Adomnán, Iona, and the Life of St. Columba: Their Place Among Continental Saints

Adomnán, Iona, and the Life of St. Columba: Their Place Among Continental Saints

Wetherill, Jeffrey

The Heroic Age Issue 6 Spring 2003


If we are to believe Adomnán, ninth abbot of Iona and author of the Life of St. Columba, the reputation of the Saint reached beyond Ireland and Britain to “Spain and Gaul and Italy beyond the Alps, and even Rome itself, the chief of all cities.” Is this literary embellishment or historical realism? This paper will explore the ways in which Adomnán connects Columba with the continent and how those connections are intimately linkied with his purpose(s) for writing the Life.

When surveying the early cultural, political, and spiritual histories of both Ireland and Britain, the modern traveler is introduced to a rich milieu that is still evidenced today. The 6th-9th centuries, often referred to as the “Golden Age of Christianity”, collectively produced monastic sites and settlements, art and metalwork, stone carvings and churches, high crosses, round towers, holy wells, and beautiful manuscripts; many laced with Celtic flare and intricacies. These antiquities dot the contemporary landscape the width and breadth of both islands, especially southern Ireland, western Wales, northern England and Scotland, and continue to inspire and influence the religious experience and spirituality of many modern Christians.

This period is also known as the “Age of Saints” for it generated a group of religious leaders that sought to establish the Christian faith among the “Celtic fringe” on the northwest corner of Europe; later moving eastward to the continent. Among the many Celtic saints who helped to shape this ecclesiastical mosaic was the highly influential, Irish-born, St. Columba. He is best known for his foundations at Iona, Kells, Derry, and Durrow, and was involved “in the most important political events of his in the north of Ireland and in the west and north of Scotland.” Though we are able to extract and piece together only fragmentary details of his family background and monastic career-placed among the clans of the Dál Riata-we are given a tantalizing glimpse that Columba and his reputation had perhaps moved beyond the “Isles” to the continent during his lifetime.

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