The Founding of the Presentation Brothers’ Schools at Birr in 1877; recollections of 1927 from J. Deering.
[Birr Historical Society meets again on Monday 4 December 2023 after a break of three…
In a time of war in eastern Europe, and the coming to an end of the Decade of Centenaries period in Ireland, 1912–23 with the cessation of the civil war here, we today publish the first of two blogs on the protection of innocent people in times of strife. The first article is by John Dolan and on 23 September that by Jim Houlihan. On Monday 25 Sept. Dr Jim Houlihan will give a lecture on Adomnán’s Law of the Innocents-Birr 697 AD at Offaly History Centre, Bury Quay, Tullamore (and online) at 8 p.m. More details of his talk in our September newsletter which will be posted online soon. Our thanks to John Dolan for this article.
There was an extraordinary Synod held in Birr in 697AD. This synod was called by Adomnán, abbot of Iona, who arrived in Birr with the princes of church and state and who produced an edict that fundamentally challenged the way warfare was carried out in Ireland and beyond.
The first name given to the edict published from the Synod was as the Lex Innocentium (Law of Innocents) as mentioned in the Annals of Ulster for the year 697 which states that ‘Adomnán proceeded to Ireland and gave the Lex Innocentium to the people’. Later, the law became known as Cáin Adomnáin in Irish and the Law of the Innocents in English.
Use of the Irish word Cáin is not unique in describing edicts. There is a note in the commentary to Feile Oengusso that ‘there are four Cana in Ireland, Patrick’s law (Cana Patraic), not to kill clergy; Adamnan’s law, not to kill women; Daire’s law, not to kill cattle and the law of Sunday night to transgress thereon’.
Other definitions for the word Cáin have been: tax, regulation, punishment, or as a contract.
Warfare in the Early Middle Ages
At the beginning of the Middle Ages there was a rising tide of warfare which was mainly interprovincial and between Tuatha. Raiding of a church owned by a rival family happened regularly, hundreds of family units were involved. Additionally, the regular Táin raiding of cattle from your neighbour has been recorded many times.
Warfare was a normal mechanism of the political process and was undertaken by warrior aristocrats who were engaged in a constant struggle for power as documented, mainly in the Annals. The use of force in the settlement of private disputes between families was a recognised means of legal redress. Free men all over Europe were obliged to fight in combat as a component of their status in the Early Middle Ages. The increasing Christian influence on conflicts argued that it was only morally acceptable to go to war in response to an infringement or injustice and with the sanction of a legitimate authority.
Tony Lucas from Queens in his essay ‘Plundering and Burning of Churches in Ireland’ analysed the destruction of 309 churches between 600AD and 1163AD. He found that Irish raiders were responsible for 50% of these. The Vikings were responsible for just over 100 raids while the Irish and Norse combined in about 20 cases. Evidence shows that inter-monastery wars, abbots taking up arms with provincial overlords and high kings and battles occurring on monastic sites.
Bringing the relic of the local saint to provide protection to the army before battle is regularly recorded. The most famous of these relics is The Cathach (The Battler) a psalter, dated to about 560AD. The psalter was carried into battle by a monk to protect the Clan Ó Domhnaill before they went to war.
The Cathach Psalter
Church legislation was enacted by Synods of bishops and abbots. Synods were held and their edicts recorded, but with one or two exceptions, have been lost. Others have been preserved through been incorporated into the compilation of canon law known as the Hibernensis.
The concept of fighting a just war is a standard feature of Brehon Law. Recovery of lost goods, injury to the interests of a tuath or it’s territorial claims, avenging injuries, seemed to give legitimate legal rights for declaring war and raising an army.
Early Irish Law was based on custom and enforced locally. Male and female slaves had no rights. The old Irish legal text Bretha Crolige gave the same honour rights to the son of a king and the son of a common. Lex Innocentium was an officially drafted law, publicly declared and adopted for implementation across Ireland and beyond.
Adomnán mac Rónáin (624 – 704) was born in Donegal. His family connections were with the Cenél Conaill branch of the Ui Neill and through this he was connected with Colum Cille. These connections were vital for Adomnán in his work with the kings of Northumbria and his promulgation from the edict of the Synod of Birr.
The Columban network provided an authority and communications structure between their monasteries on both sides of the Irish Sea. In his capacity as abbot of Iona Adomnán was a powerful and influential figure in late seventh century Ireland. He was an eminent ecclesiastical statesman and scholar. When Adomnán came to Birr he did not represent the Columban organisation but as an individual he was recognised in all of Ireland, including the influence of Iona and Northumbria. Iona was the head of the Columban federation of churches.
At Birr he was attempting to provide protection to a new category of person, the innocent or non-combatant, regardless of rank. He suggested that women as givers of life deserved particular respect and immunity.
Adamnan was head of a powerful and influential confederation of monasteries. Furthermore, he belonged to the same Ui Neill sept as Loingsech mac Oengusso who was later King of Tara. Adomnán undertook several diplomatic missions on King Loingsech behalf to the King of Northumbria to secure the release of Irish captives. He obtained the release of 60 prisoners taken by King Beart and brought them back to Ireland.
He would also have known that what he proposed would generate significant resistance from the kings on their ability to declare war and raise an army in the traditional way. Particularly the use of male and female slaves to bolster the ranks would have been normal up to this point.
The law of Adomnán was a milestone in the development of Irish law.
Two significant written works of his are the Vita Columbae, the Life of Saint Columba, a hagiography of the founder of Iona. Adomnán also wrote the travelogue De Locis Sanctis, (of Holy Places); this was an account from a Frankish monk, Arculf who has visited Rome, Egypt and the Holy Land and who probably met Adomnán in Iona.
