Tag Archives: Adomnán

Editorials: MADness, The Law of the Innocents

Humanity and MADness

The risk of self-destruction is a real one for humanity. This is not the aim of people’s actions but the result, applying to both war and global heating. It is not that we rationally want to destroy ourselves, literally or figuratively, but that this is the possible result of our actions and policies. During the Cold War there was the doctrine – policy – of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD): NATO (the USA and it allies) and Warsaw Pact (Soviet Russia and its allies) threatened each other with nuclear war which would have wiped out many cities and regions of the northern hemisphere and, ironically given global heating, brought about a nuclear winter which would in turn have wiped out the vast bulk of humanity through cold, hunger and radiation-related illnesses.

MAD was a threat; attack us and this is what you will get. But unlike conventional warfare which aims to destroy the enemy and only the enemy (not factoring in so-called ‘friendly fire’, ‘collateral damage’ to civilians, and retaliation), the result of MAD would be, as the name suggests, mutual destruction. There is a myth that this ‘kept the peace’ (we would strongly dispute that it did) and avoided war because the stakes were not only high but suicidal. This ignores the very real risks involved at the time such as with the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 or false alarms when warning systems indicated one side was being attacked. The balance of terror involved in MAD was itself a form of madness and a very real risk to the future of the billions of individual people who make up humanity.

Unfortunately we live in another era of MADness, in relation to nuclear warfare but through ecological destruction too. We seem to have learned little about how to deal with threats. It is as if we do not want to know, and to some extent we do not. Considering global heating which is a threat to the whole world, fauna (including humanity) and flora combined. We know where we are going in general terms – if not precisely what temperature increase we face – and we know the likely catastrophic effects – but we seem incapable of taking the necessary radical actions which would minimise the risk. Yes, we will do a certain amount but not so much as to discomfort ourselves currently. It is rather like a scary film with a train hurtling towards destruction down the line; we know where the brake is, we know how to use it but we are unwilling to apply it because it might make for a bumpier ride in the here and now. There is an analogy here between the real prospect of global heating armageddon and the high risk (over time) of nuclear armageddon,

And the risks of nuclear warfare have certainly not gone away. Conflict and mediation theory are clear; it is through a process of discussion and building understanding that we can make progress. Threats and counter-threats simply escalate the problems. Of course there are people or countries who do harmful things (including very much those in ‘the west’), and these need dealt with, but how do we deal with them and end cycles of violence and oppression? The Irish constitution commits the southern-and-western state to the pacific resolution of international disputes; there are only occasional signs that this is a policy as opposed to an ignored semi-aspiration.

The current war in Ukraine is a scenario reminiscent of the First World War’s death and attrition on both sides. Neither side feels they can give way. Both sides feel justified in their actions, and they are unwilling to sacrifice their sacrifices to date (move away from continued sacrifice of lives and resources because of the lives and resources already ploughed into the warfare). This is a recipe for ongoing disaster. In invading Ukraine, Russia thought it would easily gain territory and solve a problem (its military security); in doing so it created a monster. But NATO and the west, in expanding eastwards in Russia and clearly not regarding meaningfully Russia’s fears, was instrumental in the creation of that monster. We are now in the grips of a limited form of MADness. Lives and money are being thrown away on both sides in the Russia-Ukraine war in a situation of attrition just like the First World War and its trench warfare but with modern weapons and technology. It is a form of ‘chicken’, racing towards each other at speed in motorised transport, in a macho confrontation which is inimical to anyone’s wellbeing.

However the greater form of MADness is lurking in the wings. Nuclear weapons have not gone away. NATO has no doctrine of avoiding first use of nuclear weapons. Neither does Russia and Putin has upped the ante by mentioning the use of nuclear weapons on more than one occasion in the last couple of years in the context of the war in Ukraine. This would presumably be ‘tactical’ (battlefield) nuclear weapons, i.e. ones with smaller explosive yields, but this would or could open the way to all out nuclear warfare. The Deputy Commander of the Air Force and Air Defence Forces of Belarus, Leonid Davidovich, has stated that the Belarusian military is ‘theoretically and practically’ ready for ‘actions with non-strategic nuclear weapons’.

