The Heroic Age

Issue 6

Spring 2003

Adomnán, Iona, and the Life of St. Columba:

Their Place Among Continental Saints


by Jeffrey Wetherill

Eastern Oregon University

University of Wales, Lampeter

Abstract: If we are to believe Adomnán, ninth abbot of Iona and author of the Life of St. Columba, the reputation of the Saint reached beyond Ireland and Britain to "Spain and Gaul and Italy beyond the Alps, and even Rome itself, the chief of all cities." Is this literary embellishment or historical realism? This paper will explore the ways in which Adomnán connects Columba with the continent and how those connections are intimately linkied with his purpose(s) for writing the Life.




When surveying the early cultural, political, and spiritual histories of both Ireland and Britain, the modern traveler is introduced to a rich milieu that is still evidenced today. The 6th-9th centuries, often referred to as the "Golden Age of Christianity", collectively produced monastic sites and settlements, art and metalwork, stone carvings and churches, high crosses, round towers, holy wells, and beautiful manuscripts; many laced with Celtic flare and intricacies. These antiquities dot the contemporary landscape the width and breadth of both islands, especially southern Ireland, western Wales, northern England and Scotland, and continue to inspire and influence the religious experience and spirituality of many modern Christians.

This period is also known as the "Age of Saints" for it generated a group of religious leaders that sought to establish the Christian faith among the "Celtic fringe"[1] on the northwest corner of Europe; later moving eastward to the continent. Among the many Celtic saints who helped to shape this ecclesiastical mosaic was the highly influential, Irish-born, St. Columba. He is best known for his foundations at Iona, Kells, Derry, and Durrow, and was involved "in the most important political events of his in the north of Ireland and in the west and north of Scotland."[2] Though we are able to extract and piece together only fragmentary details of his family background and monastic career-placed among the clans of the Dál Riata [3]-we are given a tantalizing glimpse that Columba and his reputation had perhaps moved beyond the "Isles" to the continent during his lifetime.

Adomnán, ninth abbot of Iona and author of the Life of St. Columba, makes this curious statement in the final paragraphs of the Vita:

"This too is no small favour conferred by God on the man of blessed memory, that one who dwelt in this little island on the edge of the ocean should have earned a reputation that is famous not only in our Ireland and in Britain, the largest of the ocean's islands, but has also reached the three corners of Spain and Gaul and Italy beyond the Alps, and even Rome itself, the chief of all cities." [4]

This declaration deserves closer scrutiny for at on time in the Life do we find Columba traveling to or from the boundaries of the British Isles. So how then was he known as a "saintly" figure as far away as Rome? Is this mere embellishment on the part of Adomnán, seeking to add credibility to the Columban legacy? Or is this assertaion based upon some historical truth intimately grounded in Adomnán's purpose(s) for writing the Life? This paper will explore these issues while arguing that the statement itself derives from a lineage of hagiographical "classics" [5] intended to add weight and creidibility to Adomnán, Iona, and most importantly, Columba, and their place among the continental saints.

Columba and the Vita

Before examining the evidence regarding Columba's continental connections, this discussion calls for some preliminary background. We begin with the text. As a source of great literary and historical significance, the Life of St. Columba [6] written by Adomnán,[7] is a carefully crafted and detailed hagiography which relies extensively upon both oral and written sources.[8] Adomnán organizes the Life into three books, accordingly arranged around prophetic revelations, divine miracles, and angelic apparitions.[9] The document is filled with stories that highlight Columba's sanctity, holiness, and godly character, all of which are intimately attached to his functioning role as the "father of founder of monasteries."[10] The presentation of the saint, Adomnán says, is in response to the "entreaties of the brethren."[11]

