Birth and Early Life
We do not know where precisely Colum Cille was born or grew up. The earliest surviving evidence – that from his Life by Adomnán, written about a century after his death – tells us simply that, ‘the holy Columba was born of noble parents having as his father Fedelmid, Fergus’s son, and his mother, Eithne by name, whose father may be called in Latin “son of a ship”, and in the Irish tongue Mac-naue.’ Unfortunately, there is no historical source earlier than the twelfth century connecting Colum Cille with the Gartan area where he is said to have been born, with the possible exception of the explanation of the place-name Cill mac nEnáin – Kilmacrenan. One of the saint’s sisters is said, in a source dating to about the beginning of the eighth century, to have been the mother of the sons of Enán – mac nEnáin – after whom the place was allegedly named. However, there is a geographical logic that points to that part of the northwest of Donegal as a likely location for the saint’s birth.
Our historical records for this early period are so meagre and confused that the sources are not even agreed on the year of Colum Cille’s birth. There used to be a consensus among those who had studied the fragmentary evidence that Colum Cille was probably born in 521 and died in 597. However recently Dr Daniel McCarthy of Trinity College in Dublin has claimed that these events are more likely to have happened in 520 and 593, respectively. Late tradition also claims that the saint’s birthday fell on 7 December and, further, that he was born on a Thursday. In fact, there are many associations in folklore linking Colum Cille particularly with Thursdays, especially in Hebridean traditions. Thursday is the day of the god Thor – the ruler of thunder. We know that the earliest Gaelic and Columban traditions of the Hebrides were subsequently overlain by those of the later Norse settlers, providing the cultural mix that would have spawned such later beliefs. In folklore Colum Cille is often attributed with having special protective powers against injury from lightning strikes.
Colum Cille’s father, Fedelmid, was said to be a grandson of the legendary Conall who gave rise to the celebrated Donegal Cenél Conaill dynasty, as also to Tír Chonaill – the name in Irish for the greater part of Donegal. The Cenél Conaill seem to have originated in the very good agricultural land of the lower valley of the River Finn. However, before Colum Cille died, that kingdom under their powerful and ambitious kings, Ainmire mac Sétna and his son Áed – both of whom were close relatives of Colum Cille – had probably been expanded to at least double its original extent stretching between the Columban border churches of Derry in the north and Drumhome in the south. The Cenél Conaill remained extremely influential for over a thousand years. Conall and what were said to have been his many brothers were reputed – probably falsely – to have been sons of the legendary powerful king, Niall Noígiallach or Niall of the Nine Hostages, from whom were, allegedly, descended most of the politically important families of early medieval Ireland. These families were later collectively known as the Ui Néill (literally: ‘the descendants of Niall’), although that dynasty was, at very least partly, retrospectively artificially constructed in the eighth century. From the sixth century onwards those families had ruled over most of the northern half of Ireland. As well as their own individual local kingdoms, they shared among themselves the originally sacral high-kingship of Tara. The primacy of that kingship over all the other kingdoms of Ireland was repeatedly asserted throughout the second half of the first millennium, although that superiority was not always recognized or unequivocally accepted by the other kingdoms. Colum Cille’s relations, the Cenél Conaill, were thus a very powerful political group. That reality gave rise to the later legends, however exaggerated, that Colum Cille himself would have been eligible for the kingship of Tara. Colum Cille was definitely born into a vigorous and expansive aristocracy. In later medieval times the O’Friel family, claimed the privilege of being his closest blood relatives, being descended according to their genealogies, whatever about historical reality, from Iogen or Éogan, his brother.
There are various traditions about the origins of Eithne, Colum Cille’s mother. The most likely origin if we are to accept the cumulative traditions concerning the place of the saint’s birth and early childhood, says that she belonged to the Corpraige of the Fanad peninsula. We know very little about these people but they appear to have been a relatively unimportant ancient tribal kingdom, which came to be dominated by the mid-seventh century at least by the Cenél Conaill. Eithne was later treated as a saint herself. Although unlikely to be true, there is a tradition that she was buried on the island of Eileach an Naoimh in the Garvellachs, south of Mull.
We know something about other close members of Colum Cille’s family from a list drawn up about the beginning of the eighth century which was preserved among the records of the cathedral at Durham in England where there was a devotion to Colum Cille up to the later Middle Ages. We are told that he had a younger brother Iogen (Éogan ?) and three sisters: Cuimne, Mincoleth and Sinech, Ernán, who went with Colum Cille to Iona, was one of his uncles, probably on his mother’s side. Another uncle, Brendan, was his father’s brother, and his two sons, Baithín (also called Conín) and Cobthach, first cousins of Colum Cille, were among those who left Ireland with the saint originally to go to Iona.
