Vita Columbae “The Life of (Saint) Columba” was written by Adomnán of Iona in Latin before his death in 704. It is known to be based on several previous written accounts as well as oral tradition (as Adomnán states).
The following text was adapted by Michael Newton from Reeve, The Life of St Columba. An excellent new edition and translation is now available from Penguin Books (the sections here are numbered according to Sharpe’s edition).
§ 1.1. I shall begin this book with a brief account of the evidence which the venerable man gave of his power. By virtue of his prayer, and in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, he healed several persons suffering under various diseases; and he alone, by the assistance of God, expelled from this our island, which now has the primacy, innumerable hosts of malignant spirits, whom he saw with his bodily eyes assailing himself, and beginning to bring deadly distempers on his monastic brotherhood. Partly by mortification, and partly by a bold resistance, he subdued, with the help of Christ, the furious rage of wild beasts. The surging waves, also, at times rolling mountains high in a great tempest, became quickly at his prayer quiet and smooth, and his ship, in which he then happened to be, reached the desired haven in a perfect calm.
When returning from the country of the Picts, where he had been for some days, he hoisted his sail when the breeze was against him to confuse the druids, and made as rapid a voyage as if the wind had been favourable. On other occasions, also, contrary winds were at his prayers changed into fair. In that same country, he took a white stone from the river, and blessed it for the working of certain cures, and that stone, contrary to nature, floated like an apple when placed in water. This divine miracle was accomplished in the presence of King Bridei and his household. In the same country, also, he performed a still greater miracle, by raising to life the dead child of an humble believer, and restoring him in life and vigour to his father and mother.
At another time, while the blessed man was yet a young deacon in Ireland, residing with the holy bishop Findbarr, the wine required for the sacred mysteries failed, and he changed by his prayer pure water into true wine. An immense blaze of heavenly light was on many and wholly distinct occasions seen by some of the brethren to surround him in the light of day, as well as in the darkness of the night. He was also favoured with the sweet and most delightful society of bright hosts of the holy angels. He often saw, by the revelation of the Holy Ghost, the souls of some just men carried by angels to the highest heavens. And the reprobates too he very frequently beheld carried to Hell by demons.
He very often foretold the future deserts, sometimes joyful, and sometimes sad, of many persons while they were still living in mortal flesh. In the dreadful crash of wars he obtained from God, by the virtue of prayer, that some kings should be conquered, and others come off victorious. And such a grace as this he enjoyed, not only while alive in this world, but even after his departure from the flesh, as God, from whom all the saints derive their honour, has made him still a victorious and most valiant champion in battle.
I shall give one example of especial honour conferred by almighty God on this honourable man, the event having occurred the day before the Saxon prince Oswald went forth to fight with Cadwallon, a very powerful king of the Britons. After pitching his camp in readiness for the battle, this same King Oswald, was sleeping one day on a pillow in his tent and saw St. Columba in a vision, beaming with angelic brightness, and of figure so majestic that his head seemed to touch the clouds. The blessed man having announced his name to the king, stood in the midst of the camp, and covered it all with his brilliant garment, except at one small distant point; and at the same time he uttered those cheering words which the Lord spake to Jesua Ben Nun before the passage of the Jordan, after Moses’s death, saying, “Be strong and of a good courage; behold, I shall be with thee,” etc.
Then St. Columba having said these words to the king in the vision, added, “March out this following night from your camp to battle, for on this occasion the Lord has granted to me that your foes shall be put to flight, that your enemy Cadwallon shall be delivered into your hands, and that after the battle you shall return in triumph, and have a happy reign.” The king, awaking at these words, assembled his council and related the vision, at which they were all encouraged; and so the whole people promised that, after their return from the war, they would believe and be baptized, for up to that time all that Saxon land had been wrapped in the darkness of paganism and ignorance, with the exception of King Oswald and the twelve men who had been baptized with him during his exile among the Gaels [of Ireland]. What more need I say? On the very next night, King Oswald, as he had been directed in the vision, went forth from his camp to battle, and had a much smaller army than the numerous hosts opposed to him, yet he obtained from the Lord, according to His promise, an easy and decisive victory for King Cadwallon was slain, and the conqueror, on his return after the battle, was ever after established by God as the emperor of all Britain. I, Adomnán, got this story from the lips of my predecessor, the Abbot Failbe, who solemnly swore that he had himself heard King Oswald relating this same vision to Segine the abbot.
