St. Colmcille of Iona, Columba to the English and non-Gaelic-speaking Scots, was for centuries the most revered of all the many, many saints of the Celtic world. But without understanding the context in which he lived, there can be no understanding of why that was. A scion of the most powerful dynasty in the Pretanic (British) Isles of his time, the Ui Neill, he rejected all that to become one of the foremost theologians and missionaries of the Early Middle Ages.
Dynasties in western and northern Ireland
To tell about the Ui Neill dynasties we first need to go back a couple of centuries to Conn of the Hundred Battles, who w as High King of Ireland (Ard Ri na Eireann) in the 2nd century. His son was Art mac Cuinn, also High King, and his son was Cormac mac Airt, High King during the time of Finn mac Cuill, according to legend anyway.
First, let’s detail the various levels of kings in Ireland.
At the lowest and most local level, there was the ri benn (or king of peaks) who ruled over a tribe (“tuath” in Irish). Under Irish law, these were the only kings who exercised any formal power. Roughly equivalent to what today might be called clan chiefs, every king of an upper grade was also supposedly a ri benn. For example, the dynasts who later became chiefs of the MacConroys were styled Ri Thira Da Locha, or king of the Land of Two Lakes (Loch Corrib and Loch Lurgan, aka Galway Bay). Prior to the adoption of a patronym, the tribe had been known as the Delbhna Tir Da Locha, or Delbhna of the Land of Two Lakes.
Over this level sat the ri buiden, or king of bands, who had at least titular authority over several other ri benn. For the MacConroys, their overkings were the O’Flahertys of Connemara as kings of Iar Connachta, whose tribe was formerly known as the Ui Bruin Seola.
Above the ri buiden were the ri coicid, or king of the province. At the time the Brehon Laws were so formulated, there were five provinces on the island, and the word coicid literally means “fifth”. The provinces were Connacht, Ulster, Meath, Leinster, and Munster. The ri coicid above the O’Flahertys was the King of Connacht, a position alternating between the Ui Bruin Ai and the Ui Fiachrach.
Atop the whole thing reigned the Ard Ri Eireann, or High King of Ireland, whose seat was at Tara in the heart of Meath. An ard ri was usually (but not always) also a ri coicid, a ri buiden, and a ri benn. For example, Brian Boru, High King of Ireland in the early 11th century, was also King (ri coicid) of Munster, King (ri buiden) of Thomond, and King (ri benn) of the Dal gCais, his tuath.
Prior to the descendants of Conn (the Connachta) conquering the province, it had been known as Ol nEchmacht, after the Fir (men of) Ol nEchmachta who ruled it. It was Conn’s great-great-great-great-grandson Eochaid Mugmedon, who lived in the 4th century, who spawned the several dynasties that ruled the provinces of Connacht, Meath, and Ulster throughout Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages. These were dynasties were known by the names of his (Eochaid’s) four sons and were the Ui Bruin, Ui Fiachrae, Ui Aillil, and Ui Neill.
In the case of St. Columba, of course, it is the last of these which is most relevant. The Ui Neill descended from Niall of the Nine Hostages, the middle of the three great raiding high kings of the 5th century. It was, in fact, in a raid on Roman Britain that Niall’s raiders captured and enslaved a youth known to history as St. Patrick.
Patron Saint(s) of Ireland
Patrick is often credited as the patron of Ireland, but this was not always the case. In fact, during medieval times, the three greatest saints in Ireland were considered to be Colmcille (Columba), Brigit (pronounced ‘Breet’), and Ita. Already a known personage if of lesser prestige than these three, Patrick was elevated by the invaders from Norman England.
Several legends about Patrick are clearly fabrications. He did not cast out the snakes from Ireland; there never have been any for some reason. He did not use a shamrock to explain the Trinity to the simple, ignorant Irish; with the number of trinities among their own gods it is more likely they expanded his understanding. He was also not the evangelist who Christianized Ireland; instead other missionaries were there decades prior to his arrival and he was sent from the Continent in an attempt to get the unruly Irish to behave and conform (things didn’t go as planned), though he may truly have been the first missionary to Ulster.
