The Heroic Age

Issue 6

Spring 2003

Adomnán, Iona, and the Life of St. Columba

by Jeffrey Wetherill


1. This phrase is borrowed from the title of Christopher Snyder's well-written article on this subject in the ORB: Online Reference Book for Medieval Studies.

2. Sharpe, Introduction, p. 1.

3. The Dál Riata (sometimes stated as Dál Riada) is the collective term for the clans and kin of the ruling people in the northeast of Ireland that migrated and settled into the south/west of Scotland. It was through the Dál Riata that Columba and Adomnán were distantly related.

4. VC, iii. 23.

5. In using the term "classics" I am merely referring to the more widely read and familiar of the saints' "Lives." These included such works as the Life of Antony (by Anthanasius and Evagrius); Life of Paul of Thebes, Hilarion, and Malchus (by Jerome); Life of St. Martin of Tours (by Sulpicius Severus); and the Life of St. Benedict (by Gregory the Great).

6. The most widely recognized translations of the Life are Reeves (1857); A. O. Anderson and M. O. Anderson (1961, rev. 1991); and Sharpe (1995). Throughout this article all citations will be from the book and chapter divisions in Sharpe, unless otherwise noted. I have chosen Sharpe because his translations was based on "latin text published in 1961 by Alan Orr Anderson and Marjorie Ogilvie Anderson." (Sharpe, Columba, Preface). Equally, it provides clarity and accuracy to the original Latin, scholarly treatment of the issues, and interaction with both Reeves and the Andersons on some of the more debatable and complex issues contained in the Vita Columbae.

7. Adomnán (c. 627-704) was the 9th abbot of Iona. It is a plausible suggestion that Adomnán perhaps wrote the Life in preparation for the "eve of St. Columba's feast" on the centenary of his death. See VC, ii.45; Sharpe, Columba, p. 55; and Richter, p. 76 for this possible connection.

8. VC, 2nd Preface.

9. VC, 2nd Preface

10. VC, 2nd Preface

11. VC, 1st Preface.

12. VC, 2nd Preface. Adomnán names Columba's father as Fedelmid mac Ferguso and his mother as Eithne. Columba was connected by lineas to the Cenél Conaill, one of the most powerful ruling families of the Ui Néill dynasty. Sharpe notes, "The rulers of the Cenél Conaill, St. Columba's close cousins, were therefore among the most powerful kings in Ireland." (Sharpe, Columba, p. 247).

13. VC, 2nd Preface, "...marked out as a son of promise..." See also VC, iii.1. The story is told that an angel of the Lord appeared to Columba's mother after his conception, but before his birth.

The angel said, "Woman, do not be distressed, for you shall bear to the man to whom you are joined in marriage a son of such flower that he shall be reckoned as one of the prophets. He is destined by God to lead innumerable souls to the heavenly kingdom."

14. VC, 2nd Preface. Further, Columba was brought up by a foster-father and priest called Cruithmechan (VC, iii.2); began his religious studies, while still a deacon, under Gemman (VC, ii.25) and studied sacred scripture with a bishop that is named as Finnbarr, Finnio, and/or Uinniau (VC i.1; ii.1; iii.4)

15. VC, i.5.

16. Bede, HE iii.4.

17. VC, Second Preface.

18. VC, iii.23; Most traditions hold to this date, or its proximity, for Columba's death. See Anderson and Anderson, Columba, p. 67; Kenney, 425; Reeves, Columba, p. 26; and Sharpe, Columba, p. 1.

19. VC, ii.46.

20. VC, i.28.

21. VC, ii.34.

22. Sharpe, preface.

23. Bede, HE, v.15

24. Unfortunately, I am unable to locate this reference with precision. I believe it was by Pinkerton (1789) in his Vitae Antique but can not be certain.

25. O'Loughlin, p. 69.

26. AU 624; Kenny, p. 284. Alternatively, the Andersons suggest c. 628, p.92. This can be dated from the entry of his deah in 704 which stated that he was 77.

27. See Kenny, p. 284. Alternatively, the Andersons suggest c. 628 (p. 92). This can be dated from the entry of his death in 704 which stated that he was seventy-seven.

28. Anderson, Columba, p. 92.

29. Kenny, p. 284l; Anderson, p. 92.

30. AU says he was seventy-seven at the time of his death.

31 These include: De Locis Sanctis (a guidebook written about the Holy Places after his meeting with Bishop Arculf; see Bede, HE, v.15); Cáin Adomnán (a law tract known as Adomnán's law that was adopted at the Synod at Birr which placed women, children, and clergy under protection in times of war and unrest).

32. Bede, HE, v.21

33. ibid., v.15

34. Richter, p. 69.

35. Sharpe, Introduction, p. 57.

36. Life of St. Martin (Dedicatory Letter, Preface) and Life of St. Anthony (Prologue; Preface).

37. Life of St. Martin.

38. Gregory the Great, Dialogues, ii.35

39. VC, 1st Preface

40. Life of St. Martin, i.8-9; xix.5.

41. Sharpe, p. 242.

42. Life of St. Anthony, p. 61.

43. Refer to endnote #7 for a more detailed explanation.



Anderson, A.O., and M. O. Anderson, trans. (1991) Adomnán's Life of Columba.2nd edition. Edinburgh: Thomas Nelson and Sons.

Kenney, James. (1929) The Sources for the Early History of Ireland: Ecclesiastical. New York: Columbia University Press.

Mac Airt, Séan and Gearóid Mac Niocaill, eds. (1983) The Annals of Ulster. Dublin: Four Courts Press.

O'Loughlin, Thomas. (2000) Celtic Theology. London: Continuum.

Reeves, William. (1857) The Life of St. Columba, Founder of Hy; written by Adomnán. Dublin.

Richter, Michael. (1999) Ireland and Her Neighbours in the Seventh Century. Dublin: Four Courts Press.

Sharpe, Richard, trans. (1995) Adomnán of Iona: Life of St. Columba. Harmondsworth: Penguin Classics.

Sherley-Price, L., trans. And D. H. Farmer, ed. Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Harmondsworth: Penguin Classics, 1990.

Snyder, Christopher. "The Medieval Celtic-Fringe-An Introduction." In the ORB: Online Reference Book for Medieval Studies.

White, Caroline, trans. (1998) Life of Antony by Athanasius. Harmondsworth: Penguin Classics.

______. (1998) Life of Martin of Tours. Hardmondsworth: Penguin Classics.

______.(1998) Life of Benedict by Gregory the Great. Harmondsworth, Penguin Classics.



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Copyright © Jeffrey Wetherhill, 2003. All rights reserved.

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