Saint Columba in Iona

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

It was to the rugged and desolate Hebrides that Columba turned his face when he accepted the terrible penance of Molaise. He bade farewell to his relatives, and, with a few monks who insisted on accompany him whithersoever he might go, launched his frail currochs from the northern shore. They landed first, or rather were carried by wind and stream, upon the little isle of Oronsay, close by Islay; and here for a moment they thought their future abode was to be. But when Columba, with the early morning, ascending the highest ground on the island, to take what he thought would be a harmless look toward the land of his heart, lo! on the dim horizon a faint blue ridge—the distant hills of Antrim! He averts his head and flies downward to the strand! Here they cannot stay, if his vow is to be kept. They betake them once more to the currochs, and steering further northward, eventually land upon Iona, thenceforth, till time shall be no more, to be famed as the sacred isle of Columba! Here landing, he ascended the loftiest of the hills upon the isle, and "gazing into the distance, found no longer any trace of Ireland upon the horizon." In Iona accordingly he resolved to make his home. The spot from whence St. Columba made this sorrowful survey is still called by the islesmen in the Gaelic tongue, Carn-cul-ri-Erinn, or the Cairn of Farewell—literally, The back turned on Ireland.

Writers without number have traced the glories of Iona.[5] Here rose, as if by miracle, a city of churches; the isle became one vast monastery, and soon much too small for the crowds that still pressed thither. Then from the parent isle there went forth to the surrounding shores, and all over the mainland, off-shoot establishments and missionary colonies (all under the authority of Columba), until in time the Gospel light was ablaze on the hills of Albyn; and the names of St. Columba and Iona were on every tongue from Rome to the utmost limits of Europe!

"This man, whom we have seen so passionate, so irritable, so warlike and vindictive, became little by little the most gentle, the humblest, the most tender of friends and fathers. It was he, the great head of the Caledonian Church, who, kneeling before the strangers who came to Iona, or before the monks returning from their work, took off their shoes, washed their feet, and after having washed them, respectfully kissed them. But charity was still stronger than humility in that transfigured soul. No necessity, spiritual or temporal, found him indifferent. He devoted himself to the solace of all infirmities, all misery and pain, weeping often over those who did not weep for themselves.

"The work of transcription remained until his last day the occupation of his old age, as it had been the passion of his youth; it had such an attraction for him, and seemed to him so essential to a knowledge of the truth that, as we have already said, three hundred copies of the Holy Gospels, copied by his own hand, have been attributed to him."

But still Columba carried with him in his heart the great grief that made life for him a lengthened penance. "Far from having any prevision of the glory of Iona, his soul," says Montalembert, "was still swayed by a sentiment which never abandoned him—regret for his lost country. All his life he retained for Ireland the passionate tenderness of an exile, a love which displayed itself in the songs which have been preserved to us, and which date perhaps from the first moment of his exile. . . . 'Death in faultless Ireland is better than life without end in Albyn.' After this cry of despair follow strains more plaintive and submissive."

"But it was not only in these elegies, repeated and perhaps retouched by Irish bards and monks, but at each instant of his life, in season and out of season, that this love and passionate longing for his native country burst forth in words and musings; the narratives of his most trustworthy biographers are full of it. The most severe penance which he could have imagined for the guiltiest sinners who came to confess to him, was to impose upon them the same fate which he had voluntarily inflicted on himself—never to set foot again upon Irish soil! But when, instead of forbidding to sinners all access to that beloved isle, he had to smother his envy of those who hard the right and happiness to go there at their pleasure, he dared scarcely trust himself to name its name; and when speaking to his guests, or to the monks who were to return to Ireland, he would only say to them, 'you will return to the country that you love.' "


[5] "We are now," said Dr. Johnson, " treading that illustrious island which was once the luminary of the Caledonian regions; whence savage clans and roving barbarians derived the benefits of knowledge and the blessings of religion....Far from me and from my friends be such frigid philosophy as may conduct us indifferent and unmoved over any ground which has been dignified by wisdom, bravery, or virtue. That man is little to be envied whose patriotism would not gain force upon the plain of Marathon, or whose piety would not grow warmer among the ruins of Iona."—Boswell's "Tour to the Hebrides."