The year 2021 marks the 1500th anniversary of the birth of the 6th century Irish abbot and missionary Saint Colmcille (Columba), founder of the monastic community of Iona in present-day Scotland.
Said to have been born in Gartan, County Donegal, on 7 December 521CE (or 520CE according to recent research), Colmcille is recognised as one of Ireland’s three patron saints, along with Saints Patrick and Brigid.
Most associated with Donegal, Derry, and Iona, his influence extended farther afield including to Sligo where he is attributed with the founding of Drumcliffe monastery in 575CE.
Colmcille was of noble lineage belonging to the Cenél Conaill branch of the northern Uí Néill, descendants of the 5th century high king of Ireland Niall of the Nine Hostages. At an early age, Colmcille entered a monastic school where he studied initially under Saint Finnian of Movilla (Newtownards, County Down) and, later, at Clonard Monastery (County Meath) under its founder, Saint Finnian of Clonard. Studying under some of the most prominent figures in the early Irish church, Colmcille was introduced to the teachings and traditions of the Christian faith. Another of his tutors was Saint Mobhi, founder of a monastery at Glasnevin (County Dublin), who reputedly directed the newly ordained Colmcille to return to Derry to establish a monastery.
According to tradition, around the year 560CE, Saint Finnian of Movilla accused Colmcille of having made a copy of a psalter (Book of Psalms) without Finnian’s permission. The resulting quarrel over ownership of the copy led to what is said to be the first recorded judgement in relation to copyright infringement when the High King Diarmait mac Cerbaill ruled in Finnian’s favour by declaring:
“to every cow her calf, to every book its copy”.
According to legend, this judgement was not received well by Colmcille and his northern O’Neill kinsmen and led to armed conflict between them and the southern O’Neill supporters of the High King, also a descendant of Niall of the Nine Hostages. This culminated in the Battle of Cúl Dreimhne (Cooldrumman), more popularly referred to as the “Battle of the Books”, which took place in or about 560CE on the lower slopes of Benbulben, near Drumcliffe, County Sligo. Legend has it that the battle resulted in approximately 3,000 combatant deaths.
Threatened with excommunication for his part in these deaths, a remorseful Colmcille went into self-imposed exile in Scotland in 563CE, supposedly to win as many souls for Christianity as had been killed in the battle. From Iona, a renown place of learning, his missionary efforts led to the founding of churches and religious communities and the spreading of Christianity throughout Scotland and Ireland. During the Synod of Drum Ceat in 574/575CE, Colmcille is reputed to have established the monastery of Drumcliff (Drumcliffe) in Cairbre (Carbury), now County Sligo, not far from site of the battle.
A man of letters credited with having written prayers, poems, and hymns, as well as a transcriber of almost 300 books, Columba died, age 75, on Iona and was buried at the abbey he founded. Recognised as a saint because of his missionary works, wisdom, and holiness, his feast day is celebrated on the 9th of June, the date of his death in 597CE. He is known as the “dove of the church”.
The Cathach (The Psalter of St Columba)
Tradition has it that the Cathach of St. Columba is the copy of the psalter made by Colmcille. Written in Latin and dated to the late 6th /early 7th century, it is considered to be the oldest existing Irish manuscript. Following the Battle of Cúl Dreimhne, the book supposedly passed into the ownership of the O’Donnells, another family descending from Niall of the Nine Hostages, following the battle when Colmcille went into exile. In the 11th century, a shrine, or cumdach, was created for the psalter which by this time was considered a “Cathach”, or “battle book”, as it was carried into battle as a holy relic to bring good fortune to the forces of the O’Donnells. Taken to France in 1691 following the defeat of the followers of James II, the manuscript was returned to Ireland in 1802 and later deposited in the Royal Irish Academy in Dublin, where it remains to the present day. The cumdach is in the possession of the National Museum of Ireland and on public display.
Sligo Colmcille 2021
The Sligo Colmcille 2021 programme is a community-led initiative to commemorate the 1500th anniversary of the birth of Colmcille through a year-long series of individual events and projects inspired by the story (and stories) of the saint, specifically his reputed association with Sligo through the Battle of the Book, the establishment of a monastery at Drumcliffe, and local folklore.