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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 second of two blogs on the protection of innocent people in times of strife. The article is by Jim Houlihan and on Monday 25 Sept. Dr 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 and online booking for Zoom see our FB post @offalyhistory. Our thanks to John Dolan for the first article and to Jim Houlihan for this article and his forthcoming talk.
Early in the summer of the year 697, probably in May, a great assembly of kings, bishops and abbots, along with their followers and servants, took place in Birr. It was a joint meeting of kings (rígdál) and of church leaders (synod). They came together to proclaim a law for the protection of women, children, clerics and other people who did not bear arms, in times of conflict. The law was called Cáin Adomnáin or the ‘Law of the Innocents’ (Lex Innocentium) and later referred to in a poem as the ‘Great Law of Bir
The scene is hard for us to imagine today. Birr, at that time, was an important midland monastic settlement, having been founded by St. Brendan almost one hundred and fifty years earlier. It was one of many such settlements in the immediate area, including Seirkieran, Clonfert, Clonmacnoise, Gallen, Leamonaghan, Rahan, Lynally, Durrow, Lorrha, Terryglass, Roscrea, Kinnitty and many more. It was in the nature of a small town and the location of seasonal markets, with a church, mill and tradesmen, with dwellings for laymen and women on the outer verges. The church would have been at the centre, probably where the ruins of the pre-reformation church still stand in Church Street, with a road running north/south through the settlement on the line of O’Connell/Main streets today. One can conjecture that the northern entrance to the settlement would have been in the vicinity of the Emmet Sq/O’Connell Street junction.
Adomnan and attendants on platform reading out law
Who was there? In answering this question, we do not need to speculate because a list of names was taken at the time of all those who guaranteed the law, and this list has survived down through the centuries. It is likely that most, if not all, on the list were in Birr in May 697. The list contains 91 names, 51 of whom are laymen and 40 of whom are clerics. The clerics are listed first, headed by Fland of Febail, sage-bishop of Armagh. Loingsech mac Óengusso king of Ireland heads the list of 51 lay guarantors,
A platform would have been erected at the entrance to the monastic settlement from which the law would be proclaimed. We can only imagine these mighty and haughty kings with their entourages arriving at the scene on their richly caparisoned horses, wearing their finest garb and most precious swords and jewellery, intent on impressing their friends and intimidating their enemies. The kings would swagger but would be wary as they joined, in many cases, their mortal enemies. Loingsech the high king was not to know that he would meet his death in battle within eight years at the hands of the forces of the elderly Cellach, king of Connacht. Many others would meet the same fate at the hands of fellow attendees at that great meeting in Birr. But first they had a law to pass, a law by which they all agreed that, whatever violence they might inflict on one another, innocents, that is women, children and clerics would be excluded from their wars and would have full legal protection. Thus is set the scene for what is, arguably, the most remarkable day in the history of County Offaly, remarkable not only because of the importance of those attending and the splendour of the occasion, but, more importantly, because of the nature of the law that was enacted, embodying as it does, humanitarian principles that underpin present day international affairs and are a hallmark of modern civilization.
Adomnán is not a well-known figure in Ireland today, except in his native Donegal where he is called as Eunan, and among scholars of early Irish history. In fact, Adomnán was a man of immense talents and ability, and among academic historians, is well known and much admired. One scholar has described him as ‘one of the leading churchmen in these islands [Ireland and Britain] in the first millennium’. Such a claim can be made for few figures in history. He had a particular passion and a burning determination that, we shall see, was unique to himself and not shared by any of his contemporaries either in Ireland or elsewhere in Western Europe; nor, indeed was it evident in anybody else until many centuries after his death. It is clear from his writings that Adomnán abhorred violence against un-armed people, what today we would call non-combatants or civilians, or what Adomnán called ‘innocents’. This word comes from the Latin nocere meaning ‘to hurt’ or innocere for those who do not hurt. In general, it applies to women, children, clerics, and anybody else who traditionally did not bear arms.
Praying in the monastery church as the kings and high clerics gathered expectantly at the entrance to the settlement
The first paragraph , sets out the intention of the law. It is to provide immunity from violence for stated classes of persons, namely, clerics, females, innocent youths until they reach manhood, along with lay-people, presumably penitents, who are subject to a confessor, all of whom were people who did not bear arms. This paragraph explains, and, indeed, defines the meaning of the term innocents. As we will see, it was not again until the Geneva Conventions of 1949 that the concept of the non-combatant was so clearly and explicitly defined. Some people will doubt that this could be true. They might say that surely the ancient Greeks or Romans, or the early Christians or the Fathers of the Church like St. Augustine and his just war theories, would have come up with something similar. They didn’t, as a close reading of the relevant writings will show. In general, early writers, saints, and philosophers in this field, were obsessed with the question of when it was right to go to war, jus ad bellum, to the exclusion of the question of what was right behaviour during the course of war, jus in bello. It was felt that if your cause was just, you had a free hand. This continued to be the dominant view right up and into the 1800s, It was not until the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949 and additional protocols of 1977 that the rights of innocents in time of war, regardless of who had justice on their side, were guaranteed under international law. It took two disastrous world wars, in which millions of innocents were slaughtered, before the international community agreed, as was agreed in Birr in 697, that innocents had an unconditional right to protection.
We are all aware that violence towards innocents is an appalling problem in today’s world. Putin’s Russian invasion of Ukraine has acutely heightened our awareness. The daily images of gratuitous violence and barbarity directed deliberately at innocents appals us and gives our Law of the Innocents a grim topicality. In a strange way, this law is not just our heritage but also our responsibility.
Violence against innocent people
Offaly History writes:
Jim Houlihan will speak at Offaly History Centre Bury Quay, Tullamore, R35 Y5V0
on Monday 25 September 2023 at 8 p.m. You are welcome to attend in person or online via link by emailing [email protected].
Title: Adomnán’s Law of the Innocents – Birr 697 AD.
Speaker (in person at Bury Quay, Tullamore and online): Jim Houlihan
Format: online and in person at Offaly History CentrePaper Synopsis: Dr Jim Houlihan’s talk will tell the story of the law of Adomnán. He will describe the gathering of kings and eminent clergy who assembled in Birr in 697 to agree a law that would protect women, children, clerics and other unarmed people in time of conflict. Jim will introduce Adomnán, abbot of Iona, otherwise known as St Eunan, the instigator of the law, a man driven by a passionate concern for the innocent, the vulnerable, the weakest in society, a concern that was unique for its time in western Europe and, indeed for many centuries thereafter. The provisions of the law will be briefly considered and the surviving manuscripts containing its terms. The Law of the Innocents, otherwise known as Lex Innocentium or Cáin Adomnáin has been described by scholars as an early Geneva Convention.
Speaker Bio: Jim Houlihan is a native of Birr and a retired solicitor having practiced in the midlands for 45 years, including over 30 years as State Solicitor for County Offaly. On retirement he completed a MA and a PhD in UCD. His doctoral thesis formed the basis of his book, Adomnán’s Lex Innocentium and the Laws of war (Dublin, Four Courts Press, 2020).