Reading in Nonviolence: Updating Adomnán: A Law of the Innocents for our time

Introduction by INNATE to the material below

In their mission statement, the promulgators of the Law of the Innocents, 21st Century (Seán English, Elizabeth Cullen and Marian Naughton), state that “While we have and fully support international laws for the protection of people and the environment in war, we wish to write this new law, a moral law; a bottom-up, soft-power law, a law of and for people around the world who are concerned about the current situation world-wide and the very real threats that war and the arms industry pose to all of us, and to our beautiful planetary home.”

War is often accepted as part of the nature of things. It is not. It is a human construct and like other such cultural constructs it can be changed or even ended and replaced with something more fitting – and respectful of all humans – for dealing with conflict. While conflict will always be with us, how we deal with it is crucial. Cooperation is necessary in various fields for humanity to survive and thrive and warfare is the very opposite.

We are reproducing here both the brief account of the history, and the 21st century Law of the Innocents/Lex Innocentium (but not the penalties or restitution sections or the Message to Future Generations – these can all be found on the website). Further details and information about getting in touch, and booking for the launch in Birr (Co Offaly) and Lorrha (Co Tipperary) on 21st September, are on their website

Please note that the texts involved are still undergoing minor development and changes. Up to date versions will be on the website

History of the law

This does not attempt to be a detailed history. It is a brief account of the history that has inspired the creation of Lex Innocentium, 21st Century. Most of the account of Adomnán and his Lex Innocentium is taken from the work of James W. Houlihan listed below. Anything appearing in quotation marks comes from Dr. Houlihan’s work. We have also greatly enjoyed reading Warren Bardsley’s book, Against the Tide.

Lex Innocentium, 21st Century takes its name from the original Lex Innocentium, Cáin Adomnáin or Adomnán’s Law, which was signed and decreed at the Synod of Birr (Co. Offaly) in the summer of the year 697 AD. In his Lex Innocentium, Adomnán secured protection in times of war (jus in bello) for clerics (and church property), women and youth (those yet too young to engage in war). While this might not have been the first law in relation to the conduct of war, it was probably the first law to identify specific non-combatants and to procure protection for them.

Adomnán was an Irish Monk, born in or around the year 627/28 AD. His parents, Rónán and Rónnat, were of two separate branches of the Cenél Conaill, whose homeland was in the region now known as Co. Donegal. Adomnán was a fourth cousin of Loingseach mac Óengusso, who became King of Tara in the year 695 AD and who was one of the signatories of Lex Innocentium. Adomnán was also related through Cenél Conaill to Columba (Colmcille), founder of the Abbey at Iona. Indeed, Adomnán was writing his life of Columba, Vita Columbae, at the time of the Synod of Birr in 697, the centenary year of Columba’s death.

Adomnán became the Ninth Abbot of Iona in the year 679. At that time, Iona was a centre of the Irish Church. The Abbot of Iona presided over a confederation of monasteries across Ireland and Western Scotland. Adomnán was a man of immense learning, talent and ability. Ireland of the seventh century was known for its religion and its learning. People from Britain and Europe ‘looked to Ireland for instruction in religion as well as other subjects, such as Latin, rhetoric, grammar, geometry, physics and computus’ (calculation of the date of Easter). However, Ireland was also a violent place, with conflicts, disputes, skirmishes and battles underway in various places at various times. Adomnán, no doubt, would have been aware of and witnessed violence in his lifetime. Indeed, it is suggested that it was his experience, with his mother, Rónnat, of witnessing the horrendous aftermath of a battle in Brega (now, more-or-less, Co. Meath) that deepened his abhorrence of violence against unarmed people whom he called ‘innocents’. While this specific account might not be true, it may well be that Adomnán was moved by such an incident. His very real concern for the welfare of innocent people in times of war resulted in the calling of the Synod of Birr and the enactment of Lex Innocentium (the Law of the Innocents).

