Knights of Saint Columbanus

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Knights of Saint Columbanus
Ridirí Naomh Cholumba
Named afterSaint Columbanus
Formation10 April 1915; 108 years ago (1915-04-10)
FounderCanon James Kearney O'Neill
Founded atBelfast
TypeCatholic fraternal organisation
FocusCharity, Unity, Fraternity
HeadquartersEly House, Ely Place, Dublin
Coordinates53°20′15″N 6°15′14″W / 53.337500°N 6.253822°W / 53.337500; -6.253822
Region served
Island of Ireland
Instaurare omnia in Christo
(Restore all things in Christ)
Supreme Knight
Brendan McCann
Supreme Chaplain
Father Brendan Kilcoyne
AffiliationsInternational Alliance of Catholic Knights

The Order of the Knights of Saint Columbanus (Irish: Ridirí Naomh Cholumba[1]) is an Irish national Catholic fraternal organisation. Founded by Canon James K. O'Neill in Belfast, Ireland, in 1915, it was named in honour of the Irish saint, Columbanus. Initially established as a mutual benefit society for working class Catholics, it has developed into a fraternal benefit society dedicated to providing charitable services to all areas of the Irish community.[2]

There are 68 councils across all 32 counties on the island of Ireland. Membership in the order is open to all practising Catholic men and their families aged 18 and over. There is a youth division of the order open to younger men ages 16 and up, called the Associate Knights of St Columbanus. The Order is a founding member of the International Alliance of Catholic Knights.[2]

Widely described as a secret society,[3][4][5][6][7][8] the organisation rejects this assertion.[9] The Knights of St. Columbanus has also had influence in government, business and trade unions.[10][11]



Canon James Kearney O'Neill, founder of the Knights of St Columbanus

Fr. James Kearney O'Neill, of Ballycastle, County Antrim, founded the Order of the Knights of St Columbanus in 1915 "to cherish fraternal charity and to develop practical Catholicity among its members, to promote and foster the cause of the Catholic faith and Catholic education".[12]

O'Neill was influenced heavily by social teachings of the Church, in particular the Papal encyclical Rerum Novarum.[2] This key encyclical, issued by Pope Leo XIII in 1891, addressed the exploitation of industrial workers and encouraged membership in labour unions, while rejecting the extreme solutions offered by both socialism and laissez faire capitalism.[13] O'Neill witnessed such injustices first-hand in his role as parish priest of Sacred Heart Parish in industrialized, turn of the century Belfast.[2] By 1920, following the Partition of Ireland, events such as the shipyard expulsions in East Belfast, where Catholic workers were forcibly removed from the yards, began a two-year spate of attacks, predominantly affecting Catholic civilians in the city. Estimates suggest that between 1920 and 1922, over 500 people lost their lives with 1,100 people injured and 650 homes and businesses destroyed.[14] Catholics hanged in effigy from buildings were also seen during this time. These events are widely known as the 'Belfast Pogroms'. Additionally, all local government representatives were from Protestant, unionist backgrounds at this time, therefore the needs of the Catholic nationalist population could not be addressed.[15] In the face of these situations, an organisation which sought to serve the Catholic population in Belfast was direly needed.[citation needed]

Working with Bishop John Tohill, O'Neill arranged regular meetings at which the social teachings of Pope Leo XIII and Pope Pius X were discussed. This marked the beginning of the order as it is known today, by educating its members in social principles which can be applied to practical, real-life situations.[2]

The order was placed under the patronage of St Columbanus for his missionary zeal in bringing the Good News to all, in addition to infamously standing up for what's right in the face of adversity, an issue faced by many of the early Knights.[2]

The motto ‘Instaurare omnia in Christo’ meaning ‘To restore all things in Christ’ comes from Pope Pius X. As a keen follower of the pontiff, O’Neill adopted the same motto to which Pius X dedicated his pontificate in his first encyclical E Supremi. In it, the dire need for Catholic action on the topics of education, respect for property, maintaining order, and justice in the social classes was expressed.[16]

The Order was first announced in The Irish Catholic on 10 April 1915. An order with similar views and motives to the Knights of St Columbanus, known as the Columban Knights, was merged with the KSC. Over a year later, four new primary councils had been established in Belfast with more following in Armagh, Cork, Derry, Dublin, Lurgan, Newry and Portadown.[12] It is thought that these councils spread throughout the country through travelling businessmen associated with the Order.[citation needed]