But another fact must not be omitted, that by some poems composed in the Scottish language [i.e., Gaelic] in praise of the same blessed man, and by the commemoration of his name, certain wicked men of lewd conversation, and violent men, were saved from the hands of their enemies, who in the night had surrounded the house in which they were singing these hymns. They safely escaped through the flames, the swords, and the spears. Strange to tell, a few of those only who despised these commemorations of the holy man, and refused to join in the hymns, perished in that assault of the enemy. It is not two or three witnesses, as the law requires, but even hundreds and more, that could be cited in proof of this miracle. Nor is it in one place or on one occasion only that the same is known to have happened, but even at different times and places, in both Scotia [Ireland] and Britain, it is proved beyond all doubt that the like security was obtained, in the same manner and by the same means. I have learned this for certain, from well-informed men in those very countries where similar miracles have taken place.
§ 1.7. I have heard an anecdote that happened about two years after the battle of Cúl Drebene (in Connacht), at which time the blessed man first set sail and took his departure from Ireland. On the very day and at the same hour when the battle of Móin Daire Lothair [near Coleraine] was fought in Ireland, this man of God was then in Britain with King Conall, the son of Comgell, and told him everything, as well about the battle itself, as also about those kings to whom the Lord granted the victory over their enemies. These kings were known as Ainmire, son of Sétna, and the two sons of Mac Erca, Domnall and Forgus. And the saint, likewise, prophesied of the king of the Cruithne, who was called Eochaid Laib, and explained how he escaped riding in his chariot after he was defeated.
§ 1.13. When he [Óengus son of Áed Commain] and his two brothers were driven from his country [Co. Longford, Ireland], he came as an exile to the saint, who was then wandering in Britain. He blessed him and uttered these prophetic words from his holy heart: “This youth shall survive when his other brothers are gone, and he shall reign a long time in his native country; his enemies shall fall before him, while he shall never fall into their hands, but in old age he shall die peacefully in the midst of his friends.”
All this came to pass according to the saint’s words. This was Óengus, nicknamed Bronbachal.
§ 1.15. The king Rhydderch ap Tudwl of Alt Clut was on friendly terms with the holy man [Columba] and sent Lugbe Mocumin to him on one occasion with a secret message, as he was anxious to know whether he would be killed by his enemies or not. But when Lugbe was being closely inquired at by the saint regarding the king, his kingdom, and people, he answered in a tone of pity, “Why do you ask about that wretched man, who is quite unable to tell at what hour he may be killed by his enemies?”
Then the saint replied, “He shall never be delivered into the hands of his enemies; he will die at home on his own pillow.” And the prophecy of the saint regarding King Rhydderch was fulfilled; for, according to his word, he died quietly in his own house.
§ 2.3. Once upon a time he sends his monks into the wood to cut wattling for building a church for him. The wattling was cut in a certain warrior’s land which lay near the cell. The warrior was upset that the timber was cut in his land without his own consent. So when Colum Cille heard of that he said to his household: “Take to him,” he says, “the value of his wood in barley-grain, and plant it into the earth.”
Now at that time it had passed midsummer. The grain, however, was brought to the warrior. He cast it into the ground, and it grew and was ripe on 1 August.
§ 2.8. I cannot leave unmentioned another miracle which once involved a very different element of nature. For many years after the holy man had departed to the Lord, a certain youth fell from his horse into the river Boyne (in Ireland), and, being drowned, was for twenty days under the water. When he fell he had a number of books packed up in a leather satchel under his arm; and so, when he was found after the above-mentioned number of days, he still had the satchel of books pressed between his arm and side. When the body was brought out to the dry ground, and the satchel opened, it was found to contain, a volume written by the sacred fingers of St. Columba among the volumes of other books which were not only injured, but even rotten; and it was as dry and wholly uninjured as if it had been enclosed in a desk.
§ 2.33. About the same time the venerable man, from motives of humanity, besought Broichan the druid to liberate a certain Gaelic female slave, and when he very cruelly and stubbornly refused to part with her, the saint then spoke to him to the following effect: “Know, o Broichan, and be assured that if you refuse to set this captive free, as I wish you do to, that you shall die suddenly before I take my departure again from this province.”