On the positive side of things, the vast majority of countries in the world reject the concept and use of nuclear weapons, a position which was eventually codified in the 2021 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons which explicitly bans the use, development, testing, production, acquisition, possession, stockpiling, transferring, receiving, threat of use and deployment of nuclear weapons. This treaty has been totally ignored by the nuclear powers and their fellow travellers; so much, then, in terms of respect for the international community and developing peace.

Nuclear weapons are held as a WMD/Weapon of Mass Destruction that countries can use in extremis. But the problem is not only, if used, the unleashing of everything in this Pandora’s box; the problem is that, when holding nuclear weapons, others then wish to hold them as a counterweight. This is the case with India and Pakistan, frequently at military loggerheads. All of this leads to increased international instability.

The Economist, a well informed but in many ways conservative journal, gave its analysis of nuclear weapons in its 6th April 2024 issue entitled “The balancing act gets harder” (along with a satirical graphic of Xi, Putin and Biden barely balancing on a tightrope held up by nuclear missiles). It considers various aspects of the situation. If we take The Economist article as representative of a certain important strain of western thought on the matter, there are some startling omissions in it. What it does not consider is how nuclear de-escalation and disarmament can happen; this is a bit like wondering what to do about a fire without calling the fire brigade. There is no mention of trust building, treaty making, mediative and communication processes. There is simply a detailed description of the mess nuclear issues are in and what options are considered to exist within the framework of nuclear deterrence as understood by western power holders. Nuclear disarmament has to happen for the long term security of our small globe; we have been lucky so far in avoiding nuclear war (and luck has played a part) but do we imagine we can be lucky in perpetuity? That is a nonsense assumption.

A second related issue in The Economist’s coverage is that there is no real analysis of the dynamics of arms escalation, and of why Putin and Xi are maintaining and/or building up their nuclear arsenals. One side responds to another. The USA is modernising and developing its nuclear capacity but this is not understood in the west as a problem issue for other countries, a culturally specific omission of great importance (i.e. it is a very pro-western view). Of course Russia and China may want to have strong nuclear capacity to throw their weight around, but is that any different to the USA throwing its weight around? Or indeed ‘little’ (by comparison) Britain retaining its nuclear weapons because it wants to still play with the big boys?

There is also no mention whatsoever in The Economist article of the 2021 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons which has been supported by the vast majority of the world, including Ireland, but not the nuclear powers and their fellow travellers. The nuclear powers ignore the developing consensus internationally against such weapons of mass destruction. While the Treaty may be aspirational it is through aspirations that we move forward. If the Economist piece is representative of western powerholding opinion then we are in trouble.

There was a slogan in the peace movement of forty years ago that ‘Unilateralists are multilateralists who mean it’. In other words, if we wait around for ‘everyone’ to agree on nuclear disarmament then it will never happen. We need countries to be brave enough to say ‘We will start the ball rolling….’ Nye Bevan, a founder of the National Health Service in Britain, opposed the abolition of nuclear weapons by the UK on the basis that it would mean “going naked into the conference chamber”, i.e. losing a bargaining chip. But someone has to start any process and those familiar with nonviolent tactics will know that voluntary nakedness can actually be a very strong and effective tactic in situations of injustice and political tension; in voluntarily choosing vulnerability in this way it shows real strength (it has various connotations in different cultures which can be part of this). We are not advocating literal nakedness here but going nuclear-naked.

Safety does not grow from aggression and threat. Safety comes from people being comfortable with each other and this in turn needs justice and equality, relatively speaking. Belligerent words (mentioning the possibility of engaging directly in the war in Ukraine) and actions (increased supply of weapons to Ukraine) does not deal with the conflict. Wars are ended by victory and defeat or by talking, or both.

