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On some island I long to be,

A rocky promontory, looking on

The coiling surface of the sea

To see the waves, crest on crest

Of the great shining ocean, composing

A hymn to the creator, without rest

Colm Cille, 6-th century

(Translated from Irish Gaelic by John Montague)


St Colm Cille was born in the year 521 AD and died in 597 AD. His birth name was Criomhthann, an old Gaelic personal name that means ‘fox’. It most likely means that he had red hair. He was without doubt the most influential figure in the early Irish Christian Church after St Patrick. In fact, for a while he was recognised as the ‘natural’ Patron Saint of Ireland as well as Scotland. His name, Colm Cille, means ‘dove of the church’. He was born in Gartan in Co. Donegal and was a leading member of the ruling Uí Néill tribe. His Great Grandfather was Conall Gulban, the ancestor of most of the Donegal clans, the founder of the Cineál Chonaill dynasty. Colm Cille's father was Feidhlimidh, son of Feargus, son of Conal Gulban. He was close to the line of succession to the kingship of Donegal and was infact a nephew of the then High King of Ireland, Muircheartach mac Earca. He was fostered and tutored at an early age (as was the Celtic custom) by a priest called Cruithneachán. That was at a place, not far from his birthplace of Gartan called Templedouglas. Cruithneachán was also the one who baptised Colm Cille. The education given to him by Cruithneachán was invaluable to him in his later life. Later he went for further education to St Finnian of Moville (in Inishowen, Co. Donegal). This was where the famous incident of the ‘book copying’ happened. He studied at various monasteries among them Moville as mentioned, but also Clonard and Glasnevin. After his ordination at St Moibhí's School at Glasnevin in Co. Dublin, he returned to the north Donegal area spending some time around the Cloughaneely and Tullaghobegly areas. Instead of leadership he preferred to devote his life to religion. He was responsible for the establishment of many religious centres and monasteries across Ireland and Scotland, the most notable being at Derry and Iona. Monasteries at Durrow, Kells, Swords, Tory, Drumholme and Drumcliffe were established by him. It was in the year 546 AD that his cousin (son of Ainmhire), who later was to become the High King of Ireland, offered Colm Cille some land on the banks of the mighty Foyle River. From here sprung the monastery and town to be known as Doire Cholm Cille, later as Doire or in English Derry.

He was a fierce man, easily roused. He got himself into trouble by copying a book which belonged to another noted Irish saint, St Finnian of Moville. After much debating among the authorities, it was announced that ‘to every cow belongs its calf, to every book its copy’. In otherwords, Colm Cille lost the argument. This was basically because he copied it without St Finnians permission. This incident has been long regarded as the worlds first ‘copyright’ ruling!. The famous book known as An Cathach, 'The Battler' is said by some to be the book in question. An Cathach became a holy relic for the Donegal clans. During the argument or debate over this issue, Colm Cille gathered together an army consisting of his blood relatives and supporters. He raised his army against the High King who had backed St Finnian. The war took place in the year 561 AD and became known as the Battle of Cúl Dreimhne. Colm Cille lost and banished himself into exile and this is when he went to Iona in Scotland.

Colm Cille is credited with writing many poems, some of them still extant and regarded as some of the earliest in Gaelic literature. Several Latin hymns such as 'Altus Prosator' have been attributed to him. Very old legends, stretching back probably to the 800's, tells us that he was a patron of poets also. In the year 690 AD, Adomnan (modern Irish Ádhamhnán), the sixth abbot of Iona, and a successor of Colm Cille, wrote the ‘Life of Colm Cille’. There was another, shorter biography, called ‘The Homily Life’ written about Colm Cille in the year 1160. The author of this work is unknown. In the year 1532, Mánas Ó Domhnaill/Manus O’Donnell wrote the comprehensive ‘Beatha Cholaim Cille’/The life of Colm Cille.

St Colm Cille was the most influential of all the Irish saints on modern Christianity in Ireland and Britain. He was well known in England and more so in Scotland by the Latin form of his name, Columba and infact there are many Protestant churchs called St Columba's. He was a monk, a missionary and the first abbot of Iona, the beacon of Christianity in Scotland, which he set up in the year 563 AD. In that year he left Ireland with twelve companions/monks and settled on Iona. In Scottish Gaelic it is today known as Eilean Í (Iona Island) but anciently was known as Í Chalum Cille (Colm Cille's Iona). He done much great missionary work among the Picts in Scotland. He combined the notion of monastic exile with travelling missionary work which influence later monks. Colm Cille is the patron of the glen and parish that bears his name in the south west of Donegal namely Glencolmcille. There are many ancient remains in Glencolmcille associated with him. There are a series of ancient stone cross-slabs in the area said to relate to him.

A large number of religious poems and prophecies are attributed to him. He was said to have had clarevoyant skills. It is said that at his birth an angel appeared to his mother to announce to the world that a great child would be born and that he would be a future saint. Surely the greatest story surrounding him is the tale of the Loch Ness monster. St Colm Cille is the first on record to have seen the monster.