Canon O'Neill died on 18 March 1922 and is buried at St Patrick's Church, Ballyvoy, County Antrim. The Order celebrates an annual Mass at the church in his honour. It is attended by Knights from all counties on the island of Ireland.[2]

In Politics[edit]

Following Irish independence in 1922, the Knights became more involved in Irish politics. At one stage, they had a significant presence in the Department of Revenue. Indeed, it is thought that former Irish President Seán T. O'Kelly was a member of the Knights of St. Columbanus, much to the displeasure of Éamon de Valera.[17] The society also historically had links to Labour.[8][18][19]

Members also held some key positions on hospital boards in the country in the mid-20th century, alongside the mostly Protestant Freemasons.[20] By the 1970s, the Knights had become involved in the politics of tertiary level education, associated with University College Dublin, while the Freemasons were affiliated with Trinity College Dublin.[21] The Knights had also been critical of the Dalkey School Project when it was first set up in 1979 as a multi-denominational school.[22]

The Knight's involvement in these sectors has drawn criticism since the 1950s, mostly in the Irish parliament, Dáil Éireann. As a result, the number of individual members of the Knights who sit on hospital, education and government boards has been far less significant since the 1990s. The Order as a whole, however, maintains public stances on matters of politics and education. One recent example of this was the Order's opposition to the repeal of the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution of Ireland which legally permits abortions in the country under a broader range of circumstances.[2] The Order also maintains support for Catholic education in Ireland.[2]


The Order follows a tripartite structure, with Supreme, Provincial and Primary levels. There are around 70 Primary Councils across the island of Ireland, each led by a Grand Knight. These councils normally operate at a town level and overall constitute the largest portion of the Order. Each Primary Council sends delegates to make up their Provincial Council, of which there are 12 across the island and each is led by a Provincial Grand Knight. Provincial Councils in turn send delegates to the Supreme Council. The Supreme Council has two levels: the Council of Directors, responsible for the running of the Order from a national perspective and the Supreme Executive, a sub-committee of the Council of Directors, controlling and directing the 12 Provincial Councils. Each level of organisation in the Order is responsible for governing the finances, faith development, charitable enterprises and recruitment of members at each lower level.[2]

The Supreme Knight is the most senior member of the Order. He is elected for a three-year term by the Supreme Council at the Stated Annual Meeting, following elections by every Primary Council. The Stated Annual Meeting rotates around each Provincial Area year on year and is attended by representatives of every Primary Council in Ireland. Any amendments to the Constitution of the Order or other major changes occur at these meetings. Provincial Grand Knights are elected by the members of the Primary Councils in each Provincial Area for three-year terms. Primary Grand Knights too are elected by their local Primary Council for three-year terms.

Each level in the Order has the following assemblage of roles: Grand (or Supreme) Knight, Deputy Grand (or Supreme) Knight, Chaplain, Chancellor, Secretary, Advocate, Treasurer, Warden, Registrar and Last Past Grand (or Supreme) Knight.[23]

Each level in the Order has its own colour of the robe, worn only on formal occasions.

Organisation of Councils of Knights (CK) in Ireland[24]
Provincial Area Location Primary Councils
Area 1 Dublin 6, 16, 20, 52, 75, 86, 102, 119 (all Dublin), 146 (Foxrock)
Area 2 Belfast 1, 2, 3, 4 (all Belfast), 12 (Downpatrick), 19 (Queen's University Belfast),[25] 29 (Drumbo & Carryduff), 41 (Belfast), 49 (Holywood), 130 (Ballymena), 133 (Lisburn).
Area 3 Armagh 8 (Armagh), 9 (Portadown), 10 (Newry), 11 (Lurgan), 17 (Dundalk), 76 (Warrenpoint)
Area 4 Derry 5 (Derry), 14 (Omagh), 23 (Strabane), 24 (Letterkenny), 56 (Stranorlar), 69 (Coleraine), 107 (Enniskillen), 143 (Falcarragh)
Area 5 Cork 7 (Cork), 22 (Middleton), 64 (Cork), 70 (Bandon), 113 (Youghal), 123 (Duhallow).
Area 6 Limerick 39 (Limerick), 85 (Roscrea), 90 (Limerick), 132 (Cashel)
Area 7 Galway 30 (Galway), 55 (Tuam), 98 (Ballinasloe), 105 (Claremorris), 126 (Castlebar)
Area 8 Westmeath 25 (Sligo), 45 (Athlone), 74 (Ballina), 88 (Carrick-on-Shannon), 122 (Swinford)
Area 9 Wexford 15 (Waterford), 34 (New Ross), 43 (Kilkenny)
Area 10 Cavan 31 (Monaghan), 47 (Cavan), 79 (Castleblaney)
Area 11 Meath 32 (Drogheda), 40 (Trim), 65 (Navan), 81 (Mullingar), 83 (Tullamore), 112 (Kells), 129 (Portlaoise)
Area 12 Wicklow 100 (Bray), 117 (Arklow & Wicklow)