Despite his noble lineage,[12] affording him the direct opportunity to serve among the political elite of his day, we are led to believe that Columba was predestined from birth for the church. Adomnán makes this point when he writes, "Since boyhood he had devoted himself to training in the Christian life, and to the study of wisdom."[13] His formative years were spent preparing for a monastic vocation [14] that would include such capacities as monk, priest, abbott, preacher, evangelist, miracle worker, king maker, peace negotiator, and founder of numerous monastic foundations. Undoubtedly, his most notable achievement was the establishment of the island monastery of Iona, the "mother church"[15] and chief centre [16] of his monastic familia. This desert in the ocean was the sacred isle where he spent "thirty-four years as an island soldier" [17] before his death on Sunday, 9th of June, 597.[18]

Continental Connections

With that background, we begin by examining more critically Adomnán's statement regarding Columba's reputation on the continent. Taking the geographical notation above-"Spain, Gaul, Italy, and Rome"-Admonán actually leaves few clues in the Vita as to how Columba's standing gained widespread, continental attention. Spain and Rome are mentioned only as a comparative reference to the great plagues that twice ravaged a large part of the world.[19] Italy is further mentioned as part of a Columban prophecy about a "terrible vengeance" in which fire of sulphur poured out "on a city under Roman jurisdiction within the borders of Italy."[20] Gaul is included in the stories above with an additional narrative whereby Columba is compared to St. Germanus. He sailed from the "bay of Gaul to Britain" and too, like Columba, dealt with legions of evil spirits.[21] Beyond these marginal references, of which only the slightest inferences can be made, we are left without further geographical, place-name guidance that would firmly establish Columba and his reputation among his continental counterparts.

A second line of inquiry is the possible contact between Columba and continental individuals. This would perhaps help to establish Columba among his European brethren and Iona as a reputed monastic site on the wider ecclesiastical map. Unfortunately, Adomnán again offers little direct evidence. The Vita certainly depicts a steady stream of individuals coming to Iona from both Ireland and Britain, but no mention is made of inviduals from the continent. Beyond any doubt, we find Columba often traveling to Ireland, as well as, to daughter houses, the surrounding islands, and various places among the Picts. In fact, interesting to note, there isn't a single epidsode in the entire text whereby Columba is found solitarily without some sort of contact and/or interaction with his monks or other religious or political figures. This caused Sharpe to make the observation that "[the Life] conveys a vivid sense of the holy man among the brethren of his community, often sitting in his little hut in Iona at the center of the lives of all his monks."[22] That said, all of the contacts mentioned above are with non-continentals. This line of inquiry equally offers little help in establishing Columba and his reputation beyond the shores of the British Isles.

Therefore, without any clear, verifiable data that might serve as avenues by which Columba's reputation had spread to the continent, we are to conclude that Adomnán perhaps overestimated his standing. Is this a case whereby Adomnán, in his exuberance to write about his patron, stretches Columba's status? Undoubtedly, Columba was a well-known figure throughout Ireland and Scotland, especially among the clans of the Dál Riata as demonstrated in the text and verified by archaeological and historical evidence. However, to prove that Columba's reputation proceeded as far away as Rome from direct, internal, textual evidence is difficult at best.

Upon closer examination of the Vita and some external sources, we gain a clearer understanding of what lies behind Adomnán's motivations for making a continental claim for Columba. These pieces of evidence will be examined and organized around two important headings: (1) the background of Adomnán's abbacy; and (2) the sources used in framing the Vita. These will help to demonstrate how Adomnán sought to regain credibility as an abbot, Iona as an ecclesiastical center, and most importantly, Columba among the monastic giants of his day.

(1) Adomnán and His Abbacy

Adomnán has been described as "a wise and worthy man, excellently grounded in knowledge of the Scriptures"[23] and 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."[24] Like a kaleidoscope that awes us at every turn, Adomnán's career can be seen by his vast array of pursuits that included both written and moral concerns: exegete, lawyer, hagiographer, monastic teacher, theologian, and saintly abbot.[25] He was born c. 624 [26] in County Donegal and was connected to Columba on his father's side as a member of the Cenél Conaill clan.[27] His father was Ronán, the son of Tinne, and his mother Ronnat of the Cenel-nEnna clan from the Raphoe deistrict.[28] Until his appointment as the ninth abbot of Iona in 679, following the death of abbot Failbe, little can be said of his life and career.[29] However, from 679 until his death in 704,[30] Adomnán served as an important ecclesiastical figure among the churches of Ireland and Britain. This is particularly reflected in his great literary and political contributions during his abbacy.[31]