Adomnán’s connections with noble families in Ireland, his position as Abbot of Iona and his reputation as a wise and learned man empowered him to invite kings and other civil leaders as well as bishops and abbots of the church to his Synod at Birr. In all, there were ninety-one signatories to Lex Innocentium, forty clerical leaders and fifty-one lay persons. They came from all over Ireland, Dál Riada (parts of Western Scotland-and-the-Isles and part of Northern Ireland) and Pictland (Scotland). It is not certain that all of the signatories were present at the Synod, but there is a strong possibility that they were. The law was an Irish Law to be enacted in Ireland and in Britain.

It is unclear as to the exact application or impact of this law in Ireland and Britain. However, there are some mentions of it in the records down through the years. Most interestingly, almost a thousand years after the Synod of Birr, in the winter of the year 1628/29, Franciscan Brother, Micheál O’Cléirigh, Leader of the Four Masters, discussed his copy of the Law of Adomnán with Flann Mac Aodhagáin (Mac Egan) of the lawyer family at Redwood Castle at Lorrha, Co. Tipperary.

The old Irish Order (including the ancient tradition of the Brehon Laws) was on the point of collapse, particularly following the Flight of the Earls in September 1607, as the British extended their control over Ireland. O’Cléirigh had been sent by his superiors in Louvain to compile a record of Irish Saints. However, he extended his brief to include ancient Irish history and Irish law before they were lost to memory. Over a number of years, he travelled the length and breadth of Ireland collecting histories and copying manuscripts. Within twenty years of the meeting at Redwood, the castle was abandoned and in ruin.

O’Cléirigh’s copy of Adomnán’s law is housed at the Bibliotheque Royale, Brussels. The only other surviving copy is at the Bodleian Museum, Oxford.

According to James Houlihan (2020), the reading of Adomnán’s Law at Birr in 697 was the first legislative expression of the concept of ‘innocents’ in the history of Western Europe. Houlihan advises us that it was not until the Geneva Conventions of 1949 that the concept of the non-combatant was again so clearly and explicitly defined. Indeed, Adomnán’s Law has sometimes been referred to as the Geneva Convention of the Gaels.

History is usually taught through a series of battles, wars, conquests and violent resistance. But real history is a complex fabric made up of many threads and themes. Indeed, there are many who would argue that war has not always been a widespread or constant part of human history or a naturally inevitable part of human development (for example, the Seville Statement on Violence, UNESCO, 1986).

The persistent themes of non-violence, education, justice, charity and peace-keeping are very real in the fabric of our history here in Ireland, and we are sure they can be found in the histories of other peoples throughout the world. A brief review of our Irish history allows us to follow such threads from Colmcille’s decision to walk away from a military life into a monastic one; Brigid’s decision to sell her father’s sword to buy food for the poor and Adomnán’s Lex Innocentium – through our history as the Island of Saints and Scholars, O’Connell’s non-violent mass movements for social reform; our membership of the League of Nations and the United Nations, and our long traditions of overseas missionary work, humanitarian aid and peace-keeping up to the Anglo-Irish Treaty, the Northern Ireland Peace Process and Article 29 of our Constitution which commits us to ‘devotion to the ideal of peace and friendly co-operation amongst nations founded on international justice and morality’ and ‘adherence to the principle of the pacific settlement of international disputes by international arbitration or judicial determination’.

Our belief in and love of peace, justice, protection, education and kindness have always been with us. It is now time to give them voice. We hope that friends across the world will pick up these themes in their own histories and weave them with ours to make a better future for all of us.


Houlihan, James W., Adomnán’s Lex Innocentium and the Laws of War (Four Courts Press, 2020)

Houlihan, James W., The Great Law of Birr (2022)

Bardley, Warren, Against the Tide, The Story of Adomnán of Iona, Wild Goose Publications (2006).

