Women written into the story of St Columba after claims he banned them from Iona

Women are being written into the story of St Columba as part of the celebrations of the 1,500th anniversary of the birth of the poet and missionary who spread Christianity throughout Scotland.

The 1,500th anniversary of St Columba’s birth is marked today with a new celebration of poetry, song and music from female writers, vocalists and composer to recognise the occasion.

The online event, St Columba’s Women, produced by electric voice theatre, aims to connect St Columba with the women that feature in his life and legacy, including his mother Eithne; St Hilda of Whitby.

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Much inspiration has been drawn from the quote from Vita Columbae, the Life of St Columba, written around 100 years after the saint’s death by Adomnán, an abbot of Iona.

Women written into the story of St Columba after claims he banned them from Iona

Adomnán wrote: “Where there is a cow, there will be a woman. And where there is a woman, there will be mischief.”

Sandy NicDhòmhnaill Jones, who was crowned as Gaelic Bàrd at the Mòd in Glasgow in 2019, has written 17 poems to mark the 1,500th anniversary after being commissioned by the Royal Irish Academy.

Three of the pieces will be set to music for the St Columba’s Women live virtual event on Tuesday.

Ms NicDhòmhnaill Jones said she was interested in how St Columba’s legacy played out in history, hagiography and popular myth.

She said: “Obviously the monastery would have been an all-male environment, in the same way that the convents would have been all female, and we don’t know the facts of what St Columba said.

“Probably the monks would have had servants and we know it was women who worked to look after cows, but whether these women were on Iona or perhaps Mull, we don’t know.

"But, even if St Columba did not want women in the monastic precinct, I am almost certain that women would have been involved with life on Iona in some way with regards to health and nutrition.”

Further tradition suggests women linked to Iona lived on Eilean nam Ban, the Island of Women, which lies close to the Mull shore, although no evidence of habitation has been found.

Tickets for the St Columba’s Women event, which will also feature new work by singer and composer Frances M Lynch, are available on the electric voice theatre website.

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