Text of Adomnán’s Edict
There are two surviving manuscripts; copy of a 15th/16th century manuscript in the Bodleian Library, Oxford and a copy made by Micheal O Cléirigh in 1627, now held in the Bibliotheque Royale, Brussels. Both copies can be traced back to one original that is now lost. It is suggested that this original copy was known as the ‘Old Book of Raphoe’.
The Law of Adomnán Bodleian Library
Ireland in the seventh century had been familiar with the Latin language for some hundreds of years, dating back to pre-Christian times. The text of the law, written in Old Irish and Latin, is a collection of material from different periods. Old Irish was spoken throughout Ireland as well as in the Isle of Man, the western coast of Scotland and understood in Wales and Cornwall.
The surviving texts comprise the original legal material, pretty much as it must have appeared in 697AD, and a lot of later material which was added to it in the tenth century. It was written mostly in Old Irish, with a few lines of Latin as well. Old Irish was the language of the native law and would have been used by the guarantors and supporters of the law. The law, which was transmitted and translated by scribes in later centuries from Irish to Latin, reaches us with its old Irish form nearly intact.
There are 53 paragraphs in the edict. Gilbert Markus, in his analysis of the text suggests that paragraphs 34 – 53 is the oldest material and is in strictly legal form.
In paragraph 3 Adomnán decries the role of women in war ‘this was the work which the best women had to do, was to go to battle and battlefield, encounter and camping, fighting and hosting, wounding and slaying … her husband behind her, carrying a fence-stake in his hand, and flogging her on to battle’.
Adomnán tells us in paragraphs 6 – 15 the tale of how he and his mother Ronnat arrive at the scene of a battle. From paragraphs 16 – 21 we see Adomnán’s struggle to gain support for his law and the resistance he has from some kings. Next, paragraphs 28 – 33 promulgates the Law, discusses why it took place in Birr and how extensive the edict spread over Ireland and Britain. Paragraph 28 contains the list of guarantors. The last paragraph of this section, number 33 includes the order for cursing those who do not enforce the edict.
Page containing list of Guarantors.
Paragraph 34, now written in Latin, describes how the angel persuaded Adomnán to proceed with the law. From this paragraph to the end is probably the oldest section of the edict and enforces the ban on assaults on women, clergy and youths.
This Synod brought together the leading kings of the northern and southern halves of Ireland. An unusual and significant addition in paragraph 28 contains the list of 91 names of those who have signed that they will guarantee the law. Forty of these names are clerical leaders and fifty-one are secular leaders. Leading the clerical side is the Bishop of Armagh Fland Febla, while the secular leader is Loingsech mac Oengusso, said to be King of Tara. The authority of the edict depended on securing guarantors, including representatives of each kindred. To identify its international role the guarantors included Euchu ua Domnaill, King of Dal Riada of Scotland and Bruide mac Derilei, King of the Picts. This list of guarantors is not an indication of the individuals who actually attended the Synod, it can be assumed that the majority did so.
Overkings who guaranteed the Cáin with handwritten notations of their deaths
In her essay on the Law of the Innocents Mairin Ni Dhonnchadha provides an in-depth look at how the Law fitted into the existing Brehon Law system. Women slaves had no status or rights in the old legal system. Finally, she explores Adomnán’s views on women, starting with his reverence to Mary and his recollections on Iona and elsewhere of Columba’s interactions to protect women.
In 1905 Kuno Meyer published his Cáin Adomnáin from the two surviving manuscripts, from the Bodleian Library, Oxford and the Bibliotheque Royale, Brussels. Here are his published page 1 from the Cáin.
Page 1 by Kuno Meyer, 1905
Page 1 translated by Kuno Meyer, 1905
Durrow would have been the obvious location, but because Adomnán was abbot there he decided to hold the synod elsewhere more neutral.
Previously, a Rigdal was held in Birr on the border between the Ui Neill and Munster and is recorded in the Annals of Ulster for 827 A royal conference at Biror between Feidlimid and Conchobor.
We are not informed how long this Synod took or in what format the final agreement was delivered and signed off by the participants.
Very severe ecclesiastical penances for the killing of a woman were laid down, and there are long enactments, in the manner of the Brehon code, regarding punishments and compensation for slaying or injuring women, children, or clerical students.
These punishments were designed to provide protection for women from violence in all circumstances including warfare, but not confined to it. Detailed listings of the types of violence were required, to pre-empt possible excuses and defences.
Paragraph 42 contains ‘Whatever violent death that a woman dies, excepting that which results from an act of God or proper lawful union, it is to be paid in full fines to Adomnán, including slaying and drowning and burning and poison and crushing and submerging and wounding by domestic animals, and pigs and cattle. If it be the first crime on the part of the capital, or the pigs, or the dogs, they are to be killed at once and half-due of the human hand for it. If it be not the first crime, payment is made in full fines.’
However, if a woman is the killer, then she is not to be executed but set adrift. The edict stipulates that 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.
To ensure rigour in prosecution, only clerics nominated by the Columban churches were to preside as judges in the legal processes, a complete change from the Brehon Law system.
We cannot find evidence of how this edict was enforced in practice. But the fact of its repetition and transcription across the centuries suggests that it was of more than purely religious or academic relevance.
Adomnán’s Law is the earliest surviving piece of jurisprudence that is primarily concerned with women’s welfare in Western Europe.
Finally, Colin Smith and James Gallen in their paper on the Cáin Adomnáin for the Journal of the History of International Law conclude ‘that the Cáin illustrates the potential for the application of humanitarian principles in distinctive cultural, legal and religious settings and traditions and that it deserves to be remembered as part of the heritage of international humanitarian law.
A full translation of Cáin Adomnáin is available on the internet. The quotes provided here are from Fordham University at https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/sbook.asp