Saint Adomnán

From New World Encyclopedia
Adomnán of Iona
Born 627/628 in Probably County Donegal, Ireland
Died 704 in Iona, Scotland
Venerated in Roman Catholic Church
Canonized N/A
Feast 23 September
Patronage Diocese of Raphoe

Saint Adomnán of Iona (627/628–704) was the ninth abbot of Iona and the president-general of Ireland's Columban monasteries, as well as an influential hagiographer, statesman and clerical lawyer. His contributions to the evolving religious and political landscape of Britain, Scotland and Ireland were multifarious, including the promotion of the Roman dating of Easter, the authorship of the most important Vita of Saint Columba, and the promulgation of a "Law of Innocents" (lex innocentium) that defended the rights of women, children, and clerics during times of conflict.

In Ireland, a popular anglicized form of his name is Saint Eunan, from the Gaelic Naomh Adhamhnán.

Iona Abbey in Scotland where Saint Adomnán was abbot from 679-704 C.E.


Youth and early monastic life

Adomnán, who was born circa 627 C.E., was the son of Rónán mac Tinne and Ronat, both of whom were members of relatively prominent clans. On his father's side, the Cenél Conaill, he was related to Saint Columba, the founder of the monastery in Iona where he would would eventually serve as abbot.[1] [2] Though Adomnán's birthplace is not known, it is presumed that he was born in the territory of his kin-group, which is located in modern County Donegal. Little information survives on the saint's early life, but two explanations exist for his entry into the religious life: some (such as Butler) state that his father's clan required one member of each generation to become ordained into the Columban order;[3] others, following Bede, suggest that Adomnán had committed some sin in his youth and that he joined the religious order as an expiation for that transgression.[4] As per Bede's chronicle,

this austerity of life he had first adopted from necessity to correct his evil propensities­, but in process of time the necessity became a Custom. For in his youth he had been guilty of some wicked action, for which, when he came to himself, he conceived extraordinary horror, and dreaded lest he should be punished for the same by the upright judge. Repairing, therefore, to a priest, who he hoped might show him the way of salvation, he confessed his guilt, and desired to be advised how he might avoid the future wrath of God. The priest having heard his offence, said, "A great sore requires much attention in the cure; and, therefore, give yourself up as far as you are able to fasting, reading of Psalms, and prayer, to the end, that thus preventing the wrath of our Lord, in confession, you may find Him merciful." Being highly affected with the grief of a guilty conscience, and desiring, as soon as possible, to be loosed from the inward fetters of sin, which lay heavy upon him, he answered, " I am young in years, and strong of body, and shall, therefore, easily bear whatever you shall enjoin me to do, so that I may be saved in the day Of our Lord; though you should command me to spend the whole night in prayer standing, and to pass the whole week in abstinence." … [H]e ever after observed that same abstinence, according to his direction; and as he had begun that course through the fear of God, in penitence for his guilt, so he still continued the same unremittingly for the Divine love, and in hope of his reward.[5]

Regardless of his motives for committing to religious life, Adomnán began his monastic career around the year 640 at one of the Columban monasteries in northern Ireland or Dál Riata.[6] After approximately ten years of prayer and study, he set out for the monastery of Iona, a site (founded by Saint Columba) that served as a linchpin for the promulgation of Scottish and Northumbrian Christianity.[7][8] Wherever Adomnán received the bulk of his education, he attained a level of learning rare in Early Medieval northern Europe—a fact that is emphasized in virtually all biographies of the saint.[9]

Abbacy of Iona

In 679, Adomnán became the ninth abbot of Iona. In this role, he promoted the monastery's religious and secular importance, using his newfound authority to engage in dialog with ecclesiastical authorities and monarchs alike. Specifically, the new abbot enjoyed a friendship with King Aldfrith of Northumbria, which had been cultivated during the latter's studies at Iona. This relationship allowed the saint to act as diplomatic envoy, as in 686, when he secured the release of sixty Gaels who had been captured in a Northumbrian raid two years earlier—a political action taken at the behest of King Fínnecta Fledach of Brega.[10] Adomnán, in keeping with Ionan tradition, also made several trips to Britain and Ireland during his abbacy, allowing him to take part in various religious councils. During one of these excursions, he was convinced by Abbot Ceolfrith of Jarrow to adopt the Roman dating of Easter that had been agreed upon some years previous at the Synod of Whitby. Though he had a difficult time convincing his Ionan brethren to accept this system,[11] he was far more successful promulgating it throughout Ireland, where his authority as "president-general of all Columban houses" gave him the administrative power necessary to enforce this observance.[12]

