Iona after Colum Cille

Iona after Colmcille

When Colum Cille died in 597 AD, he was succeeded as abbot by Baíthéne, a monk who had sailed with him from Ireland to Iona in 563. Baíthéne was actually a cousin of Colum Cille, a member of the Cenél Conaill family of the northern Uí Néill – as were many of the abbots of Iona in the coming centuries. The close association of Iona with its founder’s Irish family meant that the monastery’s prestige was in some ways tied to that of the Cenél Conaill.

But other kingdoms are also represented among the early abbots of the monastery: Virgno (605-623) was apparently British, though later genealogies also connect him to the Cenél Conaill.

Ségéne (abbbot from 623 to 652) witnessed a flowering of Iona’s prosperity. In his time a Northumbrian lord called Oswald, who had spent some years in exile on Iona and was impressed by the life of the Iona monks, became king of Northumbria. Oswald invited Iona monks to his kingdom to establish a church there. This was the beginning of an important monastic foundation on the island of Lindisfarne.

During the abbacy of Cumméne (657-669) the monastery of Iona suffered a decline. This was partly to do with the situation in Ireland, where Cenél Conaill supporters of Iona lost power and influence. But Iona lost ground elsewhere too, when her calculation of the date of Easter came into conflict with the newer calendar used by the Northumbrian church. In 664 this came to a head at a church synod in Whitby which rejected the old Iona calendar. The Columban bishop, Colmán, was forced to withdraw from Lindisfarne and return to Iona, eventually sailing to Ireland to establish monasteries at Inishbofin and Mayo.

The ninth abbot of Iona, however, saw a great recovery of Iona’s fortunes. During the abbacy of Adomnán mac Rónáin(679 – 704) Iona’s relations with Northumbria improved greatly, as a new king – Aldfrith – took power in Northumbria. He had spent years living among Gaels, was descended from an Uí Néill overking, and may even have studied on Iona. He was most friendly towards Adomnán – so much so that the abbot presented to the king a copy of an important book he had written De Locis Sanctis (On the Holy Places).

In 696 Adomnán’s cousin Loingsech mac Óengusso acceded to the kingship of the Uí Néill, marking an improvement in the fortunes of Iona in Ireland. This is the background to the extraordinary events at the Synod of Birr the following year, where Adomnán was able to promulgate a law for the protection of non-combatants, the Lex Innocentium or ‘law of the innocents’. This law, supported by secular and ecclesiastical rulers from all over Ireland, Gaelic Scotland and Pictland, protected women, children and clerics (people who did not bear arms) from violence – like a seventh-century precedent for the Geneva Convention.

Adomnán’s writings also included his 'Life of Columba', and probably a poem which began Adiutor Laborantium (‘Helper of workers’), as well as some ecclesiastical regulations. We know from his writings, and from those of other Iona monks about this time, that Iona had a good library. It was clearly a centre of international scholarship: though situated at the limit of the known world, intellectually and spiritually Iona shared fully in the vibrant literary culture of the western church.

After the death of Adomnán in 704, Iona may never again have enjoyed the prestige it had under Adomnán, but Iona remained a great monastery for another century, a centre of prayer and scholarship, of legal thought and patronage of the arts – it may even have been the place where the famous Book of Kells was created.

This was the island monastery upon which a sudden tide of violence was unleashed in 795, when the first Viking attack on Iona was recorded. Again in 802 Iona ‘was burned by the heathen’, and in 806 ‘the community of Iona was slain by the heathens, i.e. sixty-eight monks’. In 825 the head of the monastery, Blathmac, was murdered ‘with mad savagery’ by Norsemen along with all the other monks.

Viking violence did not put an end to monastic life on Iona, however. Although the mother-house of Columban monasticism did move from Iona, in the early ninth century, to Kells in Ireland, brave monks remained on Iona. Columba’s relics were divided, some going to Ireland, and some going to Dunkeld in Scotland in 849, where a new national church of Pictland was established under Columba’s patronage.

And by the late ninth century Scandinavian settlers were themselves falling under the influence of Columban monasticism. Viking princes were baptised, and the monastery of Iona lying in the midst of the Innsi Gall ‘the islands of the foreigners’ where the Vikings settled became a focus of their devotion. So much so that when Alexander II, king of Scots, sought to bring the Hebrides under his rule in 1249 he had a dream in which three saints – including Colum Cille – appeared, dissuading him. He refused their advice and died shortly afterwards on the island of Kerrera. Colum Cille had become, for the Norwegian author of this story, a patron and protector of the descendants of the Vikings, resisting the claims of the Scots.

Gilbert Márkus, Department of Celtic and Gaelic, University of Glasgow