Review: Saint Columba: His Life & Legacy

Columba Life & Legacy

Cover: Shaun Gallagher / The Columba Press

Brian Lacey, Saint Columba: His Life & Legacy. Dublin: The Columba Press. June, 2013. ISBN: 9781-85607-879-5.  7 + 224 pp.


There is hardly need to stress the historical importance of the figure & cult of St. Columba, long renowned as one of the three patron saints of Ireland who, alongside Brigid and Patrick, was elevated to such a position in the late seventh century AD. Like his co-patrons, his religious and cultural legacy continues to the present day. Brian Lacey, author of the latest book on the subject notes that of the three however, Columba offers us something almost unique. Patrick, whilst also a historical person nevertheless hailed from outside Ireland and the historical figure of Brigid, if there ever was a real person behind the myths and motifs remains out of reach in hazy obscurity. Columba (aka Colm Cille), the later of all three, offers us one of the earliest detectable insular Irish historical personages.

Adomnán, his erstwhile hagiographer, wrote the earliest life of Columba within the bounds of living memory of his tenure at Iona; he himself having been born within three decades or so of his subjects death. Despite many subsequent emendations, literary recreations and waves of hagiographical metaphor, the figure of Columba stands as a genuine historical Irish person who was active throughout much of the mysterious sixth century. Indeed, it could be said that he, alongside Columbanus (both of whom were long conflated and confused with each other, even in  the medieval period)  occupy a rare historical position in that we know more (what little there is!) of certain Irish people and their activities abroad then those at home during the same period.

Translation of Tradition

Like his saintly partners, the symbolic figure of Columba encapsulates more than just ecclesiastical devotion. All three represent early conceptualization of ecclesiastical traditions & identities; in some ways, proto-national social, dynastic and cultural constructions which would go on to provide the very basis of multiple regional and religious identities. In the case of Columba, historically entwined with the island of Iona and an emerging Scottish/Pictish secular polity, the construct is twice as potent. Sandwiched between the two, Columban influence and centrality is to be found not only within several formative periods of multiple Irish and Scottish identities, but also forms a significant orbit within the early emerging identities of the Britons, Anglo-Saxons, and later Norse.

The Columban tradition is therefore a rich inheritance from a crucial formative period in our shared cultural history; transmitted and transformed along multiple pathways to the present. Columba’s life and his legacy has never been confined to sterile ecclesiastical libraries or pale insular scripts within fading vellum manuscripts. It is a living tradition and identity, memorialized and written as much in the sites, landscapes, folklore and mindsets of many successive generations, then it has been, or ever was, in the historical record. In a way, Columba’s actual ‘relics’, i.e. the relics of Columban tradition and identity, have been under constant metaphorical and cultural ‘translation’ since the late seventh century. Brian Lacey’s latest offering is a rich and valuable survey of the processes and personages  involved in such a journey.

columba's stone

St. Columba’s Stone, Long Tower Church, Derry. (Image: Kenneth Allen / CC Licence)

Textual Landscapes and Landscaped Text

Following a scholarly introduction and preface, Columba: His Life & Legacy begins, fittingly, in the landscape itself, although not one that many outside of Ulster would ordinarily associate with Columba. Lacey introduces us to the small townland of Lacnacoo within the Co. Donegal foothills; from a prehistoric stone alignment with cupmarks atop a low earthen mound to the lakes and hinterlands of Glenveagh, Glendowan, Derryveagh and the early modern sanctified Gartan Clay so prized by later emigrants and pilgrims. Lacnacoo, Leac na Cumha: ‘the stone of sorrow/homesickness/nostalgia’ is the site of the saints birth in early modern tradition and it is here, fittingly, that the book starts its journey, among the soil and stones of prehistoric landscapes and re-imagined medieval beginnings.

Lacey plants his flag with diligent flair, both emulating and encapsulating the nearby roughly carved ‘footprints’ in a rocky outcrop at Cédimtheacht Colm Cille, Templedouglas: the legendary imprints of the saintly infants first steps. This will be no ordinary dry historical account of a saints life and legacy. As readers, we too are to take our first steps in a literary mapping of medieval memory & motivations, along historical arteries that will branch off into related stems of archaeology, folklore, placenames, landscapes literature, poetry and the ever-present political motivations and considerations of their respective era’s.


North Cairn and Cross – Colum Cille’s Chapel, Glencolumbkille, Co. Donegal.
(Image: Julia Gillen / Flickr Commons – used under a CC Licence)

Chapter 1, Columba’s Birth and Early Life, surveys many of the later accounts and legends surrounding the saints early life and family background. Lacey treats us to many wonderful details, customs and traditions concerning locations and  landscapes of Donegal and in particular, the territory which claimed the closest association, that of the Cenél Conaill. Along with an exploration of the later medieval genealogies given his family, Lacey uses them to illustrate the wide-ranging extent and reach of later dynastic re-imagination grounded in the political landscapes of their respective times.

