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Saint Adomnán of Iona
Born 627/8, Probably County Donegal, Ireland
Died 704, Iona, Scotland
Venerated in Roman Catholic Church
Canonized N/A
Feast 23 September
Patronage Diocese of Raphoe

Saint Adomnán of Iona (627/8 – 704) was abbot of Iona (679–704), hagiographer, statesman and clerical lawyer; he was the author of the most important Vita of Saint Columba and promulgator of the "Law of Innocents", lex innocentium, also called Cáin Adomnáin, "Law of Adomnán". In Ireland, especially in Derry and County Donegal, a popular Anglicised form of his name is Saint Eunan, from the Gaelic Naomh Adhamhnán.



Adomnán was a descendant of Colmán mac Sétna, a cousin of Saint Columba and the ancestor, through his son Ainmire, of the kings of Cenél Conaill. He was the son of Rónán mac Tinne by Ronat, a woman from the (northern) Uí Néill lineage known as the Cenél nÉnda. Adomnán's birthplace is not known, although it is presumed that he was born in the territory of his kin-group, the Cenél Conaill, whose territory lay in modern County Donegal. Some of Adomnán's childhood anecdotes seem to confirm at least an upbringing in this area.

It is thought that Adomnán may have begun his monastic career at a Columban monastery called Druim Tuamma, but any Columban foundation in northern Ireland or Dál Riata is a possibility, although Durrow is a stronger possibility than most. He probably joined the Columban familia (i.e. the federation of monasteries under the leadership of Iona Abbey) around the year 640. Some modern commentators believe that he could not have come to Iona until sometime after the year 669, the year of the accession of Abbot Failbe, the first abbot of whom Adomnán gives any information. However, Richard Sharpe argues that he probably came to Iona during the abbacy of Ségéne (d. 652). Whenever or wherever Adomnán received his education, Adomnán attained a level of learning rare in Early Medieval northern Europe. It has been suggested by Alfred Smyth that Adomnán spent some years teaching and studying at Durrow, and while this is not accepted by all scholars, remains a strong possibility.

Prior to becoming abbot of Iona, Saint Adamnan had been abbot of Skreen Monastery in Co. Sligo. The site originally known as Conc na Maoil which means Hill of Seals can still be seen this day.

In 679, Adomnán became the ninth abbot of Iona after Columba. Abbot Adomnán enjoyed a friendship with King Aldfrith of Northumbria. In 684, Aldfrith had been staying with Adomnán in Iona. In 686, after the death of Aldfrith's brother King Ecgfrith of Northumbria and Aldfrith's succession to the kingship, Adomnán was in Northumbria on the request of King Fínsnechta Fledach of Brega, in order to gain the freedom of sixty Gaels who had been captured in a Northumbrian raid two years before. This Adomnán achieved. Adomnán, in keeping with Ionan tradition, made several more trips to the lands of the English during his abbacy, including one the following year. It is sometimes thought, after the account given by Bede, that it was during his visits to Northumbria, under the influence of Abbot Ceolfrith of Jarrow, that Adomnán decided to adopt the Roman dating of Easter that had been agreed some years before at the Synod of Whitby. Bede implies that this led to a schism at Iona, whereby Adomnán became alienated from the Iona brethren, and went to Ireland to convince the Irish of the Roman dating. Bede's account is however rarely believed by historians working in the area, although it is clear that Adomnán did adopt that Roman dating, and moreover, probably did argue the case for it in Ireland.

In 697, it is generally believed that Adomnán promulgated the Cáin Adomnáin, meaning literally the "Canons" or "Law of Adomnán". The Cáin Adomnáin was promulgated amongst a gathering of Irish, Dal Ríatan and Pictish notables at the Synod of Birr. It is a set of laws designed, among other things, to guarantee the safety and immunity of various types of non-combatant in warfare. For this reason it is also known as the "Law of Innocents". It is the earliest initiative of this kind recorded from Europe, and as such is often regarded, however dubiously, as a proto-type for the Geneva Convention and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.


