ST. ADAMNAN, NINTH ABBOT OF HY.
In the year 1845, Dr. Ferdinand Keller was poking with a German's pertinacity, through the shelves of the Town Library of Schaffhausen in Switzerland. In a corner of the room he found a high book chest filled with all kinds of old MSS. without title or number of any kind, and at the very bottom of the heap he came upon a dark brown parchment manuscript bound in moth-eaten beech wood, covered with calf skin, carefully clasped in front, and very neatly and curiously sewed at the back. It was a goodly quarto of 68 leaves, with double columns, written on dark coloured goat skin parchment in large heavy drawn letters of the character known as minuscular. Everything about the MSS. showed great antiquity the cover, the parchment, the lettering, and the ornamentation. Dr. Keller at first thought he had come upon a hitherto undiscovered treasure ; but in this he was mistaken. He only recovered a lost treasure and secured its preservation for the learned world. On examination, the MS. turned out to be the oldest and most authentic copy of Adamnan's Life of Saint Columba, made in Iona either during the lifetime of Adamnan himself, or certainly within a few years after his death.
There can be little doubt that this is the identical MS. discovered by Stephen White in the Monastery of Richenau, and published, with some variations, both by Colgan and the Bollandists. How then did it come to pass that it was found in the old book chest of Schaffhausen Library? The celebrated Benedictine Monastery of Richenau Augia Dives, or the Rich Meadow was situated on a pleasant fertile island in the Lake of Constance, an expansion of the Upper Rhine. The Monastery was suppressed in 1798, but it seems that before its suppression most of its literary treasures were carried off, and thus it came to pass that the old Irish MS. was transferred to the neighbouring Town of Schaffhausen, also on the Rhine, where it was consigned to the bottom of the old book chest until the German scholar brought the hidden treasure again to light. The Monastery of Richenau in the ninth century appears to have had many Irish inmates, and this is not unnatural, for the great Irish Monastery of St. Gall was within a few miles of the shore of Lake Constance, and considerable intercourse would naturally take place between the two houses. Walafridus Strabo, Abbot of Richenau, from 842 to 849, had been previously Dean of St. Gall, and in his writings shows an intimate knowledge of many things connected with Ireland which he could have learned only from Irishmen. We know, too, from other sources, that crowds of Irishmen came to France and Germany in the beginning of the ninth century, and that many of them brought their books from their schools at home along with them, as Dungal brought the books which he bequeathed to the Monastery of Bobbio. It is thus easy to understand how some of the monks of Iona, driven from home by the Norsemen, who so often plundered the island about the beginning of the ninth century, would migrate to some friendly monastery on the Continent carrying their literary treasure along with them.
There can, however, be no doubt that the Schaffhausen MS. of St. Columba's Life was written in the Island of Hy by one of the Family, so early as the beginning of the eighth century. The character is of that peculiar kind of which we have almost contemporary specimens in the Book of Kells, and the Book of Durrow, and which is now universally acknowledged to be purely Irish ; the ornamentation of the chapters, and of the capital letters, is Irish ; the orthography is Irish, and what is stranger than all, the Lord's Prayer is written in Greek on the last page of the MS., and in Greek, of which we have other specimens remaining in old Irish MSS. with the same peculiar spelling, in the same semi-uncial character, without accents, and without breathings a fact which of itself indisputably proves that the Greek tongue was taught and written in the Irish School of Hy 1170 years ago.
The Colophon, or superscription, in rubric, at folio 136, at the end of the life, records, according to the usual custom, the name of the scribe : "Whoever reads these books on the virtues of St. Columba, let him pray to the Lord for me Dorbbeneus, that after death I may possess eternal life."
In 713, Tighernach records the death of Dorbene, Abbot of Hy, the very year of his election to that high office. There can be no doubt this Dorbene was the writer of the Schaffhausen MS.; there is no mention of any other of the same name in our annals except of one Dorbene, whose son Failan is said to have died in 724. This Dorbene was, as Dr. Reeves thinks, a layman, and, if his son died in 724, he himself in the course of nature must have lived and died before Adamnan. But the abbot who died in 713, would have outlived Adamnan only nine years, and in all probability had been for many years scribe of the monastery, and may have written the book at the dictation of Adamnan himself.
