Columba – the other patron saint

The rebuilt abbey of Iona

This year marks the 1,450th anniversary of St Columba’s arrival on the island of Iona, off the coast of Scotland. If you’ve read your Bede well (as I know you have) then you’ll remember him as one of the paramount evangelists to northern Britain.

Pictish kingdoms; the Irish Dál Riata is the large area to the southwest

Columba (d. AD597) is of vital importance for early medieval insular studies, because the monastery he founded at Iona became one of the most influential in Ireland or Britain. Its monks went on to evangelise not only the Picts but the English, founding the likes of Lindisfarne, which in turn became one of the most important religious sites in Northumbria. Bede praises the Irish for having brought Christianity to the English when the Britons, the Christian descendants of the Romano-Celtic population, had refused and remained apart.

Columba was one of the many Irish who ended up in “exile for Christ” (peregrinatio), though in his case the story is that he had to leave Ireland after many people died in a battle over a manuscript of hymns (they took their hymn books seriously in those days). He fled Donegal for Iona, which then was part of the Irish kingdom of Dál Riata, which incorporated the northeast of Ireland and southwest of modern Scotland.

Columba commemorated in stained glass at the abbey

What tends to be overlooked is that he is one of the three patron saints of Ireland. Everybody knows Patrick, and everybody has heard of Brigid, but Columba (or Colmcille as he was known in Irish) is less well known across most of our island. His missionary endeavours and monastic founding spree make him a saint par excellence, particularly because Christianity was still bedding in somewhat amongst the Irish and Picts at his time and hadn’t taken off at all among the English. His groundwork, then, contributed to the shaping of the islands’ history.

Fun fact: The first recording of a monstrous creature near Loch Ness is in Adomnán’s Life of Columba. The creature had killed a Pict and was about to eat one of Columba’s monks, but he banished it to the waters with the power of prayer.

I quite like the Life of Columba as a text. It has a lot of the standard imagery of medieval hagiography, a genre which is rich in miracle stories and other events without intending to be strictly historical. They contain basic biographical details, but are designed to commemorate the memory of a saint and to spread his or her cult, as well as holding the saint up as an example of how to live a good Christian life.

The Life of Columba is particularly important because it was written at a very early stage of Christianity in Ireland, and yet it is completely engaged with the genre, showing that the author, Adomnán, abbot of Iona (d. AD704), had read widely and knew exactly how to shape the tale of his predecessor in order to promote his memory. He shows that Columba was saint on a par with any saint from the Holy Land or continental Europe.

For example, he is granted prophetic visions as well as the power to work miracles; indeed, one of the final miraculous events in the Life is Columba foreseeing his own death. And following his death, Adomnán writes:

After his soul had left the tabernacle of the body, his face still continued ruddy, and brightened in a wonderful way by his vision of the angels, and that to such a degree that he had the appearance, not so much of one dead, as of one alive and sleeping

It is a political as well as religious text, because Iona was under particular pressure at that stage because it was out of step with Rome and Britain on the calculation of Easter. This might not seem like a big thing to us, but it was profound then, because it meant that the church at Iona was effectively outside Christian orthodoxy. Part of Adomnán’s motivation was to show that the founder of Iona was favoured by God, which in turn would have strengthened Iona’s case for holding to the old Easter calculation. 

Quite what Columba, a man who had converted kings and been a prolific writer, would have thought is unknown. Still, his legacy is uncontestable, and President Michael D Higgins has urged contemporary Irish emigrants to consider his example:

Modern migrants do not generally make decisions in such dramatic circumstances as Colmcille’s but, whether they see themselves as exiles or not, at some point many will ask themselves what they have to share and to teach to their new neighbours; how they may influence the society in which they make their new home; and what they may absorb there, changing themselves in the process.

It’s sound advice. I think Columba would have agreed.

Saints: The original multitaskers


As I’m due to become a father in the near future, I’ve been casting around looking for names for both boys and girls. Given my interests in the medieval and classical worlds, it was inevitable I’d look at a saints’ calendar or two, even if not entirely in seriousness. And so it was that I discovered I had missed the feast of St Benedict of Nursia by a day – sorry Ben.

Benedict – who died in the sixth century and for whom the pope emeritus, Benedict XVI, is ultimately named – is important in my research, even if he’s not a figure I study directly. His monastic rule was the most influential of all in early medieval times, with a great many monastic houses following it even if the name “Benedictine” had yet to come into play.

