In 561 a battle was fought between the army of King Diarmait, High King of Ireland, and the Northern Uí Néill clan; around 3,000 people were killed in the fighting. Two years later the man who was widely held to be responsible for the battle and its bloodshed sailed from Ireland into exile, and so began Columba’s journey to Iona.
In many old Hebridean blessings and prayers, St Columba is invoked as the ‘tender’, the ‘kindly’, the ‘gentle’; it’s probably fair to say that his true character was slightly more complex than that.
St Columba was born into an Irish royal family, and had he not entered into the monastic life, it’s likely that he would have become King of the Northern Uí Néill, and perhaps even High King of Ireland. What part Columba played in inciting the Battle of Cúl Dreimhe is uncertain, but one of the best known stories involves a Bible. It’s said that during a visit to Rome, Pope Pelagius had given one of Columba’s teachers, St Finnian of Moville, a copy of St Jerome’s translation of the Bible. On a visit to his teacher, Columba secretly set about making himself a copy of this rare and precious translation. When Finnian discovered what his former pupil was up to a huge dispute erupted, which they both agreed to take to King Diarmait to be resolved. The High King’s judgement went against Columba, and angrily determined that justice had not been done, he stirred his clan to battle. It’s possible that Columba himself took part in the conflict, as he was marked with a livid scar throughout his life.
Although St Columba’s people won the battle, the clans and clergy of Ireland clearly felt that they had transgressed and were responsible for the great suffering that had been caused. A synod was called at which Columba was excommunicated, but the judgement was overturned on the understanding that he would leave Ireland and go into exile.
An illuminating tradition regarding this great Saint, tells that although he went on to take the name Columba (‘Dove’), he was first known as Crimthann (‘The Fox’).