In addition to his part in promoting the Roman dating of Paschal mass, Adomnán's primary religio-diplomatic accomplishment was the formulation and enactment of the Cáin Adomnáin ("Canons" or "Laws of Adomnán") at the Synod of Birr (a gathering of Irish, Dal Ríatan and Pictish notables) in 697. These statues, which were adopted by both the religious and secular hierarchy, were a set of laws designed, among other things, to guarantee the safety and immunity of various types of non-combatants (such as women, children, clerics) in warfare. [13] It is the earliest initiative of this kind recorded from Europe, and as such is often regarded as an (albeit primitive) prototype for the Geneva Convention and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Describing this momentous legislation, an ancient Irish commentary says the following:

Now after the coming of Adamnan no woman is deprived of her testimony, if it be bound in righteous deeds. For a mother is a venerable treasure, a mother is a goodly treasure, the mother of saints and bishops and righteous men, an increase in the Kingdom of Heaven, a propagation on earth.
Adamnan suffered much hardship for your sake, O women, so that ever since Adomnan's time one half of your house is yours, and there is a place for your chair in the other half; so that your contract and your safeguard are free; and the first law made in Heaven and on earth for women is Adamnan's Law.[14]

Death and legacy

Adomnán died in 704, and became a saint in Scottish and Irish tradition, as well as one of the most important figures in the history of Scottish and Irish Catholicism. His death and feast day are commemorated on September 23. Along with Saint Columba, he is joint patron of the Diocese of Raphoe, which encompasses the bulk of County Donegal in the north-west of Ireland.[15]


Adomnán's most important work, and the one for which he is best known, is the Vita Columbae, a hagiography of Iona's founder. The source is by far the most important surviving work written in early medieval Scotland, and is a vital source for our knowledge of the Picts, as well as a great insight into the life of Iona and the early medieval Gaelic monk.[16] Adomnán also wrote the treatise De Locis Sanctis (i.e., "On Holy Places"), an account of the primary Christian holy places and centres of pilgrimage. In composing this text, the saint received much of his information from a Frankish bishop named Arculf, who had personally visited the Egypt, Rome, Constantinople and the Holy Land.[17] Adomnán thought the work so important that he gave a copy to the scholar-king Aldfrith of Northumbria (685-704). The Venerable Bede concurred on the text's importance, stating that it was "a work beneficial to many, and particularly to those who, being far removed from those places where the patriarchs and apostles lived, know no more of them than what they learn by reading."[18] Also attributed to him is a good deal of Gaelic poetry, including a celebration of the Pictish King Bridei's (671-93) victory of the Northumbrians at the Battle of Dunnichen (685).[19]


