September 23 is the feastday of the biographer, successor and kinsman to Saint Colum Cille, Adamnan of Iona. Below is an account of Adamnan's multi-faceted life as abbot, hagiographer, lawmaker and ascetic, excerpted from the 1879 book 'Irish Saints in Great Britain' by the then Bishop of Ossory, P.F. Moran. The piece ends with an account of some of the localities associated with Saint Adamnan (or Eunan as he is also known in Ireland), and the account of the relics that he had collected is particularly interesting. Bishop Moran says that Saint Adamnan was best known among his countrymen for his austerities, his reputation today is as an important writer, most famously of the Life of Saint Columba, but also of a number of other works, including his treatise on the sacred places of the holy land.
THE SUCCESSORS OF ST. COLUMBA IN IONA
..St. Adamnan, whose name is perhaps the brightest that adorns the long roll of the successors of St. Columba. He was born in Ireland, in the south-west of the county of Donegal, in the year 624. A legend connected with his early years represents him as receiving favour and protection from Finnachta, a chief of the southern Hy Niall, and subsequently monarch of Ireland. When the valiant and hospitable monarch ascended the throne, in the year 675, Adamnan who had acquired great fame for learning and sanctity, was invited to his court to become his anmchara or confessor; and he remained there till summoned to the abbacy of lona, on the death of Failbhe, in the year 679. Whilst abbot he repaired the monastery, sending twelve vessels to Lorn for oak trees to furnish the necessary timber. In this work, as Boece relates, he was aided by Maelduin, king of Dalriada, whose death is recorded by Tighernac in the year 590. On two occasions Adamnan proceeded to the court of King Aldfrid of Northumbria. This Prince had lived for many years in exile in Ireland, and Adamnan had become acquainted with him at the court of the Irish monarch; some Irish records even add that he was for some time tutor of Aldfrid, and the intimacy which he thus contracted with him proved serviceable to Ireland in after times. One of the Saxon generals, during Ecgfrid's reign, having landed a body of troops on the Irish coast, had plundered the fertile plain of Magh-Bregha as far as Bealach-duin, and carried off a large number of men and women into captivity. When, soon after, Ecgfrid set out on the fatal expedition against the Picts, in the year 685, he is said by our annalists to have met with his death and overthrow in punishment of the cruelty he had shown to the unoffending inhabitants of Erin. Now that Aldfrid was recalled to the throne of Northumbria, Adamnan, in 686, proceeded on his first mission to that court, to solicit the release of the Irish captives. He was welcomed by the Northumbrian prince, and found a ready answer to his petition. "Adamnan s demand was," thus runs the Irish record, "that a complete restoration of the captives should be made to him, and that no Saxon should ever again go upon a predatory excursion to Erin: and Adamnan brought back all the captives." From the details added in the same narrative we learn the road taken by Adamnan on this occasion. He proceeded in his coracle to the Solway Firth, and landed on the southern shore, "where the strand is long and the flood rapid," and thence pursued his way on foot to the royal residence. Two years later Adamnan undertook a second journey to the court of Aldfrid. The object of this visit is not recorded, but "it probably was some matter of international policy which Adamnan was chosen to negociate." It was during this second visit to Northumbria that Adamnan presented to Aldfrid his invaluable work on the Holy Land, entitled "De Locis Sanctis," a work which Bede can scarcely find words to commend. Adamnan remained for some time in England, and visiting many of its religious homes, became fully acquainted with the correct computation of Easter, of which he soon proved himself a devoted champion. It was on this occasion, too, that he visited the holy abbot Ceolfrid, who, in a letter which is preserved in the Ecclesiastical History of Venerable Bede, took occasion to attest the humility and piety of St. Adamnan, and "the wonderful prudence which he displayed in his actions and words."
