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Born in Drumhome, Donegal, Ireland, c. 624; died 704.

Today (23 September 2013) marks the 1304th anniversary of the death of the ninth abbot of Iona, if the annals and pilgrimage traditions are to be believed.

Today the 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 Ireland.

There were different practices in various parts of the British Islesthen. 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 petty divisions (Markus).

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 the rope.

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) or 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 quite stern."

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 (Roeder).
He is the patron of Raphoe, which includes Donegal, Ireland (Curtayne).

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 (697).

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

Cáin Adamnáin : an old-Irish treatise on the law of Adamnan: text and translation edited by Kuno Meyer (1905)

An Irish precursor of Dante : a study on the Vision of heaven and hell ascribed to the eighth-century Irish Saint Adamnán by Charles Stuart Boswell (1908)

The Bishop Reeves edition of Adamnan's Life of St Columba is also available:

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