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E06056: Adomnán's Life of *Columba (abbot of Iona, ob. 597, S02167), is set in Britain and Ireland and records in three books the saint's prophecies, miracles, angelic encounters, and death. Written in Latin at Iona, 696/704. Overview entry

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posted on 2018-07-29, 00:00 authored by bsavill
Adomnán, Life of Columba (BHL 1886)


(1.) Adomnán states that he will describe the saint's life, 'in response to the entreaties of the brethren'.

(2.) On the significance of Columba's name; the prophecy of his birth by Mochta, a disciple of Patrick (see $E06058); the author's plan for the Life and the trustworthiness of his sources; the saint's lineage and his decision to leave Ireland and become a 'pilgrim for Christ' in Britain after the battle of Cúl Drebene; and the saint's boyhood and way of life.

Book one, 'Concerning prophetic revelations'
(1.) A summary of Columba's miracles in life and after death, in both Ireland and Britain, in particular his posthumous intervention securing the victory of King Oswald in England, and his reception of the gift of prophecy as a young man.

(2.) Columba's prophecies concerning: Fintan mac Tulcháin (see $E06059); (3.) Ernéne mac Craséni; (4.) Cainnech (see $E06059); (5.) Colmán Elo (see $E06059); (6.) Cormac Ua Liatháin (see $E06059); (7.) the battle of Móin Daire Lothair; (8.) the battle of King Áedán with the Miathi; (9.) King Áedán's sons; (10.) Domnall mac Áedo; (11.) Scandlán mac Colmáin; (12.) Báetán mac Maic Ercae and Eochaid mac Domnaill; (13.) Óengus mac Áedo Commain; (14.) King Diarmait's son Áed Sláine; (15.) Rhydderch ap Tudwal (16.) the deaths of two sons of a layman; (17.) Colgu mac Áedo Draigniche; (18.) Lasrén moccu Moie; (19.) a whale; (20.) Báetán, who was buried in Derry; (21.) Neman mac Cathir; (22.) an unnamed man who slept with his own mother; (23.) a missing letter in a psalter copied by a monk; (24.) a book that fell into water; (25.) spilt ink; (26.) Áedán mac Fergnai; (27.) a man who shouted across the Sound; (28.) a fire in Italy; (29.) Lasrén mac Feradaig; (30.) the scholar (sapiens) Fiachnae; (31.) the monk Caitlan; (32.) two pilgrims who took monastic vows; (33.) the pagan Artbranan, who died after receiving baptism; (34.) the burning of certain houses; (35.) Gallán mac Fachtnai; (36.) and the priest Findchán and Áed Dub.

(37.) How Columba's spirit refreshed his monks when they were away from the monastery; and how his voice could be heard from far away when singing psalms.

(38.) Further prophecies of Columba, concerning: Luigad the Lame; (39.) Neman mac Grutriche; (40.) an unclean priest; (41.) Erc moccu Druidi, a thief; (42.) Crónán the poet; (43.) two chieftains who killed each other; (44.) Bishop Crónan, who came to Columba as a pilgrim in disguise; (45.) the priest Ernán, his uncle; (46.) a robbery; (47.) Guaire mac Áedáin; (48.) a heron; (49.) the battle at Dún Cethirn, which he told to Comgall (see $E06059); (50.) the sins of men who had offered gifts to him.

Book two, 'Dealing with miracles of power which are often also prophetically foreknown'
(1.) How as a young man Columba turned water into wine, but ascribed the miracle to his teacher Bishop Uinniau (see $E06059).

(2.) How he made the fruit of a tree taste sweet.

(3.) How a crop sown in June was harvested in August.

(4.) How bread and water he had blessed cured both people and animals from a disease that he had prophesied.

(5.) How he sent a 'pinewood box with a blessing inside it' to a holy virgin and cured her broken hip, and prophesied how long she would live.

(6.) How he cured many sick people at Druim Cett.

(7.) How a block of salt blessed by him could not be destroyed by fire.