Adamnan made frequent visits to his native country, and took a prominent part in the synods and conventions of the clergy and princes which were held at this period. The annalists especially record his journey to Ireland in the year 692. At this time the monarch, Finnachta, had incurred the displeasure of the Hy-Niall race by some concessions which he made to the rival clans of Leinster. He had also incurred the displeasure of the clergy, by refusing to the lands of St. Columbkille the privileges which were granted to those of SS. Patrick and Finnian, and Kieran of Clonmacnoise. Adamnan's mission had for its object to restore peace and to heal the dissensions which had arisen. Finnachta, however, would not yield to his counsel and entreaties, wherefore Adamnan prophesied his speedy overthrow and death, which was verified in 695. In the year 697 he again visited Ireland, and obtained the sanction of the Irish princes that men alone should be subject to military service, for hitherto, writes the annalist, the women and the men were alike subject to that law. It is generally supposed that the "Lex Innocentium," with which St. Adamnan's name is linked in all our ancient records, refers to this exemption of women from military service. It seems to me, however, that it further implied that females were not to be subjected to captivity or any of the penalties of warfare. "These are the four chief laws of Erin," writes the Scholiast on St. Aengus in the Laebhar Breac: "Patrick's Law, that the clerics should not be killed; Bridget's Law, that the cattle shall not be killed; Adamnan's Law, that women shall not be killed; and the Law of the Lord's-day, that it be not desecrated." It was in the same year that a great Synod was convened at Tara, at which all the chief ecclesiastics of the Irish Church, with many of the Irish chieftains, took part. St. Adamnan was one of the guiding spirits of this convention, and in connection with it tradition has attached his name to many of the cherished sites which are pointed out on the royal hill of Tara; for instance, the Pavilion of Adamnan, Adamnan's Chair, Adamnan's Mound, and Adamnan's Cross. At this synod, Flann Febhla, archbishop of Armagh, presided, whilst at the head of the laity was Loingsech, monarch of Ireland, and with him were forty-seven chiefs of various territories. The name of Bruide Mac Derili, king of the Picts, is also marked down among the princes present, and it is probable that his friendship for Adamnan led him to take part in this august convention. St. Adamnan's Law was sanctioned on this occasion, and other canons, half civil, half ecclesiastical, which have come down to us bearing the name of St. Adamnan, seem also to have been enacted at this great synod. It was by the order of the clergy and princes thus assembled that the famous collection of canons was made, which is now known as the "Collectio Hibernensis Canonum." The last seven years of St. Adamnan's life were spent in Ireland, and it is affirmed by some that he was at this time consecrated bishop. He died on 23rd of September, 704, in the seventy-seventh year of his age.
It was principally for his great austerities that Adamnan was famed among his countrymen, and, indeed, his penitential exercises, as set down in his Irish Life, can be compared only with those of the great fathers and hermits of the Egyptian deserts. For his literary merit he also holds high place amongst the most illustrious of our mediaeval writers. His work De Locis Sanctis, to which I have already referred, was the first after St. Jerome's time which made known to the western world the condition of the holy places, and the sacred traditions of the East regarding them. St. Adamnan had not himself visited Palestine, but a venerable French bishop, named Arculfus, who had spent nine months visiting the holy places, was driven by a storm on the British coast, and being hospitably welcomed in the monastery of lona, Adamnan carefully noted down the facts narrated by him, and arranging them in due order, composed this most important treatise so valuable for all who desire to become acquainted with the scenes of the Gospel narrative, or who seek to explore the history of the cradle lands of our holy Faith. Adamnan's Life of St. Columba has already been frequently referred to in the preceding pages. As regards the early history of North Britain, it is scarcely second to the great work of Venerable Bede. Dr, Forbes styles it "the solitary record of a portion of the history of the Church of Scotland" (Kalendars, pag. 265) ; and Dean Reeves does not hesitate to pronounce it "one of the most important pieces of hagiology in existence."
A spirit of piety and filial love for his great patron, St. Columba, may be discerned in every line, and he sketches in it, with the enthusiasm of admiration and the love of a son, an exalted model of spiritual perfection for himself and his beloved brethren , the Irish monks. There is also a very ancient tract in Irish called "The Vision of Adamnan," which under the form of a vision contains a religious discourse on the joys and sufferings which await men in the next world. He mentions as specially condemned to torments those "Airchinnechs who, in the presence of the relics of the saints, administer the gifts and titles of God, but who turn the profits to their own private ends from the strangers and the poor of the Lord." He very explicitly lays down the Catholic doctrine of Purgatory, for he sets before us three classes of those who suffer for a time but "are destined for eternal life, and even in their torments are free from the rule of the demons, whilst those, who are condemned to eternal torments, are subjected to the demons." Having described the joys of Heaven, he adds that "his soul desired to remain in that happy region, but heard from behind him, through the veil, the voice of his guardian angel commanding it to be replaced in the same body from which it had passed, and instructing it to relate in the assemblies and conventions of the laity and clergy the rewards of heaven and the pains of hell, such as the conducting angel had made known to it."