And now, who was Adamnan? Unfortunately we know very little of his early youth. He gives us to understand, at least by implication, that he was born at or near Drumhome, in the barony of Tirhugh, and Co. Donegal. The Church of Drumhome was founded by St. Columba, but St. Adamnan is the patron; and this fact, too, indicates his connection with the locality. There, also, he seems to have spent his earlier years ; for it was there, he says, " in my youth, that a very old man called Ferreol, a servant of Christ, who is buried in Drumhome, told me " of a glorious vision which he saw, when fishing in the valley of the Finn, on the night of Columba's death. Scarcely any traces of the old Church of Drumhome now remain; but it was once nobly endowed by the O'Donnells. Even so late as 1609, an Inquisition tells us that " there are in the said parish of Drumhome, four quarters of church land, three quarters of Columbkille's land, each quarter containing six townlands, then in the possession of Lewis O'Cleary, the head of that family which the Four Masters have made illustrious for ever. The old church was finely situated near the shore of the Bay of Donegal, not far from Ballintra, in hearing of the sea, and in view of the bold range of mountains, where the sons of Conall Gulban so long and so nobly defended their ancient freedom.
Adamnan's father, Ronan, was sixth in descent from that same Conall Gulban, and thus belonged to the royal blood of Tirconell ; his mother was Ronnat, a daughter of Tirenna, the territory that in ancient times extended from Lough Foyle to Lough Swilly. Thus Adamnan was of the same family as St. Columba himself; for Columba was grandson of Fergus, son of Conall Gulban, and Adamnan was sixth in descent from the same Fergus. He was born in 624, according to the best authorities, just twenty-seven years after Columba's death, and, as we may fairly assume, was in his youth placed under the care of the monks of Drumhome, in whose old churchyard he himself tells us many of the monks of Columba await a happy resurrection. How long the boy remained in his native Tirhugh, feeding his spirit on the glorious vision of its waves and mountains, we cannot now ascertain. It was at that time the custom for scholars, even of the noblest birth, to visit the great monastic schools of the country, and all the more celebrated masters were surrounded by crowds of eager students, who lived on their wits, and lodged as best as they could, generally in little huts of their own contrivance. A curious story is told of St. Adamnan himself in his youth, which amusingly illustrates what may be called the University life of the time.
Finnachta, afterwards Monarch of Ireland, from 675 to 695, and Adamnan's greatest friend, although of the blood royal, was at first very poor. He had a house and wife, but only one ox and one cow. Now the King of Feara Ros (Carrickmacross) strayed in the neighbourhood of Finnachta's hut, his wife, too, was with him and a crowd of retainers ; but they could not find their way home, for the night came on dark, cold, and stormy, so they were forced to take refuge in the hut. Small as it was, the size of the house was greater than its wealth. Finnachta, however, "struck the ox on the head and the cow on the head," and feasted all the king's people sumptuously, so that no one was hungry.
Then the King and Queen of Feara Ross gave large herds of cattle to the generous Finnachta, and made him a great man. Shortly after this time, Finnachta, not yet king, however, was one day coming with a large troop of horse to his sister's house, and as they rode along, they overtook " Adamnan, then a young school-boy, travelling the same road, with a vessel full of milk on his back. Anxious to get out of the way, Adamnan stumbled and fell, spilling all the milk, and breaking the jar to pieces." The cavalcade rather enjoyed the fun, and rode away; but Adamnan pursued them closely, and said : "0, good men, I have reason to be sad, for there are three good school-boys in one house, and they have us as two messengers for there is always one going about seeking food for the five and it came to my turn to-day. The gathering I made is scattered, and, what I grieve for far more, the borrowed vessel has been broken, and I have no means to pay for it." But Finnachta declared he would make it all right, and he kept his word. He not only paid for the vessel, but he brought the scholars clerics they are called to his own house, and their teacher along with them, he fitted up the ale-house for their reception, and gave them such abounding good cheer, that the professor, exhilarated by the ale, or filled with the spirit of prophecy, as the annals say, declared that Finnachta would one day become the King of all Ireland, "and Adamnan shall be the head of the wisdom of Erin, and shall become 'soul's friend' or confessor, to the king."
When Adamnan was duly trained in the wisdom of the Irish schools at home, his thoughts naturally turned to Iona. For that remote islet, surrounded by the stormy waters and under the misty skies of the Hebrides, had long been the religious home of his race and family. It was founded by the great Columba, with twelve companions of his own kith and kin. It was now thronged by crowds of pilgrims and scholars, most of whom still came from the Columbian houses in Donegal, Sligo, and Meath. It was the head and centre of the Columbian Order; and almost all its Abbots hitherto, and for long after, came of the royal race of Fergus, son of Conall Gulban. At this very time, when Adamnan was about twenty-five years old, a cousin of his own, Seghine, fifth Abbot of Hy, ruled the entire Order. So with the south wind blowing fair, we may suppose the young scholar launched his curach on the Foyle, and sweeping past the hills of Inishowen, he would in about twelve hours see Columba's holy island slowly rising from the waves. As his bark approached he would eagerly note all the features of the island the central ridge, the low moory shores, and narrow strait about a mile wide separating it from the Ross of Mull, on the mainland. With a heart swelling with emotion, he must have stepped on the shore of Port Ronain, and then kneeling prostrate before the Abbot in his wooden cell, he begged to be admitted to the habit of the Order. And we may be sure the venerable Seghine received with open arms the strong-limbed, fairhaired boy, who was sprung of his own ancient line, and born in his own Tirhugh.
