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St. Columcille of Iona
By the time he was 25, he had founded no less than 27 Irish monasteries, including those at Derry, Durrow and Kells.
Columcille was also a poet who had learned Irish history and poetry from a bard named Gemman. In addition, he loved fine books and manuscripts. One of the famous books associated with Columcille is the Psaltair, which was traditionally the Battle Book of the O'Donnells, his kinsmen, who carried it into battle.
The Psaltair is the basis for one of the most famous legends of Saint Columcille.
It is said that on one occasion, so anxious was Columcille to have a copy of the Psalter that he shut himself up for a whole night in the church that contained it, transcribing it laboriously by hand. He was discovered by a monk who watched him through the keyhole and reported it to his superior, Finnian of Moville. The Scriptures were so scarce in those days that the abbot claimed the copy, refusing to allow it to leave the monastery. Columcille refused to surrender it, until he was obliged to do so, under protest, on the abbot's appeal to the High King Diarmaid.
A very sad period in Columcille's life followed. Because he had protected a refugee and denounced an injustice by King Diarmaid, war broke out between the clans of Ireland. Filled with remorse on account of those who had been slain in the battle of Cooldrevne and condemned by many of his own friends, he experienced a profound conversion and an irresistible call to preach to the heathen. So, even though he loved Ireland with all of his heart, Columcille made the profound decision to become an exile.
In 563, he and 12 companions crossed the Irish Sea in a coracle, which is similar to a curragh, and landed on a deserted island now known as Iona (Holy Island). It was here, on this tiny isle off the coast of Scotland, that he began his work. Eventually, Iona became the heart of Celtic Christianity and its existence was one of the strongest influences in the conversion of the Picts, Scots, and Northern English.
From Iona, numerous other settlements were founded, and Columcille himself penetrated the wildest glens of Scotland and the farthest Outer Hebrides. He established the Caledonian Church and it is said that he anointed King Aidan of Argyll upon the famous stone of Scone, which is now in Westminster Abbey. The Pictish King Brude and his people were also converted by Columcille's many miracles, including driving away a water "monster" from the River Ness with the Sign of the Cross.
Even though he was far away in Scotland, Columcille appears to have retained control over his monasteries in Ireland. In 580, he returned to his native land to take part in the assembly of Druim-Cetta in Ulster, where he mediated about the obligations of the Irish in Scotland to those in Ireland. It was decided that they should furnish a fleet, but not an army, for the Irish high-king. During the same assembly, Columcille, who was a bard himself, intervened to effectively swing the nation away from its declared intention of suppressing the Bardic Order. Columcille persuaded them that the whole future of Gaelic culture demanded that the scholarship of the bards be preserved. His prestige was such that his views prevailed and assured the presence of educated laity in Irish Christian society.
Of the man himself and his personality, it is said that he was "well-formed, with a powerful frame; his skin was white, his face broad and fair and radiant, lit up with large, gray, luminous eyes..." Saint Adamnan, his biographer wrote of him: "He had the face of an angel; he was of an excellent nature, polished in speech, holy in deed, great in counsel... loving unto all."
It is clear that Columcille's temperament changed dramatically during his life. Although his name means "dove", in his early years, he had a quick temper and was extremely stern with his monks; gradually, he softened and later in life, he was as gentle toward them as he had always been with children and animals. Columcille had great qualities, but ultimately, his chief virtue lay in the conquest of his own passionate nature and in the love and sympathy that flowed from his eager and radiant spirit.
On June 8, 597, Columcille was copying out the psalms once again. At the verse, "They that love the Lord shall lack no good thing," he stopped, and said that his cousin, Saint Baithin must do the rest. Columcille died the next day at the foot of the altar. He was first buried at Iona, but 200 years later the Danes destroyed the monastery. His relics were taken to Dunkeld in 849.
The year Columcille died was the same year in which Saint Gregory the Great sent Saint Augustine of Canterbury to convert England. Perhaps because the Roman party gained ascendancy at the Synod of Whitby, much of the credit that belongs to Saint Columcille and his followers for the conversion of Britain has been attributed to St. Augustine. It should not be forgotten that both saints played pivotal roles in spreading Christianity throughout the British Isles.
In art, Saint Columcille is sometimes depicted with a basket of bread and an orb of the world in a ray of light. He might also be pictured with an old, white horse. He is venerated in Dunkeld, Ireland and also as the Apostle of Scotland. His feast day is June 9th, the day on which he died.
There are hundreds of islands around the Irish coast. Achill is the biggest, the Arans the most romantic; Skellig Michael the most dramatic and Tory the most menacing - at least in legend. The Blaskets offer the most fertile ground for literature and Clare island is the most meticulously studied. But, whichever island you may visit, you can be sure each of them has its own superlative. For example, Little Skellig off St. Finian's Bay in Co. Kerry, is known for its gigantic colony of white seabirds called gannets.
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March 4, 2011
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