We have hundreds of stories about Colmcille, and they tell us much about where the storyteller came from and what was important for the storyteller and for the audience. The earliest surviving account of the life of the saint was written by the abbot of Iona, St Adhamhnán.
The abbot wrote in Latin and hoped to strengthen the fame of Columba in the church internationally, in Northumbria and on the European mainland as well as Iona.
Here are three articles by Brian Lacey about accounts of the life of the saint.
This is the ‘Life of Columba’ written in Latin (with some Irish words) by his relative and successor as 9th abbot of Iona, Adhomnán (Old Irish Adomnán, anglicised as Eunan – the patron of both the RC and CofI dioceses of Raphoe) who died c.704.
There are 4 medieval copies (representing 2 slightly different versions) of which the oldest is Ms A, known as Generalia I in the stadtbibliotek in Schaffhausen, Switzerland. It was copied –most probably from Adhamhnán’s original autograph text – by a scribe called Dorbéne, who is usually identified as the abbot of Iona who died in 713. The other 3 mss usually called B1, B2 and B3 are much later (12th-15th centuries). They are held in the British Library but derive from Durham Cathedral which inherited the traditions of the originally Columban monastery of Lindisfarne off the NE coast of England.
Adhamhnán‘s narrative is our earliest alleged account of the life of the saint, but it is hagiography –not history – and cannot be taken at face value although it is a monumental literary work.
Adhamhnán, the author of the text – himself a fascinating and highly influential individual who is also venerated as a saint – is said to have written a number of other works of which perhaps the most important are (i) De Locis Sanctis – effectively a ‘guide-book’ in Latin to the ‘sites’ of the Holy Land before the arrival of the Moslems and (ii) Cáin Adhamhnáin – an ecclesiastical law tract, often described as an early form of what would much later become the Geneva Convention on the protection of innocents in times of war. Although written in Old Irish Cáin Adhamhnáin is also sometimes known in Latin as the Lex Innocentium.
The text of De Locis Sanctis (or parts of it) survives in over 20 manuscripts of which 4 – dating to the 9th century – are usually thought to be the most significant. These are held now in major manuscript libraries in Vienna, Paris, Zürich and Brussels. The text of Cáin Adhamhnáin survives in two manuscripts: (i) the 15th/16th century manuscript Rawlinson B512 in the Bodleian Library in Oxford and (ii) O’Clery Ms 2324-40 – made by Bro. Mícheál Ó Cléirigh (the leading figure of the so-called ‘Four Masters’) on 31 March 1627 at the Franciscan house in Bundrowse, Co. Donegal. This is now kept in the Bibliotheque Royale in Brussels.
A hagiographical ‘Life’ of Adhamhnán – the Beatha Adhamhnáin – was composed in Kells, Co. Meath between 956 and 964. It is in the form of a sermon for preaching on the saint’s feastday – 23 September. While purporting to give an account of Adomnán’s actions, it is in fact a roman-à-clef commenting negatively on the behaviour of Congalach mac Maíle Mithig, who became king of Tara in 944. It survives in only one manuscript – on paper and in the hand of Bro. Mícheál Ó Cléirigh (dating probably to 1628-9) – now in the Bibliotheque Royale in Brussels.
How Colmcille began his learning and a prophecy about his life
When the time came for Colmcille to begin his learning, Cruithneachán his teacher went to a holy man who was in the district to ask him when would be an appropriate time for the young lad to commence his studies. The holy man spoke through the spirit of prophecy and said: ‘Write an alphabet for him now.’ An alphabet was written for him then on a loaf.
Apparently, Colmcille was at that moment sitting beside a certain stream, and he ate one part of the loaf on the west bank of the stream and the other part on the eastern bank of the same stream. Again the holy man spoke through the grace of wisdom and prophecy saying: ‘The territory of this boy will be on both sides of the water, that is, of the sea; for one part will be in Ireland and the other part in Scotland, and he will spend some of his time in both places. An that was proved true as the Life will show later.
From Manus O’Donnell ‘The Life of Colum Cille’ (1532)
The Abbey of Derry’s Story
We have hundreds of stories about Colmcille, and they tell us much about where the storyteller came from and what was important for the storyteller and for the audience.
Betha Coluim Cille – the so-called Middle Irish Life of Colum Cille
In the 12th century, the life of Colmcille was told anew in the Abbey of Derry. This telling gives Derry and its abbey a central place in the story of Colmcille. It tells a lot about Derry which was growing as an ecclesiastical city at the time, and it influences the picture we have of Colmcille and of his life in Ireland.
This is the second oldest surviving ‘Life’ of Colum Cille and is in the form of a sermon to be preached on the saint’s feast day, 9th June. It is written in Middle Irish (hence the name) and was composed almost certainly in Derry between about 1150 and 1180. In fact, it is the oldest surviving book written in Derry of which we have knowledge. The main structural element in the text is an account of a fictional tour by the saint around Ireland – beginning in Derry, his ‘first and thus most loved monastery’ – founding monasteries and churches. The text shows Colmcille as a poet with verses such as the following:
Is aire charaim Doire
Ar a réide, ar a gloine
Ar is lomlán aingel finn
Ón chinn co n-ice ar-oile
The reason I love Derry is,
Its quietness, its purity;
For full of angels white, it is
From one end to the other.
The text is propaganda on behalf of Derry but also presents Colum Cille as a sort of ‘patron’ of emigrants. Although allegedly dealing with the 6th century, it is of greater value as a witness to the state of the cult of the saint in the 12th century.
It survives in seven manuscripts of various 15th and 16th-century dates, housed now in libraries in: the Royal Irish Academy, Dublin; the King’s Inns, Dublin; the British Library, London; the Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris; the Duke of Devonshire’s Chatsworth House library; the National Library of Scotland, Edinburgh – Advocates’ manuscripts. The text in one of the RIA manuscripts, known as the Leabhar Chlainne Suibhne, was transcribed by Cithruad Mag Findgaill from Tory Island in 1513 or 1514 and was made for Máire, the wife of Mac Suibhne Fanad.