We are currently in our world, northern hemisphere certainly, in a period of MADness. We cannot continue this way, for the wellbeing and survival of humanity. We need a different form of MADness – Mutually Assured De-escalation, which perhaps we could label SANity – Simple Action on Needs, dealing with the real needs of the world which are so pressing rather than adding additional worries. We need a process of dialogue and actions which take us to safety and cooperation to deal with the urgent needs of the world in relation to global heating and ecological sustainability, as well as much greater global justice, and allow for people to feel secure and unthreatened.

MADness or SANity – we have a choice.

The Law of the Innocents, 21st century

There are different positive approaches or responses to war, and there can seem to be a dichotomy between those who a) refuse to participate or back war in any form, and those who b) try to limit and/or deal with the effects and extent of war through measures such as extending ‘laws of war’ and so on. In the first category are people who could be labelled believers in nonviolence or nonviolent activists and, in increasingly archaic and abused language, ‘pacifists’. In the second category are bodies like the Red Cross/Crescent, addressing the effects of war and other disasters, and activists who have brought about the banning, in international law, of landmines and cluster munitions, or indeed those who have worked for nuclear weapons non-proliferation and for bodies who work in early intervention and addressing the causes or war.

Life is not usually very simple and different people will take different approaches as to where to address issues of war and mass violence, or stated colloquially, there are different strokes for different folks. There are many different factors in war happening including greed, injustice, imperialist (sic) attitudes, issues of resources, xenophobia and nationalism, as well as the well of history and geography. Some of those who oppose war in totality, category a) above, may get involved as a pragmatic choice in working on restricting what is considered legitimate in war so that the effects of war are not so terrible, and warfare becomes more circumscribed.

Wars will continue as long as nonviolent alternatives are not available or are not seen. It can certainly be argued that most people’s approach to mass violence and war is a blind spot; wars are entered for reasons that are considered ‘worthy’ – however mistaken they may be – but the fact that the war in question is subsequently proven to have negative consequences – think Afghanistan, Iraq or Libya among many others – does not bring about a thoroughgoing reassessment of views and a more critical approach ‘the next time’. This is despite clear research which shows nonviolent struggle is more likely to be effective (Chenoweth and Stefan, 2011, see e.g. https://www.innatenonviolence.org/readings/2020_03.shtml and https://innatenonviolence.org/wp/2022/04/01/nonviolent-resistance-to-invasion-occupation-and-coups-detat/ )

All approaches to undermining war and aspects of war as a legitimate and legal form of action are welcome. The project on The Law of the Innocents, 21st Century, is one such enterprise and deserves support. As those who are familiar with the history of the Troubles in Northern Ireland are aware, there can be problems in defining who is ‘innocent’ and who is not, who deserves sympathy for deprivation and loss (including loss of life of self or loved ones) and who either deserves less sympathy or none at all. The nonviolent approach is to say that all those who suffer are victims; Russian soldiers in Ukraine may be fighting on the side of an aggressor but if wounded or killed they are also victims. The new law states that “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.”

We therefore should not be too literal in our understanding of who the ‘Law of the Innocents’ might apply to in 2024 CE, more than 1300 years later after the original. Undermining the credibility of war – which includes its tie up with the state and state identity – is a major but necessary task, and all projects and critiques of war as a viable and legitimate form of action are very welcome. The Law of the Innocents, 21st century, also draws on Irish history and is part of an honourable tradition in Ireland of rejecting and seeking to ameliorate the effects of war. Various cultures around the world in antiquity had similar attempts to impose restrictions on warfare. Including the earth in the categories covered in the “21st century” version is of course a necessary and welcome move; the military are major polluters and carbon contributors even without the devastation of war which wreaks total havoc with the environment.

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 https://lexinnocentium21.ie/

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 https://lexinnocentium21.ie/ for further details and information, or to get in touch.