The church of Teampull Rònain: his or hers?

Thomas Clancy wonders about the identity of the saint in the name of Iona’s medieval parish church.

The ruined church which now goes under the name of Teampull Rònain, or St Ronan’s Church in English, has been a bit of a mystery over the years. Situated next to the high medieval nunnery, the precise relationship between them has been unclear. Apparently it served as the parish church of the island in the later middle ages, at least. Its history was further highlighted by excavations in the 1990s led by Jerry O’Sullivan, which revealed an earlier church underneath the present standing one of the 13th century, though it was not clear when between the 8th and 12th century this earlier church might have been constructed.[1] It was also used for burial, and the excavators noted that the site had potentially been ‘in continuous use as a burial ground from the Early Christian period until the 18th century’.[2] Intriguingly, the late phase of burial, suggested to be from c.1600 to c.1800, seems to have been only of women and some children. William Reeves, writing in 1857, identified this as one of the cemeteries of the island, Cladh Ronain and linked it to the church he calls Teampull Ronain.[3]

A further mystery has been the identity of the saint commemorated in its name. The modern name suggests a saint Rònan, or Rónán in Early Gaelic spelling, well-known and common enough as a current name in its English spelling as Ronan. There have been various confident statements about who this saint was, but none have much to support them.[4] There were many saints of this name, though none with very strongly established connections to Iona or the Columban family of monasteries (see various options on the ‘Saints in Scottish Place-Names’ resource: ). There were clerics of this name associated with both Kingarth on Bute and with Lismore, recorded in the annals and martyrologies, so it is certainly a plausible name to find on Iona. However, compared to, for instance, St Cainneach, well represented in Adomnán’s Life of Columba; or with St Odhran about whom Gilbert Márkus has written much recently,[5] it is harder to see why a St Ronan is there.

But perhaps he isn’t there.

Our earliest forms of the name prompt some questions. The earliest account to name the church, the Iona Rental of 1561, described “the teindis of Ecolmkill callit the personaige of Tempill Ronaige.”[6] This is a form of the name reiterated by Archibald MacMillan in 1898, though not independently of the earlier Rental which he cites (he translates the name as ‘Ronan’s Church’)[7] W. F. Skene also notes the building as ‘T. Ronaig’ on the map of Iona in his Celtic Scotland of 1877,[8] though he does not further comment on the name. It is interesting, since both must have known of Reeves’ work, that both adopt Teampull Ronaig as the Gaelic form of the name. One explanation may be that Reeves himself is ambiguous. In his discussion of the church in 1857, on pp. 416-17, he calls it Teampull Ronain, the form also given on his map; but in his list on p. 431 he gives it as ‘Teampull Ronaig … Ronan’s church’.[9] Since the list probably most faithfully represents the names given to him by his local informant(s), we might conjecture that this was the main form of the name in the 1850s on Iona.

However, our second earliest source for the name, the travel writer Martin Martin, writing of his journey c. 1695, described ‘the Church Ronad, in which several prioresses are buried’[10] Again, we can find this form repeated into the 19th century. William Howitt, in his rather over the top account of a visit to Iona, published in 1840, calls it ‘the church of Ronad’;[11] probably via Martin Martin (whom he quotes shortly after this), but nonetheless perhaps reflecting contemporary usage. So alongside the saint appearing as ‘Rona(i)g’, we also have ‘Ronad’.

By contrast, the earliest appearance of the name in the form Rònan attached to the church that I am aware of at present comes from Cosmo Innes’s account in his Origines Parochiales Scotiae in 1854.[12] My impression is that his form of the name does not derive from detailed personal knowledge on Innes’s part (he seems confused about locations of various sites, for instance), but that it is his extrapolation from the earlier forms, in an attempt to identify the saint; however, he was followed in this by Reeves, and I suspect it is from this point and indeed this source that Teampull Rònain / St Ronan’s Church enters the record.[13]

From W. F. Skene, Celtic Scotland vol, 2 (Edinburgh, 1877), detail of map opposite p. 100. It shows ‘T. Ronaig’ (for Teampull Ronaig) and ‘Port Ronan’.

