Saint Columba at Work - Copying Manuscripts

Saint Columba at Work - Copying Manuscripts Social Studies Biographies History Philosophy

Columba (521-597), the famous saint of Scotland, was actually an Irishman.  From the O'Neill (or maybe the O'Donnell clan), he was born around  521 in Garton, County Donegal (in the northwest area of today's Ireland). 

Columba came from royalty, on both sides of his family.  His father, Fedhlimidh (Phelim), was the great-grandson of Niall of the Nine Hostages (who was Overlord of Ireland) and was connected with the Dalriada princes of southwest Scotland.  Columba's mother, Eithne, was descended from a king of Leinster.

As soon as he was old enough, Columba attended St. Finnian's training school at Moville.  When he left, at about age twenty, he was already a deacon.  He then studied at Leinster under Gemman, an older theologian and bard. (Bards preserved Irish folklore with their songs of heroes).  

Columba also became a poet and attended the famous monastic school of Clonard (which was run by another Finnian who, in later times, was known as "tutor of Erin's saints").  Three thousand students, at one time, were once gathered here from all over Ireland, Scotland and Wales - plus France (then called Gaul) and Germany.

In 543, a plague epidemic caused the school to close.  By this time, Columba was about twenty-five years old and was an ordained priest.  He returned to Ulster, fully trained.

Adamnan, who wrote a memoir about Columba a century after his death, tells us that the future saint was tall and powerfully built, had a loud and melodius voice and, overall, presented himself extremely well.  For the first fifteen years of his ministry, Columba traveled around Ireland, preaching and starting monasteries (including at Derry, Durrow, and Kells).

St. Patrick, in the prior century, had given Irish learning a powerful stimulus.  Those efforts were significantly paying-off by Columba's time.  The young man himself loved books.  He did much to obtain (or make copies of) Psalters, Bibles and other valuable manuscripts.  A famous story is told about Columba and St. Jerome's Psalter.

Finnian, his former master, obtained Ireland's first copy of St. Jerome's Psalter.  Although Finnian understandably guarded this volume, he allowed Columba to look at it.  Surprisingly to Finnian, Columba made a copy for himself.  That led to a major row between the two men.

When Finnian heard about Columba's copy, he claimed it was his.  Understandably, Columba claimed it was his - and refused to give it up. 

The issue of ownership was put to Ring Diarmaid, then the Overlord of Ireland.  The decision was in Finnian's favor. 

"To every cow her calf," reasoned the King in this early copyright case, "and to every book its son-book. Therefore the copy you made, O Colum Cille [Columba], belongs to Finnian."

Not long after, a war broke out between Columba's clan and clans loyal to Diarmaid, the Overlord.  The battle of Cuil Dremne was particularly vicious and, although his side won, Columba was accused of being morally responsible for the fighting - and hence, the loss of 3,000 people.  Columba would likely have been excommunicated, for his ostensible role, but for St. Brendan's intervention.

Columba was bothered, though, by all the deaths.  His conscience was uneasy, so he talked about his situation with Molaise, an aged hermit who advised him to leave Ireland and become a missionary in another country.  It is not clear, all these centuries later, whether this is an accurate account of Columba's departure.

Whatever the motivation, Columba and twelve others left Ireland in 563, landing on the island of Hi (Hy), also known as Iona. Sacred to the Druids, before Columba's arrival, Iona would ultimately become the center of Celtic Christianity.

After erecting a high stone cross on the island, Columba built a monastery (which became his home for the rest of his life).  His relative Conall, king of the British Dalriada, gave Columba ownership of the island.

Lying near the border country between the Picts (to the north) and the Scots (to the south), Iona was an idea center for missionary work. Columba may have initially devoted his time to teaching the Christians of Dalriada (most of whom were of Irish descent), but after about two years, he focused on converting the Scottish Picts.

With his friends Comgall and Kenneth (both Irish Picts), Columba traveled to Loch Ness, then northward to the castle of King Brude (near modern Inverness). Brude had given strict orders not to admit Columba and his companions, but that mattered little to the future saint. 

He reportedly raised his arm, made the sign of the cross and (it is said) the bolts fell out of their positions, allowing the gates to swing open and the strangers to come in.  The king, greatly impressed, listened to Columba and forever after held him in high esteem.  As Overlord of Scotland, he also confirmed Columba's possession of Iona.

Adamnan tells us that Columba crossed the mountains which divide Scotland, on several occasions, and that he even reached the far northern part of the country, through the Western Isles. He is believed to have planted churches as far east as Aberdeenshire and to have evangelized nearly the whole of the country of the Picts.

He never lost touch with his homeland of Ireland, however, and continued to have significant influence there.

When he was not traveling on missionary journeys, Columba lived in his cell at the Iona monastery where he maintained austere conditions.  He slept on a bare slab of rock, ate barley or oat cakes and drank only water.  When, near the end of his life, he grew too weak to travel, Columba spent long hours copying manuscripts - just as he had done during his youth.

An interesting story is told about the end of Columba's life.  The day before he died, he was working on a Psalter.  After he traced these words - "They that love the Lord shall lack no good thing" - he stopped work. 

"Here I must stop," he said.  "Let Baithin [his cousin and nominated successor] do the rest."  

Later in the day, when the monks returned to the church for Matins, they found Columba lying before the altar.  He was helpless, by that point, and dying.  He made an attempt to bless the men, then died.

Adamnan, who was likely brought-up with the stories and memories of Columba, writes very tenderly about him: 

He had the face of an angel; he was of excellent nature, polished in speech, holy in deed, great in council. He never let a single hour pass without engaging in prayer or reading or writing or some other occupation. He endured the hardships of fasting and vigils without intermission by day and night; the burden of a single one of his labors would have seemed beyond the powers of man. And, in the midst of all his toils, he appeared loving unto all, serene and holy, rejoicing in the joy of the Holy Spirit in his inmost heart.

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Author: Carole D. Bos, J.D. 5190stories and lessons created

Original Release: Oct 07, 2013

Updated Last Revision: Feb 26, 2020

Media Credits

Illustration, from Our Island Saints, by Amy Steedman; illustrations by M. Dibdin Spooner.  Published:  T.C. & E.C. Jack, Limited; London (1912).

Source for the above information: Life of Saint Columba, Founder of Hy. Written by Adamnan, Ninth Abbot of that Monastery, edited by William Reeves. (Edinburgh: Edmonston and Douglas, 1874).


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