Skip navigation

IONA College Logo | Go to Home Page

Columba and the Island of Iona

When the Christian Brothers started their new elementary and secondary schools in New Rochelle in 1916, Br. Ignatius Doorley named them "the Iona Schools" after St. Columba's island monastery. A short sketch of St. Columba's life shows why this was an inspired choice:

In 521, Columba was born into an Irish ruling family. Setting aside his royal claims, he chose to become a monk. In this early medieval period, Irish monasteries flourished as seats of Christian and secular learning. Monastic students followed a classical curriculum, including the Latin and Irish languages, rhetoric, logic, geometry, astronomy, and music. In addition to theology and scripture, monks studied and transcribed the works of Virgil, Horace, Martial, Juvenal, and other Latin authors, which they then transmitted to the rest of Europe on missionary journeys. "The texts read and transcribed, the skill of the Irish monks in writing and instruction, and their influence over the intellectual life of Europe were all formidable" (Matthew Brown, "Education," in Medieval Ireland: An Encyclopedia, ed. Séan Duffy, 152).

Columba quickly emerged as one of the most influential leaders of this monastic movement, founding monasteries throughout Ireland, including those at Derry, Durrow, and Kells. In 563, whether from missionary zeal or a self-imposed exile, Columba took twelve companions and sailed north from Ireland until his homeland disappeared below the horizon. They made landfall on Iona - a slender island off the coast of Scotland - and started a new monastery.

For the remaining thirty-four years of his life, Columba, taught, studied, prayed, and led his monks, building on Iona a vital center of Celtic Christianity. In Iona's scriptorium, scribes transcribed hundreds of manuscripts, and created - many scholars believe - the Book of Kells (an illuminated text of the Four Gospels). Monks traveled out from Iona to evangelize the Picts and other tribes in the north of Britain, and founded dozens of new churches and monasteries - as far off as Italy. Foreign students traveled to Iona for studies. For two hundred years after its founding, Iona reigned as a powerful incubator of spirituality, learning, and missionary spirit.

A series of Viking raids around 800 devastated the monastery; the surviving monks withdrew to the Irish mainland. In the thirteenth century, Benedictine monks and nuns and Augustinian nuns founded abbeys on the island; these flourished until the Scottish Reformation, when they were dismantled and abandoned. Today, travelers can visit Iona, walk its hills, examine its medieval buildings and high crosses, make retreat, or simply rest in its spirit.