While a discussion regarding Adomnán would prove a fascinating study in itself, two important sources of information about his abbacy, intimately related, offer us some clues toward the discussion at hand. The first source is the Annals of Ulster. In the AU, we are given three entries for Adomnán. Each highlights a trip he made away from Iona; one to Northumbria (AU 687) and two to Ireland (AU 692; 697). Adomnán himself, in the Vita, mentions two visits to Northumbria within a two-year period. It is difficult to discern on each occasion how long he was away from Iona as we simply have no way of knowing. However, it is a plausible suggestion that these periods of non-residence resulted in a lagging relationship, with weakened authority, among his monks.

The above possibility is given credible foundation in our second source of evidence. Bede, in his Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum, tells us that Abbot Ceolfrid sent a letter to Nechtan, King of the Picts, in which he highlights Adomnán relationship to his monks. He states:

Such, then, were my words to Adomnán, who showed how greatly he had profited by seeing the observances of our Church; for after he had returned to Scotland, he won over large numbers to the Catholic observance of Easter by his preaching. But although he was their lawfully constituted head, he was unable to persuade the monks of Iona to adopt a better rule of life. Had his authority been sufficiently great, he would surely have taken care to correct the tonsure also.[32]

This relational strain is more acutely articulated by Bede in an earlier account, "....he tried to lead his own people in Iona and those who were under the jurisdiction of that monastery into the correct ways that he had himself learned and wholeheartedly accepted; but in this he failed."[33] Richter suggests that his fact "signals a major defeat in his authority."[34] Pairing together then the statements from both the Annals of Ulster and Bede, we have to conclude that Adomnán, as an abbot and monastic leader, was lacking the authoritative credibility while failing to have influence among the Columban familia.

How does this discussion relate to Adomnán's purposes for writing the Vita? Simply, one of the primary motivations for writing the Vita, which occurred somewhere in the midst of the above events, appears to that Adomnán wanted to somehow hold up the ideal portrait of a disciple by presenting Columba as a model to the Christian community, particularly his monks. By doing so, it would once again re-establish credibility to the abbatial lineage of the Columban familia, respond to the entreaties of the brethren, and help give himself a more authoritative footing among his monastic community. If it is indeed true that Adomnán's authority had been lost through his subsequent absences on Iona, and his failure to persuade his followers on the weighty theological issue of the dating of Easter, then writing the Vita would help to regain his authority and reaffirm his credibility as their abbot.

(2) Sources Used in Framing the Text

A second motivation for writing the Vita and making a continental claim for Columba appears to be Adomnán's desire to present him as both equal to and on par with the more widely-known and credible continental saints. These "Lives" were already being circulated and read among the Columban community; held up as ideal models of the monastic life. Sharpe notes that Adomnán's "knowledge of such Lives had an influence on the structure of the book; it also coloured the language and in some instances it may have shaped the way individual stories are told."[35]

There is clear structural and grammatical evidence in the Vita that Adomnán depended heavily upon such "Lives" to organize the text and formulate his presentation of Columba. A few examples include: the inclusion of two prefaces;[36] structuring the Vita into three books,[37] and noting Columba's ongoing interaction with angels and the cosmic realms.[38] Equally, Adomnán, in his two prefaces, borrows phrasing from both the Lives of Martin and Anthony, almost word for word at times. Here is a prominent example:

The reader should also be reminded of this, that many things worth recording about the man of blessed memory are left out here for the sake of brevity, and only a few things out of many are written down so as not to try the patience of those who will read them. But even in comparison with the little we now purpose to write, popular report has spread almost nothing of the very great things that can be told about the blessed man.[39]