Membership and Activities[edit]

Scope of activity[edit]

In order to be considered for membership in the Knights of St Columbanus, prospective members must be recommended by an existing Knight, a tradition which has stuck from the early days of the Order. Once approved, the knight-elect is initiated at a Mass, usually with several others, attended by the Supreme or Deputy Supreme Knight. During this Mass, the knight-elect receives his robes and a penal cross, a sign of Catholic persecution in Ireland.[26]

Meetings of Primary Councils are chaired by the Grand Knight and start with an opening prayer. Generally, the council chaplain offers some faith teaching and the meeting goes on to discuss fundraising and other projects, concluding with a final prayer.[26]

Much of the work of the Knights involves assisting with church ceremonies, although the Order often raises funds for both their own charitable ventures and that of other organisations. A national project undertaken by Area 3 in 2017 involved the sourcing and subsequent tour of Ireland with a relic of Saint Teresa of Calcutta on the 20th anniversary of her death. This scheme involved Knights from all parts of the country, including the Associate Knights of St Columbanus who were responsible for promoting the tour on Facebook, YouTube and Instagram to make the tour more accessible to younger Catholics. The duties of the Knights involved ensuring that the relic was safely transported around the country and that it was always guarded when available for veneration.[27] Another project of note is the Christmas Day Dinner which has been run by the Order since 1924. The Knights provide a hot meal on Christmas Day for the poor and homeless of Dublin City and the surrounding areas. Both projects have received significant media attention.[28]

Associate Knights of St Columbanus[edit]

Logo of the Associate Knights of St Columbanus
A recipient of an Amazon Kindle Fire Tablet is shown how to use her device. Newry, 2016

The Associate Knights of St Columbanus is the youth section of the order. The scheme was initially introduced in the mid-2000s in St Colman's College, Newry by Canon Francis Brown for 6th Form students (16–18 years). These Associate Knights followed a similar structure to that of the main Knights of St Columbanus and maintained a membership of around 30 students each year. These Associates were initiated as with the main knights and wore the same robes.[citation needed]

In 2013, the Associate Knights were opened up to young men from outside the college. The structure of the Associates also changed so that they no longer followed that of the main Knights. Instead, they would hold their own meetings, as a sub-division of the Newry Primary Council (CK10). The Associates are no longer initiated as with the main knights, rather they participate in a very simple part of a normal Mass where they are presented with the penal cross, but no robes. This way, the Associate Knights are distinct from the older age profile of the main Knights, while maintaining the fraternal and supportive link to Order.[citation needed]

The Associate Knights in Newry meet on a twice-monthly basis where each meeting starts with a faith-development session followed by discussion of their apostolic projects. The faith-development sessions are led by questions the Associate Knights have about their faith and are answered by an invited priest or permanent deacon. These meetings are led entirely by the Associate Knights to promote leadership skills among its members. Members are able to join by contacting the Newry Primary Council or through the Associate Knights' social media. Members are between 16 and 21 years old. Some of their apostolic projects include assisting with the work of St Vincent de Paul, facilitating special church services such as for examinations, and ReKindling Faith in the Housebound. This scheme aims to provide housebound members of the local community with Kindle Fire tablets purchased through locally fundraised money. Recipients of the tablets are then able to watch local Mass and other church services streamed via a webcam. This initiative has received national acclaim as a way of enabling people to participate in their local community, who otherwise would not have been able to do so.[29]

