary schools, GAA teams and even an Aer Lingus plane are named in honor of him. He truly worked tirelessly for others he was one in a million.

St. Patricks and Columba Kells Celtic Cross

View our Replica cross of Saint Patrick and Columba found at the monastery at Kells in County Meath. This beautiful Celtic cross recreates all the wonderful detail of the original stone cross.

St. Patricks and Columba Kells Celtic Cross
St. Patricks and Columba Kells Celtic Cross