Adomnan mac Ronain was the ninth abbot of Iona (679-704) and biographer of Colum Cille, Iona’s founding saint. According to the genealogies, he was the son of Ronan mac Tinne, one of the Cenel Conaill branch of the Ui Neill, and a kinsman of Colum Cille, his father being five generations descended from Colum Cille’s grandfather, Fergus, son of Conall Gulban. His mother’s name is given as Ronnat, one of the Cenel nEnnae branch of the Northern Ui Neill, situated around what is now Raphoe in County Donegal. He is first mentioned in the Annals of Ulster in the year 687 as having been on a mission to Aldfrith, king of Northumbria, to obtain release of prisoners taken in a raid on Brega by his half-brother Ecgfrith in 685, whom he then escorted back to Ireland. On that occasion, he presented King Aldfrith, who was Irish on his mother’s side, with a copy of his De locis sanctis, an account of a voyage to and journeys in the Holy Land and Jerusalem, purportedly taken from a narrative given him by Arculf, a Gaulish bishop, and supplemented by information in the volumes in the library at Iona. According to Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, it was while he was in Northumbria that Adomnan adopted the “universal observance” of the church on the matter of the dating of Easter, having spent some time with Ceolfrith and the Anglian monks at Wearmouth or Jarrow, and having accepted their guidance on the matter. However that may be, Iona did not finally accede to the Roman Easter until 716. But it is nonetheless likely that he was anxious to effect a reconciliation of Iona with the English and the majority of the Irish churches. In 697, he journeyed again to Ireland to promulgate the Cain Adomnain at a synod in Birr (County Offaly), a piece of legislation intended to protect non-combatants in times of war, by a system of fines. The guarantor list attaching to it of ninety-one ecclesiastical and secular potentates from every part of Ireland, including three from Scotland, is a genuine, contemporary document. Adomnan continued as abbot of Iona until his death.
De locis sanctis shows a considerable knowledge of the works of Jerome and other patristic authors and makes reference to his consultation of libri graecitatis. It subsequently formed the basis for a later work of Bede’s on the holy places. The Cain Adomnain places particular proscription upon the abuse of women in war or raids and imposes heavy fines, payable in part to the Columban community and in part to the kin or lord of the injured or deceased party, upon those guilty of doing so and upon those guilty of the murder, injury, or molestation of women. It is a humane and innovative piece of legislation that reflects Adomnan’s concerns with the preservation of peace and civil order and the protection of women, and is a milestone in Irish law.
Adomnan’s major opus, his Vita sancti Columbae, written about 700, was based upon both written and oral tradition relating to the saint, some of it derived from some written memoranda of Cummene Ailbe, abbot of Iona from 657 to 669, and some written notes (paginae), and partly from contemporary recollections of him. It displays a wide-ranging knowledge of the Bible and of other hagiographic and patristic texts. It is a remarkable account, written in an eloquent but not verbose Latin style, of the sanctity, prophecies, and uirtutes of a great Celtic saint, for whom Adomnan had considerable veneration. His desire to elevate Colum Cille to the status of a universal saint has given us one of the best and earliest pieces of hagiography to emerge from the Irish Church.
In addition, the few penitential canons ascribed to Adomnan are quite probably his. The text is certainly of eighth-century date at the latest, and there is an explicit reference in Canon 16 to one of the canons of the seventh-century text known as the Second Synod of Patrick (c. 26), dealing with a problematic case of remarriage after divorce. His awareness of the Romani provenance of this synod makes it very probable that the Canones Adamnani are of seventh-century composition.
The career of Adomnan is a remarkable achievement. He was singularly successful as a churchman, scholar, diplomat, and legislator, and his striving towards the unification of the Irish Church may have promoted that second flowering of scholarly and literary activity which characterizes the eighth century in Ireland.