Colmcille's Legacy

The Legacy of Colmcille

Colmcille lived in the sixth century but in a variety of ways his name and memory have survived into the twenty-first. We actually know very little about the details of his real (as distinct from his ‘legendary’) life – for instance, it would not be possible to write a modern biography of him. But the fact that we know anything at all is a testament to how influential he and his followers were in the early medieval period, both in Ireland and Scotland. Facts about very few individuals from that time have survived down to our day. Like the other two patron saints of Ireland – Patrick and Brigid – we are fortunate to have some very early writings about Colmcille. Colmcille may have emerged as a patron saint of Scotland also, except for the fact that his cult was eclipsed by that of St Andrew for political reasons in the later Middle Ages.

The writings about Colmcille almost certainly go back as far as the seventh century, and some texts may even (a bit more controversially) be dated to the late sixth century, close to the time of the death of the saint. The most important of those writings was the Vita Columbae or 'Life of the saint' by Adomnán the ninth abbot of Iona and a later relative. Adomnán (who died in 704) was himself a very impressive and influential cleric and the author of a number of other works which have survived. His account of his illustrious predecessor is of course hagiography – material written to cultivate Colmcille’s reputation as a saint. But as a work of early medieval Latin literature it is a triumph. Of course, the degree to which we can accept the historical accuracy of the details in the book is still the subject of research by scholars all over the world, but it was immensely influential in the Middle Ages and later. For instance one of the best known legends in the world – the story of the Loch Ness monster – almost certainly has its origins in a tale Adomnán tells about Colmcille.

Many of the most important literary and artistic creations of the early Middle Ages – in both Britain and Ireland – have Columban connections: many of our best high crosses; manuscripts like the Cathach, the Book of Durrow, the Lindisfarne Gospels and - the apotheosis – the Book of Kells; metal treasure objects such as the Cathach Shrine and the Moneymusk Reliquary. Much of what we know about the earliest history of Scotland and Ireland (in a way the very idea of ‘histories’ of those two countries) can be traced back to a chronicle kept on Iona, probably from the middle of the sixth century down to 740 and beyond. Colmcille was also a saint for many of the peoples who inhabited these islands in early times: the Gaels of Ireland and Scotland, the Picts, the Northumbrians and even the Vikings. His fame – although often in a very garbled form - spread to the continent also as far as eastern Europe and Scandinavia. I once saw a Presbyterian church of Tanzania, dedicated to Colmcille (actually to ‘St Columba’), in the very Moslem city of Dar es Salaam.

Monuments of various kinds in the landscape of both countries and the folklore and songs associated with them kept his memory alive among the ordinary people of Ireland and Scotland (especially those who could not read) write down to the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Many of those memories, stories, chants – even spells- were collected in Scotland in the nineteenth century for Alexander Carmichael’s marvellous Carmina Gadelica. The Irish Folklore Commission did much the same thing in Ireland. In the latter country, part of the saint’s fame in the nineteenth century rested on the entirely spurious but immensely popular Prophecies of Colmcille, a book published by Nicholas O’Kearney in 1856 and reprinted very many times. Many of the stories told about the saint in these sources move him away from the ideals of sanctity we would expect of a holy man. In some of them he becomes a little more than a clever trickster, besting his enemies or his followers’ enemies in the way a good folk hero always does. It seems clear also that throughout the Middle Ages his character acquired traits that originally belonged to various pagan deities such as the Scandinavian ruler of Thunder, Thor, or the Celtic god Lug.

The memory of Colmcille has always been malleable; available for re-creation in whatever form his devotees required. Appropriately his name signifies a dove – the pre-eminent internationaI symbol of peace. It is entirely appropriate that in the early twenty-first century his name has acquired a new lease of life for an organisation that reflects some of the changes that have occurred recently in the relations between Britain (especially Scotland) and a renewed Ireland in the aftermath of the Belfast Agreement of 1998.

Dr Brian Lacey, The Discovery Project, Dublin