Adamnan began his noviciate about 650, and after thirty years' service in the brotherhood, was himself raised to the Abbatial Chair, in 679. We know little of his life during this period, except that it was eminent for virtue and learning. We have undoubted proofs of his success in sacred studies, not only in the works that remain, but also from the testimony of his contemporaries. He was, says Venerable Bede, a virtuous and learned man preeminently skilled in Sacred Scripture: "Erat enim vir bonus et sapiens, et scientia Scripturarum nobilissime instructus." This is high testimony from a high authority. Father H. Ward felt himself justified in saying that Adamnan was thoroughly educated in all the knowledge of his time, liberal, sacred, and ascetical; that he was also skilled in the Greek and Hebrew languages, as well as in the arts, laws, and history written in his native tongue: "Edoctus est omnes liberales, sacras, et asceticas disciplinas, linguas etiam Hebraicam et Graecam; et quicquid patria lingua (in qua tune pleraeque scientiae et Dryadum quae non fuerant damnata dogmata), scriptum est vel artium vel legum vel historiarum."
Yet this learned monk was not above giving his assistance in the manual labour of the monastery. He tells us in his life of St. Columba, how on a certain occasion he and a number of other monks cut down as many oak trees in one of the neighbouring islands, probably Arran, as loaded twelve boats, in order to procure material to repair the monastery; and how, when detained by an adverse wind, St. Columba heard their prayer, and procured for them a favourable breeze to waft them home. This fact, incidentally mentioned, proves that most of the monastic cells were made of oaken boards, which were covered in with a roof of reeds. St. Columba's own hut is represented as tabulis suffultum, and we know from other sources that as a protection against the weather these cells were harundine tecta. It is in this respect that the "Vita Columbae " is so valuable, because it gives us incidentally not only a graphic picture of the simple and pious lives of the Family of Hy, but also of their food, their clothing, their monastery, and their entire social arrangements.
Although St. Adamnan ruled the monastery of Hy from 679 to his death in 704, he paid several visits to Ireland, and exercised a large influence both on its ecclesiastical and civil polity. This was due partly to his high character for learning and holiness, partly to his position as Supreme Head of the Columbian Houses, and in great measure also to his influence with Finnachta, the High King from 675 to 695. It is not easy to ascertain the exact date of these visits nor the work done on each occasion, but the substantial facts are certain.
In the year 684 one of the generals of the Northumbrian King Ecgfrid, made a descent on Magh-Bregh, that is the eastern plain of Meath along the sea shore. They pillaged and slaughtered in the usual fashion, and furthermore carried off many captives male and female. This attack was wholly unprovoked, and as Bede testifies brought down upon the Northumbrian prince the signal chastisement of heaven. In the following year, rashly advancing against the Pictish King Brude, Ecgfrid was slain and his army routed at a place called Dun Nechtain. Thereupon Aldfrid his brother returned from Ireland, where he had been for many years an exile, and succeeded to the throne. Aldfrid during the years he spent in Ireland became intimate with Adamnan; our annalists call him the alumnus, or foster son of Adamnan. Now, that he was raised to the throne, the latter took occasion to pay him a visit, in order to obtain by his friendly offices the release of the captives. Miraculously crossing the Solway Frith, whose rushing tide "the best steed in Saxon land ridden by the best rider could not hope to escape," he came to the Northumbrian Court, at Bamborough, and seems to have been received with open arms by his alumnus, who at once consented to restore the captives, sixty in all, whom shortly after Adamnan brought home to Ireland. But this visit to the English court had other important consequences. When he saw, says Bede, during his stay in our province (probably at Easter) the canonical rites of our church, and was prudently admonished that they who were placed on a little corner at the end of the world should not persevere in their peculiar Paschal observance against the practice of the universal church, he changed his mind and willingly adopted our custom. On the same occasion he visited the monastery of Jarrow where the monks greatly admired the humility and modesty of his demeanour, but were somewhat scandalized at his Irish frontal tonsure from ear to ear, then known as the tonsure of Simon Magus.