St. Adamnan is named in the Festology of St. Aengus, and in all our martyrologies, on the 23rd of September. He, moreover, receives the highest eulogies in our ancient records. The introduction to the Vision, just referred to, styles him the "high sage of the western world." Venerable Bede says that he was "a good and a wise man, and remarkably learned in the knowledge of the Scriptures." The Abbot Ceolfrid calls him "the abbot and renowned priest of the Columbian order." The Martyrology of Donegal, having entered his feast on the 23rd of September, adds that "He was a vessel of wisdom, and a man full of the grace of God and of the knowledge of the Holy Scriptures, and of every other wisdom; a burning lamp, which illuminated and enlightened the west of Europe with the light of virtues and good morals, laws and rules, wisdom and knowledge, humility and self abasement." Alcuin, too, in the verses with which he decorated the church of Tours, mentions St. Adamnan as one of "the renowned fathers and masters of the spiritual life," whose protection he invokes for the faithful. Fordun, in a later age, commemorates him as "adorned with virtues and miracles," whilst the Four Masters sum up his character thus: "Adamnan was a good man, according to the testimony of Bede; for he was tearful, penitent, given to prayer, diligent, ascetic, temperate ; he never used to eat except on Sunday and Thursday ; he made a slave of himself to these virtues; and, moreover, he was wise and learned in the clear understanding of the Holy Scriptures of God."
St, Adamnan is honoured in Raphoe and many other churches in Ireland. In Scotland he is patron of Furvie on the east coast of Aberdeen, where a venerable ruin still marks the site of his ancient church; it stands in the middle of a small plantation of stunted firs and alder, on a little eminence gently rising froma swampy bottom, with a rivulet half enclosing it on the south side. The church of Forglen, where the sacred banner of St. Columba, called the Breachbannach, was preserved, was also dedicated to him. At Aboyn, on the north side of the Dee, is a large old tree, called St. Eunan's Tree, at the foot of which is St. Eunan's Well. The islands of Inchkeith and Sanda had sanctuaries dedicated to him, and his memory was also cherished in Tannadice, Killeunan, Dalmeny, and Campsie. The ancient records particularly attest that St. Adamnan, emulating the piety of St. Germain of Paris, made it his care to enrich the monastery of lona with many precious relics of the saints: "Illustrious was this Adamnan; it was by him was gathered the great collection of the relics of the saints into one shrine, and that was the shrine which Cilline Droicthech, son of Dicolla, brought to Erin to make peace and friendship between the Cinel-Conaill and the Cinel-Eoghain." In Lynch's MS. History of Irish Bishops, we are told that Adamnan composed a poem in honour of these relics which he had gathered ; and it is added that he caused two rich shrines to he made for the relics, one of which, with its sacred treasure, was preserved at Ardnagelliganin O' Kane's country, the other at Skreen, in the diocese of Killala. This latter spot still retains many memorials of St. Adamnan. The old church is named from him, and a little to the east of it is his well, from which the townland derives its name of Toberawnaun (Toher-Adhamhnain.) Colgan, citing the Life of St. Forannan, tells us that the parish derived its name of Skreen from this famous shrine of Adamnan, "Scrinium Sancti Adamnani"; and that its church was "noble and venerable for its relics of many saints." The list of the relics preserved in this famous shrine may be seen among the Brussels MSS., and in Lynch's MS. History, already referred to. There were in this sacred treasure particles from the bones of St. Patrick and St. Declan; portions of the cincture of St. Paul the Hermit, of the mantle of St. Martin of Tours, and of the habit of St. Bridget: there was also the head of St. Carthage, and other precious relics of Saint Mochemogue, St. Molua, St. Columba-mac Crimthan, St. Mathan, and other saints. In the same shrine was deposited a MS. copy of the Gospels, as also a collection of Latin and Irish Hymns, the same, probably, as the two MSS. of the Liber Hymnorum, which have fortunately been preserved to our own times.
Right Rev. P.F. Moran, Irish Saints in Great Britain (Dublin, 1879) 108-116
Content Copyright © Omnium Sanctorum Hiberniae 2012-2015. All rights reserved.
Content Copyright © Omnium Sanctorum Hiberniae 2012-2015. All rights reserved.