Much of what was written in medieval times about Colmcille far from clarifying the events of his life actually distorts them – mainly for various religious and secular propaganda purposes. We have a vast amount of ancient texts purporting to deal with him and his followers. However, a fundamental question remains: how much, if anything, do these works tell us about events in the sixth century or in the other relevant periods of time?
Colmcille is mentioned briefly in the various documents known as the Irish annals. These normally provide us with the skeletal outline of early Irish and Scottish history, but the extent to which we can rely on them as contemporary evidence for the sixth century when the saint was actually living is still the subject of considerable scholarly analysis and debate. Paradoxically Colmcille himself, as well as some of his better known successors on Iona such as Adomnán, appear to have played a pioneering role in the initiation and development of the particular form of chronicle writing that developed into the texts we now know as the annals.
We also have some genealogical material which seems to be reliable, that can be used to identify the family connections of Colmcille and of those associated with him. The Anglo-Saxon scholar, the Venerable Bede (673-735), mentions Columba (as he usually calls him) and his followers frequently in his important work, the Historia Ecclesiastica ('History of the English Church and People'), written in 731. There are three so-called 'Lives' of Colmcille, unfortunately none of which provide us with a straightforwardly acceptable narrative account of his life. Adomnán's Vita Columbae was written in Latin on Iona around 700. Around 1150 an anonymous author, almost certainly based in Derry, wrote another Life of the saint in Irish. Finally, in the years leading up to 1532, the soon-to-be chieftain of the Ó Domhnaill lords of Donegal, Manus, collected a huge amount of information about the saint and had a major Life composed, also in the Irish language.
In the intervals between these seminal works and subsequent to them, other material was written, and versions and abridgements of the older texts were circulated and copied, not alone in Ireland and Scotland, but in other parts of Britain and on the continent. Colmcille also frequently appears in the medieval Lives of other early Irish and Scottish saints, as well as in secular texts of the same period. All this literature was unashamedly propagandistic, written as much in the interests of the institution or place and time of its origin as on behalf of its sixth-century subject. Even Adomnán, the greatest of Colmcille's 'biographers' who was closest to him in time and spirituality was not totally innocent of such a motive. In reading his Vita Columbae, it is sometimes difficult to separate the ideas of the author from those allegedly of his subject. One historian said of Adomnán's method of composition that it was marked by 'the frequent borrowings of words and phrases, sometimes sentences,' from older works on the Lives and writings of earlier saints such as Anthony, Martin and Jerome. Indeed Adomnán was clearly attempting to portray his subject as the equal of any of those saints of the universal church.
The Vita Columbae is available in several modern editions: A.O. and M.O. Anderson’s, Adomnán’s Life of Columba (Edinburgh 1961; new edition Oxford 1991), gives the Latin text, a translation and comprehensive explanatory material. Richard Sharpe, Adomnán of Iona: Life of St Columba (London 1995, reprinted 2005), gives an English translation as well as copious detailed notes.
Máire Herbert, Iona, Kells and Derry: the history and hagiography of the monastic familia of Columba (Oxford 1988; reprinted Dublin 1996), is the most important book on the subject, and also contains an edition and translation of the twelfth-century Middle Irish Life of Colum Cille. The original Irish language text of one of the manuscript copies of Manus Ó Domhnaill’s Life of the saint, together with a translation into sixteenth-century English as well as supporting introductory material, is available in A. O’Kelleher and G. Schoepperle, Betha Colaim Chille: Life of Colmcille (Urbana 1918, reprinted Dublin 1994); while a more modern translation of this work, with an introduction and some notes, can be found in B. Lacey The Life of Colum Cille by Manus O’Donnell (Dublin 1998).
The relevant Irish annals are also available in modern printed editions. The so-called Annals of the Four Masters were edited by John O’Donovan, as Annals of the Kingdom of Ireland by the Four Masters, 7 Vols, (Dublin 1851-6, reprinted Dublin 1998). The Annals of Tigernach and the Annals of Ulster - which are our best guide to the contents of the original Iona Chronicle - can be found in: Annals of Tigernach, edited by W. Stokes, Revue Celtique xvi-xviii, 1895-7 and Annals of Ulster i, edited by S. Mac Airt and G. Mac Niocaill (Dublin 1983). Dr Daniel McCarthy’s synchronisms (corrected dates) for the annals, is available here.
The same author’s paper arguing for a revision of the dates of the main events in Colmcille’s life is available here.
Thomas Owen Clancy’s and Gilbert Márkus’s Iona: The earliest Poetry of a Celtic Monastery (Edinburgh 1995), contains scholarly editions of the texts with translations of all the important early poems associated with the saint, as well as detailed notes and discussions.
Dr Brian Lacey, The Discovery Programme, Dublin