  1. Daniel Frederick Melia. "The Irish Saint as Shaman." Pacific Coast Philology 18 (1/2) (November 1983): 37-38
  2. Alban Butler. Lives of the Saints. Revised by Sarah Fawcett Thomas. (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2000), 211.
  3. Butler, 211.
  4. See Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation (Book IV: Chapter XXV).
  5. Bede Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation (Book IV: Chapter XXV)
  6. For instance, Alfred Smyth suggests that that Adomnán spent some years teaching and studying at Durrow, in Warlords and Holymen: Scotland AD 80-1000. (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2003) 123-126.
  7. W.H. Grattan-Flood, "Saint Adamnan" in the Catholic Encyclopedia. (1907)
  8. Richard Sharpe. Adomnán of Iona: Life of St. Columba. (London: Penguin Classics, 1995), 53-64; Butler, 211.
  9. See, for example, Butler (212), which describes him as "Iona's most accomplished scholar."
  10. Farmer, 4; Butler, 212.
  11. Bede's Ecclesiastical History describes this conflict, stating that "[Adomnán] most earnestly inculcated the observance of the Catholic time of Easter in his monastery, yet without being able to prevail; and it so happened that he departed this life before the next year came round, the Divine goodness so ordaining it, that as he was a great lover of peace and unity, he should be taken away to everlasting life before he should be obliged, on the return of the time of Easter, to quarrel still more seriously with those that would not follow him in the truth" (Book V: Chapter XV). See also: Butler, who notes that "[the Ionan monks] and the monks of Iona's depedent monasteries held out and did not in fact capitulate until 716, twelve years after Adomnan's death" (212).
  12. Grattan-Flood (1907). Likewise, Farmer notes that "In 692 he took part in Irish synods and conventions as the ruler of Iona's monasteries in Northern Ireland. Then and in 697 he met with considerable success, pleading for the acceptance of the Easter dates which were kept by Rome and virtually all the Church in the West" (4).
  13. Described in Grattan-Flood (1907); Farmer, 4; Butler, 212. Meila also provides an in-depth summary of the law: "We know from references in sources in Latin and from the contents of the Cain Adamnain text that the "Law of Adamnan" was generally called the lex innocentium and that its apparent purpose was to remove women and children from some aspects of the prevailing secular legal system. Women were no longer to fight, nor to enter into certain kinds of suretyship which would involve them in actions of distraint. Evidence for this same restriction is found in a seventh century canon which forbids nobly-born clerics to enter into "binding" or "enforcing" surety (naidm), and permits only "paying surety" (ráth). The lex innocentium also made claims that young women and clerics, who might not otherwise have been protected by a powerful kindred or high honor-price, were to be assigned an honor-price high enough to protect them from violence." (38).
  14. Cain Adamnain: An Old-Irish Treatise on the Law of Adamnan. Edited and Translated by Kuno Meyer. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1905) Accessed online at: [1].Retrieved March 17, 2008.
  15. Farmer, 5; Butler, 212-213.
  16. Grattan-Flood describes it as "the most complete piece of biography that all Europe can boast of, not only at so early a period but even through the whole Middle Ages" (1907). See also: Butler, 212.
  17. Farmer, 4-5; Butler, 212.
  18. Ecclesiastical History, Book V: Chapter XV.
  19. See Thomas O Clancy and Gilbert Markus's Iona: The Earliest Poetry of a Celtic Monastery (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1995), for some examples of the monk's poetic compositions.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Adomnan of Iona. Life of St Columba, Translated and Edited by Richard Sharpe. London: Penguin, 1995. ISBN 0140444629. Also accessible online at: Fordham University's Medieval Sourcebook.
  • The Venerable Bede. The Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation. Translated by L. C. Jane. London: J.M. Dent; New York E.P. Dutton, 1910. Accessed online at: Fordham University's Medieval Sourcebook.
  • Boswell, C. S. An Irish Precursor of Dante: A Study of the Vision of Heaven and Hell ascribed to the 8th century Irish Saint Adamnan, with Translation of the Irish Text. Nutt, 1908.
  • Butler, Alban. Lives of the Saints,. Revised by Sarah Fawcett Thomas. Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2000. ISBN 0814623859.
  • Clancy, Thomas O. and Gilbert Markus. Iona: The Earliest Poetry of a Celtic Monastery. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1995.
  • Ecclesiastical History, Book V: Chapter XV.
  • Farmer, David Hugh. The Oxford Dictionary of Saints. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 1997. ISBN 0192800582.
  • Grattan-Flood, W.H., "Saint Adamnan" in the Catholic Encyclopedia. 1907.
  • Melia, Daniel Frederick. "The Irish Saint as Shaman." Pacific Coast Philology 18 (1/2) (November 1983): 37-42.
  • Meyer, Kuno (ed. and transl.) Cain Adamnain: An Old-Irish Treatise on the Law of Adamnan. Edited and Translated by Kuno Meyer. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1905.
  • Sharpe, Richard. Adomnán of Iona: Life of St. Columba. London: Penguin Classics, 1995. ISBN 0140444629.
  • Smyth, Alfred. Warlords and Holymen: Scotland AD 80-1000. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2003. ISBN 0748601007.

Preceded by:
Abbot of Iona
Succeeded by:


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