Cáin Adomnáin, 697: the Irish ‘Geneva Convention’

Published in Features, Gaelic Ireland, Issue 1 (January/February 2015), Volume 23

Adomnán, the ninth abbot of Iona, is well known for his biography of St Columba. A lesser-known achievement was the promulgation in 697 of Cáin Adomnáin, the ‘Law of the Innocents’, Lex Innocentium.

Stained glass window of Adomnán in St John the Baptist’s Church, St John’s, Isle of Man. (Frances Coakley)

Stained glass window of Adomnán in St John the Baptist’s Church, St John’s, Isle of Man. (Frances Coakley)

In the ninth-century Martyrology of Tallaght, Féilire Óengusso, the entry for 23 September reads:

Do Adamnán Iae
Asa tóidlech tóiden
Ro ír Ísu úasal
Sóerad mbúan mban nGóidel.

The Celtic scholar Whitley Stokes gives the following translation:

To Adamnán of Iona
Whose troop is radiant,
Noble Jesus has granted
The lasting liberation of the women of the Gaels.

One of the first laws ever enacted for the protection of non-combatants in war, Cáin Adomnáin was the Geneva Convention of its day. Paragraph 34 sets out the purpose of the law:

‘This is the enactment of Adamnan’s Law in Ireland and Britain: exemption of the Church of God with her [community] and her emblems and her sanctuaries and all her property . . . The [law] is a perpetual law on behalf of clerics and women and innocent children until they are capable of slaying a man, and until they take their place in the tribe, and their (first) expedition is known.’
[All translations, unless otherwise stated, from Kuno Meyer]

The law, therefore, has two primary purposes: the protection of church property and the protection of the ‘innocents’—clerics, women and children.

Promulgated law v. customary law, and the guarantor list
As a general rule, early Irish law (urradus) was based on custom and enforced locally. Cáin Adomnáin, however, is an officially drafted law, publicly declared and adopted at a gathering of secular and clerical authorities. The gathering in this case, at Birr, Co. Offaly, was an unusual event, resembling a combination of a royal assembly and an ecclesiastical synod.

The first folio of a modern text of Cáin Adomnáin inscribed by Margaret Maher for the Birr 697 Celebration in 1997. (Mike Davis/Birr 1300 Committee)

The first folio of a modern text of Cáin Adomnáin inscribed by Margaret Maher for the Birr 697 Celebration in 1997. (Mike Davis/Birr 1300 Committee)

Cáin Adomnáin contains a list of 91 names, ostensibly those who gathered at Birr and who stood guarantor for the implementation of the law. The list has been examined by Máirín Ní Dhonnchadha, one of the contributors to Adomnán at Birr, AD 697, a volume published to mark the 1,300th anniversary of the synod in 1997: ‘We have proof, mainly from
. . . annalistic sources, that 59 of the guarantors were alive in 697’. Of the other names, Ní Dhonnchadha says that there is circumstantial evidence that twelve were alive in 697, while nineteen cannot be identified. The list contains the names of the highest kings and ecclesiastics in the land, including the ‘king of Ireland’, Loingsech mac Oengus, a kinsman of Adomnán, and Fland Febla, the ‘sage-bishop’ of Armagh and the highest ecclesiastic in Ireland excepting only Adomnán himself. In examining the evolution of kingship in Ireland from the pre-Christian into the early Christian era, Edel Bhreathnach, in her recent work Ireland in the medieval world, says: ‘There is no clearer evidence of a new order than the joint promulgation of Adomnán’s law by the leading secular and ecclesiastical authorities on the island’.

The intended scope of the law is apparent from the introduction to the guarantor list: ‘This is the enactment of the Law of Adamnan of Hi [Iona]. At Birr this enactment was enjoined on the men of Ireland and Britain.’ The phrase ‘men of . . . Britain’ is a reference to the areas of Scotland then under Irish influence; ‘Bruide son of Derile, king of the Pict-folk’ (the king of the Scottish Picts), is one of the names contained in the guarantor list.

Main provisions of the law
Naomh Adaomain Final 1Although clerics and children came within the remit of Cáin Adomnáin, it came to be known as a law for the protection of women, one reason being that clerics also came under the protection of Cáin Phátraic, Patrick’s Law. Cáin Adomnáin has a number of aspects. First, it contains an exemption from military service for these groups, of which Máirín Ní Dhonnchadha has said:

‘By granting permanent exemption from military service to [them], he [Adomnán] redefined peace as a contract by which the entire population were bound never to take action that would drive [the protected groups] to violence, even in self-defence.’

This view of an active Christian opposition to war is one of many proposed rationales for the law.

As well as this exemption from military service, the law seeks to protect the ‘innocents’ in other ways, prescribing severe punishments for numerous offences, including killing, physical attack and other forms of assault. Cáin Adomnáin made a ‘radical departure’ from customary law for the murder of a woman, doubling the fine from seven to fourteen cumals (female slaves). In a further departure from the general tenor of early Irish law, which in almost all cases punished by means of a fine (éraic), Cáin Adomnáin stipulates execution for the killing of a woman. There is, however, the possibility of commutation of this sentence to fourteen years’ penance, together with the payment of fourteen cumals, a sum that would have imposed a heavy burden on most ranks of society.
In the case of other offences, a systematic approach was adopted by the addition to the customary fine of a ‘superlevy of one eighth’, to be paid to the Columban familia. This system ensured that those who would normally receive the fine under customary law—the ‘chieftain and church and family’ of the victim—received the normal payment due.

The treatment of a female killer is different; she is not to be executed but ‘set adrift’:

‘. . . she is to be put into a boat of one paddle as a sea-waif (?) upon the ocean to go with the wind from land. A vessel of meal and water to be given with her. Judgement upon her as God deems fit.’

