COLUMBA, SAINT (Irish, Colum), Irish saint, was born on the 7th of December 521, in all probability at Gartan in Co. Donegal. His father Feidlimid was a member of the reigning family in Ireland and was closely allied to that of Dalriada (Argyll). His mother Eithne was of Leinster extraction and was descended from an illustrious provincial king. To these powerful connexions as much as to his piety and ability, he owed the immense influence he possessed. Later lives state that the saint was also called Crimthann (fox), and Reeves suggests that he may have had two names, the one baptismal, the other secular. He was afterwards known as Columkille, or Columba of the Church, to distinguish him from others of the same name. During his early years the Irish Church was reformed by Gildas and Finian of Clonard, and numerous monasteries were founded which made Ireland renowned as a centre of learning. Columba himself studied under two of the most distinguished Irishmen of his day, Finian of Moville (at the head of Strangford Lough) and Finian of Clonard. Almost as a matter of course, under such circumstances, he embraced the monastic life. He was ordained deacon while at Moville, and afterwards, when about thirty years of age, was raised to the priesthood. During his residence in Ireland he founded, in addition to a number of churches, two famous monasteries, one named Daire Calgaich (Derry) on the banks of Lough Foyle, the other Dair-magh (Durrow) in King’s county.
In 563 he left his native land, accompanied by twelve disciples, and went on a mission to northern Britain, perhaps on the invitation of his kinsman Conall, king of Dalriada. Irish accounts represent Columba as undertaking this mission in consequence of the censure expressed against him by the clergy after the battle of Cooldrevny; but this is probably a fabrication. The saint’s labours in Scotland must be regarded as a manifestation of the same spirit of missionary enterprise with which so many of his countrymen were imbued. Columba established himself on the island of Hy or Iona, where he erected a church and a monastery. About the year 565 he applied himself to the task of converting the heathen kingdom of the northern Picts. Crossing over to the mainland he proceeded to the residence, on the banks of the Ness, of Brude, king of the Picts. By his preaching, his holy life, and, as his earliest biographers assert, by the performance of miracles, he converted the king and many of his subjects. The precise details, except in a few cases, are unknown, or obscured by exaggeration and fiction; but it is certain that the whole of northern Scotland was converted by the labours of Columba, and his disciples and the religious instruction of the people provided for by the erection of numerous monasteries. The monastery of Iona was reverenced as the mother house of all these foundations, and its abbots were obeyed as the chief ecclesiastical rulers of the whole nation of the northern Picts. There were then neither dioceses nor parishes in Ireland and Celtic Scotland; and by the Columbite rule the bishops themselves, although they ordained the clergy, were subject to the jurisdiction of the abbots of Iona, who, like the founder of the order, were only presbyters. In matters of ritual they agreed with the Western Church on the continent, save in a few particulars such as the precise time of keeping Easter and manner of tonsure.
Columba was honoured by his countrymen, the Scots of Britain and Ireland, as much as by his Pictish converts, and in his character of chief ecclesiastical ruler he gave formal benediction and inauguration to Aidan, the successor of Conall, as king of the Scots. He accompanied that prince to Ireland in 575, and took a leading part in a council held at Drumceat in Ulster, which determined once and for all the position of the ruler of Dalriada with regard to the king of Ireland. The last years of Columba’s life appear to have been mainly spent at Iona. There he was already revered as a saint, and whatever credit may be given to some portions of the narratives of his biographers, there can be no doubt as to the wonderful influence which he exercised, as to the holiness of his life, and as to the love which he uniformly manifested to God and to his neighbour.
In the summer of 597 he knew that his end was approaching. On Saturday the 8th of June he was able, with the help of one of his monks, to ascend a little hill above the monastery and to give it his farewell blessing. Returning to his cell he continued a labour in which he had been engaged, the transcription of the Psalter. Having finished the verse of the 34th Psalm where it is written, “They who seek the Lord shall want no manner of thing that is good,” he said, “Here I must stop:—what follows let Baithen write”; indicating, as was believed, his wish that his cousin Baithen should succeed him as abbot. He was present at evening in the church, and when the midnight bell sounded for the nocturnal office early on Sunday morning he again went thither unsupported, but sank down before the altar and passed away as in a gentle sleep.
Several Irish poems are ascribed to Columba, but they are manifestly compositions of a later age. Three Latin hymns may, however, be attributed to the saint with some degree of certainty.
The original materials for a life of St Columba are unusually full. The earliest biography was written by one of his successors, Cuminius, who became abbot of Iona in 657. Much more important is the enlargement of that work by Adamnan, who became abbot of Iona in 679. These narratives are supplemented by the brief but most valuable notices given by the Venerable Bede. See W. Reeves, Life of St Columba, written by Adamnan (Dublin, 1857); W. F. Skene, Celtic Scotland, vol. ii. “Church and Culture” (Edinburgh, 1877). (E. C. Q.)