Celts to the Creche: St. Columba of Iona

St. Columba of iona

St. Columba of Iona

Celts to the Crèche: Day 4

St. Columba of Iona

7 December 521 – 9 June 597

Stained Glass in Iona Abbey of St. Columba

Stained Glass in Iona Abbey of St. Columba

On the 4th day our journey with the Celts to the Crèche, we meet  St. Columba, (Colum Cille meaning “dove of the church”) who was an Irish monk, abbot, scholar, and missionary who spread the gospel of Jesus Christ in Scotland, England, and throughout western Europe from the monastery he established on the little island of Iona off the western coast of Scotland.

His life was recorded by Adomnan, a later abbot of Iona who wrote the Life of St. Columba a century after Columba died. Much of Adomnan’s work was based upon an earlier biography recorded by the seventh abbot of Iona, Cummene “the White.” Columba evangelized the local Druids by declaring to them, “Christ is my Druid.”

You may desire to continue reading more about Columba or go on to the Meditation towards the end of this page.

Early Life: Columba grew up in Garten in County Donegal in Ulster. He was a descendant of one of the most powerful royal dynasties of Ireland, the Ui Neill clan of northern Ireland that descended from the famous Niall of the Nine Hostages. His mother was descended from a king of Leinster. He studied under the famous monastic teachers, Finnian of Moville and Finnian of Clonard. Columba was ordained as a deacon at Moville Abbey and was ordained as a priest when he was about thirty years old.

While in Ireland, Columba established several churches and probably at least twenty monasteries including Derry on the banks of Lough Foyle and Durrow in County Offaly. Some believe that he also established the Abbey of Kells in County Meath on a former Irish hill fort. There are heritage trails of St. Columba’s journeys and monasteries that he established.

St. Columba Heritage Trail map in Ireland of places that Columba established before going to Iona.

St. Columba Heritage Trail map in Derry, Ireland of places that Columba established before going to Iona.

Ancient church where Columba was born in Garten, Ireland. A monastery likely was in this place also

Ancient church built in the area where Columba was born in Garten, Ireland. A monastery likely was in this place also.

How Columba Came to Iona: Legend says that after copying a book of Psalms from his former teacher, St. Finnian of Moville Abbey, without permission, that Finnian demanded the copy, but Columba refused to hand it over. Their dispute was taken to the High King Diarmuid, who ruled “to each cow its calf and to every book its copy”  convicting Columba of plagiarism and giving legal copyright to Finnian. Columba persuaded his kinsmen to go to battle over this ruling and King Diarmuid was defeated. Columba was blamed for the hundreds of men that were killed at this battle. For penance, it was decided by a synod that Columba must convert an equal number of pagans.  So Columba and twelve companions chose to embrace peregrinatio, exile as his penance. This is considered by some to be the the first recorded instance of the use of “copyright.”

Columba travels with his 12 companions from Ireland to Iona

Columba travels with his 12 companions from Ireland to Iona

Columba  had already established several monasteries in Ireland, but in 563, he sailed with 12 companions to Iona in Scotland, with no oars trusting the Spirit to take him to wherever the Lord wanted him to serve.   That little boat landed on the Isle of Iona on the day of Pentecost, where Columba began creating one of the greatest centers of faith and evangelism in Christian history. It is said that he chose Iona, near the Isle of Mull in the Inner Hebrides off the west coast of Scotland because when he stood on the highest hill on Iona, he could not see Ireland from that place.


Coastline of Iona where Columba and his 12 companions landed

Coastline of Iona where Columba and his 12 companions landed. Photo taken, October 2014

Columba copying a manuscript in Iona's scriptorium

Columba copying a manuscript in Iona’s scriptorium

Columba’s Life Work: Columba was a scholar, poet, evangelist, and visionary. It is thought that Columba was an important leader in evangelizing the Picts in Scotland. There are eve three surviving early medieval poems which may be attributed to him. He spent much of the last years of his life copying manuscripts by hand in the scriptorium at Iona. It has been said that he personally copied 300 manuscripts. This influence passed on down through the years on Iona, as some Anglo-Saxon manuscript scholars believe that the magnificent Book of Kells was handwritten and gorgeously illuminated about 800AD at the scriptorium at Iona.

In July of 2017, it was announced that archaeologists had completed radiocarbon testing on wood fragments that had been retrieved by archaeologists in 1957 from what was thought was Columba’s cell on Tòrr an Aba (Mound of the Abbot). The radiocarbon tests came back with the era of Columba, 540-650 AD. This is a very exciting discovery for those who love Iona and Columba.

