Columcille and the Druids

Kilclooney More Dolmen This photo is Kilclooney More Dolmen in the same County as the birthplace of Columcille. Even though Kilclooney More was built thousands of years earlier, it has sometimes been associated with druids.

At the convention of Druim Cett in 575, St. Columcille (also called St. Columba or Colum Cille or Colmcille) interceded to stop the banishment of the poets. The title "poet" in this case may refer to those who maintained the oral histories of the druids. As late as 1539, a treaty between Manus O'Donnell and O'Connor Sligo included satire by the poets and excommunication by the Church as punishments for breaking the treaty. More of the pre-christian oral histories may have been preserved in Ireland than in other parts of Europe. As some of the druids became Christian leaders, they decided that it was permitted to write down the oral history where before it had been forbidden. In "The Course of Irish History" by T. W. Moody and F. X. Martin, at the end of chapter 3, it is stated that this resulted in a preservation of literacy and learning by other than the Christian Clergy that was unique to Ireland during the dark ages.

A paper at the Royal Academy of Ireland suggests that Columbcille was the author of the Annals of Ireland. ( Found in the past at , but the link is broken now. ) Daniel P. McCarthy also points out that method of describing the dates in the early Annnals provides information that may be used for error correction and detection. Rhyme and meter in poetry may also have been used as a form of forward error correction. Columbcille may have been one who decided that it was acceptable for Christians to write down the knowledge of the druids in books.

Department of Computer Science, Trinity College Dublin
[Received after revision 25 May 1998. Read 1 October 1998. Published 31 December 1998.]
In the years since Hughes emphasised the value of the annals as a historical source, a number of important contributions have been made to understanding their structure and origin, and it may be helpful here to review those that bear on chronological issues. In 1972 an exemplary analysis by A.P. Smyth of the distribution of years with no contemporary recorded events established beyond all reasonable doubt that the earliest systematic annals describing contemporary Irish events dated from c. AD 550 and that up until c. AD 740 the recording activity had been conducted in Iona; thereafter the recording site moved to Ireland.11 A corollary of this result, which Smyth did not quite explicitly state, is that the initial work must have been done under the supervision, and most likely the pen, of Saint Columba, who was abbot of Iona for over three decades, from its foundation until his death in the late sixth century.12 On this detail it is worth noting that at the very start of the Annals of Clonmacnoise (AC) Conell Mageoghagan placed Saint Columbas name first in his list of the names of the several authors which I have taken for this booke.13 This, it seems to me, explains very satisfactorily all the details recorded in the sixth century concerning the political affairs of Columbas relatives in the northern Uí Néill and also the events in Pictland, where his major mission lay. Also in 1972, by a careful examination of the pre-Christian material, John Morris drew the important conclusions that AT preserved details of the Chronicle of Eusebius not transmitted by Jeromes Latin edition and that, at its earliest level, AT had not been copied from Bedes Chronica maiora.14 In 1983 Dáibhí Ó Cróinín re-examined the argument that the early annals had been derived from Paschal tables.15

Peter Berresford Ellis in the book "A Brief History of the Druids" writes:

With the arrival of Christianity, the Druids began to merge totally with the new culture, some even becoming priests of the new religion and continuing as an intellectual class in much the same way as their forefathers had done for over a thousand years previously. We find an interesting reference in a 'Life of Colmcille' that, when the Irish missionary arrived on the island of Iona, he encountered two Druids who were bishops and who claimed that they had already planted the Christian faith there. Colmcille did not believe that they had been properly ordained and ordered them to depart, which they did.

However, As I read "The Life of Columba" in the translation at the University College Cork web page, I find no mention of this incident. Maybe I am reading the wrong thing. This same story appears in many places on the internet, but I cannot find it in the "Life of Columcille".

Update December 2014: Thanks to Sean M. Conrey, PhD, Syracuse University Project Advance. This story comes from a different "Life of Columba", this one by Manus O'Donnell.


202 And the history telleth no more of him until he came to the isle called Iona of Columcille to this day And there he made this quatrain I behold Iona A blessing on each eye that seeth it He that doth good to his fellow Tis he that doth good to himself

203 O God many were the ways wherein Columcille did during his life follow his Lord Jesu Christ And it is clear to us now that he doth follow him in His banishment and exile into Egypt

204 On the eve of Pentecost they cast anchor on that island and there were druids there and they came in the guise of bishops toward Columcille And they said to him that it was not right for him to come on that island and that themselves had been there afore him sowing the Faith and piety and it had no need of other holy men to bless it It is not true what ye say saith Columcille for ye be not bishops in truth but druids of Hell that are against the Faith Leave this island Not to you hath God granted it And at the word of Columcille the druids left the island

205 Then said Columcille to his household It were good for us that our roots should go beneath this earth where we have come and whatever holy man of our household is minded to get death and be put beneath the clay of this island I will give him the Kingdom of God

206 Then spake holy Odhran that was with Columcille I would fain die under that covenant I will give thee the Kingdom of God saith Columcille and moreover I grant thee this that whoso maketh request at my tomb or at my resting place shall not get it until he first make prayer to thee. And Odhran received death then by the will of God and Colum cille And he was laid beneath the clay of that island Hence the Grave of Odhran in Iona is the name of that place today.