Onhis return to Hy, Adamnan tried to induce his monks to adopt the Roman Paschal observance, but they were so much attached to the practice sanctioned by their great and holy founder that even Adamnan failed to bring about a change, it was not until 716, twelve years after his death, that they finally consented to adopt the Dionysian cycle of nineteen years in fixing Easter Day.
He was more successful in Ireland. On his return thither with the captives in 686, a Synod seems to have been held for the purpose of bringing about this change, to which he himself alludes in his life of St. Columba. Neither the time nor place of the Synod can be exactly ascertained; it is not unlikely, however, that it took place on the Hill of Tara at the " Rath of the Synods," where tradition still marks out the place of " Adamnan's Tent " and " Adamnan's Cross." Others think it was held a much later date in 696 or 697, when " Adamnan's Canon" was published, to which we shall refer later on. It is certain, however, that Adamnan exerted his great influence thenceforward to introduce the new Paschal observance into Ireland, although he did not perhaps finally succeed until towards the end of his life.
On this occasion Adamnan's visit was not of long duration, but he paid a second visit to Ireland in 692 fourteen years after the death of his predecessor Failbhe, as the Annals say. This time it was a political question that attracted him from Hy. For forty reigns the men of Leinster had been paying the cow-tax, known as the Borumean tribute, to the princes of the Hy Neill race, to which race Adamnan himself belonged. Finnachta, however, the present High King and the old friend of Adamnan, remitted this tribute at the prayer of St. Moling, whom our Annalists represent as having recourse to a curious equivocation to effect his purpose. The king, at the prayer of the saint, consented to remit payment of the tax for "the day and night." "All time," said the Saint, when the king had pledged his royal word to this remission, "is day and night; thou canst never reimpose this tax." In vain the monarch protested that he had no such intention, the Saint kept him to his word, promising him heaven if he kept it, and the reverse if he did not. When Adamnan heard how weakly the king had yielded the ancient rights of the great Hy Neill race, he was somewhat wrathful, and at once sought out the monarch, and asked to see him. The king was playing chess, and told Adamnan's messenger, who asked an interview for the Saint, that he must wait until the game was finished; then he played a second, and was going to play a third, when the Saint threatened him with reading a psalm that would not only shorten his life but exclude him from heaven. Thereupon he came quick enough, and at once Adamnan said, " Is this true that thou hast remitted the Borumha for day and night." "It is true," said the king. " Then it is the same as to remit it for ever", said the Saint, and he "scolded " him in somewhat vigorous language, and made a song on him on the spot, calling him a foolish, white-haired, toothless king, and using several other epithets the reverse of complimentary.
Of course all this is the work of a northern bard, who puts into the mouth of Adamnan language which he would use himself; nevertheless, there is a substratum of truth in the story highly coloured as it is by poetic fiction, in the end, however, the writer adds : "Afterwards Finnachta placed his head on the bosom of Adamnan, and Adamnan forgave him for the remission of the Borumha." Shortly after, however, Adamnan was again angry with the king, and foretold "that his life would be short, and that he would fall by fratricide." The Irish life gives the true cause of the anger and the prediction: it was because Finnachta would not exempt from taxes the lands of Columbkille, as he exempted the lands of Patrick, Finnian, and Ciaran. This not unnaturally incensed the Saint against the ungrateful king, whose throne he had helped to maintain. The prediction was soon verified; Finnachta fell by the hand of a cousin in 697.
It was on his return to Hy after this second visit that Adamnan seems to have written the life of Columbkille. Shortly after he paid a third visit to Ireland in 697, and apparently spent the remaining seven years of his life in this country. It was in that year, most probably, was held the Synod of Tara in which the Cain, or Canon, of Adamnan, was promulgated. According to a story in the Leabhar Breac there are four great Laws, or "Canons," in Ireland. The Canon of Patrick, not to kill the clergy; the Canon of the nun Dari, not to kill the cows ; the Canon of Adamnan, not to kill women ; and the Sunday Canon, not to travel on that day. The origin of the Canon of Adamnan was this. He was once travelling through Meath, carrying his mother on his back, when he saw two armies in conflict, and a woman of one party dragging a woman of the other party with an iron reaping hook fixed in her breast. At this cruel and revolting sight Adamnan's mother insisted that her son should promise her to make a law for the people that women should in future be exempted from all battles and hostings. Adamnan promised, and kept his word in 696 according to the Ulster Annals "dedit legem innocentium populis." That is he procured the passing of a law exempting women and children -innocentes - from any share in the actual conflict or its usual consequences, captivity or death. This fact is substantially true, though considerably embellished in the details. And Ireland owes the great Abbot a lasting debt of gratitude for procuring the enactment of this law, which was afterwards re-enacted in 727 when the relics of Adamnan were removed from Iona to Ireland and "the law renewed." There are several other Canons probably enacted at a Synod at Armagh about the same time, but this is far the most important of them all.