(8-9.) How pages of books written by him could not be destroyed by water. (10.) How he caused water to spring from a rock for a baptism.

(11.) How he blessed a well worshipped by pagans and drove the demons from it.

(12.) How, at sea, he calmed a storm by prayer.

(13.) How, again at sea in a storm, he knew that Cainnech, many miles away, would calm the storm by prayer (see $E06059).

(14.) How Cainnech's staff was miraculously transported from Iona to Islay (see $E06059).

(15.) How Columba prayed for a fair wind for the priests Baithéne and Colmán Elo (see $E06059).

(16.) How he drove out a devil hiding in a milk pail.

(17.) How he revealed that milk which a sorcerer had drawn from a bull was in fact blood.

(18.) How he cured a nosebleed.

(19.) Two fishing miracles.

(20.) How Columba blessed a generous poor man so that he became rich, and prophesied that a rich miser would become poor.

(21.) How he blessed another poor man and prophesied that he would become rich in cattle.

(22.) How he prayed and prophesied that a band of robbers would drown at sea.

(23.) How he prophesied the death of the murderer Feradach.

(24.) How a monk, who had protected him from an assassin, was miraculously unharmed, and how he prophesied the assassin's death exactly one year later.

(25.) How, when a young deacon, he pronounced a sentence on a murderer, who died on the spot.

(26.) How he caused a boar to die.

(27.) How he drove off a sea monster at the River Ness by making the sign of the cross.

(28.) How he freed Iona of snakes.

(29.) How a knife blessed by him could harm no flesh.

(30.) How he healed his servant Diarmait.

(31.) How he healed the monk Fintan mac Áedo.

(32.) How he brought a dead child back to life, proving that he was equal in power with the prophets Elijah and Elisha and saints Peter, Paul and John (see $E06060).

(33.) How he healed the wizard Broichan with a blessed stone (see $E06061).

(34.) How he resisted a storm sent by the wizard Broichnan through the power of devils, as Germanus had once done. [= *Germanus, bishop of Auxerre (S00455): cf. E06024]

(35.) How he caused the doors of King Bridei's fortress to open.

(36.) How he caused the doors of the church at Terryglass to open.

(37.) How he blessed a stake with which a beggar caught wild animals, but which the beggar's wife later chopped up.

(38.) How he prophesied that a man would lose his milk-skin in the sea, and that the tide would bring it back.

(39.) How he prophesied the future of Librán, a penitent.

(40.) How, in Iona, he prayed for a girl in the pains of childbirth in Ireland.

(41.) How, through prayers and fasting, he made a wife sleep with her ugly husband.

(42.) How he knew of the turbulent sea voyage of Cormac Ua Liatháin, and saved him by prayer (see $E06059).

(43.) How he rode in a chariot without linchpins.

(44.) Posthumous miracles: how, seventeen years ago, the monks of Iona were saved from drought when they went out to the fields with Columba's tunic and books (see $E06597).

(45.) How on different occasions a favourable wind was achieved by laying Columba's vestments and books on the altar, or through Adomnán's own chiding of the saint.

(46.) How the Picts and the Irish in Britain were saved from the plague.

Book three, 'Concerning visions of angels'
(1.) How an angel visited Columba's mother after he was conceived.

(2.) How his foster-father Cruithnechán saw a fiery ball of light over the face of Columba when he was a child.

(3.) How Brendan of Birr saw angels and a fiery light around Columba when the latter was under a sentence of excommunication (see $E06059).

(4.) How Uinniau saw an angel walking by his side (see $E06059).

(5.) How an angel appeared to Columba in a vision with a 'glass book' and struck him with a whip, telling him to ordain Áedán as king [this is followed in some MSS of the Life by an excerpt from Cumméne's lost book on Columba: see $E06057].

(6-7.) His visions of angels carrying the souls of monks to heaven.

(8.) How he did battle with demons, with the help of angels.

(9-10.) His visions of angels carrying the souls of lay-people to heaven.