Other sources

Bunreacht na hÉireann

The Seville Statement on Violence UNESCO (1986)


The Law of the Innocents, 21st Century

INSPIRED BY ADOMNÁN’S LAW, LEX INNOCENTIUM (697 AD) and its protection of ‘innocent’ non-combatants in war, by other pertinent ancient laws, beliefs, traditions, and religious teachings; by international laws of our own time; by the United Nations Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; and by the hard work, dedication and sacrifices of peace activists and environmental activists down the years and throughout the world, WE, THE SIGNATORIES AND SUBSCRIBERS to this new law, Lex Innocentium, 21st Century, believe that it is now time to launch this people’s law, a moral law, a law of principle, that can be used by individuals and groups to highlight failures of governments around the world to save humanity from the scourge of war; to call governments and international leaders to account for those failures; and to challenge all those who have a vested interest in the instigation, justification and normalization of war. We also believe that, given the nature of modern weapons, it is now time to extend protection from the scourge of war to our Planet Earth and to the Future. WE HEREBY DECREE:

1. That it is wrong, and a crime under this people’s law to kill, hurt, harm, or take hostage Innocent People in war, military operation or armed conflict, deliberately, consequentially or accidentlyy (whether a war has been declared or not) OR through siege, lockdown or the cutting off of essential supplies OR through damage to civilian infrastructure.

1.1 For the purpose of this clause, the term ‘innocent people’ will include all non-combatants of all ages and gender; conscientious objectors and those who walk away from war, violence or military operations of any kind; aid workers; journalists and peace activists (all ‘Innocents’ under this law). It is also wrong and a crime to kill, injure or harm the crops, livestock or domestic animals (including household pets) upon which these innocent people rely for food or companionship.

1.2 That Innocents under this law will also include ‘Innocent Witnesses’ – all those who are troubled, offended, distressed or traumatized by the harmful impact of war on their Fellow Human Beings, on the Earth or on the Future, caused without their consent, and caused against their principles, against their feelings of empathy and compassion, and against their wisdom.

1.3 That it is wrong, and a crime under this people’s law to force individuals to commit acts of violence and aggression against their will, their beliefs or their principles.

1.4. That it is wrong, and a crime under this people’s law to harm, injure or diminish the heart, soul or spirit of humanity through acts of violence, cruelty and war.

2. That it is wrong, and a crime under this people’s law to hurt, harm, injure or damage Planet Earth (an ‘Innocent’ under this law), her soil, water or atmosphere or any of her wide and varied ecosystems and living creatures, including humanity; whether deliberately, consequentially or accidentlally, through war or aggression, military operation or armed conflict, or through the manufacture, testing, storing or decommissioning* of weapons of any kind, including traditional explosive weapons, chemical weapons, biological weapons, nuclear weapons and weapons yet to be invented.

3. That it is wrong, and a crime under this people’s law to threaten, put at risk or harm Future Generations of Humanity or the Future Welfare of the Earth, her soil, water or atmosphere or any of her wide and varied ecosystems and living creatures (all ‘Innocents’ under this law), whether deliberately, consequentially or accidently, through war or aggression, military operation or armed conflict, or through the manufacture, testing, storing or decommissioning* of weapons of any kind, including traditional explosive weapons, chemical weapons, biological weapons, nuclear weapons and weapons yet to be invented.

*While we wish for all weapons to be decommissioned, decommissioning can be extremely toxic. Every care must be taken in the decommissioning of weapons to avoid harm. Given their toxicity, it is better not to make such weapons in the first place.

4. That it is wrong, and a crime under this people’s law to spend money and resources on war, including the stockpiling of weapons. It is also wrong and a crime for any individual, group, business, manufacturing enterprise, or government to assist, aid, abet or facilitate the harms and injuries listed in this law on the Innocents protected by this law. For the purposes of this law, facilitating will include ignoring and failing to try to end the harm through mediation, negotiation and peaceful means.

5. Given the indefensible nature of modern warfare, defence can no longer justify engagement in war or military aggression of any kind OR the military industrial complex, including the arms industry and all other associated institutions. In its protections, Lex Innocentium, 21st Century, renders modern warfare impossible without breaking this law, and necessarily rejects the Just War Theory.

THIS LAW THUS DECLARES that War (whether declared or not) is a Crime against Humanity, a Crime against the Earth and a Crime against the Future

See for further details and information, or to get in touch.