Colmcille – Prince, Poet, Prophet, Saint
This year mark’s the 1500th anniversary of Saint Colmcille’s birth. Due to the global pandemic, many of the planned events to mark this historic date have sadly had to be cancelled or go online.
He is regarded as having been one of the most influential figures in early Western Chrisendom and one of the founding fathers of early Scotland for he somehow managing to unite Picts, Norsemen and Celtic tribes. Is it any wonder then that over 1500 schools throughout Britain and Ireland are named in his honour along with countless churches of various denominations.
Born in 521AD in Gartan, County Donegal, Colmcille (Columba) could have contested the high kingship of all Ireland. Instead he would became one of the most revered and legendary missionaries in all Western Chrisendom.
Shortly after entering the church he was given the name Colmcille meaning ‘Dove of the Church’. As Celtic Christianity rapidly became the established religion of all Gaels in the 6th century, there was a fusion of the Church with the established Gaelic elites, of which Colmcille was a member by birth.
Monasteries sprung up throughout Ireland during this golden age of monasticism, many founded by Colmcille himself. Monasteries became Ireland’s first proto-towns and important centres of trade, wealth and learning.
Colmcille was a prolific writer and an esteemed poet. He wrote numerous books during his lifetime. Amazingly, two of his original books have survived, The Book of Durrow and The Cathach, (sacred book of his kinsmen the O’Donnells). The O’Donnell’s carried this book into battle in a jewel encrusted shrine to ensure victory in a similar manner as the ancient Israelites did the Ark of the Covenant.
But Colmcille’s royal lineage and proud bearing would lead to a bitter dispute that culminated in a terrible battle fought beneath the slopes of Ben Bulben, that monolithic shaped mountain in County Sligo. It had been all over the copying of a manuscript which Colmcille stubbornly refused to return to its original author St. Finnian of Moville. Diarmuid, the High King of Ireland had to sit in judgement over the dispute and decreed what is thought to be one of the earliest known copyright decisions in recorded history, giving the following ruling: “to each cow its calf, and to each book its copy”.
Although Colmcille’s kinsmen were victorious, he felt great remorse when he realised the terrible, needless slaughter his actions had caused. He went into self imposed exile to Scotland along with the symbolic number of 12 fellow monks and established a monastery on the island of Iona, vowing to convert as many souls to Christianity as had died on the field of battle at Cúl Dreimhne. An interesting fact is that the earliest recording of an encounter with the Loch Ness monster is recorded by St. Colmcille’s biographer St. Eunan. The account desribes how the monster killed one of Colmcille’s disciples before the mystic saint banished the frightful creature into the dark depths of Loch Ness.
Saint Eunan’s ‘Life of Colmcille’ is regarded as one of the finest and most complete biographies of its kind to be produced in Europe during the entire Middle Ages. According to St. Eunan’s biography, “Colmcille was granted his powers of prophecies through divine visitation. An angel asked him what special virtues he would ask God to bestow on him? Colmcille replied “charity and wisdom”. The angel was so pleased with his choices that he would also grant him the gift of prophecy.
Prophecies of Colmcille
Other evidence of Colmcille’s spiritual enlightenment may be attained from the wonder and devotion that Colmcille was held in by the ordinary people of Donegal up until recent times. The prophecies and reputed mystical powers of Colmcille survived in the popular folklore of the people, transmuted by the wandering seanchaí and family storytellers around countless brightly glowing hearth fires.
Even as a child growing up in rural Donegal, my grandfather’s generation still quoted many of Colmcille’s prophecies, and as kids so did we to try and mistify one another! One popular prophecy I can recall hearing is “there will come a time when the only way to tell the changing of the seasons, will be by the leaves falling from the trees”, while another prophecy went, “there will come a time when Ireland will be covered by trees with no leaves.” Whether these are authentic prophecies or modern adapations I cannot tell, but thankfully St. Eunan, another Donegal man, recorded in verse many of Colmcille’s prophecies in the 7th century, less than a hundred years after Colmcille’s death.
They were said to be transcribed from prophetic visions that St. Colmcille experienced and wrote down during his lifetime in the 6th century. Over a millenia and a half later, they still seem to resonate truths and offer warnings for the perilous course the entire world seems to be on right now.
Men will become murmerers, –
The trees shall not bear the usual quantity of fruit:
Fisheries shall become unproductive,
And the earth shall not yield its usual abundance.
The change of seasons shall produce only half their verdure,
The regular festivals of the church will not be observed,
All classes of men shall be filled,
With emnity and hatred towards each other.
The people will not associate affectionately with each other,
During the great festivals of the seasons;
They will live devoid of justice and right-mindedness,
Up from the youth of tender age to their aged.