(11.) His vision of angels coming to meet the souls of Brendan of Birr (see $E06059); (12.) of Bishop Colmán moccu Loígse, whom Columba ordered to be commemorated in the liturgy alongside Martin (see $E06062); (13.) of some drowned monks of Comgall (see $E06059); (14.) and of the pagan Emchath, whom Columba first had to baptise.

(15.) How he sent an angel to rescue a monk falling from the roof of a house.

(16.) How he was seen conferring with a host of angels.

(17.) How the saints Comgall, Cainnech, Brendan and Cormac Ua Liatháin visited Columba and saw light shine from his head as he celebrated the Eucharist (see $E06059).

(18.) How Columba spent three days filled with the Holy Spirit and surrounded by heavenly light, during which he engaged in scriptural interpretation.

(19-21.) How three different people saw a brilliant light shine upon Columba in the night.

(22.) How, thirty years after he left Ireland and began his 'pilgrimage in Britain', he saw angels coming to take his soul, although this was to be delayed by four years.

(23.) His death, which was accompanied by angelic visions and phenomena of heavenly light, and his burial: 'the place where his bones rest is still visited by the light of heaven and by numbers of angels.' Adomnán concludes by noting that Columba's fame has gone beyond Ireland and Britain, to Spain, Gaul and Italy.

Text: Anderson and Anderson 1991. Translation: Sharpe 1995. Summary: B. Savill.


Evidence ID


Saint Name

Columba, abbot of Iona (north-west Britain), ob. 597 : S02167 Germanus, bishop of Auxerre, ob. c. 448 : S00455

Saint Name in Source

Columba / Colum Germanus

Type of Evidence

Literary - Hagiographical - Collections of miracles Literary - Hagiographical - Lives


  • Latin

Evidence not before


Evidence not after


Activity not before


Activity not after


Place of Evidence - Region

Britain and Ireland

Place of Evidence - City, village, etc

Wearmouth and Jarrow

Place of evidence - City name in other Language(s)

Wearmouth and Jarrow St Albans St Albans Verulamium

Major author/Major anonymous work


Cult activities - Liturgical Activity

  • Service for the Saint

Cult activities - Festivals

  • Saint’s feast

Cult activities - Places

Cult building - monastic

Cult activities - Non Liturgical Practices and Customs

Composing and translating saint-related texts

Cult Activities - Miracles

Apparition, vision, dream, revelation Miracle during lifetime Power over elements (fire, earthquakes, floods, weather) Miracle with animals and plants Healing diseases and disabilities Power over objects Power over life and death Miracle after death Miraculous interventions in war Revelation of hidden knowledge (past, present and future) Punishing miracle Freeing prisoners, exiles, captives, slaves

Cult Activities - Protagonists in Cult and Narratives

Ecclesiastics - bishops Angels Demons Monarchs and their family Ecclesiastics - monks/nuns/hermits Ecclesiastics - abbots Foreigners (including Barbarians) Ecclesiastics - bishops Women Children Ecclesiastics - lesser clergy The socially marginal (beggars, prostitutes, thieves) Aristocrats Relatives of the saint Animals Pagans

Cult Activities - Relics

Contact relic - saint’s possession and clothes Contact relic - other


The Life of Columba was composed by Adomnán (ob. 704), a distant kinsman of the saint and, from 679, his eighth successor as abbot of the island-monastery of Iona (modern-day western Scotland). Although the Life contains few concretely datable events, Adomnán’s implication that he had been abbot for at least seventeen years during his account of a certain miracle (2.44) provides a terminus post quem of 696 for his composition, while his remark that another took place when he had been on his way home from an Irish synod (2.45) probably refers to the meeting held at Birr in June 697. That year, or some point shortly after, seems particularly attractive for the dating of the composition, coinciding as it does with the centenary of Columba’s death. Remarkably, a manuscript of the Life in the hand of the Ionan priest Dorbbéne, datable to around 700, and thus probably produced within the author’s own lifetime, survives at Schaffhausen (Switzerland). Later manuscripts suggest two distinct traditions of the Life: Dorbbéne’s ‘A’ text circulated in abbreviated form in continental Europe, while a slightly revised ‘B’ text was copied in England and Scotland. The ‘B’ Life appears to be roughly contemporary with ‘A’, and is thought to reflect Adomnán’s own revisions.


