June 9th is the feast of St Columba (or Colum Cille – “Dove of the Church”), whose life was recorded and celebrated in the Vita Columbae by Adomnán (ninth Abbot of Iona) who died in 704, and in a poem written within a few years of his death which lays claim to be the earliest vernacular poem in European literature.
Born in what is now County Donegal in December 521, Columba was a direct descendant of Niall of the Nine Hostages, a 5th century Irish high king. By the time of his birth, Christianity was in the process of supplanting druidism, and thriving monasteries had become the centers of theological study.
Columba entered the monastic school at Clonard Abbey, where he was one of the twelve students of St Finian of Clonard known as the Twelve Apostles of Ireland. Having become both a monk and a priest, he found himself (according to the traditional account) embroiled in a dispute with St Finnian of Moville over a manuscript copied by Columba in Finnian’s scriptorium, and the disagreement spiraled so badly out of control that it resulted in the bloody Battle of Cúl Dreimhne in 561.
The upshot of this was that Columba was on the verge of excommunication until St. Brendan of Birr pleaded his case and obtained for him the lesser punishment of exile. Columba proposed that he should be exiled to Scotland, where his plan was to convert to Christianity a quantity of pagans equivalent to the number of people slain at Cúl Dreimhne.
In 563 he landed with twelve companions on the Mull of Kintyre before advancing up the west coast of Scotland, eventually obtaining a grant of land on the island of Iona. Iona became the base of Columba’s evangelistic operations, which were directed towards the Picts, to whom he brought both literacy and his gifts as a mediator (mediation between warring tribes being a constant necessity), and whose faith he stirred by his prodigious miracle-working. He traveled extensively, preaching the gospel, founding churches, and developing Iona as a school for missionaries. He was a prolific writer (of letters and hymns) and an even more prolific transcriber of books.
By the time of his death on Iona in 597, he had created a network of monasteries and missionaries which played a crucial part in the revival of Western Christianity by the Celtic part of the Catholic Church, filling a spiritual and intellectual vacuum created by the collapse of the Roman Empire and giving shape to a distinctive form of Catholicism which held sway throughout much of the British Isles and beyond until such time as Rome was once again in a position to evangelize (St Augustine of Canterbury landed in Kent in the very same year in which Columba died).
Scottish armies began to venerate him as a warrior saint, and it became customary for them to march behind a reliquary fashioned in Iona and known as the Brecbennoch in which were contained his relics – to which the victory at Bannockburn over a vastly stronger English army was traditionally attributed.