A Tale of Adomnan and Fínsnechta the Generous, King of Brega

Fínsnechta was King of Mag Breg for 20 years (675-695)  including when the Northumbrians raided Brega in 684 and Adomnan later redeemed the hostages. Fínsnechta and his son were assassinated in 695. A Bóroma is apparently a type of tribute, probably cattle tribute. I have to wonder why Adomnan cared about Finsnechta’s cattle tribute unless Adomnan’s monastery(s) benefited from it.

From the Fragmentary Annals of Ireland [CELT edition, FA 67]:

II It was not long afterwards that Fínnachta came with a large horsetroop to the house of one of his sisters, having been invited by the sister, and owing her a visit in return. As they were going on the journey, they met Adamnán, then a young scholar, travelling on the same road, with a jug full of milk on his back, and as he was running out of the way of the horse-troop his foot struck against a stone, and he fell with the jug so that it was broken to bits; and though the horses were swift, Adamnán was no slower with his broken jug on his back, and he sad and gloomy. When Fínnachta saw him, he burst out laughing, and he was saying to Adamnán, ‘That will make you joyful, for I am willing to make good every injury in my power. You will receive compensation for it from me, student,’ said Fínnachta, ‘so do not be sad.’ Adamnán said: ‘Nobleman,’ said he, ‘I have reason for grief, for there are three noble scholars in the same house, and they have us as three servants, and one of the servants goes out looking for sustenance for the other five men; and it fell to me to gather things for them today; what I had intended for them fell to the ground, and there is something more grievous, that is, the borrowed jug has broken, and I do not have the price of it.’ ‘I will pay for the jug,’ said Fínnachta, ‘and you bring with you tonight, to the house where we are going, the five who are without food, depending on you; and they will receive food and drink from us.’

That was done accordingly; they brought the other four clerics, and the ale-house was arranged, half of the house for clerics and the other half for laymen. Adamnán’s tutor was filled with the grace of the Holy Spirit, and the spirit of prophecy, and he said, ‘The man who has given this banquet will be the High King of Ireland, and Adamnán will be the head of piety and wisdom of Ireland, and he will be Fínnachta’s confessor, and Fínnachta will be in great prosperity until he gives offense to Adamnán.’ ….

… A battle was then fought hard and heroically between them, i.e. between Cenn Fáelad and Fínnachta, in Aircheltair, and Cenn Fáelad was killed there, and many along with him. Then Fínnachta took the kingship of Ireland for twenty years.IV It was that Fínnachta who remitted the Bóroma to MoLing, after it had been levied by forty kings previously, i.e. from Tuathal Techtmar to Fínnachta. MoLing came on behalf of all the Laigin to seek remission of the Bóroma from Fínnachta. Now MoLing asked Fínnachta to remit the Bóroma for a day and a night. Fínnachta accordingly remitted the Bóroma for a day and a night. To MoLing that was the same as remitting it forever: for there is nothing in time but day and night. However, Fínnachta had thought that it was for one day and one night only. MoLing went out and said, ‘You have granted a stay of it forever.’ And on the previous day MoLing had promised heaven to Fínnachta.

Then Fínnachta understood that MoLing had tricked him, and he said to his followers, ‘Rise up,’ he said, ‘after the holy man who has left me, and tell him that I granted a stay of but one day and one night to him, for it seems to me that the holy man has deceived me, since there is nothing except day and night in the whole world.’ When MoLing knew that they were coming after him, he ran swiftly and speedily till he reached his house, and the king’s attendants did not catch up with him at all.

Others say that MoLing brought a poem with him to Fínnachta, namely Fínnachta over the Uí Neill, etc. (That is written in the Bóroma in this book). So the Bóroma was remitted to MoLing forever, and although Fínnachta regretted that, he was not able to levy it, for it was for the sake of heaven that he had remitted it. And this is truer.

In the fifteenth year from this year Fínnachta remitted the Bóroma. Adamnán came to see Fínnachta immediately after MoLing, and he sent a cleric from his retinue for Fínnachta, that he might come to talk with him. Fínnachta was playing fidchell at that time. ‘Come and talk to Adamnán,’ said the cleric. ‘I will not go until this game is over,’ answered Fínnachta. The cleric came to Adamnán, and told him Fínnachta’s reply. ‘Go to him, and tell him: I will sing fifty psalms meanwhile, and there is a psalm in that fifty in which I shall pray to the Lord that neither son nor descendant of yours, nor any man of the same name, shall ever take the kingship of Ireland.’