There were several trinities among the deities of pagan Ireland, all of whom were humanized in the Book of Conquests by monks. Among these were: the smith gods Creidne-Luchtaine-Giobhniu; the sovereignty goddesses Eriu-Banba-Fodhla; and, most prominently, the war goddesses Badb-Macha-Nemain who are collectively a single goddess known as The Morrigan, or The Great Queen, whose personal name is Anand.
Already in the 4th century, the southern provinces of Munster and Leinster had small Christian communities, and St. Ciaran of Saighir was bishop of Ossory. In the early 5th century, at the same time Germanus of Auxerre and Lupus of Troyes were sent by the Pope to Britain to combat Pelagianism in the Roman provinces on the isle of Britain, a British deacon named Palladius was sent to the Christian communities in the south of Ireland with the same mission. Patrick was sent to the virgin ground of the north not too long after Palladius embarked on his own mission.
Ulster throughout history has been somewhat different than the rest of Ireland. Near the seat of its king at Emain Macha, Patrick established his episcopal seat at Ard Macha, later Armagh, becoming the first Archbishop of All Ireland.
The intent of the Pope had undoubtedly been for Patrick to organize the church on the island along Continental lines, but there was no real central government and no urban areas. As it happened, Ireland was the last home of the druids, the learned class among the Celts who carried all their knowledge around in their heads, scientific, technological, poetic (perhaps the most important), and religious. These druids were organized throughout Ireland into colleges of different skills and knowledge. So it was quite natural for the new religion to organize itself in Ireland around convents and their schools.
One of the most important gifts of the missionaries to the Irish was writing. The system of the ogham writing was not really accurate for keeping records or detailing procedures. All these circumstances combined to make the convents of monks and nuns (sometimes coed, such as that of Brigit in Kildare) becoming the centers of knowledge and learning and therefore greater in importance and prestige than the secular hierarchy of bishops, priests, and deacons. Abbots, and sometimes abbesses, became more important than the local bishop, whom the former often appointed and sometimes even ordained.
After the Ui Neill rose to power, they dominated the provinces of Ulster and of Meath until the early modern era and with few exceptions held the high kingship until the English conquest.
In the North (Ulster), there were two main branches, the Cenel nEoghain and the Cenel Connaill, plus a third. The Cenel nEoghain were the senior and ruled as Kings of Aileach. The Cenel Connaill ruled Tir Connaill (roughly the modern Co. Donegal). Sometimes one or the other of these branches also held the high kingship. A smaller branch, the Cenel nEndai, ruled Airtech in modern Co. Roscommon (then part of Ulster).
In the South (Meath), the main branches of the Ui Neill were the Sil nAedo Slaine of Brega and the Clann Colmain of Uisneach (anciently considered the center of the island). Other dynasties of the Southern Ui Neill included the Cenel Corpri of North Tethba, the Cenel Maini of South Tethba, the Caille Folamain (Lough Lene), the Cenel Loegairi (on the River Boyne), and the Cenel Fiachach of Fir Cell (aka Moycashel).
Conal Gulban, progenitor of Cenel Connaill, was reputedly the first convert among the Ui Neill, and his great-grandson born Crimthann mac Felimid became Ireland’s greatest saint. With the Christian name of Colmcille (‘Dove of the Church’) this prince known to history as St. Colmcille studied at the abbey of Clonard in Ossory under St. Finnian before founding abbeys at Derry (his first and his seat), Kells, and Fingal (Swords).
Battle of Cooldrevny (Cul Dreimhe)
All accounts agree that the Battle of Cul Dreimhe (Cooldrevny) in 561 was the event that led to Colmcille’s self-exile to the land of the Picts, but they do not agree on the cause.
The battle was fought between the southern Ui Neill under Diarmait mac Cerbhaill of Clann Cholmain, high king of Ireland, king of Meath, and king of Uisneach, and the northern Ui Neill under Domhnall Ilchealgach of Cenel nEoghan, king of Aileach.