Adomnán's most important work, and the one for which he is best known, is the Vita Columbae (i.e. "Life of Columba"), a hagiography of Iona's founder, Saint Columba. The source is by far the most important surviving work written in early medieval Scotland, and is a vital source for our knowledge of the Picts, as well as a great insight into the life of Iona and the early medieval Gaelic monk. However, the Vita was not his only work. Adomnán also wrote the treatise De Locis Sanctis (i.e. "On Holy Places"), an account of the great Christian holy places and centres of pilgrimage. Adomnán got much of his information from a Frankish bishop called Arculf, who had personally visited the Egypt, Rome, Constantinople and the Holy Land, and visited Iona afterwards. Adomnán thought the work so important that he gave a copy to the scholar-king Aldfrith of Northumbria (685-704). Also attributed to him is a good deal of Gaelic poetry, including a celebration of the Pictish King Bridei's (671-93) victory of the Northumbrians at the Battle of Dunnichen (685).

Adomnán died in 704, and became a saint in Scottish and Irish tradition, as well as one of the most important figures in either Scottish or Irish history. His death and feast day are commemorated on 23 September. Along with St. Columba, he is joint patron of the Diocese of Raphoe, which encompasses the bulk of County Donegal in the north west of Ireland.


In his native Donegal, the saint has given his name to several institutions and buildings including:

Secondary sources

  • Reeves, William, and James Henthorn Todd (eds.). Vita Sancta Columbae: The life of St Columba founder of Hy, written by Adamnan, ninth Abbot of Iona. Dublin: Dublin University Press for the Irish Archaeological and Celtic Association, 1857. Available from CELT
  • Sharpe, Richard (tr.). Adomnán of Iona: Life of St. Columba. London, 1995. (43-65)
  • Smyth, Alfred. Warlords and Holy Men. Scotland AD 80–1000. London, 1984.

Further reading


Primary sources

  • Adomnán, Vita Columbae:
    • Anderson, A.O. and M.O. Anderson (eds. and trs.). Adomnán's Life of Columba. 2nd ed. Oxford, 1991. First edition: Edinburgh, 1961.
    • Sharpe, Richard (tr.). Adomnán of Iona: Life of St. Columba. London, 1995. (43-65)
    • Reeves, William, and James Henthorn Todd (eds.). Vita Sancta Columbae: The life of St Columba founder of Hy, written by Adamnan, ninth Abbot of Iona. Dublin: Dublin University Press for the Irish Archaeological and Celtic Association, 1857. Available from CELT
  • Cáin Adamnáin ("The Law of Adomnán") or Lex Innocentium ("Law of the Innocents")
    • Márkus, Gilbert (tr.), Adomnán's Law of the Innocents - Cáin Adomnáin: A seventh-century law for the protection of non-combatants. Kilmartin, Argyll: Kilmartin House Museum, 2008. ISBN 978 0 9533674 3 6
    • Meyer, Kuno (ed.). Cain Adamnain: An Old Irish Treatise on the Law of Adamnan. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1905.
    • Ni Dhonnchadha, Mairin (tr.). "The Law of Adomnán: A Translation." Adomnan at Birr, AD 697: Essays in Commemoration of the Law of the Innocents, ed. Thomas O’Louglin. Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2001. 53-68. Translation of §§ 28-53.
  • Adomnán, De Locis Sanctis
    • Meehan, D. (ed.). Adomnan's 'De Locis Sanctis'. Scriptores Latini Hiberniae 3. Dublin, 1958. 1–34.
  • Anonymous, Betha Adamnáin ("The Life of Adomnán")
    • Herbert, Maire and Padraig Ó Riain (eds. and trs.). Betha Adamnáin: The Irish Life of Adamnán. Irish Texts Society 54. 1988. 1-44.
  • Anonymous, Fís Adomnáin ("The Vision of Adomnán"), 10-11th century.
    • Windisch, Ernst (ed.). "Fís Adamnáin." Irische Texte 1 (1880). 165-96.
    • Stokes, W. (ed. and tr.). Fis Adomnáin. Simla, 1870.
    • Carey, John (tr.). King of Mysteries: Early Irish Religious Writings. Dublin: Four Courts Press, 1998. 263-74.

