- Prophecy and Kingship in Adomnán’s “Life of Saint Columba.” by Michael J. Enright
Adomnán’s Life of Saint Columba has been a text of deep interest for Michael J. Enright for many years, and a full exposition of his views on the Life is thoroughly welcome. As the title suggests, the book is mainly concerned with the interaction between two themes: Adomnán’s conception of St. Columba as an Old Testament prophet, and his views on the Irish (and to some extent also Anglo-Saxon and Pictish) kingship that encompass the previous 150 years and his own time. The Life, written c. AD 700, was divided into three books: book I was devoted to prophecies, book II to miracles that often had a basis in prophecy, and book III to visions of angels. Enright’s book is similarly divided into three long chapters: “Adomnán’s ‘call’ for an Old Testament-style regime”; “Claims, agendas and a prophetic culture in the Lives of Patrick and Columba”; and “A Columban covenant in Northumbria: interpreting VC I 1 and II 46.”
The argument in the first chapter is that Adomnán shaped his picture of Columba so as to present him as a prophet similar to Samuel, Elijah, and Elisha; that an implication of this picture was Columba’s divine authority in his dealings with kings; and that Columba’s authority as a prophet served a “reform plan” put forward by Adomnán himself. Up to a point, this is not especially controversial; as Enright notes, Adomnán himself compares Columba to Old Testament prophets as well as to New Testament apostles. One must also note the qualification made by Enright at the beginning of his conclusion—namely, that his book does not [End Page 806] claim to present a full analysis of the Vita Columbae, but simply offers “evidence for a new reading of those parts of the text that focus on kingship and prophetic status and awareness” (p. 185). It soon becomes evident, however, that Enright is as much concerned to defend arguments presented in an earlier book—Iona, Tara and Soissons: The Origins of the Royal Anointing Ritual (Berlin, 1985)—as he is to propound something new.
The defensive aspect of the book may have interfered with the positive. For example, Enright argued in the earlier book (reiterated in the present one) that Adomnán saw Columba “ordaining” kings in a ceremony of unction that made the person anointed a king by divine authority, just as Samuel anointed Saul and David. A counterargument has been advanced: that “ordaining” at the time could be by unction but that there were other ways of ordaining kings. “Ordaining,” therefore, would not bear quite the weight that Enright places on it. One of the kings said to be ordained in the Vita Columbae is Diarmait mac Cerbaill, ancestor of the Southern Uí Néill, “ordained by God’s will as king of all Ireland.” Since Enright believes (and thinks Adomnán believed) that Diarmait was a pagan, he has to explain what this divinely authorized ordination of a pagan king involved. Enright’s explanation includes the claim that Adomnán saw Diarmait as a latter-day Cyrus, pagan and yet the agent of God in conquering Babylon and freeing God’s people to return to their homeland. In this way Enright comes to the conclusion that, for Adomnán, Diarmait underwent “God’s mystical anointing” (p. 30). This is all very ingenious, but one has to ask: what is the evidence that Diarmait was a pagan? For Enright, the evidence is in annals for 558 and 560, which are commonly understood as deriving from a “Chronicle of Ireland” extending to 911. The earliest contemporary entries of this chronicle derive from an Iona chronicle beginning soon after the foundation of Iona, perhaps c. 565 and thus within a decade of the events in question. The Chronicle of Ireland is...