Manus Ó Domhnaill says the boy was first given the name Crimthann, an Irish word that means something like ‘fox’. However, ‘the angels of heaven’ knowing that this was an inappropriate name for a would-be saint inspired the other boys that played with him to call him Colum Cille, that is, ‘dove of the church’. This is the name by which he came to be known widely in the Gaelic traditions of Ireland and Scotland. However, it is not at all clear that this formulation was ever used during his lifetime. Adomnán, who was writing close to the year 700, always uses the plain Latin form Columba (literally ‘dove’) as does, for the most part, Bede writing in 731. This was later anglicized in modern times as Colm in Ireland and Calum in Scotland, but his name also survived in various ‘pet’ or endearing forms.
Although almost certainly born in the Gartan area, the boy Colum Cille probably grew to manhood in the kingdom of his father’s people, the Cenél Conaill. It is probably relevant that in that area can be found one of the very earliest stratum of Christian churches in Ireland, Domnach Mór Maige nItha (Donaghmore). Churches incorporating in their names the element Domnach (borrowed into Irish from the original Latin word Dominicum, ‘the Lord’s house’) are known to have been among the first generation of ecclesiastical establishments in the country. In fact, because of that, those churches are frequently said to have been founded by Saint Patrick, as was the case of the church at Domnach Mór Maige nItha.
Many stories about Colum Cille’s childhood are preserved in the later Lives but our earliest historical evidence, much as we would expect, has actually very little to say about those years. Adomnán tells us, in what might be no more than just hagiography, that he was ‘devoted even from boyhood to the Christian novitiate and the study of philosophy’. In another story Adomnán recounts how on one occasion the boy’s foster-father, the priest Cruithnechán, saw a ball of fire above the sleeping child. Cruithnechán understood this as a sign of the special favour of the Holy Spirit. Fosterage or the sending away of children to be reared, educated and socialised by another family was a common practice among the aristocracy in early Ireland. However, fosterage with a Christian priest must have been a fairly unusual practice and was possibly recognised as a form of novitiate for the clerical life. Colum Cille himself is said to have been the foster-father of Baithín, his younger first cousin and the man who would succeed him as second abbot of Iona.
A tongue-in-cheek story purports to tell how the commencement of Colum Cille’s formal education came about. When Cruithnechán thought that the time was appropriate he went to see a local seer for confirmation. The seer scanned the heavens and told Cruithnechán to write out the alphabet for the boy. This was written on a loaf of bread, which Colum Cille promptly ate, thus beginning his life of learning. The later traditions claim that the place where he was fostered was at Kilmacrenan. Just as with his childhood, tradition is rich with stories about Colum Cille’s days as a student and young cleric. Again our actual evidence is very limited. Adomnán tells us that he spent at least some time while still a deacon in Leinster studying with an ‘aged master (magistrum)’ called Gemmán. In some later sources Gemmán was remembered as a Christian poet, a title that might suggest that he was remembered as some sort of Christianized druid. We also know from Adomnán that Colum Cille studied sacred scripture in Ireland with a bishop called Findbarr who is often identified with one of the two saint Finnians, respectively associated with the monasteries of Movilla in County Down and Clonard in County Meath. There is no specific evidence to support either of these identifications and some scholars have argued that, anyway, the two ‘saints’ may actually represent just one historical person.
A lot of confusion has arisen about the identity of that Findbarr who is also referred to by Adomnán by the alternative versions of his name, Vinniavus and Finnio. These other names have a British Celtic (what we would now think of as a Welsh) appearance to them, suggesting that either Findbarr was himself British or that his name was for some reason remembered in a British form. There were, of course, many connections between the Christian church in sub-Roman Britain and that in Ireland, e.g. St Patrick was British, not Irish. The oldest Irish ‘penitential’, or list of sins coupled with their appropriate penances, is the so-called penitential of Vinnian dating to between about 540 and 590. Some authors have suggested that this Vinnian might be the Findbarr who was the teacher of Colum Cille. Pádraig Ó Riain has shown how ‘his cult spread, very often, it seems, in conjunction with that of Columba of Iona.’
Dr Brian Lacey, The Discovery Project, Dublin