Saint Columba's Exile from Ireland

A. M. Sullivan
c. 1900
CHAPTER IX. (continued)

But soon a terrible punishment was to fall upon Columba for this dread violence. He, an anointed priest of the Most High, a minister of the Prince of Peace, had made himself the cause of the inciter of a civil war, which had bathed the land in blood—the blood of Christian men—the blood of kindred! Clearly enough, the violence of political passions, of which this war was the most lamentable fruit, had, in many other ways, attracted upon the youthful monk the severe opinions of the ecclesiastical authorities. "His excitable and vindictive character," we are told, "and above all his passionate attachment to his relatives, and the violent part which he took in their domestic disputes and their continually recurring rivalries, had engaged him in other struggles, the date of which is perhaps later than that of his first departure from Ireland, but the responsibility of which is formally imputed to him by various authorities, and which also ended in bloody battles." At all events, immediately after the battle of Cool-Drewny, "he was accused by a synod, convoked in the center of the royal domain at Tailte, of having occasioned the shedding of Christian blood." The synod seems to have acted with very uncanonical precipitancy; for it judged the cause without waiting for the defense—though, in sooth, the facts, beyond the power of any defense to remove, were ample and notorious. However, the decision was announced—sentence of excommunication was pronounced against him!

"Columba was not a man to draw back before his accusers and judges. He presented himself before the synod which had struck without hearing him. He found a defender in the famous Abbot Brendan, the founder of the monastery of Birr. When Columba made his appearance, this abbot rose, went up to him, and embraced him. 'How can you give the kiss of peace to an excommunicated man?' said some of the other members of the synod. 'You would do as I have done,' he answered, 'and you never would have excommunicated him, had you seen what I see—a pillar of fire which goes before him, and the angels that accompany him. I dare not disdain a man predestined by God to be the guide of an entire people to eternal life.' Thanks to the intervention of Brendan, or to some other motive not mentioned, the sentence of excommunication was withdrawn, but Columba was changed to win to Christ, by his preaching, as many pagan souls as the number of Christians who had fallen in the battle of Cool-Drewny."

Troubled in soul, but still struggling with a stubborn self-will, Columba found his life miserable, unhappy, and full of unrest; yet remorse had even now "planted in his soul the germs at once of a startling conversion and of his future apostolic mission." "Various legends reveal him to us at this crisis of his life, wandering long from solitude to solitude, and from monastery to monastery, seeking out holy monks, masters of penitence and Christian virtue, and asking them anxiously what he should do to obtain the pardon of God for the murder of so many victims."

At length, after many wanderings in contrition and mortification, "he found the light which he sought from a holy monk, St. Molaise, famed for his studies of Holy Scripture, and who had already been his confessor.

"This severe hermit confirmed the decision of the synod; but to the obligation of converting to the Christian faith an equal number of pagans as there were of Christians killed in the civil war, he added a new condition which bore cruelly upon a soul so passionately attached to country and kindred. The confessor condemned his penitent to perpetual exile from Ireland!"

Exile from Ireland! Did Columba hear the words aright? Exile from Ireland! What! See no more that land which he loved with such a wild and passionate love! Part from the brothers and kinsmen all, for whom he felt perhaps too strong and too deep an affection! Quit for ay the stirring scenes in which so great a part of his sympathies were engaged! Leave Ireland!

Oh! it was more hard than to bare his breast to the piercing sword; less welcome than to walk in constant punishment of suffering, so that his feet pressed the soil of his worshiped Erinn!

But it was even so. Thus ran the sentence of Molaise: "perpetual exile from Ireland!"

Staggered, stunned, struck to the heart, Columba could not speak for a moment. But God gave him in that great crisis of his life the supreme grace of bearing the blow and embracing the cross presented to him. At last he spoke, and in a voice agitated with emotion he answered: "Be it so; what you have commanded shall be done."

From that instant forth his life was one prolonged act of penitential sacrifice. For thirty years—his heart bursting within his breast the while—yearning for one sight of Ireland—he lived and labored in distant Iona. The fame of his sanctity filled the world; religious houses subject to his rule arose in many a glen and isle of rugged Caledonia; the gifts of prophecy and miracle momentously attested him as one of God's most favored apostles; yet all the while his heart was breaking; all the while in his silent cell Columba's tears flowed freely for the one grief that never left him—the wound that only deepened with lengthening time—he was away from Ireland! Into all his thoughts this sorrow entered. In all his songs—and several of his compositions still remain to us—this one sad strain is introduced. Witness the following, which, even in. its merely literal translation into the English, retains much of the poetic beauty and exquisite tenderness of the original by Columba in the Gaelic tongue:

What joy to fly upon the white-crested sea; and watch the waves break upon the Irish shore!

My foot is in my little boat; but my sad heart ever bleeds!

There is a gray eye which ever turns to Erinn; but never in this life shall it see Erinn, nor her sons, nor her daughters!
From the high prow I look over the sea; and great tears are in my eyes when I turn to Erinn—
To Erinn, where the songs of the birds are so sweet, and where the clerks sing like the birds:
Where the young are so gentle, and the old are so wise; where the great men are so noble to look at, and the women so fair to wed!
Young traveler! carry my sorrows with you; carry them to Comgall of eternal life!
Noble youth, take my prayer with thee, and my blessing: one part for Ireland—seven times may she be blest—and the other for Albyn.
Carry my blessing across the sea; carry it to the West. My heart is broken in my breast!
If death comes suddenly to me, it will be because of the great love I bear to the Gael![4]


[4] This poem appears to have been presented as a farewell gift by St. Columba to some of the Irish visitors at Iona, when returning home to Ireland It is deservedly classed among the most beautiful of his poetic compositions.