Chapter 2, ‘Pilgrim for Christ’: Founding the Monastery on Iona, is presented against the backdrop of the emergence of the Uí Neill in the sixth century along with the political, ethnic and linguistic makeup of early Scotland. Possible motivations (and contrasting reasons and portrayals) for the orignal foundation are discussed, as well placing its strategic importance as a cultural and political interchange between Irish, Dal Riata, Pictish and British kingships. The site and landscape of Iona is introduced, along with an examination of the historical (and later re-worked) accounts of Columba’s journeys in Scotland and some return visits to Ireland.

Chapter 3, Everyday Life on Iona, is a wonderful amalgamation of primary source material from Adomnán, placename lore and the latest archaeological evidence from surveys and excavations over the years. As with the historical material, the earlier archaeology is complicated by later occupation, intrusion and rebuilding which has produced a sometimes confusing archaeological palimpsest. Lacey synthesizes the material into clear and digestible forms, particularly for the non-specialist reader; giving dimension and detail to the different phases and life cycles of the islands earlier centuries. Iona was indeed a hub of activity with constant agricultural, industrial and maritime activity in conjunction with its daily religious rituals; and the environmental evidence is sometimes more substantial than the fleeting architectural evidence of its earlier phases.

Chapter 4, Columba’s Death, presents Adomnán’s hagiographical depiction in its seventh century context; as well as exploring the traditional accounts of the saints burial-place. The various reactions, allusions and accounts of later relic translations are addressed as is the impact and reputation of early poetic and prophetic saintly literature assigned to him. This early ‘historicization‘ of Columban tradition is a literary embodiment of the same. The earliest evidence for contemporary insular monastic record-keeping (annals) may indeed lie with traditions and chronicles originating on Iona itself; whilst the earliest example of an insular Irish hand/script (and illuminated manuscript), the Cathach of Columba, stands as testament to both contemporary ability and early Columban influence.

Chapter 5, Successors of Columba: Later Abbots of Iona deals with the later abbots of the island recorded before Adomnán with particular attention and detail on their activities and place within the Northumbrian political scene: Baithín, Laisrén, Virgno, Ségéne, Suibne, Cumméne Find and Failbe. Some are of course better documented than others, and Lacey also uses their tenures to detail the Iona familia and its influence and activities in the lead up to 664 AD and the events surrounding the Synod of Whitby.

 Chapter 6, Adomnán and the Vita Columbae naturally focuses on the man who is largely responsible for much of early Columban popularisation, transmission and eminence. Adomnán’s likely dynastic background is described, as are the major events and activities of his abbacy; his political mediation role and that of hagiographer. The origin and early manuscript transmission of his Life of Columba is also surveyed, as are the political and dynastic events which followed his death. Throughout the eight century, the promulgation of laws (and relics) in his name, and involvement in more secular affairs around them, illustrate the extent to which the familia Columba were undergoing changes both at Iona and in Ireland.

Book of Kells, Fol. 292r

Book of Kells, (Leabhar Cheanannais) Fol. 292r (Image: Wiki Commons)

Chapter 7, Other Columban Monasteries & Dedications in Scotland looks at a range of Scottish placenames and locations, with their historical or erstwhile traditional associations with Columba and/or Adomnán. Many early church sites are naturally included and there is particular detail given to the remarkable archaeological evidence of Pictish ecclesiastical settlement at Portmahomack, sometimes refered to as the ‘Iona of the east’.

Chapter 8, The Cult of Columba in Europe looks at the transmission of the saints memory in Europe, through the medium of an early Irish traveling monastic diaspora and their role in propagating manuscript copies of his medieval life.

Chapter 9, The Coarb of Colm Cille & The Monastery of Kells examines the changing political dimension of the familia Columba in ninth century Ireland brought on by a developing Tara/Brega Kingship and the arrival of Norse activity and disruption. Raids on Iona, and the subsequent shift of the Coarb to Kells are explored; with attention paid to the Book of Kells origin around the same time. The rest of the ninth, tenth and eleventh centuries see Kells gradually growing in importance within the overall Columban leadership, as well as its occasional integration within the abbacy of rival Patrician-centred Armagh.