The life of St. Gerald of Mayo represents Adamnan as governing the monastery of that place, originally founded by the Saxons, for seven years. Tradition also connects the Saint with the Church of Skreen in the Co. Sligo, of which he is the Patron, and was in all probability the Founder. As head of the Columbian Order it was his duty, from time to time, to visit the Columbian Churches in Ireland, of which there were very many, especially in Sligo and Donegal. He may thus have spent a considerable time in Mayo of the Saxons, although the life of St. Gerald is very unsatisfactory evidence of the fact.
We cannot stay to notice the alleged "Cursing" of Irgalach by Adamnan. The story is intrinsically improbable and unsustained by respectable authority. In the last year of his life, 704, he returned to Iona. Although the Monks would not consent to give up St. Columba's Easter, he loved them dearly and wished to bless them before he died. After his noble life he might well rest in peace with the kindred dust of all the saints of Conall Gulban's line that sleep in the Holy Island.
A century later, however, as we have seen, the sacred relics were transferred to Ireland, but it is not known for certain where they were laid.
Adamnan's two most important works are his " Vita Sancti Columbi," and his Book, " De Locis Sanctis."
The Life of St. Columba has been pronounced by Pinkerton to be "the most complete piece of such biography that all Europe can boast of, not only at so early a period, but even through the whole middle ages." Adamnan himself declares that he wrote the book at the earnest request of the Brothers; and that he states nothing except what was already written in the records of the monastery, or what he himself heard from the elder monks, many of whom saw the blessed Columba, and were themselves witnesses of his wonderful works. The entire narrative,which is written in fairly good Latin, furnishes ample proof of the truth of this statement. Hence the great value of this Life, not only as an authentic record of the virtues and miracles of St. Columba, but also as a faithful picture of the religious life of those early times by a contemporary writer, so well qualified to sketch it, and who does so, quite unconsciously. The manuscript in the Library of Schafihausen is of equal authority with the autograph of the saint, if, indeed, it were not actually written at his dictation, so that the most sceptical cannot question the authenticity of this venerable record. The Life was printed from this codex by Colgan in 1647, and by the Bollandists at a later date. But the edition published in 1837 by Dr. W. Reeves, for the Irish Archaeological and Celtic Society, is by far the most valuable. The notes and appendices to this admirable volume render it a perfect mine of wealth for the student of Irish history. The Life was translated into English, and published with short notes by Gill & Son, Dublin, 1878.
Venerable Bede gives us a very full account of the treatise de Locis Sanctis, in the 16th and 17th chapters of the fifth Book of his Ecclesiastical History. It is, he says, a book most useful to the reader (in that age). The author Adamnan received his information about the holy places from Arcuulfus, a Bishop from Gaul, who had himself visited Jerusalem, Constantinople, Alexandria, and all the islands of the sea. When returning home a tempest drove his vessel to the west parts of Britain, where he met Adamnan, probably in Hy, to whom he narrated all the noteworthy scenes he had gone through. Adamnan at once reduced the narrative to writing for the information of his own countrymen. He presented the work to his friend King Aldfrid, through whose liberality copies were multiplied for the benefit of the young, if such be the meaning of Bede's phrase : "Per ejus largitionem etiam minoribus ad legendum contraditus." Bede himself was greatly pleased with the book, from which he inserts several extracts in his own History, concerning Bethlehem, Jerusalem, Mount Olivet, and other places in Palestine. It was published at Ingoldstadt in 1619.
A Life of St. Patrick and various poems have been attributed to Adamnan, bat there is no evidence to prove that they are genuine. The same may be said of the Vision of Adamnan," a kind of moral discourse in Irish, which purports to relate a wonderful vision of joys of heaven and of the torments of hell as seen and narrated by the saint. The work is certainly very ancient, but contains many things that go far to disprove its own authenticity.
When we consider the life and writings of this great man, as well as the large influence which he exercised on Irish affairs during the latter half of the seventh century, few will be disposed to question his right to take a high place amongst the saints and scholars of the West. He has been justly described in the prologue to the "Vision" as "the noble sage of the Western world." We have already quoted Bede's high testimony to his virtue and learning. The Four Masters emphatically endorse that testimony, and add that "he was tearful, penitent, fond of prayer, diligent and ascetic ;" and that he was moreover " learned in the clear understanding of the Holy Scriptures of God."
Irish Ecclesiastical Record 3rd series, Vol 3 (1882), 408-419.
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