Wood discovered at Columba’s cell in 1957, radiocarbon tested in 2017 and proven to be of the same era as St. Columba

Columba’s Place of Resurrection: Columba lived on Iona for 36 years and died on June 9, 598 while copying Psalm 44. A favorite story relates that the  aged Columba was out walking one afternoon and he grew weary. As he sat down  by the roadside to rest, his white horse who carried milk for the monastery came to him and laid his head upon the saint’s breast and tears flowed from the horse’s eyes as he gave  farewell to the master he knew was dying.

Columba and his white horse that predicted his master's death

Columba and his white horse that predicted his master’s death

Columba was buried on Iona and later his relics were divided and some came to rest in the same coffin with St. Patrick and St. Bridget at Downpatrick in Ireland.

Iona’s Influence: Columba’s establishment of the abbey on Iona off the western coast of Scotland in the Inner Hebrides became the “Cradle of Western European Christianity.” This scholarly, yet deeply spiritual abbey sent out hundreds of monk evangelists who shared the gospel and set up monasteries all over England and western Europe.

The Fallen Christ by Ronald Rae at entrance to the Iona Community. Sept. 2009

The Fallen Christ by Ronald Rae at entrance to the Iona Community. Sept. 2009

Today, pilgrims come from all over the world to this “Thin Place,” where the veil between earth and heaven seems gossamer, very thin. The Iona Community, an ecumenical inclusive community based on peace and justice founded by Rev. George McLeod in the late 1930’s continues to draw people of all ages and from all over the world to stay, work, and worship on Iona.


Harvest Sunday, Sept. 2014 in Iona Abbey. Residents gathered fruits and vegetables along with flowers from their gardens to bring for this special day to honor God as Creator.

Harvest Sunday, Sept. 2014 in Iona Abbey. Residents gathered fruits and vegetables along with flowers from their gardens to bring for this special day to honor God as Creator.

bishops house. iona

Bishop’s House. Iona. Stayed here for almost 2 weeks, Sept. 2009. My room faced the water.

I was blessed to stay on Iona at the Bishop’s House for almost two weeks in September 2009 to take a course on St. Columba. This was offered through the University of Wales, Lampeter taught by Celtic scholar, Dr. Jonathan Wooding and Iona expert Mairi MacArthur, who grew up on Iona across from the Abbey.

It was a dream come true to be on this sacred island and to worship in the ancient abbey, to walk on the same places the great saints have trod, to sit on the isolated beaches and listen to the waves crash, to peruse the incredible museum, and to contemplate at the foot of the huge Celtic crosses throughout Iona. It was quite a pilgrimage to get here by myself the first time and with my husband on the second trip to Iona in October of 2014…plane, tube, train, bus, and ferry, but it was worth it beyond my dreams or imaginations. A few years later, it was a joy to share this historical and sacred place with my spouse.

Yes, Iona is a magical, mystical place, where the veil between the heaven and earth is indeed gossamer.

Iona Abbey, Sept. 2014 with St. Martin's Cross

Iona Abbey, Sept. 2014 with St. Martin’s Cross

A replica of St. John's High Cross in front of Columba's Chapel likely built upon the place where Columba was buried. Connected to Iona Abbey. Took this photo Sept. 2009. Original St. John's Cross is in the museum behind the Abbey

A replica of St. John’s High Cross in front of Columba’s Chapel likely built upon the place where Columba was buried. Connected to Iona Abbey. Took this photo Sept. 2009. Original St. John’s Cross is in the museum behind the Abbey

Iona Abbey. East Side. A cloudy day view, Sept. 2009

Iona Abbey. East Side (facing sea). A cloudy day view, Sept 2009


Feast Day of Columba  

Feast Day June 9

St. Columba’s life is a wonderful example that even when we mess up big time in life, that the Spirit of our living God can remold us and remake us. We can find our place of resurrection, not only on the other side of the veil, but also in the here and now. Let us join St. Columba on the pilgrimage with the Celts to the Creche, where the possibility of fresh new starts awaits.

Prayer: As Columba evangelized the Celtic people by describing Jesus Christ as his Druid, we too are able to pray, “Christ my Druid, I open my heart to you”.  As I journey to the manger in Bethlehem, may You be born again anew in my life. Shine your healing light upon those broken, messed up places in my life. Re-mold and remake me. Thank you for second chances. May the dove of peace fill my life.

And now,
may kindly Columba guide you
to be an island in the sea,
a hill on a shore,
a star in the night,
a staff for the weak.”
Amen and amen.
-Gaelic oral tradition


Hymn: Change my heart, O God, make it ever true. You are the potter, I am the clay. Mold me and make me, this is what I pray.