The cleric went and said that to Fínnachta, and Fínnachta paid no attention to it, but played his fidchell until the game was finished. ‘Come and talk to Adamnán, Fínnachta,’ said the cleric. ‘I will not go,’ said Fínnachta, ‘until this game is finished.’

FA 67

The cleric told that to Adamnán. ‘Tell him,’ said Adamnán, ‘that I shall sing fifty psalms during that time, and there is a special psalm among that fifty, and in that psalm I shall ask and demand that the Lord shorten his life.’

The cleric told that to Fínnachta, and Fínnachta paid it no attention, but played his fidchell until the game was finished. ‘Come and talk to Adamnán,’ said the cleric. ‘I will not go,’ said Fínnachta, ‘until this game is over.’

The cleric came back, and he told Adamnán Fínnachta’s answer. ‘Go to him,’ said Adamnán, ‘and tell him that I will sing the third fifty, and there is a special psalm in that fifty, and I will pray the Lord in that psalm that he may not reach the kingdom of heaven.’

The cleric returned to Fínnachta, and reported that. When Fínnachta heard it, he abruptly threw the fidchell from him and came to Adamnán. ‘What has brought you to me now,’ asked Adamnán, ‘since you did not come at the other messages?’ ‘This is my reason,’ answered Fínnachta; ‘the threats that you made against me before, that is, that neither son nor grandson should succeed me, and that no man of my name should hold the kingship of Ireland, or that my life should be shortened—those seemed light to me. But when you promised to deprive me of heaven, it was on that account that I came immediately to talk to you, because I cannot bear this.’ ‘Is it true,’ asked Adamnán, ‘that you have remitted the Bóroma day and night to MoLing?’ ‘It is true,’ answered Fínnachta. ‘You have been deceived,’ said Adamnán; ‘that is the same as remitting it forever.’ He was reproaching him like that, and he sang the lay:

  1. Although the withered, gray-haired, toothless king
    arrays himself today,
    he does not obtain the cattle—proper to the king—
    that he remitted to MoLing.
  2. If I were Fínnachta,
    and I were lord of Temair,
    I would never give it;
    I would not do what he has done.
  3. Every king who does not remit his tribute,
    long-lived are his legends;
    alas, that he has granted the award he has granted;
    he who is weak is shameful.
  4. Your wisdoms and our follies
    have ended with wrong-doing;
    woe to the king who has remitted his tributes,
    oh celestial Jesus of heaven.
  5. A person is famous while he is in control;
    alas for him who clings to old men;

  6. If I were a king who reddens spears,
    I would put down my enemies;
    I would raise my strongholds;
    my wars would be many.
  7. My wars would be many;
    my words would not be false;
    my contracts would be just;
    my territories would be abundant.
  8. My signs would be apparent;
    my contracts would be firm;
    this treaty, although it were an accident,
    I would not allow to the Laigin.
  9. I pray a prayer to God
    that neither death nor danger may come to me;
    may MoLing escape today;
    may he not die by point or edge.

p.33

  1. The son of Faillén, a man across seas,
    he could not be turned back;
    he knows the secrets of the Son of God;
    the Son of God knows his secrets.
  2. Thrice fifty psalms each day
    are what he says for God;
    thrice fifty poor men—course of swiftness—
    are what he feeds each night.
  3. The tree of virtue and fruitfulness,
    the learned one with knowledge,
    a ship of the sea that has received welcome,
    the wave of Berba, the boat of Bressal.
  4. The ship of gold whose quality is excellent,
    the plank of gold over the kindreds,
    the salmon of brown Dubglais,
    the sound of a wave, a wave against cliffs.

After that Fínnachta laid his head in Adamnán’s bosom, and he did penance in his presence, and Adamnán forgave him the remission of the Bóroma.

Adomnan, Cuthbert, and King Aldfrith

St Cuthbert, Durham Cathedral

I was really looking forward to Barbara Yorke’s paper “Adomnan at the court of King Aldfrith” from the Adomnan conference published in Adomnan of Iona: Theologian, Lawmaker, Peacemaker. I have a couple of her books and I’ve learned a lot from her. Unfortunately there are a few things in her chapter that I don’t think work very well.

