We have hundreds of stories about Colmcille, and they tell us much about where the storyteller came from and what was important for the storyteller and for the audience. The earliest surviving life of the saint was written by the abbot of Iona, St Adhamhnán.

The abbot wrote in Latin and hoped to strengthen the fame of Columba in the church internationally, in Northumbria and on the European mainland as well as Iona.

This is the first article by Brian Lacey about accounts of the life of the saint that were written in the thousand years after his death.

The Abbot of Iona's Story

25 February 2019

We have hundreds of stories about Colmcille, and they tell us much about where the storyteller came from and what was important for the storyteller and for the audience. The earliest surviving life of the saint was written by the abbot of Iona, St Adhamhnán. The abbot wrote in Latin and hoped to strengthen the fame of Columba in the church internationally, in Northumbria and on the European mainland as well as Iona. This is the first article by Brian Lacey about accounts of the life of the saint that were written in the thousand years after his death.

Leac na Cumhaidh

7 December – Colmcille’s birthday

4 December 2018

The 7 December is commemorated as the birth date of Saint Colum Cille. We don’t know how far back that tradition goes – birth certificates did not exist in Ireland in the 6th century!

 

Vita Columbae This is the ‘Life of Columba’ written in Latin (with some Irish words) by his relative and successor as 9th abbot of Iona, Adhomnán (Old Irish Adomnán, anglicised as Eunan - the patron of both the RC and CofI dioceses of Raphoe) who died c.704. There are 4 medieval copies (representing 2 slightly different versions) of which the oldest is Ms A, known as Generalia I in the stadtbibliotek in Schaffhausen, Switzerland It was copied –most probably from Adhamhnán’s original autograph text - by a scribe called Dorbéne, who is usually identified as the abbot of Iona who died in 713. The other 3 mss usually called B1, B2 and B3 are much later (12th-15th centuries). They are held in the British Library but derive from Durham Cathedral which inherited the traditions of the originally Columban monastery of Lindisfarne off the NE coast of England. Adhamhnán ‘s narrative is our earliest alleged account of the life of the saint, but it is hagiography –not history – and cannot be taken at face value although it is a monumental literary work. Adhamhnán, the author of the text – himself a fascinating and highly influential individual who is also venerated as a saint - is said to have written a number of other works of which perhaps the most important are (i) De Locis Sanctis – effectively a ‘guide-book’ in Latin to the ‘sites’ of the Holy Land before the arrival of the Moslems and (ii) Cáin Adhamhnáin - an ecclesiastical law tract, often described as an early form of what would much later become the Geneva Convention on the protection of innocents in times of war. Although written in Old Irish Cáin Adhamhnáin is also sometimes known in Latin as the Lex Innocentium. The text of De Locis Sanctis (or parts of it) survives in over 20 manuscripts of which 4 – dating to the 9th century - are usually thought to be the most significant. These are held now in major manuscript libraries in Vienna, Paris, Zürich and Brussels.
The text of Cáin Adhamhnáin survives in two manuscripts: (i) the 15th/16th century manuscript Rawlinson B512 in the Bodleian Library in Oxford and (ii) O’Clery Ms 2324-40 – made by Bro. Mícheál Ó Cléirigh (the leading figure of the so-called ‘Four Masters’) on 31 March 1627 at the Franciscan house in Bundrowse, Co. Donegal. This is now kept in the Bibliotheque Royale in Brussels. A hagiographical ‘Life’ of Adhamhnán – the Beatha Adhamhnáin – was composed in Kells, Co. Meath between 956 and 964. It is in the form of a sermon for preaching on the saint’s feastday – 23 September. While purporting to give an account of Adomnán’s actions, it is in fact a roman-à-clef commenting negatively on the behaviour of Congalach mac Maíle Mithig, who became king of Tara in 944. It survives in only one manuscript - on paper and in the hand of Bro. Micheál Ó Cléirigh (dating probably to 1628-9) - now in the Bibliotheque Royale in Brussels.