Colmcille, the cow’s calf and Christianity

Second Reading

LASTING LEGACY St Colmcille, also known as Columba, died on June 9, 597AD, on the Hebridean island of Iona. He is buried at Iona Abbey (pictured), the famous abbey he founded there in 563AD.


Second Reading
Fr Kevin Hegarty

Recently Michael D Higgins addressed a conference in Derry on the legacy of St Colmcille. It was just one of the events marking the 1,500th anniversary of the saint’s birth. Along with Patrick and Bridget, he is one of the three patron saints of Ireland. He is also revered in Scotland, where he spent almost half his life.
In the centuries after his death, several biographies of Colmcille were written. However, in tone and detail, there are hagiographical accounts, which make it difficult to disentangle fact from holy fiction. The 19th-century church historian, William Reeves, wryly commented that the supernatural events in the saint’s life ‘grew under successive biographers’.
It is probable that Colmcille was born in Gartan, East Donegal, in 521, during the first century of Christianity in Ireland. His parents were Feidhlimidh and Eithne, and he had four siblings, one brother and three sisters.
His father belonged to the powerful O’Neill family, while Eithne was from a leading Leinster family. It was expected that Colmcille would follow in his father’s footsteps, and might even had become High King of Ireland, given his lineage. From childhood, however, he was fascinated with things of the spirit. This interest deepened when he was fostered, as was the Gaelic custom, to a local priest. It ultimately shaped the course of his life.
After studies at several monasteries throughout Ireland, where he proved an able student, he was ordained a priest. His time at the monastery of Clonard, where he learned Latin, scripture, Irish history and the art of poetry, was the most fruitful. Following ordination he established monasteries in Derry, Durrow, Kells and Swords. Later legends, that lack credibility, inflated to number to 100.
The most controversial episode in Colmcille’s life occurred on a visit to another monk, Finnian of Moville.
Finnian possessed the only copy in Ireland of ‘St Jerome’s Vulgate’, then the best Latin version of the Bible. Books, because of their rarity, were prized possessions. Colmcille, who was a talented scribe, copied the manuscript in secret. When found out, he refused to hand over the copy. Finnian took his case to Diarmuid, High King of Ireland, who pronounced in the Moville monk’s favour and delivered the picturesque judgement ‘to every cow its calf and to every book it copy’ – meaning every calf belongs to its mother and every copy of a book belongs to the original book’s owner.
This conflict may have helped to cause a battle in Sligo in which many were killed. Fearing excommunication because of his involvement in the bloodshed and remorseful for his actions, Colmcille decided to leave Ireland and seek repentance by missionary work in Scotland. Whether this is a true portrayal of his decision remains open to speculation. Pádraig Ó Riain, the leading contemporary expert on early Irish saints, has written that ‘what really induced Colm to leave Ireland is unclear’.
For whatever reason, he sailed to Iona, a Hebridean island, in 563, with 12 other monks, in a wicker curragh covered with leather. He founded a monastery on this remote island of austere and awesome beauty. The monastery thrived so spectacularly that droves of Columban monks began to spread out from the island and form communities on the Scottish mainland.
Not only did Colmcille make a significant contribution to Christianity in Scotland his influence was also felt further south. One of his monks, St Aidan of Lindisfarne, played a major role in the evangelisation of England.
Colmcille died in 597AD. He was a striking figure, powerfully built, devoted to an ascetic lifestyle and possessing a loud melodious voice that could he heard from one hilltop to another. He used his diplomatic skills to settle political disputes in Scotland. He was sometimes imperious in his attitude to others and smug about his intellectual attainments, perhaps a consequence of his aristocratic Gaelic background. His love of the natural world, where he found echoes of the divine presence, is evident in the hymns and poems he composed.
After his death, the Iona community continued in existence until the Viking raids in the 10th century forced its closure. In the 12th century, the Benedictines set up a monastery there, but this was suppressed during the Reformation. It experienced a modern resurrection in 1938, when George MacLeod founded an ecumenical centre there, which continues the ministry of Colmcille in the third millennium.