While I agree that Cuthbert appears to have worked himself into King Ecgfrith’s confidence there really isn’t much evidence that he arranged for Aldfrith to be Ecgfrith’s heir to the family’s relief. If King Aldfrith owed his succession to Cuthbert, it is strange that there is not one episode of Cuthbert being in the presence of Aldfrith or Adomnan in Bede’s History, either Life of Cuthbert, or Adomnan’s Life of Columba. Strange given that there are several episodes of Cuthbert with King Ecgfrith and his queen. We know that Adomnan visits King Aldfrith’s court one year after his succession, in 686, and this is about the same time that Cuthbert essentially abandons his episcopate to become a hermit on Farne island again (for which health is not an excuse). He is trying to get away from the world, perhaps the new king.  After Cuthbert’s death in 687, Bishop Wilfrid takes control of Lindisfarne, hardly a friendly appointment, and there is great turmoil at Lindisfarne during his tenure there. Adomnan visits again in 688 and this roughly coincides with the appointment of a new bishop for Lindisfarne, ending Wilfrid’s jurisdiction there. How much influence Adomnan had on King Aldfrith in these matters is unknown, maybe none. However we do know that Adomnan was successful in redeeming Irish hostages taken by King Ecgfrith in 684 on both his 686 and 688 trips. Rather than seeing Cuthbert’s prophecy as evidence that he arranged Aldfrith’s succession, it may be intended to cover up friction between Bishop Cuthbert and King Aldfrith. Someone so closely tied to Ecgfrith, intrusted with the queen before his death and seeing her safely into a convent as a widow, may not have been trusted by Aldfrith.

Here we remember Cuthbert’s dying instructions to Lindisfarne included

“But have no communion with those who err from the unity of the Catholic faith, either by keeping Easter at an improper time, or by their perverse life. And know and remember, that, if of two evils you are compelled to choose one, I would rather that you should take up my bones, and leave these places, to reside wherever God may send you, than consent in any way to the wickedness of schismatics, and so place a yoke upon your necks.” (Life of Cuthbert, Ch. 39)

Adomnan was the leader of those schismatics and Iona its fountain head, where the Aldfrith was when his brother was killed in battle. Cuthbert had spent years as prior of Lindisfarne bringing that community into communion with Rome, so he had no energy or desire to back peddle by improving their relationship with Iona.

Barbara Yorke’s paper also doesn’t recognize that Adomnan made a third trip to Northumbria in 702-3, as recorded by Bede. I’ll save that for another post. Suffice it to say, that I think Adomnan’s visit to Wearmouth-Jarrow occurred in c. 702-3 rather than in 688.

Bishop Coetti of Iona

This past week I read Barbara Yorke’s contribution to Adomnan of Iona: Theologian, Lawmaker, Peacemaker. She mentions almost in an off-hand way that some believe that Bishop Coetti of Iona was English with a name along the lines of Cedd (Cedda) and Chad (Caedda). I’m not a linguist so I can’t really evaluate the likelihood that this is true or not but it did get me thinking. We do know that the second recorded bishop of Iona, Ecgbert, was certainly English. We also know that they both seemed to function over both Dalriada and Pictland. Placenames associated with Coetti are found in Pictland and Ecgbert’s warnings to King Ecgfrith not to campaign in Pictland may come from travels in Pictland to preform sacramental duties. As a bishop functioning in Pictland, it is likely that Ecgberht did indeed have direct contact with King Ecgfrith who was dominant over at least part of Pictland.

It is interesting that Iona doesn’t seem to have a bishop before Adomnan’s time. Given what we know of Iona’s abbots they may not have liked the competition for authority. Perhaps its just that bishops were always closely associated with the king and the goal of a monastery was to separate itself from regular life.

By Adomnan’s time though Iona may have been having a hard time finding a bishop who would see to their sacramental needs (confirmation and ordination) because of the Easter/Rome controversy. Or at least it was much easier to find a bishop to see to these needs without a diplomatic ordeal every time. This would be where the English trained in Ireland come in. We know that there were at least two groups, Ecgbert’s group at Rathmelsigi and the Mayo of the Saxons. If Coetti was a Saxon, then we have two Saxon bishops at the Synod of Birr in 697. These English wandering bishops, without known diocesan boundaries, may have been important intermediaries between Iona and the Hiberno-Romans. Although we can’t assume that Bishop Coetti was a Romanist, and it would make more sense if he wasn’t. The English seem to have become enmeshed in Iona’s extensive network before and after the Synod of Whitby in 664. Its all food for thought and I haven’t really thought out all the possible implications.