It is worth mentioning the clearly related name of Port Rònain, the harbour where the ferry still arrives. Unsurprisingly, this name appears in travellers’ accounts, since it was often where they disembarked on the island. My current sense is that the name appears in this form (as Port Ronain) first in 1850, in W. D. Graham’s Antiquities of Iona; and it is mentioned shortly after (as Port-Ronan and Port Ronan) also in an account of a visit of an Irish antiquary to the island, published in 1853.[14] However, like the church, the earliest form of the name is different. In the anonymous 1771 account of a visit to Iona it is called ‘Ronald’s Port’,[15] and ‘Ronald’ might just as easily be a typographer’s mistake for ‘Ronad’ or ‘Ronaid’, or indeed a ready Englishing of a less familiar name by the author. So it may be that the harbour, also, was originally *Port Rònaid or similar, even if we don’t have it recorded in precisely that form anywhere.

The upshot of this is that the church seems to have originally been called Teampull Rònaig or *Teampull Ròn(n)aid, and the harbour, *Port Ròn(n)aid; the saint to whom they were dedicated, then, was Rònag or Ròn(n)ad. Both these names have feminine diminutive endings (that is, equivalent of –ie or –y in English, e.g. in Robby or Cathy). Rònnad (originally Rónnat) would seem to be the earlier form: the ending –nat, later –nad or -naid, was used frequently in Early Gaelic but would seem to have ceased to be productive at some point in the middle ages; –ag (originally –óc) became a standard feminine diminutive ending in late medieval and early modern Gaelic in Scotland (think of names like Morag or Beathag). My guess would be that these names for the saint—an earlier name Rònnad (EG Rónnat) and a later version Rònag (EG Rónóc)—probably existed in free variation with each other.

And indeed, there is a saint called, in Early Gaelic, Rónnat, who is intimately connected with one prominent figure in Iona’s history: Adomnán’s mother. In a tract on the Mothers of the Saints, preserved in the 12th-century Book of Leinster (p. 372), she is given as

Rónnat ingen Shégíni m. Duach m. Barrfhinnáin do Chéniul Ennae m. Néill máthair Adomnáin m. Rónáin
Rónnat daughter of Ségíne son of Duí son of Barrfhinnán of the Cenél nÉnnae meic Néill [was the] mother of Adomnán son of Rónán.

The Book of Leinster, Trinity College, Dublin MS 1339, p. 372. Reproduced with permission of the Board of Trinity College Dublin.  Image from Irish Script on Screen, Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies.

On the top of p. 369 of the same manuscript is a marginal note summarising Adomnán’s parentage in verse:

Adomnán ro halt i nHí
mac réil Rónáin mac Thinni,
mac Áeda mac Lugada trá,
mac Sétna mac Fhergusa

A máthair mad-chin i crí,
Rónnat ingen Shégíni;
Ségini ind ordain áin,
dagmac Duach mac Barrfhinnáin.

“Adomnán was nurtured / fostered in Iona, / the bright son of Rónán son of Tinne, / son of Áed, so of Lugaid moreover, the son of Sétnae son of Fergus.
His mother, well-born in form, / Rónnat daughter of Ségíne; / Ségíne of the splendid dignity / was the good son of Duí son of Barrfhinnan.”[16]

The Book of Leinster, Trinity College, Dublin MS 1339, p. 369. Reproduced with permission of the Board of Trinity College Dublin. Image from Irish Script on Screen, Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies.

There was knowledge, then, of Adomnán’s parentage in the early middle ages, and it was of active interest to 12th-century Gaelic scribes. Moreover, we know that a century or so earlier, Adomnán’s mother was of particular interest. She plays a key role in the homiletic preface to the Cáin Adomnáin, Adomnán’s Law of the Innocents—originally promulgated in 697, but preserved for us alongside a much later, augmented narrative, probably deriving from the church of Raphoe in Co. Donegal, which claimed Adomnán as patron.[17] In the narrative describing how Adomnán went about establishing the law, his mother basically bullies the saint, forcing him to extract the Law from God, and making him undergo ever more bizarre and unusual tortures and privations in an attempt to shame God into granting him the law. The account is so marvellously strange, I have appended it at the end of this blog, from Gilbert Márkus’s translation–do go to the end of this blog and read it! So, Adomnán’s mother, named Rónnat, was being written about in a key text from the Columban family of monasteries, in the 11th century or thereabouts, a text which claimed the protection of Adomnán for all women from violent harm.