207 Then Columcille blessed that island and built a noble church therein and put up sacred memorials and stations there and many crosses whereunder he and his holy men were wont to recite their hours and prayers And he made a prophecy touching that stead and he said that many of the kings of Erin and Alba should be buried there and that many of the nations of the world should come on pilgrimage to that place And that word of Columcille was verified.

At Google Books.

Peter Berresford Ellis, on page 77 of the book mentioned above, writes that Columcille was taught by a druid. And on another page he quotes a poem in which Columcille says "Christ is my druid". This is also found in the life of Columcille translated by Lady Gregory at

"I do not hold to the voice of birds, or any luck on the earthly world, or chance or a son or a woman. Christ the Son of God is my Druid; Christ the Son of Mary, the great Abbot; the Father the Son and the Holy Spirit. My estates are with the King of Kings; my order is at Cenacles and Moen."

At the University College Cork web page in the Annals of the Four Masters, which were commisioned by a relative of Columcille, is the following version of the "Christ is my Druid" quote (in the year 555 according to the Four Masters):

The battle of Cul Dreimhne was gained against Diarmaid, son of Cearbhall, by Fearghus and Domhnall, the two sons of Muircheartach, son of Earca; by Ainmire, son of Sedna; and by Ainnidh, son of Duach; and by Aedh, son of Eochaidh Tirmcharna, King of Connaught. It was in revenge of the killing of Curnan, son of Aedh, son of Eochaidh Tirmcharna, while under the protection of Colum Cille, the Clanna Neill of the North and the Connaughtmen gave this battle of Cul Dreimhne to King Diarmaid; and also on account of the false sentence which Diarmaid passed against Colum Cille about a book of Finnen, which Colum had transcribed without the knowledge of Finnen, when they left it to award of Diarmaid, who pronounced the celebrated decision, To every cow belongs its calf, &c. Colum Cille said:
             1. O God, wilt thou not drive off the fog,
                [gap: extent: 1 line]
                which envelopes our number,
                The host which has deprived us of our livelihood,
             2. The host which proceeds around the carns!
                He is a son of storm who betrays us.
                My Druid, he will not refuse me,
                is the Son of God, and may he side with me;
             3. How grandly he bears his course,
                the steed of Baedan before the host;
                Power by Baedan of the yellow hair
                will be borne from Ireland on him the steed.

As a result of this battle of the book, 3000 people died and Columcille exiled himself to Iona (in the year 557 according to the Four Masters) and is credited with converting the Picts to Christianity. This might have been the first copyright dispute. The king ruled that a copy of a book belonged to the owner of the original and not to the one who made the copy. Columcille went to war to try to keep the copy he had made. I have read in a tourist guide book that one of the battles was fought near Benbulben. According to the Annals of the Four Masters, Conall, son of Comhgall, King of Dal Riada granted Hy Iona to Colum Cille. In later Centuries, this book was called the "Cathach" or battle book. In 1497, when O'Donnells were fighting O'Donnells, there is a mention in the Annals of the Four Masters that the MacGroarty (keeper of the Cathach) was slain and the Cathach was captured.

I do not know, but I guess that the Cathach was returned to Ireland when Columbcille's shrine and relics were brought to Ireland in the year 875 to protect them from invading Vikings. The O'Donnells claimed ownership of the Cathach from the 11th century until they were defeated by the English about 1601. In the 11th century, the Cathach was in enclosed in a shrine and carried into battle as a Saint's relic by the O'Donnells. It was carried sunwise around the battle field to ensure victory.

The Cathach was taken to France in 1691 and forgotten for a long time, until its shrine was opened in 1813. Sir Richard O'Donnell purchased it and now the Cathach is at the Royal Irish Academy and the Shrine is at the National Museum in Dublin.

Gold box decorated with religious figures

In a book The Life of St. Columba, Founder of Hy By Adamnan, William Reeves, 1857, page 249-250.

