Scion of the most powerful family in the north of Ireland, founder of monasteries, and instigator of missions to the Picts and the English, Columba is undoubtedly the most important saint associated with Celtic churches.

Legends about him grew over the centuries, and many of the stories must be treated with caution. One of the more famous paints him as a sort of Christian sorcerer's apprentice, naughtily copying his master's precious psalter by the light of his own hand, and thereby sparking a major battle!

So too, hundreds of poems, some quite romantic in their descriptions of nature, others simple devotional verses, were attributed to the saint long after his death. Nevertheless, through the obscuring mists of his legends, it is possible to make out an outline of this key figure in the early Gaelic church. In fact, of all the Celtic saints, he is also the one about whom we know the most historically.

Fox and dove

Columba was born of royal stock around 521, in northwestern Ireland's Donegal. Although destined for the church by an early age, his noble birth gave him insight and influence in the political world.

Legend tells us that his original name was Crimthann ("fox") and that when he was trained as a priest he changed it to Columb, ("dove"), later known to all as Colum Cille: "dove of the church." It has become something of a tradition in modern times to view the saint through the twin lenses of these names: the astute fox on the make, and the peacemaking and peaceable dove.

He apparently took part in a battle in 561 between his near and more distant cousins; this led to his exile and even excommunication for a time. Yet his biographer and successor, Adomnán, saw it differently, glossing over his excommunication, and telling ...

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