Ask the average American Catholic to name any saint from Ireland. If their immediate answer isn’t “Patrick”, I would be very surprised. Perhaps a handful of respondees, hoping to avoid the typical answer, would answer “Brigid of Ireland”. But these two would undoubtedly dominate the responses you would receive, especially Patrick. After all, everyone knows and loves his story about his heroic efforts to convert the then-pagan nation of Ireland, and every March 17th we are reminded of his contribution to the church, along with a largely secularized celebration of alcohol and the color green.
But in Ireland proper, the response might be somewhat different. The history and culture of Ireland was colored by Catholicism for thousands of years, and in addition to Patrick and Bridget, there is a third patron of the country prominently venerated by the Irish church. To the point where Aer Lingus, the most prominent airline in Ireland, has even named one of its Airbus A330 airplanes after this saint. This saint goes by a number of names, occasionally St. Columba, but more often, he is called Colmcille.
So the title of this article is a bit misleading, I admit. Those of you who expected to hear stories of a saint perhaps constructing a Leonardo da Vinci-esque plan to produce primitive aircraft are likely disappointed. But it is worth noting that this saint is important enough to Irish history to warrant being honored by a secular airline company, even if he is relatively unknown outside of his home country. So what kind of a man was he, to earn such treatment?
Put simply, Patrick sowed the seeds, and Colmcille helped tend the garden. Patrick’s evangelization efforts put paganism on its last legs, and Colmcille helped deal the finishing blow. Born just a few generations after Patrick, Colmcille continued his mission to strengthen the church in Ireland, spreading sanctity by founding numerous monasteries from Donegal to Dublin. But with Patrick being the obvious point of comparison, it is worth noting that Colmcille’s story is an example of holiness being open to all kinds. A far cry from the meek and gentle Patrick, Colmcille was instead an assertive, ambitious firebrand who struggled with a fiery temper in his youth.
In fact, Colmcille is notable in large part due to his involvement in an Irish clan war. Prince Curnan of Connacht was an unfortunate young man who, during a game of hurling, accidentally killed a fellow competitor. He sought sanctuary with Colmcille, but the irate King Diarmuid tore him from his protector by force and killed him before Colmcille’s very eyes. The outraged Colmcille publicly condemned the king’s actions, which aroused popular anger, and led to a band of the king’s enemies slaughtering their monarch’s forces in a brutal battle. Blaming himself and his incendiary tendencies for this loss of life, Colmcille chose to exile himself to Scotland.
Colmcille’s story could easily have ended there, but the saint did not give up on his efforts to honor Christ. Founding the monastery of Iona, which remains a pilgrimage site to this day, Colmcille channeled his choleric energy into the project of evangelizing Scotland. He and his followers successfully spread Christianity as far as Northern England, and built numerous churches and schools around the country of Scotland. His renown spread, and he was even treated with favor among the Scottish royals. Finally, he was able to revisit his beloved home of Ireland towards the end of his life, most notably participating in a political convention near county Derry, where he proved his skill as a peacemaker by diplomatically settling conflicts, showing the growth of his character.
Of course, as far as Colcmille’s actions are concerned, this is only the tip of the iceberg. Plenty of tales exist concerning his involvement in the production of the legendary Book of Kells, the plentiful miracles he worked among the Scottish, his exorcism of a demon from a bucket of milk, his encounter with the Loch Ness monster, and others. Though he is not as well-known as his precursor Patrick, St. Colmcille’s story is undeniably fascinating, and hopefully excuses my blatant use of clickbait in the title.
But to return to an earlier point, it is worth noting that the differences between Patrick and Colmcille speak volumes about the role of personality in evangelization. Rather than mistakenly viewing them as greater and lesser, I would argue that they are two sides of the same coin; both are honored as patrons of the Emerald Isle, and both for good reason. All accounts of Patrick depict him as a man who changed hearts through his gentility, while Colmcille made converts and helped others grow through his forceful personality and willpower. But regardless of which saint you identify with more, their greatness and success in evangelization clearly shows that sanctity is possible for anyone.
St. Colmcille, pray for us!
11 facts about St Colmcille – the Irish patron saint who was banished from Ireland for starting a tribal war. The Irish Post. (2021, June 9). https://www.irishpost.com/life-style/st-colmcille-irish-patron-saint-banished-tribal-war-125140
Duffy, P. (2012, June 9). Jun 9 - St Columba (Colmcille) of Iona (2), 521-597. Catholicireland.net. https://www.catholicireland.net/saintoftheday/st-colmcille-of-iona-521-597-3rd-patron-of-ireland/
St Colmcille of Iona. Emerald Isle Irish Folklore. (n.d.). https://emeraldisle.ie/st-colmcille-of-iona
St. Columbkille the Man. St. Columbkille Catholic Church. (n.d.). https://www.stcolumbkille.com/st-columbkille-the-man/#columbkille