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Saint Columkille.

Famous Irish People.

From The Wonders of Ireland by P. W. Joyce, 1911

Saint Brendan | Saint Brigit |

Saint Columkille [2] was born in the year 521 in Gartan a wild district in the county Donegal not far from Letterkenny. He was a near relation of the kings of Ireland of his time; for his father was great-grandson of the mighty King Niall of the Nine Hostages: and his mother was related to the kings of Leinster. He spent his boyhood in a little village near Gartan; and when he was old enough he was sent away from his home to a school kept by a distinguished bishop and teacher, St. Finnen, at Movilla near the present Newtownards in Down. Though he belonged to a princely family and might easily have become rich and great, he gave up these worldly advantages for religion, and resolved to become a priest.

Having spent some time at Movilla, the youthful Columkille went to several other Irish Colleges, including that of St. Movi at Glasnevin near Dublin; and as he was a diligent student he made great progress in all. The most celebrated of these was at Clonard in Meath, in which there were many hundreds of students under the instruction of another St. Finnen, a great and holy man who is styled in old Irish writings "a doctor of wisdom and the tutor of the saints of Ireland in his time." Here Columkille met many young Irishmen who afterwards became distinguished saints and missionaries.

As soon as he was ordained priest he set about the work of his life—spreading the Gospel. At that time the high ridge over the river Foyle where now stands the old city of Derry, was an uninhabited spot clothed with a splendid wood of oaks from which it got the name of Derry, meaning an oak grove: this spot was presented to Columkille by his cousin prince Aed, afterwards king of Ireland. Here when he was twenty-five years of age (in 546) he built his first church round which grew up a monastery that continued to flourish for many hundred years, so that in memory of the saint the place was long afterwards known by the name of Derry-Columkille. At this period of his life he was a man of noble presence, a worthy member of a kingly race, as one of the old Irish writers describes him:—tall broad-shouldered and powerful, with long curling hair, luminous grey eyes, and a countenance bright and pleasing: and he was always lively and agreeable in conversation.

For fifteen years after the establishment of Derry, Columkille continued to found churches all over the country, among many others those of Kells in Meath, Tory Island, Swords near Dublin, Drumcliff in Sligo, and Durrow in King's County, the last of which was his chief establishment in Ireland. It is recorded that during these fifteen years he founded altogether three hundred churches and monasteries. These establishments, like all the other Irish monasteries, were the means of spreading not only religion but general enlightenment: for in most of them there were schools; and the priests and monks converted and taught and civilised, to the best of their power, the people in their neighbourhood.

Many years before this, St. Patrick and the missionaries who worked under his guidance had converted the greatest part of the Irish people to Christianity. But the time was too short and the missionaries too few to instruct the newly-converted people fully in their faith: so that although they were Christians, many of them had only a poor knowledge of the Christian doctrine. In those times there were certain persons in Ireland called druids (for whom see pp. 136-138 above). They hated the Christian faith, and gave St. Patrick and his companions great trouble by trying to persuade the pagan Irish not to become Christians. They continued in the country till the time of St. Columkille, as active as ever though much fewer; and St. Columkille and the other missionaries of his time had often hard work to win over the people from the false teaching of these druids, and make good Christians of them.

In books he is often called Columba; but in Ireland he is best known by the name Columkille. This is derived from colum [pron. collum] a dove, and cill or kill, a church: the "Dove of the church." This name was given him when a boy from his gentle affectionate disposition, and because he was so fond of praying in the little church of Tullydouglas near where he was born: so that the little boys who were accustomed to play with him used often to ask: "Has our little Colum yet come from the church?"

The sketch given here is taken chiefly, but not altogether, from "Adamnan's Life of St. Columba." Adamnan was a native of Tirconnell or Donegal, like Columba himself. He died in the year 703. He was the ninth abbot of Iona of which Columba was the first. His "Life of St. Columba" is a very beautiful piece of Latin composition.

A great part of the north of Scotland was then inhabited by a people called the Picts. Those of them who lived south of the Grampian mountains had been converted some time before by St. Ninian of Glastonbury:[3] but the northern Picts were still pagans; and Columkille made up his mind to leave Ireland and devote the rest of his life to their conversion. In 563, in the forty-second year of his age, he bade a sorrowful farewell to his native country, and crossing the sea with twelve companions, he settled in the island of Iona in the Hebrides, which had been presented to him by his relative the king of that part of Scotland. Here he built his little church and monastery, all of wood, and began to prepare for his glorious work. This little island afterwards became the greatest religious centre in Scotland: and grand churches and other buildings were erected on and around the site of Columkille's humble structures. For many centuries Iona was held in such honour that most of the kings and chiefs and other great people of Scotland were buried in it; and to this day it is full of venerable and beautiful ruins, which are every year visited by people from all parts of the British Islands.

The most laborious part of St. Columkille's active life began after his settlement in Iona. He traversed the Highlands of Scotland and the Islands of the Hebrides, sometimes in a rude chariot, sometimes on foot, visiting the kings and chiefs of the Picts, and preaching to them in their homes; and he founded churches and monasteries all over that part of Scotland, just as he had done in Ireland. After many years of incessant labour he succeeded in converting the whole of the northern Picts.