Diarmait mac Cerbhaill, Ireland’s last pagan high king, was the last to be inaugurated at a full Royal Feast in which he married the land. Marrying the land involved ritually mating a horse then slaying it and taking a bath in its blood. Colmcille’s Christian cousins in Aileach and Tirconnell, meanwhile, continued the practice for centuries, until it was outlawed after the English conquest in the 12th century.
The more hagiographic sources tell the story that Colmcille secretly copied a Psalter belonging to fellow Clonard alumnus Finnian of Moville, which led to the battle. Afterwards, a council judged Colmcille in the wrong, according to the legend, in spite of the fact that fellow classmate St. Brendan of Birr had spoken in his favor. Due to the censure, Colmcille chose self-exile.
The truth has more to do with dynastic rivalry and violation of the laws of hospitality.
Cunan, son of Aed mac Echach of the Ui Briuin, king of Connachta, accidentally killed the son of Diarmait’s steward during a hurley match (nearly as dangerous as Cherokee stickball) at a feast at Tara. Realizing his peril, Cunan sought refuge at the nearby abbey of Kells, whose abbot was Colmcille. Diarmait’s warriors dragged Cunan outside the abbey and killed him. Colmcille sought redress from his cousins, thus leading to the battle at which the slaughter was reportedly enormous. The northern Ui Neill of Aileach were victorious.
Ironically, Colmcille’s cousins had earlier invited him to become their candidate for the high kingship when it came open, but he declined because he didn’t want to give up his work with the church. Had he accepted, it would have been he who was high king rather than Diarmait.
What is known for sure is that Colmcille founded the abbey on Iona in 563 in the eastern territory of the Dal Riata (Argyll, Scotland), and traveled the same year to Inverness to meet with the area’s overking (ruiri, equal to ri coicid), Bridei mac Maelchon, born in Strathclyde, whose father may have been Maelgwn Wledig of Gwynedd. Bridei was king in Inverness over Fortriu, which later became Moray.
Bridei’s people had been known for centuries as “Picts”; in reality the Picts were non-Romanized Britons living above the Firths (of Forth and of Clyde), similar in culture to their cousins southward until those below the Firths and Hadrian’s Wall had marinated in the imperial world for a couple of centuries. Politically, they were evolving into two confederations which became kingdoms, known to the Romans as the Verturiones (in the west) and Caledones (in the east), and later as Fortriu and Alba.
The rivalry between rulers in Fortriu, later known as Moireabh (Moray), at Inverness and in Alba at Scone (and later seats) dominated the political landscape in Scotland until the early 13th century. In fact, it is the true story which lies behind the saga of Duncan I and Macbeth and Malcolm III, a la Shakespeare (who based his play on the wildly inaccurate Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland published in the late 16th century). The rivalry goes back to the time of the Imperium Romanum, when the thirteen tribes of the hardpressed “Picts”, or “Brittunculi”, of the north coalesced into two often competing confederations, the Verturiones and the Caledonii in the 3rd century.
Both kings (of Fortriu and of Alba) are designated “ruiri” (“overking”) in Irish annals of the time, equal in status to ri coicid. Evidence indicates that both partially accepted the precedence of the Irish High King, in terms of honor though not in tribute, until the 11th century, perhaps longer.
In 574, Conall mac Comghaill, king of the Dal Riata in Argyll, died. Aedan mac Gabrain, already king of Manaw (about the head of the Firth of Forth), was elected to replace him and he chose to be inaugurated by Colmcille.
The next year Colmcille hosted the Council of Druim Ceatt between Aedan Colman mac Comgellan of the Dal Riata in Ulster (Co. Antrim), and Aedan mac Ainmuir of Aileach, who was also High King. The three kings formed an alliance against Báetán mac Cairill of the Dál Fiatach, king of Ulster. Aed also agreed that the Dal Riata in Argyll had no obligation to the High King after Aedan agreed to support him with his fleet.
Colmcille lived until 597 and was buried on Iona, where he was succeeded as abbot by St. Baithen.
More activities of Iona’s monks
In 634, monks from the abbey on Iona took part in the Battle of Heavenfield between Oswald of Bernicia in alliance with Domnall Brecc of the Dal Riata and Cadwallon of Gwynedd after the latter assassinated the kings of Bernicia and Deira, the former victim having been Oswald’s half-brother. Cadwallon lost the battle and his life.
