Saint Colmcille, sometimes called Saint Columba, or Saint Columbkille, was born in Gartan, County of Donegal in Ireland, on December 7th, 521. He was the son of a chief related to several of the princes then reigning in Ireland and in the west of Scotland. His parents had him baptized and given the name Criomhthann (meaning Crevan or Fox). When he was old enough he went to Moville to study for the priesthood. As he spent most of his free time in the Church visiting the Blessed Sacrament, his fellow students gave him the name Colmcille, meaning “Dove of the Church”. To complete his studies for the priesthood, in 544, Colmcille went to Clonard where Saint Finian impressed upon students the need for missionaries. While there Colmcille made friends with many of the men who were later to become great missionaries and known as the “Twelve Apostles of Ireland”.
In 546 the Bishop of Clonfada ordained Colmcille a priest. Later that year he founded his first monastery in Derry. Colmcille spent the next fifteen years traveling throughout Ireland preaching and teaching. He worked with great energy and enthusiasm founding thirty churches and other monasteries in Durrow, Kells, Swords and Drumcliff. Colmcille was a renowned scribe and he trained his fellow monks to become expert scribes as well. It was Colmcille’s monks who many years later produced the Book of Kells.
In 561 accompanied by twelve disciples, he left Ireland for the little island off the west coast of Scotland called Hy (also known as Iona) and found a monastery there in 563. Many people were attracted by the lives of the monks on Iona and all kinds of people came to Colmcille for advice. Colmcille and his monks built a fleet of boats and in these they set out in all directions from Iona. They traveled to the mainland, the nearby Scottish islands and to the north of England teaching and preaching, as well as building 56 Churches and schools. For this reason Colmcille is called the Apostle of Scotland. Colmcille had a powerful influence on the lives of the people he served. In Scotland he was given the role of naming the kings and the coronation ceremony was held in the Church of Iona. With Colmcille’s influence, the Scots become strong and united people.
During all these years Colmcille kept close contact with Ireland. He ruled his monasteries at home from Iona and sometimes came to visit them. In 575 the Ard Ri of Ireland requested Colmcille to attend and advise the convention of Druimceatt in Derry, a gathering of all bishops, kings and princes of Ireland. Colmcille returned to Iona, but his health began to fail in 593, and he died June 9th, 597.
Today St. Comcille is one of Ireland’s patron saints. He shares this with Saint Patrick and Saint Bridget. Iona is still a place of pilgrimage, and the monastery of Iona (rebuilt as an Augustinian Abbey around 1200) is considered a historic treasure of Scotland.