Columba was the first of the numerous Irish missionaries of the sixth and seventh centuries. He was born about A.D. 520, in Donegal, Ireland, of the royal family. His real name was Colum, but, from his dovelike appearance in childhood, it was Latinized to Columba (dove). Among his own countrymen he was called Colum na Cielle, or Columbkille, Colum of the Church. His mother, Ethena, was of the royal house of Leinster. Before Columba went abroad on his mission he had traveled over Leinster, Connaught, Meath, and other parts, preaching and calling upon all immediately to repent and believe in Christ. The Venerable Bede (Eccl. Hist. lib. in) says, "Before Columb came into North Britain he founded a noble monastery in Ireland, which, in the language of the Scots [Irish], was called Dairmach, that is, the 'Field of Oaks.'" Archbishop Usher, who studied the life of this saint carefully, says "that, directly or indirectly, Columba founded nearly one hundred monasteries in Ireland." The bishop may have meant simply Christian schools; for, like his prototype St. Patrick, wherever he had built a church he founded a school. With these early Irish Christians religion and learning were twin sisters. But Columba is better known in history as "The Apostle of the Picts, or the Western Isles." Passing over on a religious visit to the Irish colony in Albyn or North Britain, the chieftains of which were his own relatives, for the 'first time he was brought into contact with the Picts, who were then pagans. From that moment he resolved to devote his life to their evangelization. For this purpose, about A.D. 563, Columba formed a company of twelve, and embarked for Druids' Island, situated west of Mull, in the country afterwards called Scotland. Here he founded the monastery, or, more properly, the great theological school known on the Continent during the Dark Ages as "The Western Star of literature and religion." Its government was wholly within itself, presbyterian and republican; the abbot or head invariably to be a presbyter, and to be chosen only by the inmates. Having built his huts, and left some of his men to till the ground for their support, with a few attendants he set out to preach to the Picts and the Highlanders on the north side of the Grampian Range. At first he was sternly resisted by the chieftain and his Druidic priest. At last, however, the king not only embraced Christianity, but became active in spreading it among his people. Columba and his companions afterwards set sail for the Western and Orkney Islands, and founded several churches and schools upon them. Having thus established his mission beyond the, Grampian Hills, he returned to Iona and Albyn. For several years his field of labor was very large, extending from the Western Islands to the Lowland Picts, to the Irish colony in Argyleshire, to the Angle-Saxons in Northumberland, and occasionally to Ireland. Although never episcopally ordained, he thus became the greatest missionary bishop of his day. His last visit to Ireland was one of peace, to adjust a political difference between two princes. On reaching Iona, "the isle of his heart," as he usually called it, he was very feeble. Finding that he was drawing near the close of life, he was taken to a little eminence from which he could see the holy settlement, and from which he invoked God's blessing upon it. Having returned, he began his favorite employment of transcribing the Scriptures. That night, being led to the altar, he fell on his knees and began to pray; soon, however, he was discovered leaning against the railing in a dying state. The brotherhood, now gathering around him with their lighted torches, began to weep and to crave his last blessing. Recovering for a moment, and feebly opening his eyes and smiling on all around, he attempted to raise his hand to pronounce the blessing, but it immediately fell. He then sank down in death, and breathed his last, in the 78th year of his age.
Columba was no ordinary man. In person he is said to have been very comely — beautiful even to old age. He was never idle. When not engaged in study, prayer, or missionary duty, he employed himself in transcribing the Holy Scriptures. When traveling he was always seeking for opportunities to do good. If he met a child, he gave it his blessing; if an adult, he inquired in regard to his soul. On entering a house, he invoked God's blessing upon it; and often, when reaching the threshing-floor, he would request all to stop work till they had thanked God, the giver of bread. His early biographers say that he was a powerful preacher, speaking the Irish and Latin with equal ease, and both with great fluency. His voice was tender, tremulous, musical, and sufficiently strong to be heard at a great distance. His soul was in his preaching, and was constantly manifesting itself through his words, tones, and gestures. He was a man of great prayer; the spirit of devotion seemed to have been the atmosphere in which he lived. If he entered a boat, mounted a horse, administered medicine, or parted with a friend, in all these he acknowledged God, and asked his protection. He was not a Romanist — Romanism proper had not reached Ireland in his day. He enjoined on all his disciples to receive nothing as religious truth that was not sustained by proof drawn from the Holy Scriptures (Prolatis sacrae Scripturae testimoniis). — Adamnan, Life of Columba; Bede, Eccl. Hist. 3. 4; Moore, Hist. of Ireland, often; Pict. Hist. of England, 1:277; Montalembert, Monks of the West, vol. 3; Todd, Ancient Irish Church; Smith, Religion of Ancient Britain, p. 256; McLear, Christian Missions in the Middle Ages, Lond. 1863; Princeton Rev. Jan. 1867, p. 5.