dove of the church

The Abbey at Iona was founded by an Irish abbot and missionary named Columba. Columba was born in County Donegal in the year 521. Born of the Irish clan of Niall, he came from a race of kings who had ruled in Ireland and Western Scotland for six centuries. He studied under St. Finnian of Moville and St. Finnian of Clonard. As a student, his friends gave him the name “Columcille,” meaning “Dove of the Church,” because he liked to spend so much of his time in the Church with the Blessed Sacrament.

Columba crossed the Irish Sea to Iona in the year 563 A.D, sailing with twelve companions. On the Holy Island of Iona, he founded his most famous monastery which would become the center of Celtic Christianity in the world. The first monastery on the island was constructed from logs. It included a church, a guest house, the abbot’s quarters, and a granary.  While he frequently visited the mainland — either to found yet another monastery, or on pastoral business — Columba spent most of his life on Iona, supervising and training his monks for the missionary work that lay ahead.  Saint Columba, the “Dove of the Church,” died in the year 597 A.D.

In 794 A.D., the monastery at Iona was raided by Vikings.  After several devastating attacks – and the martyrdom of 68 monks in the year 804 A.D. – the monastery was abandoned and Columba’s monks dispersed into Ireland and Scotland.  The famous illuminated manuscript known as the Book of Kells was probably begun on Iona and completed at Kells after the Viking raids.

None of the original buildings of Saint Columba’s monastery remain on Iona – they were burned to the ground during one of the many Viking raids of the 9th century.  The oldest building on the island is Saint Oran’s Chapel, dating from the 11th century.  (Saint Oran was one of Saint Columba’s followers.)  The chapel sits in the graveyard adjacent to the Abbey – a burial ground in use since Saint Columba’s time.  The buildings we see today were originally raised in the 13th century by the Benedictines, who established a new monastery on the site of Columba’s original church.  A nunnery of the Augustinian Order was established south of the Abbey buildings.

The Protestant Reformation brought an end to monastic life on Iona.  It wasn’t until the late 19th century that the abbey re-emerged and the buildings began to be restored.  Today the restored abbey church and cloister are in daily and lively use.

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