A monastic rule was a set of guidelines that instructed the brethren in appropriate behaviour and duties, both religious and temporal. It was the cornerstone of any monastery, because it enforced collegiality and discipline. It was vital because while the ideal might be to spend all one’s time in prayer or divine contemplation, there were everyday requirements for maintaining a religious order: They needed to be fed, clothed, educated, kept in line. The latter is not so much oppression as pragmatism. Monasteries were by definition made up of people from all over the place, and so a uniform code of conduct was necessary. Everybody needed a role because everybody depended on one another to some extent. So it’s not surprising then that many monastic saints were able to govern well, preach to swathes of people, found numerous monastic houses, be a skilled diplomat within their own monastery (this didn’t always work out), and yet still maintain inner sanctity beyond that of most people – you had to be a skilled multitasker in those days. Western monasticism is rooted in Benedict’s rule, which not only governed an individual’s behaviour but taught how to efficiently run a monastery.

(Video: Benedictines from Glenstal Abbey in Co Limerick)

Gregory the Great, who would go on to profoundly influence the Anglo-Saxon writer Bede, was in turn shaped by Benedict, and wrote what amounts to a vita or hagiography (biography of a saint) of the Nursian. He is a exemplary saint, demonstrating faith and good works and working a number of miracles, as one would expect of a saint. They are both rock stars and aspirational characters.

Catholic saints are intercessory figures. They are not worshipped in their own right but are supposed to bridge the gap between humans and God; if you are in need you pray to a saint who then carries the message to God, presumably adding some influence to your request. If you read articles about medieval Christianity you will see references to saints’ cults – these involved venerating and promoting the memory of a particular saint, often for political reasons (“our monastery’s saint is better than yours because he could do this” sort of thing). Some were related to royal houses, and so their veneration served a propaganda as well as religious function.

The thing that particularly struck me about Benedict is that he is the patron saint of a good many seemingly unrelated things, according to his Wikipedia entry:

  • Against poison
  • Against witchcraft
  • Agricultural workers
  • Cavers
  • Civil engineers
  • Coppersmiths
  • Dying people
  • Erysipelas
  • Europe
  • Farmers
  • Fever
  • Gall stones
  • Heerdt (Germany)
  • Heraldry and Officers of arms
  • the Institute of Christ the King Sovereign Priest
  • Inflammatory diseases
  • Italian architects
  • Kidney disease
  • Monks
  • Nettle rash
  • Norcia (Italy)
  • People in religious orders
  • Schoolchildren
  • Servants who have broken their master’s belongings
  • Speliologists
  • Spelunkers
  • Temptations

Some of these are understandable. He lived in a cave for three years, hence being a patron saint of caves and spelunkers. He miraculously survived several attempts to poison him by his monks, hence poison. But Italian architects? Servants who have broken their master’s belongings? Surely that last one is the most specialised form of patronage in Christendom (it’s probably not, mind).

Like highly decorated generals, saints tend to pick up accolades over the centuries based on their life, where they went, and any reported miracles or achievements. Saints are fascinating because of how contemporaries and later generations use them as mirrors for the present day as well as a bridge to the divine. Is it any wonder, then, that they can become all things to all people?


St Brigid of Kildare

A text from my local pizza place reminded me that it’s St Brigid’s Day on February 1 (yes, Pizza Plus really did text me with a special offer for the weekend: for the record, it’s buy any medium or large pizza or a meal deal and get a free Arctic roll).

Poor Brigid (aka Brigit, Bridget, Bríd, and so forth). Most people don’t realise that she’s one of the patron saints of Ireland, along with Columba and that Patrick fellow. And to be fair, she was kind of a big deal in her day, easily the equal of any male monastic founder. She’s still quite busy: according to the Patron Saints’ Index, as well as a patron saint of Ireland, Douglas in Scotland, and of Ivrea, Italy, she’s the patron saint of: babies; blacksmiths; boatmen; cattle; chicken farmers; children whose parents are not married; children whose mothers are mistreated by the children’s fathers; dairymaids; dairy workers; fugitives; infants; Ireland; Leinster, mariners; midwives; milk maids; nuns; poets; poor; poultry farmers; poultry raisers; printing presses; sailors; scholars; travellers; and watermen.

So no matter what your field of endeavour, you’ll probably find a way for Brigid to put in a good word for you.

That said, she is easily confused and has probably been conflated to a degree with the Brigit of Celtic mythology, the Brigit who was part of a triple war goddess. While it’s quite possible that the saint was named for the goddess or simply shared the name, it could also be seen as the taming of Celtic religion or a way the new religion, Christianity, made itself intelligible to a new population and culture.

Here’s what today’s issue of The Irish Times had to say about her:

The daughter of an Irish chieftain and a slave from his court, legend and lore link St Brigid to St Patrick, though her personal achievements include founding the famed convent of Cill Dara, which went on to become a renowned centre for learning. In many ways, she was a woman ahead of her time, standing up to the patriarchy and refusing at least one arranged marriage while instead devoting her life to founding convents all over Ireland, as well as a school of art, and in the process ensuring an education for young women uninspired by the child-bearing alternative.

And, seeing as I can remember it somewhere being a feature of my education in the 1980s, here’s a five-minute (yes five-minute) video on how to make one, as recommended by the above IT article.