Saint Colmcille was born in Gartan, near Letterkenny in Co. Donegal in 521 A.D. He was a decendant of Niall of the Nine Hostages, his father was a prince of Tir Conaill and his mother was a princess of Leinster. He was christened Criomhthann, and placed under the care of the priest who baptised him. He was permitted to play with children from the neighbouring village on one day per week, and when he came into sight, they shouted: “here comes Colmcille”. [Colmcille means the dove of the Church]. When the priest heard this name, he decided that it was God’s will that the child should be called this name, and that his baptismal name should be forgotten.
Colmcille was sent to the monastery of St Finian at Moville to further his education, and then he learned the art of poetry in Leinster from Gemman, his master. He visited the monastery of Clonard in Co. Meath and he was ordained a priest. After his ordination, he studied for a time at the monastery of St Moibhí at Glasnevin. He returned to Donegal and was given a grant of land on the shores of Lough Swilly where he built a church and founded the monastery of Doire Colmcille. After seven years, he set about founding other monasteries in places such as Kells, Durrow and Lambay.
Colmcille came to Swords in the year 560 A.D. and chose a site for an abbey overlooking the river where St Columba’s now stands. The Abbey lands took in all of the modern River Valley parish, Brackenstown, Balheary as well as Swords. It consisted of a large church, with separate cells for the monks to live in. There was also a school, a mill, grain house and guesthouse.
While in Swords, Colmcille copied without permission a book of psalms belonging to his former teacher, St Finian of Moville. Finian demanded that the copy be given to him because it had been unlawfully obtained. Colmcille refused to give the copy to Finian, and the matter was referred to King Diarmuid of Tara. The King decided in Finian’s favour, saying “with every book its own book as with every cow her calf.” Colmcille was displeased with this ruling, and he refused to return the book. The dispute over the book resulted in the Battle of Cooldriona in Connaught in 563 A.D. Three thousand lives were lost and Colmcille was so upset at what he had done, that he left Ireland as a penance and founded a monastery at Iona off the coast of Scotland. It is said that he only returned to Ireland once when he was asked to intercede on behalf of the bards at the Convention of Drumceat. He died in Iona on 9 June 597, and his remains were brought back to Ireland and buried in Downpatrick.
His feast day is celebrated on 9 June, and when 600 years after his death, the privilege of holding a fair in Swords was granted to the Archbishop of Dublin by King John, the day chosen was the feast day of St Colmcille.