October 28 is the feastday of an eighth-century abbot of Iona (Hy, Ia), Dorbéne Foda (Dorbéne the Tall), whose repose is recorded at the year 713. The Martyrology of Donegal records:
28. G. QUINTO KAL. NOVEMBRIS. 28.
DORBÉNE FODA, son of Altaine, Abbot of la Coluim Cille. He is of the race of Conall Gulban.
There is a puzzling duplication of abbots recorded among the successors of Saint Columba at this time and our saint was recorded as having been appointed during the tenure of Dúnchadh (710-717). Earlier scholars suggested that this duplication of abbots may reflect some sort of split at Iona over the contentious issue of the dating of Pascha, a theory which continues to be debated today. T. M. Charles-Edwards in his recent contribution on the Abbots of Iona to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography accepts that this split was 'almost certainly the reason why in the early eighth century there were often two abbots of Iona'. He suggests that Dúnchadh was the 'Roman' abbot appointed during the tenure of the 'Hibernian' abbot Conamail. Charles-Edwards speculates that our saint Dorbéne was another 'Hibernian' abbot, but fellow-scholar Richard Sharpe is less willing to accept the 'schism' theory and believes that it is impossible to say exactly what was going on with the Iona abbatial succession at this time. In any case, it seems that the abbacy of our saint Dorbéne was short-lived as this extract from a history of Iona explains:
11. Dunchadh (710-717). The annals date his appointment three years before his predecessor's death. He may have begun as a coadjutor abbot, or there may have been factions over the Easter question, and nominations by both parties. This unhappy controversy gave trouble in Iona from Adamnan's time until the inevitable transition to the general usage of the Church had been made.
In Dunchadh's third year, 712, Coeddi, called Bishop of Ia, died. He was probably a bishop resident in the monastery. In the next year, Dorbene Fada, or the Tall, "obtained the cathedra of Ia," but died within five months. This record of his appointment (apparently) to the abbacy in the middle of Dunchadh's term of office is strange, but resembles Dunchadh's own beginning. The writer on Dorbene in the Dictionary of Christian Biography says that a schism in the monastery "is in itself improbable, and has no authority in the annals." He prefers the explanation that Dorbene was appointed a tanist abbot, or coadjutor with right of succession. The record of the death of a tanist abbot in 937 (next chapter) shows that the custom existed in Iona.
The oldest existing copy of Adamnan's Life of St. Columba is written by a scribe who says at the end, "Whosoever readeth these books on the miracles of Columba, let him beseech the Lord for me, Dorbene, that after death I may possess eternal life." Critics have no doubt that the writer is Dorbene Fada; and, as he died only nine years after Adamnan, he very probably copied the book, when a monk under him, at the time of its composition. The manuscript is the oldest one of ancient Scotland that has come down to us. It is in the Public Library at Schaffhausen, but came from Reichenau, a monastery on Lake Constance, originally founded by St. Columbanus. The manuscript must have been carried to the Continent in days when zealous missionaries and learned teachers of the Celtic Church were well known in Europe. A century later, we find an Abbot of Reichenau writing, in Latin verse, the praises of the Iona martyrs of 825.
Rev. E. Trenholme, The Story of Iona (Edinburgh, 1909), 62-63.
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