By the year 1532, the cult of Colm Cille was massive in the Celtic world, especially Ireland and western Scotland. His reputation was further enhanced when, in that year, Mánus Ó Domhnaill wrote 'Beatha Colaim Chille' (The Life of Colm Cille). He made use of the much earlier 'life' written by Ádhamhnán but added much of the available folklore surrounding him at the time. The oral tradition about Colm Cille was strong in Donegal at that time and he found no shotage of stories to record. We are told that an angel came to his mother with a large heavy flagstone that was magically floating on the nearby lake. She gave birth on this large flat stone. She bled, staining the earth around. Today, the rich red clay found around Gartan had until very recently thought to contain curative properties and was said to drive away rats and vermine! Another story relates to when Colm Cille went to Tory island to convert the locals to Christianity. The chief on the island was not too keen on the idea and said to Colm Cille that he could have as much of the island as his cloak could cover. When Colm Cille spread out his cloak it magically covered the whole island. The chief was angry at this and set a wild hound on him. Colm Cille made the sign of the cross and the hound fell dead. Afterwards the chief submitted to Colm Cille and Colm Cille blessed the island and bestowed the soil with the same magical properties as can be found around his native Gartan.

Colm Cille is regarded as the holy saint of the Cineál Chonaill tribes. His name was held holy by the O'Donnells, Dohertys, Gallaghers, McGinleys and the others. In fact the O'Donnells claimed the special protection of Colm Cille during battle right down to the early 1700's. The relic of St Colm Cille known as An Cathach 'The Battler' is a book containing a selection of spalms. The manuscript was said to be written by Colm Cille himself. His feast day falls on June 9th. He died on Iona in the year 597 AD. Colm Cille has the honour of spreading the gospel and Christianising the north Donegal area including Tory. In Scotland, the many descendants of the Cineál Chonaill were known as 'the kin of Columba', the Latin form of his name.

Many of the aspects of insular monastic and personal spirituality can be traced back to Colm Cille. He inspired many hundreds of others to follow in his footsteps, to combine the notion of monastic exile together with that of missionary work among the people. According to his biographer Adomnan (modern Ádhamhnán), who wrote about 100 years after the death of our saint, Colm Cille was also a scholar and a scribe. Around the year 685, the celebrated work "Vita Columbae" (Latin for 'The Life of Colm Cille') was written by the ninth abbot of Iona, Adomnan, who was a relative of Colm Cille. It should be noted however that a short biography about him was written before this time by the seventh abbot of Iona Cuimín Ailbhe. In the work of Adomnan, we find great information about our saint. His book is devided into three sections.

The first section gives good accounts of Colm Cille's skill in clairvoyance and of his various prophecies. He apparently had a knack for studying people and their behaviour and was no doubt a good judge of character. Accounts are given of various moments when Colm Cille had visions of angels and demons, as well as the souls of the departed. Probably the most dramatic account recalls how when he was on Iona, he had a vision that a monk had fallen from a high round tower at his monastery at Durrow (far away in Ireland). He quickly sent an angel to save him and the angel done so, before the monk reached the ground! The angel caught him and he suffered no injury. He apparently foresaw his own death and announced this to his many followers. He appointed Baithín as his successor and then died before the alter of the chapel in the monastery.

The second section of Vita Columbae relates mostly to the most interesting story associated with him. That is, his famous meeting with the Loch Ness Monster. The story goes that when Colm Cille came to a river bank, deep into the heart of the Pictish territory in Scotland, he met with a group of men who were preparing a burial for one of their own. The man died after he was grabbed and bitten by a water monster 'aquatilis bestia'. The man was swimming in the lake when the attack happened. Colm told one of the men to swim across the lake and collect a boat from the other side. The man agreed but when he was half way across the monster appeared again from the water. It roared and rushed towards the man. Colm Cille made the sign of the cross in the air with his hand and ordered the monster to go away. The monster left in a frightened state! This story echoes many Celtic beliefs surrounding 'water horses' and demons being banished by holy men. The influence of John of the Apocalypse is clear to see.

The final section of this work is probably a copy of the earlier work done by Cuimín Ailbhe and is clearly more directly biographical. We read of his early education under the bishop Finnian. Mention is also made of the incident when he was excommunicated, shortly after he was ordained a monk. He was blamed for some minor offence, of which he was later proved to be innocent. This final section, if it is indeed the work of the earlier scribe, may well have been written with the help of some older monks who may have actually known Colm Cille.

The power of his legacy can be seen in the fact that legends continued to be associated with him hundreds of years after his death, and while most probably had nothing to do with him, he was a strong enough leader, monk, teacher and guardian for people to link his name to them. From his time up until the 'Protestant Revolution' many centuries later, St Colm Cille was the most noted of the saints among the Irish, Scots, Manx and north of England people.




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