In 2017, the Associate Knights began operating from the Catholic Chaplaincy at Queen's University Belfast. Their meetings followed a similar structure to those in Newry, with the faith-development led by the resident chaplain. The Associates at QUB are supported by the Drumbo and Carryduff primary council of Knights (CK29). In November 2019, the Associate Knights became a full council of Knights, adopting the vacant Council 19 as their number. This represented the first university council in the Order, similar to the College Councils of the Knights of Columbus.[30] Membership is promoted via stalls at University Freshers Fairs and social media. As the youngest students at university are 18, the upper limit is also higher at 25 to span the most common age of university students. Some of their apostolic projects include the Mary's Meals Backpack Scheme, ShelterNI sleep-outs in aid of homeless charities, providing food to the homeless of Belfast, organising guest speakers and supporting the outreach of the Chaplaincy.[31]

Pope John Paul II Award[edit]

The Award was launched by the Papal Nuncio to Ireland Most Rev. Dr. Giuseppe Lazzarotto on 7 November 2006 in the Diocese of Derry. It is coordinated from its head office in Derry, Northern Ireland, and created by Fr Paul Farren in his role as director of the Derry Diocesan Catechetical Centre. Pope John Paul II was chosen as the Award's namesake because of his love, belief, confidence and commitment to young people. The Knights of St Columbanus chose the Award as its National Project and have financially supported the Award throughout Ireland.

It enables young people to take an active part in the life of their Church, community and society. In the spirit of Canon O’Neill's vision for education, the Award facilitates awareness of the role of the Catholic Church in the world and engagement at a deep level with Christ.

The Award is non-competitive, flexible and voluntary. Awards are earned by taking part in parish and social activities. There are three awards, Gold, Silver and Bronze, earned by spending 1 hour per week over 8, 14 or 20 weeks respectively. Those who have completed the Gold Award have a further option of completing the Papal Cross Award.

As well as the feeling of personal achievement that participants hope to gain from taking part in the award, it is hoped that participation will help to show future employers and educators that they are young people who can make an ongoing commitment to a task.

The first patron of the Award was the then Bishop of Derry, Most Rev. Dr. Séamus Hegarty, who said of the Award: "the purpose of this initiative is to enable young people to live their faith and to witness to that faith lived out in the parish community". The current bishop of Derry, Most Rev. Dónal McKeown, is the current patron.

Since 2006, the Award has been running successfully in schools and parishes throughout Ireland and the UK. It is continuing to expand.

In 2017, the Award celebrated its 10-year anniversary with a pilgrimage to Rome and the Vatican. Past and current participants of the Award visited some of the churches and chapels of the cities and got the chance to participate in a Mass in St Peter's Basilica and to visit the tomb of Pope John Paul II. The Knights were represented on the pilgrimage by Associate Knights of St Columbanus from Newry: 181 pilgrims came from 12 dioceses in Ireland.[32] The pilgrimage was captured as part of a UTV documentary 'A New Order'. A televised Mass was also celebrated by Bishop Dónal McKeown on RTÉ with past and current participants of the Award and Supreme Knight Gerald Harbinson on 18 December 2017.[33]


In 2015 the Order celebrated its 100th anniversary. The year began with a Eucharistic celebration on Sunday 12 October in Athlone. After this several events were held to mark the occasion;

