COLUMBA, St. (‘Colm Cille’). b. County Donegal, Ireland, 521; d. Iona, Scotland, 597. Born in the north-west of Ireland, he was trained and educated in Ireland, emigrating to Iona in 563 where he founded a monastery and remained for the rest of his life. The name ‘Colm Cille’ means ‘Dove of the Church’, which is latinised as ‘Columba’.
St Adomnán (d. 704), ninth abbot of Iona and Columba’s biographer, stated that Columba had written a book of hymns for the week (Hymnorum liber septimaniorum) which, unfortunately, has not survived. It suggests the singing of a weekly cycle of hymns on Iona, paralleling Caesarius of Arles’s Cursus hymnorum. This idea is supported by the Preface to the hymn ‘Altus prosator’* in a copy of the Irish Liber Hymnorum in Trinity College Dublin, where it is related that Gregory the Great* (d. 604) sent Columba a cross and a book consisting of a collection of hymns for the week (immain na sechtmaine).
Columba was known as an author of hymns even in his own time. The Old Irish poem, Amra Choluimb Cille, states that he ‘went with two songs to heaven’ (Clancy and Márkus 1997, p. 111, stanza VII, l. 2) and he is associated with several hymns which have survived, the most famous undoubtedly being the Abecedary hymn* ‘Altus prosator’. Although the identification of this hymn with the saint cannot be proven, it is likely in any case to have been composed by a monk of his community, perhaps in the 7th century (Clancy and Márkus, pp. 39ff).
Four hymns from 8th- and 9th-century sources have been attributed to Columba. ‘Adiutor laborantium’, also abecedary, is found in an early 11th-century prayer book from Winchester (London, British Library, MS Cotton Galba A.xiv); ‘Alto et ineffabile apostolurum coeti’, ‘In te, Christe, credentium miserearis omnium’ and ‘Noli pater indulgere tonitrua cum fulgore’ appear in the Irish Liber Hymnorum (Trinity College Dublin, MS 1441).
Liturgical sources dedicated to the celebration of Columba’s feast (9 June) include two offices, among them several hymns. A complete office with nine lessons appears in two 15th-century Irish Sarum breviaries, Trinity College, Dublin, MS 88, and Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Canonici Liturgici 215, neither of which has musical notation. This office includes two hymns: ‘Columba penna nivea’ for First Vespers and Matins (Analecta Hymnica 11. 100), and ‘Iesu Redemptor omnium’* for Lauds (AH 11. 100).
Three other hymns in honour of Columba appear in the Aberdeen Breviary, of which the first is found also in the fragmentary office preserved in the 14th-century Inchcolm Antiphonary (Edinburgh University Library, MS 211.iv). These are ‘Aurora rutilat lucis praenuntia’ (Lauds: AH 19, 114), ‘Concinat nostro concio’ (1st Vespers: AH 19, 113), and ‘Festum Columbae celebre’ (Matins: AH 19, 114 ).
For translations of Columba’s hymns in modern British books, see ‘Duncan MacGregor’*.
Cite this article
- Breviarium Aberdonense (Edinburgh, 1509).
- AH: Hymni inediti: Liturgische Hymnen des Mittelalters aus Handschriften und Wiegendrucken, ed. Guido Maria Dreves. Analecta Hymnica Medii Aevi 11 (1891); 19 (1895).
- Thomas Owen Clancy and Gilbert Márkus, Iona: the Earliest Poetry of a Celtic Monastery (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1995).
- James McGuire and James Quinn (eds), Dictionary of Irish Biography : from the earliest times to the year 2002 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press [in collaboration with] the Royal Irish Academy, 2009); 
- Pádraig Ó Riain, A Dictionary of Irish Saints (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2011), 211-215.
- Alan Macquarrie (ed.), Legends of Scottish Saints. Readings, hymns and prayers for the commemorations of Scottish saints in the Aberdeen Breviary (Dublin: Four Courts Press 2012).