St. Adamnan of Iona, Abbot
(Adamnan, Aunan, Eunan)
Born in Drumhome, Donegal, Ireland, c. 624; died 704.
Today (23 September 2006) marks the 1302th anniversary of the death of the ninth
abbot of Iona, if the annals and pilgrimage traditions are to
Today the Universal Church celebrates the memorial of Saint Adamnan of
Iona, Abbot, who died September 23, 704. He was the 9th abbot of Iona
(near present-day Argyll, Scotland), the monastery founded by Saint
Columba in 563. Born c. 627, Adamnan became abbot c. 679. At that time,
abbots were members of the powerful Ui' Neill family, kings in northern
There were different practices in various parts of the British
Isles then. In Celtic monasteries there was a different method for
dating Easter, a different tonsure, and the relative authority of abbots
and bishops is unclear.
Conflict over practice came to a head when King Egfrith of North Umbria
(Celtic) married a Kentish princess (English) and
the Synod of Whitby followed in 664 to resolve the differences between
the Celtic and English churches. The king was won over by the English,
but the Columban factions remained unresolved until Adamnan used his
diplomatic skills to convert the Columbans.
Adamnan had an open mind regarding issues damaging to unity but not
essential to the faith. He worked for 15 years to emphasize the
essentials and downplay the differences. During this time he also
established a law to protect women, children, and clergy from injury or
participation in war ("Cai'n Adomna'n" or "Law of the Innocents" (697))
and wrote the "Vita Columbae". The "Cai'n Adomna'n" established legal
rights for women for the first time in the British Isles.
The "Vita Columbae" stresses Saint Columba's relationship with God and
his fight against exploitation, carelessness, falsehood, and murder.
Saint Adamnan upholds Columba as an Irish saint whose faith transcends
May God help us all to live in the spirit of Saint Adamnan. In addition
to the historical Adamnan above, there is the saint of
popular devotion of whom it is related:
Sometimes it's okay to cry over spilled milk. When Adamnan was just a
young boy, he was walking along a country road carrying a large
earthenware jar of milk on his back. The jar Adamnan carried was so
large and wide-mouthed that the only way he could carry it was to wind a
hay rope around its neck, sling it onto his back, and hold the tails of
He walked slowly and carefully because the jar was full and he did not
want to spill a single drop. You see, he had collected it by going from
house to house. No one had refused him when he told them that he was
getting it for three older boys who were studying to be priests and had
no time to beg for their food. Those who could afford it gave much,
others could give only a cupful; so each drop was a precious gift.
Does this sound strange? It was customary at that time for young to
gather around the great teachers, like
Saint Ciaran (f.d. September 9)
Saint Finbar (f.d. September 25).
They made do with
crude huts for housing and food that could be begged from the many Irish
anxious for the spread of Christianity and the training of additional
clergy to preach the Gospel.
Adamnan was delighted with himself. The three older boys would praise
him for collecting so much milk. There would be plenty for drinking and
for their porridge. Adamnan sought their approval because he counted it
a grand thing to study and to be a priest. He meant to do exactly the
same himself when he was older.
"Well, he was smiling to himself as he walked along and
thinking of the cheers he would get when he reached the
hut. Suddenly he heard the noise of horses galloping
behind him, and he heard men talking and laughing. When
the riders came into view, he saw at once that they were
grand people. They were richly dressed and rode
beautiful horses. Soon they were quite close. Adamnan
hid behind the bushes at the edge of the track so as to
let the horsemen pass. He did his best to keep the milk
safe. In spite of all his care, however, one of the
horses brushed against him. He stumbled and fell. The
jar rolled off his back, broke into pieces, and all the
milk was spilled."
It was an awful thing to happen, made worse because the horsemen treated
it as a joke. The angry young saint jumped up and shouted that they
should at least replace the broken jar, which he had borrowed. "The men
just rode on, not listening at all. Adamnan tore after them and he was
so furious and disappointed that it made him run surprisingly fast.
"'You'll have to get me some more milk,' he yelled after
them. 'You'll just have to. That was for poor scholars
and they can't be left hungry just because of you.'
"The men rode on. By this time the laughing had stopped
and they were talking of something else. Then the
horsemen looked around and there was the little boy with
the furious red face still at the tail of the last horse
and still shouting at them! Never had they seen anyone
run like that. It began to look as though they would
never shake him off!
"Now one at least of that company was a good man at
heart, only careless as men often are. He reined in his
horse and he said to the others, 'Let's hear what the lad
has to say.' So all the men said 'Whoa' to their horses
and stopped to listen to Adamnan. He spoke up to them
without fear, telling them that they were rude and bad to
laugh at an accident so cruel to him. 'You must get me
another jar of milk to make up for the one you broke,' he
said, 'because that jar had only been lent to me and I
collected that milk, cupful by cupful, from many houses
for the use of three poor students.' Little Adamnan was
When Finnachta, who would become high king of Ireland, heard his tale,
he agreed that the boy was right. He sent to the palace for another jar
of milk of equal size to be brought by chariot to them. But the incident
raised the curiosity of Finnachta about the way the poor scholars lived.
