Abbot of Iona 679-704
Saint, author and legislator
Born around 627 died 704
Adomnan, whose name is sometimes rendered as 'Adomnán', 'Adamnain' or 'Adamnan', was born in Drumhome, Donegal in Ireland around the year 627. Little is known with certainty about his early life, but it is believed he was educated at the monastery of Brega and probably held a senior position at the Columban foundation of Durrow in Offaly. Adomnan transfered to Iona during the time of Failbe (who became abbot of Iona in 669) and succeeded him as the ninth abbot of Iona in 679, which was at the time one of the most influential positions within the Irish Celtic Church.
Adomnan may have been one of the tutors of Aldfrith, the half-Irish son of Oswiu king of Northumbria, who spent much of his early life in Ireland.
He certainly seems to have developed a close friendship with Aldfrith when he succeeded his half-brother Ecgfrith as ruler of Northumbria in 685 and negotiated for the return of certain Irish hostages taken by Ecgfrith during his raid on Ireland in 684.
It was as a result of these visits to Northumbria in 686 and 688 that he attended the monastery of Jarrow and there met the abbot Ceolfrith1. It was under Ceolfrith's influence that he accepted the Roman methods of calculating Easter, which had been adopted in Northumbria ever since the Synod of Whitby of 664. Adomnan became a keen advocate of the Roman Easter whose cause he advanced with some success at Irish Synods in 692 and 697 but, despite his best endeavours, continued to be rejected by the community at Iona, and was not finally accepted there until after his death in 716.
Perhaps his most important contribution was the Law of the Innocents also known as the Cain Adomnain or the 'Law of Adomnan', a legal code adopted by the Synod of Birr in 697 and accepted by the rulers of Ireland, Dalriada and Pictavia that exempted women from going into battle, and insisted that they and other 'innocents' (children and clerics) be treated as non-combatants and afforded protection from violence.
Adomnan was also a noted author; shortly after becoming abbot of Iona he wrote De Locis Sanctis or 'Concerning the Sacred Places' 2 sometimes rendered as 'The Holy Places'. This was an account of the travels of Arculf a bishop of the Franks in the eastern Mediterranean in 680, and contained descriptions of places such as Jerusalem, Nazareth, Constantinople and Alexandria.
But his best known work was his Vita Sancti Columbae, the Life of Saint Columba, the sixth century founder of Iona. A lively and influential portrait of one of the most important and charismatic figures of the early Irish Church, it is widely regarded as one of the classics of medieval hagiography.
Adomnan died at Iona on the 23rd September 704, a date which remains celebrated as a feast day in his honour. Within a few year of his death he was already being accorded the status of a saint and his cult flourished in both Ireland and Scotland with churches being dedicated to his memory in Donegal, Derry, and Sligo as well as in Banff, Forfar and the Western Isles. In 727 his relics were transported Iona to Ireland to help settle a tribal dispute and where carried in procession round forty or so churches.
Adomnan also features as a character in the tenth century Irish tale Fis Adamnain or the 'Vision of Adomnan', who visits both Heaven and Hell and informs the reader of the wonders of the former and the torments of the latter. It has been suggested that this work was one of the inspirations behind Dante’s The Inferno, although there is no evidence that Dante was ever aware of this work.
1 And where he might quite possibly have also met a youthful Bede
2 A copy of which he presented to Aldfrith in gratitude for his release of the Irish prisoners.
A Biographical Dictionary of Dark Age Britain by Ann Williams, Alfred P. Smyth and D. P. Kirby (Seaby 1991)