Adomnán arranged his Life of Columba into three books, each collecting in turn stories of the saint’s (1) prophecies, (2) miracles, and (3) experiences with angelic apparitions and phenomena of heavenly light. Although the Life’s second preface briefly discusses Columba’s background, and its final two chapters the circumstances surrounding his death, there is otherwise little by way of chronological order to the text. It is a compendium of wonders rather than a biographical narrative in any straightforward sense. Adomnán informs us that he composed the Life ‘in response to the entreaties of the brethren’, that is, the monks of Iona and perhaps other members of the ‘Columban’ monastic network in Ireland and northern Britain, although his apology for the abundance of Irish names in his text suggests he probably wrote with a broader audience in mind. Certainly the Life feels Insular in scope. All events take place in Ireland and (mostly north-west) Britain, and while a number of Irish holy men appear as recurring supporting characters throughout the Life, saints from elsewhere are absent, save passing references to Martin of Tours (E06062), Germanus of Auxerre (S00455: himself strongly associated with Britain), and to the apostles and prophets. Similarly, Adomnán’s sources were above all traditions from within the Columban community, both written and oral: ‘what I have learnt by diligent inquiry either from what I could find already in writing or from what I heard recounted by informed and reliable old men’. In the former case, he seems to have utilised a number of now-lost devotional works on the saint which his own text must have eventually superseded and made redundant. One of these, an otherwise unknown book of Columban miracles by Abbot Cumméne (ob. 669), is briefly excerpted in some manuscripts of the Life (E06057). Nevertheless, Adomnán could still refer (silently) to wider, more cosmopolitan traditions of hagiographical writing, and at various points the Life draws upon such works as the Evagrian Life of Antony (E00930); Sulpicius’ Severus’ Life of Martin (E00692); Gregory the Great’s Dialogues (E04383); the Acts of Sylvester (E00930); and, of course, Scripture (c.f. the near-identical models of the contemporary Anonymous Life of Cuthbert, written at the formerly Columban monastery of Lindisfarne: E05871). From the broader perspective of this database, it may also prove helpful to note what the Life of Columba does not relate. Besides a near absence of non-Irish saints, we also find very few posthumous miracles, and when these do occur (chiefly at 1.1 and 2.44-6) they are the work of Columba alone. Adomnán describes Columba’s death and burial, but never any sort of cult around the body, let alone anything like the raising of his relics or translation. Indeed, relics of any kind are a rarity: Adomnán reports two weather miracles involving Columba’s clothes and books (2.44-45); besides this there is only a miraculous healing stone once blessed by the saint, whose status as a ‘contact relic’ seems anyway debatable (E06061). These peculiarities do, however, make sense within their local context. Posthumous miracles are, in general, rare in Irish saints' lives and Columba’s curious lack of ‘character development’ across the Life is likewise an Irish hagiographical commonplace: Columba, like Cogitosus' Brigit (E06130), never suffers a conversion crisis, nor reaches new levels of sanctity – he is always, even before birth, a holy man (Sharpe 1995, 9-10, 344). With that in mind, we should see Adomnán’s avoidance of chronology in the Life of Columba not as an oversight or missed opportunity, but as a careful literary, even theological device.


Edition: Anderson, A.O., and Anderson, M.O., Adomnán’s Life of Columba, revised edition (Oxford, 1991). Translation, introduction and commentary: Sharpe, R., Admonán of Iona, Life of Columba (London, 1995). Further reading: Ní Dhonnchadha, Máirín, ‘Adomnán [St Adomnán], (627/8?-704),’ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004), Sharpe, R., Medieval Irish Saints’ Lives: An Introduction to the Vitae sanctorum Hiberniae (Oxford, 1991).

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