The next year, the abbey sent St. Aidan to the Angles of Northhumbria. He founded the abbey at Lindisfarne. After the Synod of Whitby ruled in favor of adopting the Roman practices (dating of Easter, tonsure, etc.) from the Continent in 664, St. Colman, a successor, returned to Iona.
In 697, the eighth abbot of Iona, Adomnan, presided over the Council of Birr, a gathering of Irish and Pictish notables led by St. Adamnan, abbot of Iona, which enacted the Cáin Adomnáin (Lex Innocentium, or Law of Innocents), forbidding the killing and making captive of women and children, exempting women and clerics from compulsory military service, and setting forth harsh penalties for rape during wartime, among other provisions.
Nechtan mac Dargart, then king of Fortriu, expelled the Ionan clergy from his kingdom back to their island in 717, probably over the fact that Fortriu had accepted the decision of Whitby in 710 while they had not. Since he didn’t rule Alba directly, this may have been when the Columban abbey at Dunkeld was founded, or at least expanded.
The Vikings raided Iona in 806 and massacred 68 monks at Martyrs’ Bay on Iona, and the rest of the monks fled, most to the abbey at Kells, but the monks soon returned. In 824, St. Blathmac led a group of Columban monks back to Iona. The next year, there was another raid in which they were all massacred and the abbey burned. However, the abbey remained inhabited and in use and retained the primacy of all Columban houses, as well as over the Irish church (which included Scotland, Wales, Strathclyde, Cornwall, and the Hebrides), until 878.
In that year, Colmcille’s relics were divided between Dunkeld and Kells, as was the primacy over the churches of Scotland and Ireland. The “Coarb of St. Colmcille in Ireland and Scotland” remained the head, or “grand master”, of the Columban order, however.
Kindred of St. Columba in Scotland
Meanwhile, the Kindred of St. Columba in Scotland (the abbots were chosen from descendants of his family) had become more and more laicized. By 1034, Crinan, head of the Kindred, as the Scottish branch of the Cenel Connaill was known there, was not only abbot of Dun Chaillean but also Mormaer (Earl) of Athfodhla (Atholl), Abthane of Dull, Kirkmichael, and Madderty, and Seneschal of the Isles.
His son, Duncan, became king of Alba (eastern Scotland above the Firths) in 1034, and died in invasion of Moray, formerly known as Fortriu, in 1040. The Kindred of St. Columba (Muintir Colmcille in Gaelic) returned to the throne in 1058 and ruled until 1286.
The abbey on Iona remained abandoned until the island was captured from the king of Norway in 1164 by Somerled, king of the Isles, who invited the Irish to return. They did, and in 1204, under his son Ranald, established a Benedictine abbey.
The situation of the Abbots of Dunkeld was not all that unusual for Scotland. The Macnabs originated as Abbots of Glendochardt, for example, coarbs of St. Fillan, while the Livingstones originated as Abbots of Lismore, coarbs of St. Moluag. There are countless more examples in Scotland as well as in Ireland.
Colmcille himself would likely have been appalled over the course of these events. It was partly over this that the Culdee (from Celi De, “servants of God”) movement began at the end of the 8th century. The Culdees adhered to more rigid discipline and a strict rule. Often their chapters attached to existing houses and the two lived side-by-side.
In the mid-9th century, there were around nine Culdee houses in Ireland and thirteen in Scotland, none of which were attached to any Columban establishment. Culdees are indeed mentioned at Iona in 1164, in a subordinate position, but by then the monks belonged to the Order of St. Benedict. In time, each of these houses (which were independent of each other, by the way) gained lay associates who abided by certain of the house’s rules in much the same way as the later tertiary orders on the Continent.
By the beginning of the 12th century, most of the Culdee houses had become as secularized as the earlier monastic establishments they sought to reform.
Intervention from outside
In Ireland in particular, “regular” clergy and their convents with schools had always superceded the secular clergy and hierarchy almost to the point of total eclipse. When a local boy from across the Irish Sea was elevated to the See of Rome, the Irish secular clergy saw a chance to get the power and authority they thought they should have, and appealed for intervention.