The belief was current among the Irish at a very early period, that the withdrawal of St Columba to Britain was a sort of penance, which was, with his own consent, imposed upon him in consequence of his having fomented domestic feuds that resulted in sanguinary engagements. And the opinion derives considerable support at least as regards the battle of Cul-dreimhne from the mention of it by Adanman who in two instances makes it a kind of Hegira in the Saint's life. The following narrative from Keating's History affords the simplest statement of the prevalent belief:--

Now this is the cause why Molaise sentenced Columcille to go into Alba, because it came of him to occasion three battles in Erin, viz., the battle of Cul Dreimhne, the battle of Eathan, and the battle of Cuil Feadha. The cause of the battle of Cul Feadha, according to the old book called the Leabar Uidhre of Ciaran, Diarmuid, son of Fergus Cerrbhoil, king of Ireland, made the Feast of Tara, and a noble man was killed at that feast by Curnan, son of Aodh, son of Eochuidh Tiorm-carna; wherefore Diarmuid killed him in revenge for that, because he committed murder at the feast of Tara, against law and the sanctuary of the feast; and before Curnan was put to death he fled to the protection of Columcille, and notwithstanding the protection of Columcille he was killed by Diarmuid. And from that it arose that Columcille mustered the Clanna Neill of the North, because his own protection and the protection of the sons of Earc was violated: whereupon the battle of Cuile Dreimhne was gained over Diarmaid and over the Connaghtmen, so that they were defeated through the prayer of Columcille.

The Black Book of Molaga assigns another cause why the battle of Cul Dreimhne was fought, viz., in consequence of the false judgment which Diarmuid gave against Columcille when he wrote the gospel out of the book of Finnian without his knowledge. Finnian said that it was to himself belonged the son book [copy] which was written from his book and they both selected Diarmuid as judge between them. This is the decision that Diarmuid made: that to every book belongs its son book [copy] as to every cow belongs her calf. So that this is one of the two causes why the battle of Cuile Dreimhne was fought.

This was the cause which brought Columcille to be induced to fight the battle of Cuil Rathan against the Dal n-Araidhe and against the Ultonians, viz., in consequence of the controversy that took place between Colum and Comgall, because they took part against Colum in that controversy.

This was the cause that occasioned the fighting of the battle of Cuil Feadha against Colman Mac Diarmada, viz., in revenge for his having been outraged in the case of Baodan, son of Ninneadh (king of Erin) who was killed by Cuimin, son of Colman, at Leim-an-eich, in violation of the sanctuary of Colum.

The book which St Columba is supposed to have transcribed from St. Finnian's original is not a manuscript of the Gospels, as stated in the above extract, but the copy of the Psalms, which forms, with its silver case, the ancient reliquary called the Cathach, of which O'Donnell gives us this curious account:

Now The Cathach is the name of the book on account of which the battle was fought, and it is the chief relic of Colum-cille in the territory of Cinel Conaill Gulban; and it is covered with silver under gold; and it is not lawful to open it; and if it be sent thrice, right-wise, around the army of the Cinell Conaill, when they are going to battle, they will return safe with victory: and it is on the breast of a coward or a cleric, who is to the best of his power free from mortal sin, that the Cathach should be, when brought round the army.

At the University College Cork there is a translation into English of "The Life of Columba", written by Adamnan. In this biography there are several mentions of druids. For the copyright information and the complete original text, please go to

When returning from the country of the Picts, where he had been for some days, he hoisted his sail when the breeze was against him to confound the Druids, and made as rapid a voyage as if the wind had been favourable. On other occasions, also, contrary winds were at his prayers changed into fair.

Another story from the Life of Columba:

I must not pass over another well-authenticated story, told, indeed, by those who heard it, regarding the voice of the blessed man in singing the psalms. The venerable man, when singing in the church with the brethren, raised his voice so wonderfully that it was sometimes heard four furlongs off, that is five hundred paces, and sometimes eight furlongs, that is one thousand paces. But what is stranger still: to those who were with him in the church, his voice did not seem louder than that of others; and yet at the same time persons more than a mile away heard it so distinctly that they could mark each syllable of the verses he was singing, for his voice sounded the same whether far or near. It is however admitted, that this wonderful character in the voice of the blessed man was but rarely observable, and even then it could never happen without the aid of the Holy Ghost. But another story concerning the great and wonderful power of his voice should not be omitted. The fact is said to have taken place near the fortress of King Brude near Inverness. When the saint himself was chanting the evening hymns with a few of the brethren, as usual, outside the king's fortifications, some Druids, coming near to them, did all they could to prevent God's praises being sung in the midst of a pagan nation. On seeing this, the saint began to sing the 44th Psalm, and at the same moment so wonderfully loud, like pealing thunder, did his voice become, that king and people were struck with terror and amazement.

