St Columba, whose feast-day we celebrate on 9 June, was one of the great Irish saints of the early middle ages, famed above all for his founding of the monastery of Iona. Columba, or Columcille as he is commonly known in Ireland, died in 597, the year that St Augustine landed in Kent on a mission from Pope Gregory the Great. The monastery flourished and when, in the early 630s, King Oswald of Northumbria wanted a missionary to convert his people, it was to Iona that he turned. In his eyes this was a major centre of the Celtic tradition of Christianity into which he himself had been converted when in exile in the kingdom of Dal Riata, in what is now southwest Scotland. The Northumbrian mission was headed by St Aidan, to whom Oswald granted Lindisfarne, which soon became another beacon of Christianity. Although, in 664 at the Synod of Whitby, the Northumbrian church decided to follow the traditions of the Roman church rather than the Celtic, close contacts continued between the monasteries of both traditions. This fostered learning and manuscript production, giving us, for example, the Lindisfarne Gospels, whose illuminations draw upon Roman and Celtic art. Iona seems remote to us now, but in Columba’s lifetime and for centuries after it was in the middle of the highway of the sea, which offered easier travel than was then possible across land.
The earliest account of Columba’s life was written by Adomnán, ninth abbot of Iona, who died in 704. It’s very much a saint’s life, Book 1 being devoted to his prophetic revelations, Book 2 to his miraculous powers, and Book 3 to various apparitions which were seen by Columba and those seen by other regarding Columba himself. But if we piece together the details that emerge from this and take account also of references in other texts, such as Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, we can work out that Columba was born round about 521 into a family that was the ruling dynasty of Donegal. He became a priest, studied under several teachers, and reputedly founded a number of churches and monasteries. But his life began to change in 561 when he took sides in a political dispute. This led to his censure at a synod convened by his family’s political opponents, and in 563 Columba left Ireland, heading for the Scottish mainland. There Conall, king of Dal Riata — who was probably also his kinsman — gave him the island of Iona, where he established his monastery. For the rest of his life he was the leading religious leader in Dal Riata, but he also maintained close links with northern Ireland and played a part, as religious leaders often did, in political affairs. He is also said to have consecrated Conall’s successor as king, and to have travelled to the land of the Picts in eastern Scotland, converting the people and founding churches.
Columba’s departure from Ireland in 563 is customarily represented as an act of expiation on his part: the synod’s censure may have been politically engineered, but it appears that Columba had a troubled conscience about what had brought this about. Politically his departure could be described as ‘exile’ but it is more usually set within the tradition of ‘pilgrimage for the love of God’, peregrinatio pro amore Dei. This was a powerful concept within the Celtic church: saints would let the waves take them where God willed, and then, depending on the landfall, live out their lives as missionaries or hermits.