In response, Pope Adrian IV, the first and only English Bishop of Rome, issued a Papal Bull granting Henry II of England lordship over Ireland in 1155. For a decade and a half, however, Henry showed no interest in getting involved with the quarrelsome Irish.
Richard de Clare, 2nd Earl of Pembroke, invaded Leinster on behalf of the deposed Diarmait mac Murrough in 1169, whom he restored to the kingship of the province before marrying Aoife, Diarmait’s daughter. Two years later after Diarmait died, Richard, known to history as Strongbow, succeeded him as king of Leinster. Knights and lords, almost exclusively from Wales, who had accompanied him gained new lands or married into local dynasties.
With a rising power at his backdoor, Henry’s interest was suddenly peaked. He gathered a huge army and invaded Ireland in 1172, bringing to heel all the Hiberno-Norman lords as well as most of the Gaelic ones, at least in the south and east. Connacht in the west submitted only partially and Ulster in the north hardly at all.
The Synod of Cashel that same year declared the Roman Church to be the only religion allowed in Ireland and that tithes should begin to be sent to Rome, which resulted in Ireland’s adoption of the feudal system in order to pay them.
Gradually canons regular and orders from the Continent began to replace native Irish houses, everywhere except Ulster, where the final Culdee house at Armagh dissolved in 1541.
Twelve Apostles of Ireland
No, there are not the assassins under Michael Collins during the Irish War of Independence so nicknamed by the public who were also known as The Squad, these are the originals.
Colmcille was one of twelve saints known as the Twelve Apostles of Ireland, who all studied under St. Finnian of Clonard at his abbey in Meath. Along with St. Enda of Aran, Finnian is known as co-founder of Irish monasticism. Both from Ireland, Enda from Ulster and Finnian from Leinster (though is father was from Ulster), they studied at monasteries on the isle of Britain before beginning their ministries in Ireland.
Ireland’s Twelve Apostles were:
1. Colmcille of Iona
2. Colmcille of Terryglass
3. Ciaran (Kieran) of Saighir
4. Ciaran of Clonmascnoise
5. Brendan of Birr
6. Brendan of Clonfert (the Navigator)
7. Mobhi of Glasnevin
8. Ruadhain of Lorrha
9. Senan of Iniscathy
10. Ninnidh of Inishmacsaint
11. Laisren of Devenish
12. Cannice of Aghaboe
In Irish Christianity, there were three kinds of martyrs, designated by colors. Red Martyrs were the traditional kind. Green Martyrs were anchorites or hermits who left human society to meditate and commune with the natural world. White Martyrs, of whom there were many, many, were those who gave up living in Ireland for lifelong missionary work.
St. Columbanus (in Irish, it’s Columban, a different word than Colmcille), a generation later than the elder monk, is often confused with Columba of Iona. While Colmcille was better known in the Isles, Columbanus was the preeminent of the Irish White Martyrs on the Continent. He and twelve companions left Bangor Abbey in 585 for Continental Europe, where he founded at least seven houses in Gaul, in the later Austria, and in northern Italy. He was the pioneer of the Irish missionary wave which brought back Christianity from the brink of extinction on the Continent. His monastic rule, the Rule of St. Columbanus, was predominant among Celtic monasteries on the Continent and later became so in Ireland and Scotland as well. Most of the Irish and Irish-spawned convents adopted the less strict Rule of St. Benedict by the late 8th to 9th centuries.
Differences between Insular and Continental Christianity
Contrary to many popular myths, the Christianity of the Isles was not hostile to Christianity of the Continent. In fact, Insular, or Celtic, Christians—in Ireland, Fortriu and Alba (Scotland above the Firths), the Hen Ogledd (Old North, i.e., Strathclyde, Goddodin, Rheged, Argoed, etc.), the tiny kingdoms of Wales, Devon, Cornwall, the principalities of Brittany in the former Armorica, and Galicia in northwestern Iberia—revered Rome and its bishop.
