The Catholic Historical Review 89.2 (2003) 283-284
[Access article in PDF]
Adomnán at Birr, AD 697: Essays in Commemoration of the Law of the Innocents. Edited by Thomas O'Loughlin. (Dublin: Four Courts Press. Distributed in the United States by ISBS, Portland, Ore. 2001. Pp. 77. $55.00.)
This small but valuable book is the work of three distinguished scholars, one of whom has also served as the editor. The work was occasioned by a conference held at Birr (Ireland) in June, 1997, to mark the promulgation there, 1300 years earlier, of a pioneering piece of social legislation promoted by that leading Gaelic cleric of the late seventh century, a man of great learning and practical ability, Adomnán (pronounced Àthovnaan), heir of St. Columba and therefore abbot of Iona (Scotland). It is suspected that this law was itself a centennial tribute to St. Columba, who died in 597.
The decree-law of Adomnán (Cáin Adomnáin, otherwise Lex Innocentium) was designed to define a category of non-combatants (innocentes)—females, clerics, and pre-adolescent boys—who would henceforth be protected from violence in the warlike society which was Gaeldom in the early Middle Ages. The most important part of this book is the translation of the core-text of Cáin Adomnáin, presented here with a brief introduction by Máirín Ní Dhonnchadha (pp. 53-68), who is herself preparing a full new edition of this work. Her translation shows that we may expect some marked advances over Kuno Meyer's spare but pioneering edition published in 1905. She has also (p. 16) offered an important re-dating of the narrative preface of the Cáin, to about A.D. 1000. This chapter displays more typographical errors than is desirable, however, and an unfortunate habit of using bizarre anglicized plurals of Old-Irish words (cumals, fines, ollams, séts with, moreover, inadequate local guidance given as to what the words themselves mean.
The three other chapters—the same author's "Birr and the Law of the Innocents" (pp. 13-32), "The World of Adomnán" by Maire Herbert (pp. 33-9), and the indefatigable editor's "Adomnán: a man of many parts" (pp. 41-51)—provide, with a sure touch, various kinds of essential context. A paper on the larger context of Irish canon and civil law would have been welcome too—that can in large measure, however, be supplied by the pamphlet (only slightly shorter [End Page 283] than the book under review) by T. M. Charles-Edwards, The Early Mediaeval Gaelic Lawyer (Cambridge, 1999), to which frequent reference has been made in Adomnán at Birr. Other aspects of Adomnán's legislative activities (notably his concern with Old-Testament alimentary regulations) have been studied by Pádraig P. Ó Néill (University of North Carolina) and this reviewer in their class-edition of Cáin Adomnáin and Canones Adomnani (Cambridge, 2003).
The survival of the Law is in large part due to the copying or creation of a dossier of texts about Adomnán by Brother Míchél Ó Cléirigh, O.F.M., the leader of Ireland's "Four Masters," in 1627. By that time it had long since come to be categorized, more narrowly than its original intention, as a law against killing women.
Marian devotion in seventh- and eighth-century Ireland—seen most vividly in the poetry of Bláthmac mac Con Brettan (edited and translated by James Carney for the Irish Texts Society in 1964)—has been hypothesized (pp. 22-6) as one of the important currents of thought underpinning Cáin Adomnáin.
Cáin Adomnáin states that it was to be enforced in Ériu and Albu, Ireland and Britain (pp. 57, 61, 62), but, in Britain, only what is now northern Scotland can be meant (cf. p. 28), for kings of that region were guarantors of the Law (p.59, nos. 77, 85, 91). Nevertheless, Adomnán's interests were of a pan...