Chapter 10, Other Columban Monasteries in Ireland looks at some of the other major and lesser known sites associated with Columba in Ireland. The early importance and attestation of Durrow is contrasted with historically later attributions at Raphoe, Kilmacrenan and Glencolmcille. The later is very intriguing, having little historical background of Columban dedication prior to the 16th century; and yet copious archaeological indicators of early ecclesiastical sites and landscapes. The same goes for Drumcliff (Cúl Dreimne, no earlier than eight century) and Drumahome, probably the least known, yet potentially one of the earliest Columban Irish sites contemporary with Adomnán. Columban sites and dedications in Leinster and Brega are also discussed and a brief notice given of the Hiberno-Norse associations with the Columban federation through sites in the vicinity of Dublin.

Chaptr 11, Derry and the End of the Columban familia looks at the role of Derry in the later stages of the saints federation. Despite later myth and tradition, there is no contemporary evidence that it was founded by the saint, although an early ecclesiastical presence is undoubted. It is not until later centuries and the political machinations of the Cenél Conaill  & Cenél nÉogain that such legendary traditions were first propagated; and the twelfth century in particular seems the culmination of this in the production of the middle Irish life of the saint at Derry itself. Paradoxically, just as Derry was finally establishing itself as inheritor of Columban leadership; the older insular ecclesiastical structures, organisations and hierarchies were being significantly re-designed and re-distributed as a result of twelfth century church and episcopal reform.

Chapter 12, Colum Cille, from the Middle Ages to the Present takes us into the early modern period looking at the ways Columban traditions, relics and memory were maintained and re-transmitted in late medieval Scottish & Irish manuscripts. Manus O’Donnells Irish life is presented and described alongside the impact of the plantation years, antiquarianism and the collection of early modern folklore in Ireland and Scotland. Finally, Columba’s recurring interest to nineteenth and twentieth century religious identities, both Catholic and Protestant, is surveyed and detailed as is his modern-day mantle of ‘peacemaker’.


St Martin’s Cross, Iona (Image: jemasmith / Flickr/Wiki Commons)


This is a substantial enlargement of an earlier book Colm Cille & the Columban Tradition (1997) which has been doubled in size, revised and updated to include a wide range of new scholarly material that has arisen from several major conferences, anniversaries and edited volumes throughout the intervening period. A leading scholar himself on Columba and the medieval Donegal dynasties who championed him, Lacey provides us with a comprehensive survey of some of the most recent academic developments, findings, arguments and thinking on the subject of Columba, his importance and position within early medieval Insular Christianity and the transmission of his legacy throughout the centuries.

Undergraduates and postgraduates alike, approaching the subject from different directions, will find plenty of inspiration and direction within. Lacey’s preface and introduction contain a detailed list of primary sources, translations and a select bibliography of all previous major authorities. Further references, citations and directions are supplied in concise footnotes throughout the rest of the book (Gratitude to the editors on this point; and may the saints of Ireland and all that is holy and good preserve us from the accursed fashion for ‘chapter’ endnotes!). A detailed index of all major persons, locations, themes and subjects is also included.


In producing a valuable synthesis and guide for further study; Lacey has also managed to do so in a manner which is accessible to a general audience. Striking a fine balance between conventional and general language, he writes in an informal yet informative style, that is at once quietly confident in its depth and guidance and just the right side of conversational. To read it is almost to listen to the author speak; and Lacey does so with assured aplomb.

It is this attribute that is perhaps one of the books most valuable assets. No element is discussed without referring to the actual historical context & pedigree (or lack thereof) of each source or origin. This is one of Lacey’s great strengths as a scholar, always placing the evidence within its chronological context; gently reminding the general reader of the distance in time and space with that which is being portrayed. It is a product of experienced archaeological perspective and one that is particularly suitable for presenting the more dense aspects of early medieval Ireland so reliant on early components within later accounts and manuscripts. Lacey excavates the historical sources, carefully separating earlier textual artefacts & features from those of later introduction.

Cathach Of St Columba

Cathach Of St Columba, late 6th century Irish Psalter (Image: Wiki Commons)

Indeed, it is just such an interested general audience which is likely to gain the most from such catering; which opens up some of the more unusual historical nuggets which are not often aired in public. Those with a modern popular cultural perception of Columba may be surprised at some of the misconceptions that have arisen over time. Derry as an early Columban foundation (alas, not so); the battle of Cul Dreimne and his ‘banishment’ from Ireland (he appears to have returned several times); the old chestnut depicting his involvement in the first ‘legal case’ of literary copyright infringement (formulated many centuries later, and finalised as late as the appearance of the printing press in Europe – a case of contemporary concern dressed up as metaphor if ever there was one); and even perhaps, the original name of Iona itself (‘one of the great spelling mistakes of history’).