While they waited for the milk, he asked many questions of Adamnan.
Later Finnachta invited to his own house those three older boys for whom
Adamnan had been running errands. He never forgot Adamnan, who had
fought for justice. In fact, he helped Adamnan to become a priest and
they became good friends. When he became king of Ireland, he appointed
Adamnan as abbot of a great monastery.
"So that is the story of a little adventure happening to
a boy which changed his whole life. Supposing he had
just put up with the loss of the jar and milk and gone
back to the hut, wailing and complaining? Well, if he
had--there would have been no jar, no milk, no friendship
with a king, and no story" (Curtayne).
In art, Saint Adamnan is depicted praying with the moon and seven stars
near him. He may also be shown writing the life of Saint Columba
He is the patron of Raphoe, which includes Donegal, Ireland
Another Life of St. Adamnan, Abbot of Iona
Abbot of Iona, born at Drumhome, County Donegal, Ireland, c. 624; died
at the Abbey of Iona, in 704.
He was educated by the Columban monks of his native place, subsequently
becoming a novice at Iona in 650. In 679 he succeeded to the abbacy of
Iona, which position he held up to his death. He was also
president-general of all the Columban houses in Ireland.
During his rule he paid three lengthy visits to Ireland, one of which is
memorable for his success in introducing the Roman Paschal observance.
On his third visit (697) he assisted at the Synod of Tara, when the Cain
Adamnain, or Canon of Adamnan (ed. Kuno Meyer, London, 1905) was
adopted, which freed women and children from the evils inseparable from
war, forbidding them to be killed or made captive in times of strife. It
is not improbable, as stated in the "Life of St. Gerald" (d. Bishop of
Mayo, 732), that Adamnan ruled the abbey of Mayo from 697 until 23
Sept., 704, but in Ireland his memory is inseparably connected with
Raphoe, of which he is patron.
From a literary point of view, St. Adamnan takes the very highest
place as the biographer of St. Columba (Columcille), and as the author
of a treatise "De Locis Sanctis". Pinkerton describes his "Vita
Columbae" 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". It was left for a nineteenth-century Irish scholar (Dr.
Reeves, Bishop of Down, Connor and Dromore) to issue, in 1837, the most
admirable of all existing editions.
He also established a law to protect women, children, and clergy from
injury or participation in war (Cai'n Adomna'n or Law of the Innocents
St. Bede highly praises the tract "De Locis Sanctis", the autograph copy
of which was presented by St. Adamnan to King Aldfrid of Northumbria,
who had studied in Ireland. The "Annals of the Four Masters" tells us
that he was "tearful, penitent, fond of prayer, diligent and ascetic,
and learned in the clear understanding of the Holy Scriptures of God."
Another Life of Saint Adamnan
627-704, abbot of Iona. Also known as Adomnan, Adam and Eunan, Adamnan
was born in County Donegal (Ireland) and became a monk at Iona under
abbot Seghine, whom he succeeded in 679. He became famous both as a
writer and as a leading protagonist in Northern Ireland of the Roman
system of calculating Easter. In 686 he came to Northumbria to obtain
from his former pupil King Aldfrith the release of sixty Irish
prisoners, captured during the reign of Egfrith (670-685). In 688
Adamnan visited Ceolfrith of Wearmouth, who converted him from the Iona
tradition of Easter calculation and other practices. 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 and the East. Only his own
monasteries stood out against him.
He was also responsible for the Law of Adamnan ("Cain Adomnain") which
protected women by exempting them from going to battle and insisting
that they be treated by all as non-combatants. Boys and clerics were
similarly protected and provision was made for effective sanctuary.
These rules came to be accepted all over Ireland.
Adamnan's principal work was the famous Life of Columba, abbot of Iona.
This influential portrait of a charismatic pioneer is one of the most
vivid Lives to be produced in its time. He also wrote a work on the Holy
Places of Palestine, compiled from information provided by the French
bishop Arculfus, who had been shipwrecked in western Britain. Bede knew
this work, but not apparently the Life of Columba.
After Adamnan's death, Iona accepted the Nicene Easter in 716. His cult
flourished in both Ireland and Scotland with dedications to him in
Donegal, Derry, and Sligo as well as Aberdeenshire, Banff, Forfar and
the Western Isles. In 727 the relics of Adamnan were brought from Iona
to Ireland to help make peace between the tribes of Adamnan's father and
mother. They were carried round forty churches which had been under
Iona's rule: the people swore to obey the Law of Adamnan. His shrines
were desecrated by Northmen in 830 and 1030. Feast: 23 September.
Source of the above:
Adamnan's "Life of St. Columba, Founder of Hy:
A major primary source for the Celtic Church. Reeves translation, 1874
Penguin Classics still publishes Adomnan's "Life of Columba."
The Columba home page, includes The Life of St. Columba by Adomnan
(English and Latin versions), a bibliography, and more.
A new translation by Gilbert Marcus of Adomnan's
"Law of the Innocents" is available.
For more information about the book, go to
These Lives are archived at:
content © 2008, Ambrose Mooney
layout © 2008, Kathleen Hanrahan and Mo! Langdon
Page last updated: 8 October 2008
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