Irish Bard's Imprint Seen in Celtic Church: St. Columba's Life Rich in Legend, Literature, Arts

By Gaitskell, Victoria | Anglican Journal, May 1997 | Go to article overview

Irish Bard's Imprint Seen in Celtic Church: St. Columba's Life Rich in Legend, Literature, Arts


Gaitskell, Victoria, Anglican Journal


ST. COLUMBA, A MONK, prince, scholar, and bard, had his choice of vocations in 4th-century Ireland. Born in the time of the legendary King Arthur (in present-day County Donegal), Columba's royal pedigree, talents and ambition could have assured his election as High King of Ireland. He chose instead to secure the best education available in Ireland at the monastery of Clonard and later, at Moville and Glasnevin.

Columba spent 15 years going around Ireland preaching and founding monasteries, most famously at Derry, Durrow, and Kells, leaving a rich Celtic legacy that is enjoying a renewed interest today.

Monastery born out of conflict

While much of St. Columba's life was devoted to prayer, praise and study, he was also frequently at odds with the authorities, namely, the High King of Ireland. His love of books led Columba to make a surreptitious copy of a precious manuscript belonging to his former master, Finnian of Moville. Finnian demanded, with the support of a decree from the King, that Columba surrender his copy.

Columba's second dispute with the king led to the establishment of the Iona community in Scotland, which would become one of the most influential establishments in the Christian world.

It all began with a war. A man who had taken refuge with Columba was slain by the king's men in defiance of the rights of sanctuary. Following the bloody war that resulted from the man's death, Columba was formally censured for his responsibility in the conflict.

St. Molaise advised Columba to exile himself from Ireland and, in expiation, attempt to win for Christ as many souls as perished in battle. So, with 12 companions, Columba departed Ireland in a small coracle. On May 12, 563, on the tiny island of Iona off the west coast of Scotland, he founded a monastery.

St. Columba favoured Celtic teachings

Earlier efforts to Christianize Scotland had lost impetus by the time of Columba's arrival. Initially, he preached among the people of Dalriada, a large Irish settlement in present-day Argyll. He began to travel widely, setting up more monasteries and converting the Picts of the north.

Columba spent many hours with visitors attracted by his reputation for sanctity, miracles, and prophesy. Never idle, he was preoccupied with monastic routine, performing ordinations, organizing missions, and maintaining communications with all his foundations in Ireland and the colonies. Unlike Irish monasteries, which basically governed themselves, Iona's supremacy became established throughout the whole of Scotland.

Columba helped the Celtic church to develop an indigenous expression of Christianity, incorporating distinctively native elements. In education, Columba passed on the sophisticated teachings of Celtic monks. These teachings were based widely on classics, native legends and apocryphal scripture, much of which were labeled heretical elsewhere.

With the Roman church becoming increasingly worldly, Columba, like many Celtic Christians, had looked to the East for inspiration. Following the tradition of Desert Fathers, like Anthony and Pachomius, the Celts created hermitages in remote places. There, in the example of Jesus in the wilderness, they sought lives of self-discipline and poverty.

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