And a story about changing a poisonous well into one that healed:

AGAIN, while the blessed man was stopping for some days in the province of the Picts, he heard that there was a fountain famous amongst this heathen people, which foolish men, having their senses blinded by the devil, worshipped as a god. For those who drank of this fountain, or purposely washed their hands or feet in it, were allowed by God to be struck by demoniacal art, and went home either leprous or purblind, or at least suffering from weakness or other kinds of infirmity. By all these things the Pagans were seduced, and paid divine honour to the fountain. Having ascertained this, the saint one day went up to the fountain fearlessly; and, on seeing this, the Druids, whom he had often sent away from him vanquished and confounded, were greatly rejoiced, thinking that he would suffer like others from the touch of that baneful water. But he, having first raised his holy hand and invoked the name of Christ, washed his hands and feet; and then with his companions, drank of the water which he had blessed. And from that day the demons departed from the fountain; and not only was it not allowed to injure any one, but even many diseases amongst the people were cured by this same fountain, after it had been blessed and washed in by the saint.

Another web page has a photograph taken near the birthplace of Columcille in January 2004. Also, there is a photo of the shrine and megalithic monument at the birthplace of Columcille.

There is a celtic high cross at the site of a monastery founded by Columcille. W. B. Yeats who attempted to record Irish mythology is buried in the churchyard there. Another photograph of the Celtic High Cross is at

When I was in Ireland in July of 2005 I took some photos near Glen Columbcille. An entertaining story about fairies was told to me by someone who lives nearby. I also photographed Columbcille's holy well at Glencolumbcille. In January of 2004, I photographed another holy well of Saint Columbcille near his birth place at Gartan Rath.

Columbcille was born about 521 and died on 9 June 597.

One of the residents of Glen Columbcille, Aidan Manning, wrote "Glen Columbkille, A History, 3000 BC - 1901 AD", 2001.

Aidan Manning writes:

Creimthne, later Columcille (the dove of the church), son of Feidlim and Eithne, great-grandson of King Niall of the Nine Hostages, was born in Gartan around 521.

According to a story told by Rev John R.Walsh. PP of the Derry diocese, this stone is where Columbcille slept and now it has miraculous powers to cure lonliness and sorrow. The stone has cups carved into its surface like those that decorate many megalithic monuments.

A photo of the birthplace of Columcille (St. Columba) is at I took this photo on April 27, 2007. There is a megalithic stone monument at the site and one of the stones (Leac na Cumha) from the monument has copper coins on it that have been left by people hoping for intervention by a saint or for wishes to come true. Specifically, Columbcille is said to have slept on that stone the night before his exile from Ireland and that it is now a cure for homesickness or loneliness.

A wiki for the Orthodox Church has a page about Saint Columba and a page about the Cathach that includes a photo of Columcille's handwriting.

The Annals of the Four Masters at says this of the death of Columbcille in the year 592 (the difference in year of death may be due to a difference in calendars):


Colum Cille, son of Feidhlimidh, apostle of Alba Scotland, head of the piety of the most part of Ireland and Alba, next after Patrick, died in his own church in Hy, in Alba, after the thirty fifth year of his pilgrimage, on Sunday night precisely, the 9th day of June. Seventy seven years was his whole age when he resigned his spirit to heaven, as is said in this quatrain:

Three years without light 
was Colum in his Duibh-regles;
He went to the angels from his body,
after seven years and seventy.


Dallan Forgaill composed this on the death of Colum Cille:

Like the cure of a physician without light, 
like the separation of marrow from the bone,
Like a song to a harp without the ceis,
are we after being deprived of our noble.

In Glen Columbcille there are several sites associated with Columbcille. There is a cross inscribed standing stone on a street corner in Glen Columbcille.

The Donegal County Library had a web page giving the history of Letterkenny that mentioned the education of Columbcille and a church history page that had a few paragraphs about Columbcille, but the links are now broken. The Donegal County Library also had a web page about Gleann Cholm Cille [Glencolumbkille] which had some information about pilgrimages to places associated with Columbcille. There is a photo of a ship named "Columcille" in Killybegs harbor in County Donegal, Ireland from January 2004.

Curse of Columbkille

Three steps are left at the end of a cutting out the end of a bog to avoid the "curse of Columbkille," who was once trapped in a bog hole & laid a curse on all who did not leave three steps.

- E. E. Evans, Irish Folkways

Mention of another curse of Columbcille is at in a quote from the Annals of the Four Masters.

This web page was written by John Moyer for John Moyer's Home Page is at