This conventional apology is similarly worded to that which we find at the end of the Life of St Martin.[40] Sharpe notes that Adomnán borrows the phrase, " maximis," "which he perhaps borrowed from the prologue to Evagrius' Life of St. Anthony...which infuses much of his account of St. Columba's last days" (VC ii.28, iii.23).[41] Bringing this discussion into more focus, what about Adomnán's claim regarding Columba's wide-spread, continental reputation? Does that statement have any parallel in the "Lives" of other saints? It would appear that he borrowed it directly from the Life of St. Anthony. Evagrius, author of the Life of St. Anthony, writes:

To whom then, my brother, can we attribute the fact that his fame and love have spread throughout all the provinces, he who won fame not through the dazzling discourse of books that have been circulated far and wide nor my means of the arguments of the worldly wisdom nor because of his family's nobility nor the accumulation of great wealth? To whom if not to Christ whose gift this is? Forseeing Anthony's devotion to His divine majesty He revealed this man who was almost hidden in another world, set in the midst of such vast areas of solitude. He revealed him to Africa, Spain, Gaul, Italy, Illyria, and even to Rome itself, the first city, as He had promised in the beginning. For this occurred as a result of the Creator's kindness.[42]

Evagrius is keen to highlight that Antony's reputation had spread, through Christ's help, to "Africa, Spain, Gaul, Italy, Illyria, and even to Rome itself, the first city...." It is this same geographical notation that Adomnán borrows in making the wider claim for Columba. Why? Simply because Adomnán wants to model not only the Vita, but the life of "saint" Columba on that of other widely-known, monastic role models that were being read and imitated by the monks of the Columban community. In doing so, Adomnán was seeking to establish Columba among the monastic "giants" of the day adding weight and credibility to his legacy.


Throughout this discussion, we have been seeking to understand Adomnán's statement regarding Columba's continental reputation. Had Columba become a well-known saint as far away as Rome or was Adomnán making this claim for other, less apparent reasons? To ask it another way, was Columba's status on the continent, as stated by Adomnán, grounded upon some historical evidence or was it based upon a literary device tied to his purpose(s) for writing the Vita? It would appear from lack of historical verification that the latter seems more likely the case.

Bringing closure to this discussion then, there are two important conclusions that need to be drawn. The first conclusion is connected with Adomnán's abbacy. By writing the Vita and presenting Columba as an ideal abbot and monk, Adomnán was seeking to re-establish his role as a monastic leader. He had failed to persuade his community on the most important theological issues of the day; an issue which seems to have served as an important barrier to connecting the "Isles" with the wider, continental church. Presenting Columba as someone with continental credibility would help to build a bridge between those struggling to accept the more widely adopted consensus regarding the dating of Easter. Doing so would help to reaffirm the office of abbot and Adomnán's direct authority among his community of monks.

The second conclusion that must be drawn is that Adomnán was seeking to give Columba continental status by modeling him on the "Lives" of the more known saints. This can be seen in the composition and make-up of the Vita. These saints were already having an impact upon the monastic community at Iona through their widely read lives and examples. To establish Columba among them would help th elevate his standing as a monastic "giant" and an ideal disciple.

Thus, Adomnán in writing about his patron, perhaps for the centenary of Columba's death,[43] offers the monks of his community and the sider church, a continenant portrait of the Saint that accomplished three things. First, it presented them with a image of the ideal disciple along the lines of the other well-known, and well-read, saints. Second, it reaffirmed Adomnán as an abbot while seeking to connect those who reject the dating of Easter with those who don't. Finally it heightened the profile of Iona as a monastic center on the continental ecclesiastical map. These three items all underpinned Adomnán's motivation for presenting Columba and his reputation as it reached to the three corners of "Spain and Gaul and Italy beyond the Alps, and even Rome itself, the chief of all cites."



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Copyright © Jeffrey Wetherill, 2003. All rights reserved.

This edition copyright © The Heroic Age, 2003. All rights reserved.