Having said this in presence of Bridei, the Pictish king, he departed from the royal palace and proceeded to the river Ness; from this stream he took a white pebble, and showing it to his companions said to them: “Behold this white pebble by which God will effect the cure of many diseases among this heathen nation.” Having thus spoken, he instantly added, “Broichan is chastised grievously at this moment, for an angel being sent from heaven, and striking him severely, has broken into many pieces the glass cup in his hand from which he was drinking, and has left him gasping deeply for breath, and half dead. Let us await here a short time, for two of the king’s messengers, who have been sent after us in haste, to request us to return quickly and help the dying Broichan, who, now that he is thus terribly punished, consents to set the girl free.”
While the saint was yet speaking, behold, there arrived, as he had predicted, two horsemen who were sent by the king, and who related all that had occurred to Broichan in the royal fortress, according to the prediction of the saint—both the breaking of the drinking goblet, the punishment of the druid, and his willingness to set his captive at liberty; they then added: “The king and his friends have sent us to you to request that you would cure his foster-father Broichan, who lies dying.”
Having heard these words of the messengers, St. Columba sent two of his companions to the king with the pebble which he had blessed, and said to them: “If Broichan shall first promise to set the maiden free, then at once immerse this little stone in water, and let him drink from it and he shall be instantly cured; but if he break his vow and refuse to liberate her, he shall die that instant.” The two persons, in obedience to the saint’s instructions, proceeded to the palace, and announced to the king the words of the venerable man. When they were made known to the king and his tutor Broichan, they were so dismayed that they immediately liberated the captive and delivered her to the saint’s messengers. The pebble was then immersed in water, and in a wonderful manner, contrary to the laws of nature, the stone floated on the water like a nut or an apple, nor, as it had been blessed by the holy man, could it be submerged. Broichan drank from the stone as it floated on the water, and instantly returning from the verge of death recovered his perfect health and soundness of body.
This remarkable pebble, which was afterwards preserved among the treasures of the king, through the mercy of God effected the cure of sundry diseases among the people, while it in the same manner floated when dipped in water. And what is very wonderful, when this same stone was sought for by those sick persons whose term of life had arrived, it could not be found. Thus, on the very day on which King Bridei died, though it was sought for, yet it could not be found in the place where it had been previously laid.
§ 2.35. At another time, when the saint made his first journey to King Bridei, it happened that the king, elated by the pride of royalty, acted haughtily, and would not open his gates on the first arrival of the blessed man. When the man of God observed this, he approached the folding doors with his companions, and having first formed upon them the sign of the cross of our Lord, he then knocked at and laid his hand upon the gate, which instantly flew open of its own accord, the bolts having been driven back with great force. The saint and his companions then passed through the gate thus speedily opened. And when the king learned what had occurred, he and his councillors were filled with alarm, and immediately setting out from the palace, he advanced to meet with due respect the blessed man, whom he addressed in the most conciliating and respectful language. And ever after from that day, so long as he lived, the king held this holy and reverend man in very great honour, as was due.
§ 2.42. Another time a soldier of Christ, named Cormac grandson of Liathan, whom we have briefly discussed in the first part of this book, made a second attempt to discover an ocean island sanctuary. St. Columba was then spending time on the far side of Drumalban [the mountain ridge between the Gaels and the Picts]. After Cormac had gone far from the land over the boundless ocean at full sail, Columba commended him to King Bridei, in the presence of the ruler of the Orkneys: “Some of our brothers have recently set sail, and are anxious to discover a sanctuary in the boundless sea; should they happen, after many wanderings, to come to Orkney, command this sub-ruler, whose hostages you control, to let no evil befall them within his domain.”
The saint took care to give this instruction because he knew Cormac would arrive in Orkney within a few months. So it came to pass, and to this advice of the holy man Cormac owed his escape from certain death. […]
§ 2.46. What we are about to relate concerning the plague, which in our own time twice visited the greater part of the world, deserves, I think, to be reckoned among not the least of the miracles of St. Columba. For, not to mention the other and greater countries of Europe, including Italy, the Roman provinces, and the Cisalpine provinces of Gaul, with the provinces of Spain also, which lie beyond the Pyrenees, these islands of the sea, Ireland and Britain, have twice been ravaged by a dreadful pestilence throughout their whole extent, except among the two tribes, the Picts and Scots [Gaels] of Britain, who are separated from each other by the Drumalban mountains of [northern] Britain. And although neither of these nations was free from those grievous crimes which generally provoke the anger of the eternal Judge, yet both have been hitherto patiently borne with and mercifully spared.