Secondary sources

  • Herbert, M. Iona, Kells, and Derry: the history and hagiography of the monastic familia of Columba. 1988.
  • O'Loughlin, T. "The Exegetical Purpose of Adomnán’s De Locis Sanctis", Cambridge Medieval Celtic Studies 24(1992)37-53.
  • O'Loughlin, T. "The Earliest World Maps Known in Ireland", History Ireland 1:1(1993)7-10.
  • O'Loughlin, T. "The Latin Versions of the Scriptures in Use on Iona in the Late Seventh Century", Peritia 8(1994)18-26.
  • O'Loughlin, T. "The Library of Iona in the Late Seventh Century: The Evidence from Adomnán’s De locis sanctis", Ériu 45(1994)33-52
  • O'Loughlin, T. "Adomnán the Illustrious", The Innes Review 46(1995)1-14.
  • O'Loughlin, T. "“The Gates of Hell”: From Metaphor to Fact," Milltown Studies 38(1996)98-114.
  • O'Loughlin, T."The View from Iona: Adomnán’s mental maps", Peritia 10(1996)98-122
  • O'Loughlin, T. "Adomnán and mira rotunditas", Ériu 47(1996)95-99.
  • O'Loughlin, T. "Living in the Ocean: the significance of the patristic understanding of oceanus for writings from Iona" in C. Bourke ed., Studies in the Cult of Saint Columba (Four Courts Press, Dublin 1997), pp. 11-23.
  • O'Loughlin, T. "‘Res, tempus, locus, persona: Adomnán’s Exegetical Method,’ Innes Review 48(1997)95-111; re-printed in: D. Broun and T.O. Clancy eds, Spes Scotorum Hope of the Scots: Saint Columba, Iona and Scotland (T. and T. Clark, Edinburgh 1999), pp. 139-158.
  • O'Loughlin, T. "Adomnán and Arculf: The Case of an Expert Witness", Journal of Medieval Latin 7(1997)127-146
  • O'Loughlin, T. "The Salzburg Fragment of Adomnán’s De locis sanctis", Manuscripta 41(1997)32-37.
  • O'Loughlin, T. "Adomnán’s De locis sanctis: a textual emendation and an additional source identification," Ériu 48(1997)37-40
  • O'Loughlin, T. "Celtic Theology: Humanity, World and God in Early Irish Writings" (Continuum [Cassell], London 2000).
  • O'Loughlin, T. "Palestine in the Aftermath of the Arab Conquest: The Earliest Latin Account," in R.N. Swanson ed., Studies in Church History 36: The Holy Land, Holy Lands, and Christian History (Boydell and Brewer, Woodbridge 2000), pp. 78-89.
  • O'Loughlin, T. "The Diffusion of Adomnán’s De locis sanctis in the Medieval Period," Ériu 51(2000)93-106
  • O'Loughlin, T. "Adomnán: A Man of Many Parts" in T. O’Loughlin ed., Adomnán at Birr, AD 697: Essays in Commemoration of the Law of the Innocents (Four Courts Press, Dublin 2001), pp. 41-51.
  • O'Loughlin, T. "The Tombs of the Saints: their significance for Adomnán", in J. Carey, M. Herbert and P. Ó Riain eds, Studies in Irish Hagiography: Saints and Scholars (Four Courts Press, Dublin 2001), pp. 1-14.
  • O'Loughlin, T.‘Perceiving Palestine in Early Christian Ireland: Martyrium, Exegetical Key, Relic, and Liturgical Space,’ Ériu 54(2004)125-137.
  • O'Loughlin, T. "Adomnán and the Holy Places: The Perceptions of an Insular Monk on the Location of the Biblical Drama" (T. & T. Clark, London 2007).

External links

Preceded by
Abbot of Iona
Succeeded by


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