Some Resources:

Adamnan of Iona. Life of Saint Columba, Founder of Hy. Written by Adamnan, Ninth Abbot of that Monastery, ed. William Reeves. (Edinburgh: Edmonston and Douglas, 1874)

Adomnan of Iona. Life of St. Columba, trans. by Richard Sharpe. London: Penguin Books, 1995.

BBC. Digging for Britain. Youtube. Iona. (Iona is the 3rd story, begins at 11:40). Series 6, Episode 3 of 4. Professor Alice Roberts, 18 May 2018.

Bede, The Venerable. Ecclesiastical History of the English People, Book III, chapter 4.

Blair, John. The Church in Anglo-Saxon Society. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Brown, Michelle P. How Christianity Came to Britain and Ireland.  Oxford, UK: Lion Hudson, 2006.

“Columba”  and “Iona” by Richard Sharpe in Lapidge, Blair, Keynes, and Scragg.  The Blackwell Encyclopaedia of Anglo-Saxon England. Oxford:Blackwell, 1999.

Dales, Douglas. Light to the Isles: Mission and Theology in Celtic and Anglo-Saxon Britain. Cambridge, James Clarke & Co., 1997.

Dillon, Miles and Nora Chadwick. The Celtic Realms. Edison, NJ: Castle Books, 2006.

Earle, Mary C. and Sylvia Maddox. Holy Companions: Spiritual Practices from the Celtic Saints. Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse Publishing, 2004.

Herbert, Maire. ‘Columba (c.521–597)’ in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004.

“How We Found St. Columba’s Famous Writing Hut, Stashed in a Cornish Garage.     The Conversation. July 10, 2017.

Jones, Andrew. Every Pilgrim’s Guide to Celtic Britain and Ireland. Ligouri, Missouri: Ligouri Publications, 2002.

Jones, Kathleen. Who are the Celtic Saints? Norwich, UK: Canterbury Press, 2002.

Kearney, Martha. BBC. The Book of Kells: Medieval Europe’s Greatest Treasure?. April 25, 2106.

Keys, David. “Archaeological Test Lends Credibility to Find of St. Columba’s Cell on Iona. Church Times, July 14, 2017.

Lehane, Brendan. Early Celtic Christianity. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2005.

MacArthur, E. Mairi. Columba’s Island: Iona from Past to Present. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007 with revisions.

Macdonald, Ken.  “Scientists Uncover St. Columba’s Cell on Iona. BBC News, July 11, 2017.

Millar, Peter W. Iona: A Pilgrim’s Guide. Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2007.

Ó’Ríordáin, John J. Early Irish Saints. Dublin: The Columba Press, 2004.

Pennick, Nigel. The Celtic Saints. New York: Sterling Publishing Co., 1997.

Rees, Elizabeth. An Essential Guide to Celtic Sites and Their Saints. London: Burns & Oates, 2003.

___________. Celtic Saints in Their Landscape. Stroud, UK: Amberley Publishing, 2011.

 ___________.Celtic Saints: Passionate Wanderers. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2000.

Ritchie, Anna and Ian Fisher. Iona Abbey and Nunnery, rev. ed. Historic Scotland, 2004.

Richter, Michael. Medieval Ireland: The Enduring Tradition, rev. ed. Dublin: Gill & Macmillan, 2005.

Rule of St. Columba. http://legacy.fordham.edu/halsall/source/columba-rule.asp

Sawyers, June Skinner. Praying with Celtic Saints, Prophets, Martyrs, and Poets. Franklin, WI: Sheed & Ward, 2001.

Sellner, Edward C. Wisdom of the Celtic Saints, rev. and expanded. St. Paul, MN: Bog Walk Press, 2006.

St. Columba Heritage Trail (mostly Derry area).

St. Columba Trail (Ireland and Scotland).

University of Wales, Lampeter. The Monastic Island of Iona: A Study in Place, Time and Thought. by Rev. Rodney Aist with Dr. Jonathan Wooding. 2009.

Wallace, Martin. Celtic Saints. San Francisco, CA: Chronicle Books, 1995.

“Wooden Hut Associated with St. Columba Dates to His Lifetime, Archaeologists Discover.”   Telegraph News, July 11, 2017.

Woods, Richard J. The Spirituality of the Celtic Saints. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2000.


About Rev. Brenda Warren

I am an ordained Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) pastor. I am married with two grown sons, a daughter-in-love, and two Maine Coon cats. My interests include illuminated manuscripts, Celtic and Anglo-Saxon saints, pilgrimage, Franciscan and Celtic spirituality, Shakers, Anglo-Saxon and Merovingian abbesses and their double monasteries, Native American spirituality, genealogy, and comfy cute shoes. Let us pilgrimage together with the Celtic/Anglo-Saxon saints in my 40 Day Celtic Advent Devotional entitled, "Celts to the Creche" at www.saintsbridge.org.
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