This Tuesday, Dec. 7, marks the 1,500th anniversary of the birth of Calum Cille, as St. Columba is known in Scottish Gaelic. Born in what is now Donegal, Ireland, in 521 A.D., Calum Cille is famed as the founder of the monastery of Iona off the west coast of the Isle of Mull in Scotland.
That in itself would have secured Calum Cille a place in history, but his missionary work in Scotland as well as his prominent role as the founder of monasteries in Ireland as as a diplomat in Ireland and Scotland made him a legend and in modern times a symbolic figurehead for pan-Gaelic culture.
Historians recently have questioned whether Calum Cille did actually travel as far as his biographers (starting with Adomnán, the ninth abbot of Iona, who wrote Vitae Columbae or Life of Columba in the seventh century) have asserted. But the legend is at least as important as the man.
Calum Cille’s legend has been reshaped over time by succeeding generations and audiences, including early Protestants and contemporary eco-friendly Christians. Today Calum Cille is seen as a cultural as well as a religious figure uniting Scottish Gaelic, Irish, and Manx speakers.
This year and next, the memory of Calum Cille is being celebrated by Colmcille 1500, a partnership program between Ireland’s Foras na Gaeilge and Bòrd na Gàidhlig, promoting the use of Irish Gaelic and Scottish Gaelic in Ireland and Scotland and between the two countries.
“Colmcille aims through its work to foster understanding of the diverse experience and culture of the Irish and Scottish Gaelic communities and to encourage debate on common concerns in social, cultural and economic issues with a view to building self-confidence within the Gaelic language communities,” the organizations say on the Colmcille 1500 website.
That’s a mission the saint, who by accounts was a mediator between Irish, “Scottish” and Pictish kings, could get behind.
On Dec. 7, BBC Alba and Ireland’s TG4 (an Irish-language channel) will jointly broadcast a documentary, “Calum Cille: An Naomh Dàna / Columba: The Bold Saint.” The program will be hosted by Dr. Duncan Sneddon of the University of Edinburgh.
“There’s a difference between Columba the man who lived on Earth and the historical figure who was recreated in the generations after his death – and they all create their own Columba,” Sneddon said in a statement. “But they all tell us something important. They all put together a Columba who was powerful, brave and important in different ways.”
ACGA is considering ways to participate in the commemoration of Calum Cille in 2022, perhaps with a special online program — perhaps close to Calum Cille’s June 9 feast day. Stay tuned.