Iona, where Adomnán was abbot in the ninth century.

Iona, where Adomnán was abbot in the ninth century.

‘Setting adrift’ is a form of punishment thought to have been introduced with Christianity and mainly invoked in cases of serious crimes by women. It involved the perpetrator being put into a small boat and turned out to sea, the rationale being that, while he or she is unlikely to survive, society has not carried out the act of execution; God will make the choice of life or death.
Another section considers the possibility of poisoning, or perhaps sorcery: ‘If it be charms from which death ensues that any one give to another, the fines of murder followed by concealment of the corpse (are to be paid) for it’. A further sign of Christian influence is the extension of culpability to bystanders in paragraph 35: ‘. . . and it is the same fine for him who commits the deed and for him who sees it and does not save to the best of his ability’. Despite the level of detail contained in the law, and the systematic proposals for its implementation, its effect in terms of individual cases is unknown. According to Fergus Kelly, ‘whether the Church actually succeeded in increasing the fines for violent offences against women is unknown, as no records of particular cases have been preserved’.

The Middle Irish introduction
The late tenth- or early eleventh-century introduction takes the form of a lengthy tale about how Adomnán came to create his law at the behest of his mother. The narrative is fantastical, abounding in the miraculous and the grotesque. The story begins with Adomnán and his mother, Rónnat, journeying by Ath Drochait (modern Drogheda). Rónnat upbraids her son, saying ‘you are not a dutiful son’. The astonished Adomnán lists the ways in which he has been dutiful, but his mother explains:

‘Your dutifulness were good; however, that is not the duty I desire, but that you should free women for me from encounter, from camping, from fighting . . . from wounding, from slaying, from the bondage of the caldron’.

After this exchange they come upon a battle, where they see the decapitated corpse of a woman. Rónnat puts her son to the test: ‘Why dost thou not . . . see whether the Lord will resuscitate [the corpse] for thee?’ Adomnán prays, and the woman ‘rises up’. Rónnat again challenges her son:

‘Well now, Adomnán, to thee henceforward it is given to free the women of the western world. Neither drink nor food shall go into thy mouth until women have been freed by thee.’

She puts a chain around her son’s neck, puts a magical stone in his mouth to provide him with susten-ance and leaves him. This part of the story has parallels in the lives of other early saints who engage in a troscud (fast) against God until He grants their wishes. After some years have passed, and Adomnán has experienced further tortures, an angel takes him to the plain at Birr and makes a promise to him: ‘All things that you will ask, for the sake of thy labour thou shalt have from the Lord’. With this promise of God’s assistance, Adomnán goes about the preparation of his law.

The rationale for the law
What prompted Adomnán to create such a law, knowing that there would be, as Ní Dhonnchadha puts it, ‘widespread resistance’? Contemporary society was profoundly inegalitarian, with free and unfree grades, and status was determined in the main by nobility, wealth and high ecclesiastical office. Ní Dhonnchadha clearly states the difficulties that Adomnán faced:

‘He would have had to marshal his arguments in the face of a widely held perception, bolstered by the secular laws, that as an undifferentiated group, women were inferior to men’.

Many theories have been advanced to explain the rationale for such a fundamental departure from the status quo. These range from the political (Uí Néill tribal politics or Columban church politics) to the religious (the strength of Marian devotion), the humanitarian (‘true indignation at the hardships [women] endured’) and a devout desire for a more peaceful society.

The ‘church in the dunes’ at Forvie, Aberdeenshire, which is thought locally to have been founded by St Adomnán. Each year on 23 September, the feast of St Adomnán, pilgrims walk to the church from nearby villages and celebrate the Eucharist there. (Stephen Fisk)

The ‘church in the dunes’ at Forvie, Aberdeenshire, which is thought locally to have been founded by St Adomnán. Each year on 23 September, the feast of St Adomnán, pilgrims walk to the church from nearby villages and celebrate the Eucharist there. (Stephen Fisk)

Convincing evidence can be advanced for all of these views. In the secular political arena, it is clear that Adomnán’s Uí Néill lineage and kinship with Loingsech, king of Tara, left him well placed to promote his law to secular authorities. In addition, an alliance with such a widely respected and powerful churchman fostered the Uí Néill position in relation to the ‘exceptional’ kingship of Tara. Many commentators stress the benefit to the Columban familia emanating from enactment of the law, and the advantage it conferred on a community that had become less influential since the Synod of Whitby in 664. Episodes from Adomnán’s Life of Columba illustrate Adomnán’s genuine holiness and concern for the vulnerable. And, in keeping with the general tenor of the early Christian church in Ireland, the promotion of peace in a violent society was no doubt a fundamental factor. Thomas O’Loughlin, editor of Adomnán at Birr, says that peace was a primary motivator: ‘[the law] was a deliberate attempt to establish a more peaceful society’.

It is interesting to speculate on the role played by Adomnán’s mother Rónnat as put forward in the introductory tale. Could there be a grain of truth amongst the hyperbole? It is not unreasonable to imagine that Rónnat had some influence over her son in the private sphere, and that she used this influence to prompt him to do what she could not. This may be a will-o’-the-wisp, or it may be one more motivating factor for Adomnán in the creation of his astonishing law.

Máire O’Dwyer is a freelance editor and former solicitor.

Read More: The text

Further reading

E. Bhreathnach, Ireland in the medieval world AD 400–1000 (Dublin, 2014).
F. Kelly, A guide to early Irish law (Dublin, 1988).
K. Meyer (ed. and trans.), Cáin Adamnáin: an Old-Irish treatise on the Law of Adamnan (Oxford, 1905).
T. O’Loughlin (ed.), Adomnán at Birr, 697 (Dublin, 2001).


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