A Fox becomes a Dove

The descendants of High King Niall ruled Ireland for about five centuries. They became known as the Northern and Southern Uí Néills. In their early Ulster reign, the Northern Uí Néill kingdoms included a kingdom that straddled part of Ulster and part of Scotland. This was called Dalriada and its palace was on the hill fort Dunadd in Argyll, Scotland.

Dalriada (orange area)
Hill Fort – Dunadd

A Prince is Born

On the 7th December 521 AD, a prophesised royal baby boy was born in Gartán, Tír Conaill. He was the great grandson of Conaill Gulban. His mother Eithne was possibly a southern Uí Néill and his father Fedelmid a northern Uí Néill, so this baby prince was destined to be a High King.

Birth place of Colmcille

Eithne named her son Crimtharn, old Irish for fox, as it was thought he would need the cunning virtues of a fox on his life’s journey.

Crimtharn (Fox) was fostered and tutored by a local holy man Cruithnechan and later further educated at a number of monasteries around Ireland. He was the student and teacher of many learned Abbots.

Crimtharn learning from the Cruithnechan

It became obvious that with his royal heritage and his devotion to prayer and spiritual life, he was destined to become an Abbot rather than a King. He was then re-named Colm, Irish for dove. Eventually his full name would be Colmcille, ‘the Dove of the Church’.  He is one of Ireland’s, and the world’s, most influential and famous Christian saints.

Saint Colmcille

Stories of Colmcille or Columba (the Latin version) are prolific. They are based on truth, legend, wars, prophesies, visions, miracles, water monsters (including the Loch Ness monster), great sadness, and great joy. As a person he suffered the highs and lows of his ‘fox cunning’ and his ‘dove holiness’.

Two of my favourite stories recorded below highlight the influence of his great life.

The Ecclesiastical Kingdoms

As an Abbot, Colmcille built an ecclesiastical kingdom establishing monasteries in Ulster, all across Ireland, and eventually on the Island of Iona in Dalriada.

One of his favourite early Irish monasteries was built on an oak covered island in the river Foyle. This island monastery became the City of Derry, home to many O’Dohertys. St Colmcille is the patron saint of Derry.



Once Colmcille copied another monk’s manuscript and for this act he was placed on trial before the court of the High King. The High King declared “to every cow its calf and to every book its copy”. As far as I know this famous verdict is the first high court decision related to an act of copyright.

Unfortunately, the loss of this court case led to a battle in Tír Conaill that resulted in the death of 3000 soldiers of the High King’s army. A distraught Colmcille sought  guidance from his Abbots.  He decided to leave Ireland, and in exile set sail for the island of Iona. With permission from his cousin Aedan, the King of Dalriada, he built his most famous monastery on Iona.


As his boat of exile made its way down Lough Foyle, Colmcille is said to have composed the following words:

“Sad across Lough Foyle to me,

Comes the sound of crying.

Clan of Conal, Clan of Eoghan

Both bemoaned by flying,

Since I leave the Gaelic folk

Those whom I love ever,

I care not when I sleep tonight,

If I waken ever.”

Colmcille’s self-inflicted penance was to live his life out of sight of his beloved Ulster. Eventually, the monks of Iona influenced the revival of many great monasteries in Europe.

Eithne’s Apparition

On the eve of Colmcille’s birth, his mother Eithne was shown an apparition by an angel. It was of a beautiful woven shawl laced with colourful flowers from across the Kingdoms of Ireland. It represented the area of influence her son’s monasteries would have. The angel only gave Eithne a glimpse, and then the shawl disappeared.

Two more flowers

Eithne, your son has many parish churches and schools named after him in Australia and New Zealand. The two parishes I have chosen use his Irish name Colmcille.

I will now add two more ‘flowers’ to that shawl.

The ‘Waratah’ for the Parish of Colmcille in Corrimal, New South Wales, Australia and the ‘Silver Fern’ for the Parish of Colmcille in Woodville, North Island, Aotearoa (New Zealand).

Waratah – New South Wales, Australia
Silver Fern – Aotearoa (New Zealand)

Colmcille’s Death and Burial

Colmcille died at Iona on the 9th June 597 AD aged 76 years. Initially buried on the island, his remains were later brought back to Ireland. This happened before the Vikings raided and ransacked many of his monasteries including Iona in about 800 AD. It is said Colmcille now lies in a shared churchyard grave with St Patrick and St Brigid in Downpatrick, Co Down, Ulster.

 I often visit this grave, for me it is one of the most sacred burial sites on mother earth.

Grave of Saints Patrick, Brigid and Colmcille – Downpatrick

The Book of Kells

Colmcille and his monks were master illustrators and are famous for their fine early Christian manuscripts. The most famous of these is the Book of Kells. This manuscript is held in the library of Trinity College, Dublin and is one of the most visited tourist sites in Ireland.

St Colmcille started a religious order of monks known by their Roman name, the Columbans. For many centuries these monks were led by Abbots who were descendants from the Clan of Conaill Gulban.

A  Special Thanks

I acknowledge and thank the staff and pupils of Termon School in the Gartán Parish, Co Donegal for their wonderful book ‘St Colmcille – Gartán to Iona’. Thanks also to the women of the surrounding parishes for their beautiful flower covered shawl and to Maureen Donnelly for the illustrated cover of her book, ‘Patrick, Brigid and Colmcille.’

You can download this story for easy sharing, here …