  • The Schools Public Speaking Competition was created. This encourages students from all over the island to compete in addressing some contemporary issues faced by Catholic youth today. The 2015 competition was a success and, as of 2017, had become an annual event.
  • A Day Conference took place in Maynooth College on Saturday 13 June 2015 on the theme of Building a Person-Centered Economy.
  • An Icon of St Columbanus was completed and presented to the Order at the 2015 Annual Stated Meeting.
  • A hymn entitled 'Prayer of St Columbanus' was composed especially for the centenary.
  • A new logo was created and used for the year.
  • A Columban Way walk, 'Turas Columbanus', was organised.
  • An Order Pilgrimage to Rome and Bobbio (where St Columbanus spent time) was undertaken that April.[2]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Riain, Eoin Ó (18 May 2010). "Diarmuid Ó Máirtín, Cad dúirt sé?". An Codú. Retrieved 17 July 2020.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k "History of the Order – The Order of Knights of St. Columbanus".
  3. ^ "It's time daylight was shed upon these knights of the Catholic faith". belfasttelegraph. ISSN 0307-1235. Retrieved 12 February 2022.
  4. ^ Masterton, Graham (15 December 2014). Taken for Dead. Head of Zeus. ISBN 978-1-78185-679-6.
  5. ^ "Quinn pledges to be 'new broom' as education chief". independent. Retrieved 12 February 2022.
  6. ^ Cormaic, Ruadhán Mac. "Cameron dead pig claims put spotlight on student rituals". The Irish Times. Retrieved 12 February 2022.
  7. ^ Reporter, Mary Regan Political (12 June 2009). "Taoiseach makes 'long overdue' state apology". Irish Examiner. Retrieved 12 February 2022.
  8. ^ a b "Labour in Name Only". Retrieved 12 February 2022.
  9. ^ "Fact or Fiction – The Order of Knights of St. Columbanus". Retrieved 12 February 2022.
  10. ^ Kelly, Stephen (10 October 2016). A Failed Political Entity: Charles Haughey and the Northern Ireland Question, 1945-1992. Merrion Press. ISBN 978-1-78537-102-8.
  11. ^ Gallagher, Michael (1982). The Irish Labour Party in Transition, 1957-82. Manchester University Press. ISBN 978-0-7190-0866-5.
  12. ^ a b Rogers, F. (2012). Canon James Kearney O'Neill (1857-1922): Founder of the Knights of St Columbanus. 1st ed. Belfast.
  13. ^ Rerum novarum, §3
  14. ^ Lynch, Robert (April 2008). "The People's Protectors? The Irish Republican Army and the "Belfast Pogrom," 1920–1922". Journal of British Studies. 47 (2): 375–391. doi:10.1086/526757. S2CID 154670488.
  15. ^ "What was Belfast like in the early 20th century?".
  16. ^ says, SUNDAY EDITION-BigPulpit com (24 October 2014). "9 Ways to Restore All Things in Christ".
  17. ^ McCormack, Blackwell Companion to Modern Irish Culture (2001) p. 524.
  18. ^ "Davin, William | Dictionary of Irish Biography". Retrieved 12 February 2022.
  19. ^ "Corish, Brendan | Dictionary of Irish Biography". Retrieved 12 February 2022.
  20. ^ Dáil Éireann 10 June 1953
  21. ^ Dáil Éireann 16 July 1969
  22. ^ Multi-Denominational Schools in the Republic of Ireland 1975-1995 Archived 6 January 2009 at the Wayback Machine, Professor Áine Hyland, paper given at Conference Education and Religion organised by C.R.E.L.A. at the University of Nice. 21–22 June 1996, Educate Together
  23. ^ "Supreme Executive – The Order of Knights of St. Columbanus".
  24. ^ "Provincial Councils – The Order of Knights of St. Columbanus".
  25. ^ "The Irish Catholic Newspaper - Queen's students take up knightly challenge! Fourteen young men from Queen's University Belfast along with chaplain Fr Dominic McGrattan were inducted as members of the Order of Knights of St Columbanus in a ceremony at the chaplaincy. Through prayer and apostolic service, the order seeks to defend and promote the Catholic faith, foster fraternity among members and reach out to those in need. The ceremony took place in the presence of family, friends and senior members of the order. | Facebook".
  26. ^ a b "Home - The Order of Knights of St Columbanus". The Order of Knights of St Columbanus. Retrieved 14 January 2018.
  27. ^ "Mother Teresa revered as relic starts Irish journey". The Irish News. 15 June 2017. Retrieved 14 January 2018.
  28. ^ "Welcome to Christmas Day Dinner for the homeless - The Knights of St Columbanus". Retrieved 14 January 2018.
  29. ^ Cullen, Patrick. "ReKindling Faith In the Sick and Housebound". Archived from the original on 10 January 2017. Retrieved 28 September 2016.
  30. ^ Knights of Columbus#Membership
  31. ^ Associates at QUB (14 January 2018). "Associates at QUB". Facebook.
  32. ^ Pope John Paul II Award (15 November 2017). "Pope John Paul II Award Pilgrimage to Rome 2017".
  33. ^ "RTÉ Mass on Sunday | Pope John Paul II Award". Pope John Paul II Award. 18 December 2017. Retrieved 14 January 2018.

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