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Saint Columba lived in the era which is often referred to as the “Dark Ages”. Because very little was written down during this period, it is very difficult to be sure of what exactly took place at this time. Many of the ancient documents in which this information was recorded have been lost. The information we can conclude regarding Saint Colmcille have been passed down from generation to generation. Traditionally, stories tell us that Columba was born in Gartan on the 7th of December 521. Saint Columba was christened Criomhthann which means fox, but this was later changed to Colmcille, which means “Dove of the church.” Colmcille was a member of a noble and very significant family. His father was called Feidlimidh, and he was great-grandson of Nialle Hostages, who had Uï¿½ Neil tribe named after him. His mother was a descendant of Cathair Moor, a king of Leinster, who was called Eithner. Colmcille was educated by Cruithnechan, who was his foster father.
Foster fathers were not people who took care of people, but rather helped them develop spiritually. Columba also studied under the Christian bard Gemman, before Finnian of Clonard introduced him to monastic living. It was in Gemman that he was ordained a priest, and then completed his education under Mobhi at Glasnevin and continued to have associations with some with Finnian of Moville and Enda of Aran.
In 536, in Derry, he set up monastic foundations, aged only twenty five. It has been suggested by Smyth that he founded Durrow in Ofally, in the 1580’s, and that he founded Iona in approximately 563. Some scholars would associate Saint Columba with more than fifty other monasteries. In 561, it is said that Colmcille began to involve himself in politics, with the Battle of Cï¿½l Dreimne, and in 562, and in Synod at Teltown, in 562, the issue of whether or not to revoke the ex-communication of Colmcille was discussed. Colmcille landed in Iona on the 13th May 563 and visited King Bruide. Colmcille worked on evangelising the people of Iona for thirty four more years after this. In 575, Colmcille attended the convention of Druim Cett. Colmcille died in 597, at approximately seventy six years of age.
Colmcille sold from Ireland to Iona in 563. It is unclear of his exact reason for doing so, but there are a few suggestions as to why. According to Adomnï¿½n, a hagiographer at the time, and author of Colmcille’s Life, Colmcille left planning a voluntary exile with Christ. This information though, could be said to be unreliable, as it was the job of the hagiographer to paint the Saint in the best possible light, and therefore they would not say something that would make them look bad.
An other possible reason for the departure of Colmcille is that he copied a book that Finnian had managed to ship over from Wales. In the time of Columba, beautiful books containing psalms were often made, they took a long time to make, but were beautifully decorated. Having asked Finnain, and been refused, Colmcille decided to take the book anyway, and every night he copied Finnian’s work by hand, until
eventually he was finished. When Finnian found this out he was furious, and demanded that he get it back. When Colmcille refused, the issue was taken up with King Diarmuit of Tara, who said “To every cow belongs her calf, to every book its copy”. This is one of the possible reasons that led to the Battle of Cï¿½l Dreimne, which was said to be Colmcille’s first move into politics. Colmcille was victorious in this battle, but during the battle, 3000 people died. This resulted in Colmcille being expelled from Ireland, to try and convert as many souls as he had killed. This was seen as some sort of penance. This theory has been disputed by Skene, who said it was inconsistent. However, even Adomnï¿½n, who usually paints Colmcille in a good light, has admitted to Colmcille being to blame “for some venial and quite excusable causes.”
Another possibility for the Battle of Cï¿½l Dreimne starting, and perhaps being Colmcille’s reason for leaving, was because of the games at Tara. While Curnan was competing, he caused the death of his opponent, and was so snatched by king Diarmuit of Tara. Colmcille felt “duty-bound” to avenge his death, and he did this by rising against King Diarmuit. It says in the Annals of Tigernach, that Colmcille’s reason for departure was more politically motivated.
The final suggested reason for the involvement of Colmcille in the Battle of Cï¿½l Dreimne, is that during Diarmuits inauguration to King, Colmcille observed pagan rituals that angered him. So to eradicate these practices fully, Colmcille may have felt it necessary to take part in the Battle, to ensure Diarmuit was defeated.
The foundation at Iona was very significant territory. It lay between Irish and Pict territory, and in a religious and political sense, Colmcille would have placed himself in a very good position to evangelise the people. We have observed that while Colmcille may have had mixed motives for leaving Ireland, he did not go further abroad like his fellow monks, for example Columbanus, who travelled to Europe. Rather, Colmcille stayed with the Irish in Iona. John Ryan said on the matter “it was an obvious duty of an Irish Churchman to minister spirituality to their own countrymen, who had settled beyond the sea.
” The Dal Riata, who had settled in this area, had been militarily and politically challenged by the Picts. Both the Picts and Dal Riata claimed to own Iona, and because of this, the Picts had tried to isolate the Dal Riata. It is possible that Colmcille may have seen this as an extra added responsibility, and another challenge. Finlay suggested that Colmcille spent two years in the mainland, converting the tribes as he went along, before finally taking up the occupancy of Iona. We can see the clear political sensitivity and foresight of Columba, as the foundation of Iona lay in a very politically sensitive area.
Many historians would be in disagreement over the nature and extent to Colmcille’s career. It is certain that his mission was a most challenging and difficult one, with Columba experiencing language barriers, and although Colmcille brought with him to Iona, the identity of an Uï¿½ Neill, undoubtedly, he would not have the same political power he would have had in Ireland. In the 34 years that Colmcille spent at Iona, it is difficult to figure out exactly what happened, as there are no surviving documents, and therefore the details are very scarce.