Now, to what other person can this favour granted them by God be attributed to but St. Columba, whose monasteries lie within the territories of both these people, and have been regarded by both with the greatest respect up to the present time? But what I am now to say cannot, I think, be heard without a sigh, that there are many very stupid people in both countries who, in their ignorance that they owe their exemption from the plague to the prayers of the saint, ungratefully and wickedly abuse the patience and the goodness of God. But I often return my most grateful thanks to God for having, through the intercession of our holy patron, preserved me and those in our islands from the ravages of the pestilence; and that in the Saxon lands also, when I went to visit my friend King Aldfrid, where the plague was raging and laying waste many of his villages, yet both in its first attack, immediately after the war of Ecfridus, and in its second, two years subsequently, the Lord mercifully saved me from danger, though I was living and moving about in the very midst of the plague. The Divine mercy was also extended to my companions, not one of whom died of the plague, or was attacked with any other disease.
§ 3.5. On another occasion, when this eminent man was staying in the island of Hinba, he saw, on a certain night, in a mental ecstasy, an angel sent to him from heaven, and holding in his hand a book of glass, regarding the appointment of kings. Having received the book from the hand of the angel, the venerable man, at his command, began to read it; and when he was reluctant to appoint Áedán king, as the book directed, because he had a greater affection for Iogenan his brother, the angel, suddenly stretching forth his hand, struck the saint with a scourge, the livid marks of which remained in his side all the days of his life. And he added these words: “Know for certain,” said he, “that I am sent to thee by God with the book of glass, that in accordance with the words thou hast read therein, thou mayest inaugurate Áedán into the kingdom; but if thou refuse to obey this command, I will strike thee again.”
When therefore this angel of the Lord had appeared for three successive nights, having the same book of glass in his hand, and had repeated the same commands of the Lord regarding the appointment of the same king, the saint, in obedience to the command of the Lord, sailed across to Iona and there ordained, as he had been commanded, Áedán to be king, who had arrived at the same time as the saint.
During the words of consecration, the saint declared the future regarding the children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of Áedán, and laying his hand upon his head, he consecrated and blessed him. Cummene the Fair, in the book which he wrote on the virtues of St. Columba, states that St. Columba commenced his predictions regarding Áedán and his children and kingdom in the following manner: “Believe me, unhesitatingly, o Áedán,” said he, “none of your enemies shall be able to resist thee, unless thou first act unjustly towards me and my successors. Wherefore direct thou thy children to commend to their children, their grandchildren, and their posterity, not to let the sceptre pass out of their hands through evil counsels. For at whatever time they turn against me or my relatives who are in Ireland, the scourge which I suffered on thy account from the angel shall bring great disgrace upon them by the hand of God, and the hearts of men shall be turned away from them, and their foes shall be greatly strengthened against them.”
Now this prophecy hath been fulfilled in our own times in the Battle of Mag Rath [637 CE], in which Domnall Brecc, the grandson of Áedán, ravaged without the slightest provocation the territory of Domnall, the grandson of Ainmuire. And from that day to this they have been trodden down by strangers: a fate which pierces the heart with sighs and grief.
§ 3.23. After reading these three sections [of The Life of St Columba], let the diligent reader observe of what and how great merit, of what and how high honour in the sight of God our holy and venerable abbot [i.e., Columba] must have been deemed worthy, how great and many were the bright visits of the angels made to him, how full of the prophetic spirit, how great his power of miracles wrought in God, how often and to what great extent, while yet he was abiding in this mortal flesh, he was surrounded by a halo of heavenly light; and how, even after the departure of his most kindly soul from the tabernacle of the body, until the present day the place where his sacred bones rest, as has been clearly shown to certain chosen persons, doth not cease to be frequently visited by the holy angels, and illumined by the same heavenly brightness.
And this unusual favour hath been conferred by God on this same man of blessed memory; that though he lived in this small and remote island of the British sea, his name has not only become famous throughout the whole of our own islands of Ireland and Britain, the largest island of the whole world, but has reached even Spain, Gaul, and Italy, which lies beyond the Penine Alps; and also to the city of Rome itself, the head of all cities. This great and honourable fame, amongst other marks of divine favour, is known to have been conferred on this same saint by God, who loves those that love Him, and raises them to immense honour by glorifying more and more those that magnify and truly praise Him, who is blessed for evermore. Amen.
I implore those who wish to write copies of these books – indeed, I urge them in the name of Christ, the Judge of the world – after they have finished, carefully to compare and correct their copies with the originals, and also to subjoin here this request: Whoever reads these books on the virtues of St. Columba, let him pray to the Lord for me, Dorbbéne, that after death I may possess eternal life.