Donegal Democrat

Today marks a remarkable anniversary, the 1400th anniversary of a Donegal man who wrote one of the world’s first “Geneva conventions”, a law governing the conduct of armies in war.

St. Adomnán (or Eunan* in modern Irish) was born around the year 627 in Drumhome in Donegal. He was of noble blood, a member of the Cenel Conaill and a great nephew of Colm Cille. Like his illustrious uncle, he was a descendant of Niall Nóigiallach, Niall of the Nine Hostages, who brought St Patrick to Ireland.

Like Colm Cille, Adomnán followed a career in the church. He trained under the abbot Seghine, and in 679 at the age of 52 he became abbot of Iona. In Scotland, there are many more memorials and dedications to him than to be found in Ireland. It is probable that while the more famous Colm Cille is credited with converting to Scotland to Christianity, it was Adomnán who made sure the first seeds flourished.

He is most famous for writing Vita Columba, the first biography of his great uncle, Colm Cille, the founder and first abbot of Iona, but he was a scholar with interests in many fields. He promoted the Roman method of calculating the date of Easter Sunday, and acted as a diplomat to secure the release of sixty Irish prisoners captured by the Saxon king Aldfrith in 686.

Probably his most lasting achievement though was Cain Adomnáin, the Law of Adomnán. This was the first Irish law to regulate the powers of the military. It protected women by exempting them from military service, and insisting that they be treated as non-combatants. Children and clerics were similarly protected and provision was made for effective sanctuary. Adomnán canvassed the kings of Ireland, and his Cain became law throughout Ireland and Gaelic Scotland. So great was the respect the Donegalman commanded, the law was also adopted by the Pictish tribes of Scotland.

Adomnán died on this day, 23 September, in the year 704AD.

[* Old Irish Adomnán .i. Little-Adam, is pronounced Adhovna:n with the v having a nasalised sound. In Modern Irish the name is Adhamhnán which is pronounced Awna:n and the English version is pronounced Yu:nan.]