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School of Iona

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Iona is the modern name derived by change of letter from Adamnan's Ioua; in Bede it is Hii; the Gaelic form is always I or Y, which becomes Hy by prefixing the euphonic h. This rugged, storm-swept island, three miles long and one in average breadth, and about a mile distant from the Ross of Mull, was next to Armagh the greatest centre of Gaelic Christianity — the latter was Patrick's city and primatial see; the former Columba's monastic city, a "primatial island", and the light of all the North. Yet closely connected with Ireland for at least 600 years it may be described as an Irish island in the Scottish seas. Columba, born in 521 landed with twelve of his monks at the southern extremity of the island — ever since called Porta Churraich, or the Bay of the Island — on Whitsun Eve 12 May, 563. Whether he came to do penance for his share in the battle of Cuildreinhne two years before, or, as the Irish "Life" says, "to preach the Gospel to the men of Alba and to the Britons and to the Saxons" — which in any case was his primary purpose — we cannot now determine. It appears that he got a grant of the island from his relative Conall King of Dalriada. which was afterwards confirmed by Brude, King of the Picts, when the latter was converted by the preaching of Columba, who immediately set to work to build his monastery, more Scottorum of earth, timber, and wicker-work. Hence not a trace now remains of those perishable buildings — all the existing ruins are medieval. A Celtic monastery consisted of a group of beehive cells around a central church or oratory, the other principal buildings being the common refectory or kitchen, the library or scriptorium, the abbot's house, and the guest-house. Adamnan, after Columba himself the brightest ornament of the School of Iona, in his "Life" of the founder, makes explicit references to the tabulae, waxen tablets for writing; to the pens and styles, graphia and calami, and to the ink-horn, cornicula atramenti, to be found in the scriptorium. Columba was certainly a most accomplished scribe if the "Book of Kells" be his own work, and he was engaged in copying one of the psalms when, overtaken by mortal illness, he directed his nephew Baithen to write the rest. And we are told, too, that Baithen during his brief abbacy of three years in succession to Columba was, like his master engaged in "writing, praying and teaching up to the hour of his happy death". When asked about the learning of Baithen, Fintan one of his monks replied: "Be assured that he had no equal on this side of the Alps in his knowledge of Sacred Scripture, and in the profundity of his science" — and he was at once a pupil and a professor of the School of Iona. Language like this might be considered exaggerated if we did not possess the writings of Adamnan, the ninth abbot and the most illustrious scholar of Iona.

Adamnan, otherwise Eunan, a native of Drumhome, in County Donegal, and a tribal relative of Columba, was educated from his youth in Iona, and it may be said that all his learning was the learning of Iona. His "Life of Columba", written at the request of the brotherhood, in Latin, not in Gaelic, is on the whole one of the most valuable works of the Western Church of the seventh century that have come down to us. He gives us more accurate and authentic information of the Gaelic Churches in Ireland and Scotland than any other writer, not excepting even Venerable Bede, who described him as "a good and wise man, and most nobly instructed in the knowledge of the Scriptures". But he was much more. We know from his writings that he was an accomplished Latin scholar, a Gaelic scholar too-Gaelic was his mother tongue-while he had a considerable acquaintance with Greek and some even with Hebrew. He was, moreover, painstaking, judicious, and careful in citing his authorities. He has also left us an admirable treatise "On the Holy Places" in Palestine which he compiled from the narrative of a shipwrecked French bishop named Arculfus, who returning from the Holy Land was cast on the shores of Iona. This is an invaluable treatise from which Bede has extracted long passages for his history, showing that its authority was as great in his own day as it has ever since continued to be in the estimation of scholars. This learned man was a true monk, and like Columba himself took a share in the manual labour of the monastery. With his own strong arms he helped to cut down as many oak trees in one of the neighbouring islands — perhaps Erraid — as sufficed to load twelve boats, and no doubt he had a share in building the boats and framing the monastic cells, like the cell of Columba, which was, he tells us, tabulis suffulta, framed of planks, and harundine tecta, thatched with reeds.

During the century that closed with the death of Adamnan, Iona was in its glory, Columba and his monks had converted to the faith the whole of Pictland with its rulers. It sent three famous prelates to found and rule over Lindisfarne, second only to Iona itself as a centre of religious learning and influence in the North of Saxonland. Aidan, Finan, and Colman are men whose well-deserved eulogy has been recorded by Venerable Bede. The unhappy disputes about the frontal tonsure and the true time for celebrating Easter, caused much disturbance during the seventh century both in Iona itself and in its daughter houses. Even when Ireland and England had given up the strife and adopted the Roman Easter, the monks of Iona, true to the traditions of their sainted founder, still clung tenaciously to the old Easter. And so late as 716, when Iona itself conformed to the Roman usage, some of the daughter houses in Pictland stubbornly held to the ancient discipline. This stubbornness brought about a few years later the expulsion of the Columban monks from Pictland by Nectan, King of the Picts, who had accepted the Roman discipline.

The ninth century brought woe and disaster to both Iona and Lindisfarne from the pagan Danes who ravaged all the British coasts. In 793 they destroyed the church of Lindisfarne with great rapine and slaughter. In 795 they made their first attack on Iona, but the monks on that occasion appear to have escaped with their lives. But in 806 sixty-eight of the community were slain at Port na Mairtir on the eastern shore of the island, and the white sands somewhat north were the scene of the massacre of another band of martyrs. A few years later again, in 814, Abbot Cellach found it necessary to transfer the primacy of the Columban Order from Iona — which Adamnan calls "this our primatial island" — to the monastery of Kells in Ireland, bringing with him the shrine containing Columba's relics which was however brought back later on. In 825 there was a further massacre of Iona monks, namely of St. Blaithmac who refused to give up the shrine, and his holy companions. Blaithmac's heroic death was celebrated in Latin verse by Walafridus Strabo, Abbot of Reichenau, South Germany. In 908 St. Andrews was formally recognized as the primatial see of Scotland, from which year we may date the disappearance of Iona's insular primacy. In the beginning of the thirteenth century, 1204, the ancient Celtic monastery finally disappeared, and a new Benedictine one was established by authority of the pope; but the original graveyard — the Reilig Odhrain — was still regarded as the holiest ground in Scotland, and is now crowded with the inscribed tombstones of the kings, chieftains and prelates who rest beneath.

About this page

APA citation. Healy, J. (1910). School of Iona. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Healy, John. "School of Iona." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 8. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1910. <>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Tomas Hancil.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. October 1, 1910. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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