While Augustine may have been the one who first converted mass numbers of Saxons and Jutes from his seat in Kent, his arrogant high-handedness in demanding their submission to himself as representative of the Bishop of Rome caused him to be rejected outright by the bishops of the British churches in the west (Wales, Devon, Cornwall). It was the Irish and Pictish monks from Iona who converted the Angles of Northumbria and Mercia in the north of what later became England. Naturally, these churches followed the traditions of those who introduced them to Christianity rather than the “foreign” practices of the south.
In fact, it was the beginning of the coalescence of the disparate realms of the south that brought about the Synod of Whitby in 664 and the perceived necessity of harmonizing the practices of the Christians within its borders.
The main differences between Insular practice and Continental practice were:
1. The method of tonsure (Romans shaved the top of the head while the Celts shaved the front, like the druids)
2. The way the date of Easter was calculated; the Irish tied their date of Pascha to that of the Jewish Passover
3. The Irish practice of “going into exile for Christ”—aka White Martyrdom
4. The unique method of conducting penitentials among the Irish and those they influenced; on the Continent the procedure was public confession and public penance while in the Isles both were done in private
5. The Insular focus on monasticism, which in the Isles was more fluid than on the Continent. Besides the predecessor of the druidic colleges, for the almost entirely rural life on the Isles, church life centered on monasteries was a better fit.
6. In the Isles, Ireland in particular, abbeys were more often conhospitae (mixed, or coed) and often monks and nuns would marry and raise their children together in service to the new faith. In later stages this changed, especially after convents became large. wealthy, and politically influential.
7. Many communities in Ireland still worshipped on the Sabbath (as they all did originally) rather than on Sunday
8. The manner of holding one’s fingers when signing the cross: on the Continent, believers used the first two fingers, while in the rest of the Isles they used the first, third, and fourth fingers to symbolize the Holy Trinity
9. Irish liturgies followed the overall outline of those used in the East
The Synod of Whitby did not decide matters for all the Isles but only for those Christians in the jurisdiction of Northumbria and its client realms such as Mercia. On the first three major differences, the decision went in favor of Continental practice, but on the fourth, Rome adopted the Irish-origin Insular practice of private confession and penance rather than doing both in public, which was then the Continental practice.
The south of Ireland (Munster and Leinster) had been brought into the mainstream a few decades before Whitby, at the Synod of Magh Lenn in 630. After the Synod of Whitby, the Angles of Northumbria and Mercia adopted Roman practice and the Irish monks went back to their abbey on Iona.
Contrary to widespread belief, the decisions at Whitby were not accepted by any of the Insular (Celtic) churches except in Northumbria, though most followed suit within a century: North Ireland (Ulster, Meath, and Connacht) along with the Dal Riata in Argyll in 697, East Devon and Somerset (under the dominion of Wessex) in 705, Fortriu and Alba in 710, Iona in 717, Strathclyde in 721, North Wales in 768, South Wales in 777, and finally Cornwall, the last holdout, in 870.
Insular (Celtic) liturgy
The Insular (Celtic) churches did not have one identifiable liturgy, but were quite varied in practice. Its influences came both from the Gallican rites in southern Gaul as well as directly from that region’s main influence, the churches of the East, particularly those of Ephesus and Alexandria; the latter was also an influence on the monastic focus of the Irish church, along with the Gaulish St. Martin of Tours.
The Eastern influences can be readily identified in the primary surviving liturgy of the Irish, the Stowe Missal, as well as in the in the Bobbio Missal, the Bangor Antiphonary, the Book of Dimma, the Book of Mulling, the Book of Hymns, and in various fragments. The Sarum Rite, parent liturgy to the Order of Holy Communion in the Book of Common Prayer, developed directly out of this tradition. In these sources, one can see that the order of Celtic (Insular) rites conformed more to that of the Eastern Divine Liturgy than the Roman Mass, though those differences are largely superficial.
The surviving rites of the Celts of the Insular churches are structured like those of their Eastern originals, into a Liturgy of Preparation, a Liturgy of the Catachumens, and a Liturgy of the Faithful, much like the liturgies of ancient times. In these, the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed comes after the dismissal of the catachumens and passing of the peace, as it does in the Divine Liturgy of the East, and, like those churches, lacks the Filioque clause.