When Columkille was at home in his monastery resting from his missionary labours, his favourite occupation was copying the Holy Scriptures. We are told that he wrote with his own hand, in the course of years, three hundred copies of the sacred books, which he presented to the various churches he had founded; and this good work he continued to the very last day of his life. Besides mere copying, he composed many hymns and other poems, both in Latin and Irish. He was always employed at something. Adamnan says that not an hour of the day passed by without some work for himself and his monks—praying, reading, writing, arranging the affairs of the monastery, or manual work: for he took his own share in cooking, grinding corn, overseeing the men who were working in the fields, and so forth; like many others of the eminent saints of the early Irish Church.

During St. Columkille's residence in Iona he visited Ireland more than once on important business: and we may be sure that he was delighted when the opportunity came to see again the land he loved so well. The most important of these occasions was when he came over to take part in a great meeting— a sort of Parliament for all Ireland—which was held at a place called Drum-Ketta in Derry. The proceedings at this meeting will be found described in the "Child's History of Ireland," or in the "Concise History of Ireland."

Amidst all the earnest and laborious efforts of St. Columkille in the cause of religion, he never forgot his native country. He looked upon himself as an exile, though a voluntary exile in a great and glorious cause; and a tender regret was always mingled with his recollections of Ireland. We have in our old books a very ancient poem in the Irish language, believed to have been composed by him, in which he expresses himself in this manner:—

"How delightful to be on Ben-Edar [4] before embarking on the foam-white sea: how pleasant to row one's little curragh [5] all round it, to look upward at its bare steep border, and to hear the waves dashing against its rocky cliffs.

"A grey eye looks back towards Erin; a grey eye full of tears.

"While I traverse Alban [6] of the ravens, I think on my little oak grove in Derry. If the tributes and the riches of Alban were mine from the centre to the utmost borders, I would prefer to them all one little house in Derry. The reason I love Derry is for its quietness, for its purity, for its crowds of white angels.

"How sweet it is to think of Durrow: how delightful would it be to hear the music of the breeze rustling through its groves.

"Plentiful is the fruit in the Western Island—beloved Erin of many waterfalls: plentiful her noble groves of oak.

Many are her kings and princes; sweet-voiced her clerics; her birds warble joyously in the woods; gentle are her youths; wise her seniors; comely and graceful her women, of spotless virtue; illustrious her men, of noble aspect.

"There is a grey eye that fills with tears when it looks back towards Erin. While I stand on the oaken deck of my bark I stretch my vision westwards over the briny sea towards Erin."

[3] Glastonbury, a town in Somersetshire in England, where in old times there was a celebrated monastery much resorted to by Irish students.

[4] Ben-Edar, the rocky headland now called Howth near Dublin.

[5] Curragh, a hide-covered wicker boat.

[6] Alban, Scotland.

During his whole life Columkille retained his affection for his native land and for everything connected with it. One breezy day, when he was now in his old age in Iona, a crane appeared flying from the west towards the island: it was beaten about by the wind, and with much difficulty it reached the beach, where it fell down quite spent with hunger and fatigue. And the good old man said to one of his monks:—

"That crane has come from our dear fatherland, and I earnestly commend it to thee: nurse and cherish it tenderly till it is strong enough to return again to its sweet home in Scotia."

Accordingly the monk took the bird up in his arms and brought it to the hospice and fed and tended it for three days till it had quite recovered. The third day was calm, and the bird rose from the earth till it had come to a great height, when resting for a moment to look forward, it stretched out its neck and directed its course towards Ireland.

On the day before the saint's death he went to a little hill hard by the monastery that overlooked the whole place; and gazing lovingly round him for the last time, he lifted up his hands and blessed the monastery. And as he was returning with his attendant he grew tired and sat down half way to rest; for he was now very weak. While he was sitting here an old white horse that was employed for many years to carry the pails between the milking place and the monastery, first looked at him intently, and then coming up slowly step by step, he laid his head gently on the saint's bosom. And he began to moan pitifully, and big tears rolled from his eyes and fell into the saint's lap: which, when the attendant saw, he came up to drive him away. But the old man said:—"Let him alone: he loves me. May be God has given him some dim knowledge that his master is going from him and from you all: so let him alone." At last, standing up, he blessed the poor old animal and returned to the monastery.

The death call came to him when he was seventy-six years of age. Though his death was not a sudden one, he had no sickness before it: he simply sank, wearied out with his life-long labours. Although he knew his end was near, he kept writing one of the Psalms till he could write no longer; while his companion Baithen sat beside him. At last, laying down the pen, he said, "Let Baithen write the rest."

On the night of that same day, at the toll of the midnight bell for prayer, he rose, feeble as he was, from his bed, which was nothing but a bare flagstone, and went to the church hard by, followed immediately after by his attendant Dermot. He arrived there before the others had time to bring in the lights; and Dermot, losing sight of him in the darkness, called out several times "Where are you, father?" Receiving no reply, he felt his way, till he found his master before the altar kneeling and leaning forward on the steps: and raising him up a little, supported his head on his breast. The monks now came up with the lights; and seeing their beloved old master dying, they began to weep. He looked at them with his face lighted up with joy, and tried to utter a blessing; but being unable to speak, he raised his hand a little to bless them, and in the very act of doing so he died in Dermot's arms."[7]

[7] This simple and beautiful narrative of the last days of St. Columkille, including the two pleasing little stories about the crane and the old white horse; with the affecting account of the saint's death, is taken altogether from Adamnan's Life. The circumstances of Columkille's death are in some respects very like those attending the death of the Venerable Bede, as recorded in the tender and loving letter of his pupil, the monk Cuthbert. But Adamnan's narrative was written more than forty years before that of Cuthbert.

Baithen was Columkille's first cousin and his most beloved disciple, and succeeded him as abbot of Iona.

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