Seance of Scholars – Frank McNally on an event marking St Columcille’s 1,500th birthday

An Irishman’s Diary

What Saint Columcille once called “angel-haunted Derry” will be the centre of a big international conference this week, drawing academics from all over the world. Alas, most of them will be drawn only on their laptops.

Like the rest of the planet, Derry is currently haunted by a different kind of invisible presence, also airborne but not angelic. So in common with all such events recently, the American Conference for Irish Studies, starting today (June 2nd) at Ulster University's Magee Campus, is mostly online.

Perhaps the city’s patron saint will himself be logging in. For one thing, this year marks his 1,500th birthday and the conference is among a series of events in his honour. For another, more than most sixth-century monks, he would have been alive to the possibilities of information technology and remote learning.

When he surreptitiously copied a psalter owned by his mentor Finnian, and was caught in the act, it led to a landmark copyright ruling

As a scribe who hand-copied some 300 books and illuminated manuscripts, he was the Google book digitisation project leader of his day. Not that he would have worked for Google, probably. He was more likely to be involved in his own start-ups, although Silicon Valley not being an option then, most of his work was in Scotland.


Columcille was born into Irish royalty, which may be why we know when and where his birth happened: December 7th, 521 AD, at Gartan, Co Donegal. We also know that he was originally named Crimthann (meaning "fox"), probably because of red hair. Only later did he become Columcille, "dove of the church". And as Thomas Cahill has written, the nickname may have been ironic. Either that, or one of the stories most associated him was from his pre-dove days.

When he surreptitiously copied a psalter owned by his mentor Finnian, and was caught in the act, it led to a landmark copyright ruling by King Diarmait, who famously ordered: "To every cow its calf; to every book its copy." But following this and other slights from his clan's political rivals, Columcille appealed the case to violence.

His allies subsequently defeated Diarmait's in a bloody battle, winning back the psalter, which thereafter became known as the "Cathach", or "Warrior". It was later used as a talisman in many other conflicts by the Northern O'Neill, although what's left of it now enjoys a peaceful retirement in Dublin at the Royal Irish Academy. To expiate the blood on his hands, meanwhile, Columcille was either forcibly exiled to Scotland, or decided himself to perform penance among the Picts.

Being also known as Saint Columba, Columcille is easily confused with the slightly later (but overlapping) Columbanus, who founded many monasteries on mainland Europe, had his own major anniversary recently (the 1,400th of his death), and has been called the father of the European Union. Columcille did also plan to travel farther afield once – to Jerusalem – but got only as far as Tours in northwest France.

The life of Columcille may also offer pointers to the reopening of society, post-Covid

Around that time, Gregory of Tours – Gaul's most powerful bishop – was lamenting the severe lack of trained scribes on the war-torn continent. "Ireland, " as Cahill wrote, "at peace and furiously copying, thus stood in the position of becoming Europe's publisher." And although the "pagan Saxon settlements of Southern England" had cut off easy commerce with the continent – shades of Brexit there – Columcille's Scottish colonies were soon the basis for a thriving Irish export trade in saints and scholars.

This week’s conference will to some extent return the compliment: the mass involvement of scholars is expected, whatever about saints. Panels and workshops include “Derry, Brexit, and the Border”, “Plague, Pandemic, and Health in Ireland”, and a bewildering range of others (full programme at

But even if it’s too late for this event, the life of Columcille may also offer pointers to the reopening of society, post-Covid. For his own reasons, the saint put a cap of 150 on the number of monks allowed at Iona. Once that was exceeded – and there were new arrivals all the time – an apostles-sized pod would be sent forth to start off somewhere else. Eventually there were 60 monastic settlements in Scotland.

His apparent dislike of crowds is also mentioned in the poem Amra Choluim Chille by his contemporary Dallán Forgaill. The earliest dateable work of verse in Irish, it includes the lines (as translated by Thomas Kinsella): “He would not have anything done/By throngs enormous . . .”

That poem itself became an object of religious devotion in later centuries. It was long believed that if you could recite it from memory, you were assured a happy death. Alas, thanks to the traditional tensions between saintliness and scholarship, the practice fell into disrepute. Despite the poem running to several pages, too many people preferred the challenge of learning it by heart to the other thing that might guarantee a good end: virtuous living.