As hinted previously, it is the underlying landscape qualities and its soft but ever-present focus within the Columban tradition which, to my mind, represents one of the most appealing facets of the books narrative style. Early Insular Christianity is responsible for introducing and developing the literacy that preserved so much of our information; but that history was also written in, and of, the landscape it came to envelope.

The placenames and lore attached to Irish/Scottish topography – the explanations for geographical and archaeological features & monuments – are ‘texts’ in themselves; written, negotiated, re-interpreted and transmitted by local non-literate populations as much as those within ecclesiastical circles. Underlying the historical sources are many examples of  ‘physical witnesses’ to Columba’s saintly activities; few in any way authentic, but valuable layers and avenues of conveyance through the centuries nonetheless. Lacey’s continual anchoring of his narrative within Irish and Scottish landscapes, not to mention their importance in viewing territorial extents of relevent dynasties and kingships, is an especially welcome and informative touch.


Drumhome Church, Co. Donegal – located on seventh century foundation associated with St. Ernan.
(Image: Andreas F. Borchert / Wiki Commons)

Lacey writes with informed and direct personal experience, not only of the material, landscapes or languages in question, but as a scholar who is completely comfortable in all guises. Nowadays, interdisciplinary is a fashionable buzz-word in academia. Lacey is a member of an unsung cadre of early Irish medievalists who were engaging in the same several decades before the term was a twinkle in any vice-chancellors eye. His earlier work shows a certain pioneering attitude, engaging in methods & frameworks ahead of his time and demonstrating the value inherent in such approaches. I would like to think this book is a testament to such experience. As a showcase study in point, it is a solid example of the possibilities in combining detailed scholarly survey across several fields with that of an open, inclusive, explanatory dialogue aimed at several audiences. One that retains both a freshness in scope and invites further engagement with the material in all its myriad forms and perspectives.

As with any work on such a subject, particularly one of this range and breadth, there are naturally a few minor allusions to which some would have reservations towards. In my case, what few there are purely the result of obscure personal research sensibilities, none of which would carry comment or currency beyond a handful of people. All are a result of other sources or events beyond control and therefore not a product of Lacey’s making. Nevertheless, before being accused of writing hagiography myself,  I include the following inane observations for posterity:

1) The importance of Dromhome as an early ecclesiastical site contemporary with Adomnán is slightly underplayed and divided throughout the book. I would have been very interested in hearing more, particularly given that Lacey was the first scholar to equate & identify its location within seventh century texts. Then again, the obscure minutia of related Patrician hagiographical detail involved has little room or place in a book on his erstwhile ecclesiastical ‘rival’.

2) I am not so sure that ‘Domnach‘ as a term represents the earliest strata of Irish Church designation; its attestation in early sources seems to get more common, rather than less, as time goes on and its attribution by some early authors seems to have been an attempt to imbue an element of antiquity; one that was perhaps not based on contemporary memory or reality.

3) The theory that St. Audoen’s, Dublin, is situated on an original Columban foundation is based on a decades old assumption and a single piece of archaeological evidence; none of which is suggested by subsequent excavation or wider landscape consideration.

4) The portrayal of ecclesiastical tonsure on the cover illustration (beautifully stylised, exquisitely rendered and wonderfully evocative) is not that which Columba, or Adomnán would have employed in their own time – something which I only note (well aware of the finicky nature of doing so) because details of the appearance of insular tonsure prior to eight century are provided within the book itself.


Tigh an Easbuig, (House of the Bishop), Iona – 16th Century
(Image: Rich Tea / CC Licence)

Final Words

Columba: His Life and Legacy is to be heartily recommended and will reward anyone interested in appreciating his historical importance and cultural influence within insular Irish Christianity. Whether seeking an introduction to the subject and period, or a survey of previous work and thinking, this is a valuable resource packed with detail, articulated with clarity and coloured with joyous flourishes etching out traditional lore and landscapes. One of the more overriding mental images I take away from it is contained in just a single sentence concerning the scriptorium and library on Iona; a place where ‘books were probably kept in satchels hanging from pegs in the wall, rather than lying on shelves’.

I’d happily wager that if Iona was still functioning today, Lacey’s book would have its own satchel and its own peg; swinging slowly alongside copies of the texts and manuscripts it gives so much prominence to.

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Brian Lacey, Saint Columba: His Life & Legacy. Dublin: The Columba Press. June, 2013. ISBN: 9781-85607-879-5.  7 + 224 pp. Available here.

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*Disclaimer – Publisher provided a copy of the book for honest academic review*

5 thoughts on “Review: Saint Columba: His Life & Legacy

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