I suggest that Rónnat is the most plausible candidate for who lies behind the dedication of the church now called Teampull Rònain. It is hard to imagine that this goes back all the way to Adomnán’s day, though it is not impossible. The evidence of awareness of Rónnat in Gaelic sources in the 11th and 12th century suggests this might be a more likely time period in which the dedication might be established. Without further clarity about the church building itself, when its earlier and later phases were built, or indeed about its precise role prior to becoming the parish church, it is hard to say much more. Nonetheless, it is of interest that this church seems to have attracted exclusively female burials (and some children) in the early modern period—appropriate, perhaps, for a church dedicated to a female saint, and indeed the mother of another island saint. It is also interesting, as Prof. Katherine Forsyth points out to me, that Port Rònain, perhaps originally Port Rònnaid, and Port Adhamhnain sit right next to each other on Iona’s shoreline (see Name of the Month for September 2022 for discussion of Port Adhamhnain).

Can we make the context of naming a little bit more precise? The first prioress of the nunnery, which lies next to and is perhaps in some way linked to Teampull Rònain, was traditionally Beathag or Bethóc, daughter of Somhairle or Somerled, king of the Isles (d.1164). Somerled’s grandfather was named Gille-Adhamhnain, suggesting that there was devotion to that saint within the family before 1100—understandable enough if Adomnán’s law was being promoted anew within the Columban family in the 11th century. So perhaps this is a time at which devotion on Iona to both Adomnán, and his mother, might have been particularly prominent, and of relevance to a major local kindred. My current suggestion would be that this dedication was attached to the church in the 11th century; but other scenarios are certainly plausible.

It is worth noting briefly that Rónnat was still known as Adomnán’s mother in the 16th century on Iona. She is mentioned by Roderick MacLean, later bishop of the Isles, whose extraordinary Latin versification of the first two books of Adomnán’s Life of Columba, first published in Rome in 1549, has just been edited by Alan Macquarrie and Roger Green in a marvellous new book. In §1.1 Roderick puts into Adomnán’s mouth a reminiscence about his parents: ‘For I myself remember, that before my father Rónán left his celebrated ancestral home and the marriage bed of chaste Rónnat (castae thalamosque Ronatae / liquerat), fleeing the business of the unstable world, seeking pathless shores in the deserted sea beyond the rocks of Lewis…’ As Alan Macquarrie points out in his edition, this means that Roderick associated Adomnán’s father with the eponym of the island of North Rona; but it also means that traditions of Rónnat were alive and well at the time.[18]

A final question is: what should we do with these observations? If the church had been called Teampull Rònaig or Teampull Rònnaid, perhaps as late as the 19th century, and was only then, and mistakenly, rechristened with a male saint’s name—should we revert to calling it Teampull Rònaig? (Ditto for Port Rònain / *Port Rònnaid.) Or is the form established in the mid-19th century so firmly set that it would be wrong to displace it? One argument, perhaps, in favour of the former approach is that in the shift from Rònag / Rònnad to Rònan we see the displacement of a female saint by a male saint, and hence her disappearance from Iona’s landscape of belief. Maybe she needs to be put back?

EXTRACT from CÁIN ADOMNÁIN, 11th century preface.

Translation by Gilbert Márkus, from Adomnán’s ‘Law of the Innocents’: A seventh-century law for the protection of non-combatants (Glasgow, 1997; reprinted Kilmartin, 2008), pp. 12-13.

11. “Well then, Adomnán,” said Rónnat, “it has been granted to you now to free the women of the western world. Neither food nor drink will go into your mouth until women have been set free by you.”

“No living creature can be without food,” said Adomnán. “If my eyes see it, my hands will reach out for it.”

“But your eyes shall not see, nor will your hands reach it.”

12. Then Rónnat went to Brugach son of Deda and got a chain from him. She put it around her son’s breast under the bridge of Loch Swilly in Cenél Conaill, the place where the covenant had been made between his mother’s kindred and his father’s kindred, i.e. between Cenél nEndai and [Cenél] Lugdach, so that whoever of them should break the covenant would be buried alive in the earth, but whoever should fulfil it would dwell with Adomnán in heaven. And she takes a stone which is used for striking fire—it filled her hand. She puts it into one of her son’s cheeks, so it was on that he had his satisfaction in food and drink.

13. After that, at the end of eight months, his mother came to see him, and she saw the top of his head. “My little son there,” she said, “is like an apple on the wave. Little is his grasp on earth, and he has not a prayer in heaven, but salt has burned him and the gulls of the sea have shat on his head. And I see that women have still not been freed by him.”

“It is my Lord who ought to carry the blame, dear mother,” he said. “For Christ’s sake, change my suffering!”

14. This is the change of suffering she made for him, and not many women would do this to their son: she buried him in a stone chest in Raphoe of Tír Chonaill, so that maggots ate the root of his tongue, and the slime of his head burst out through his ears. After that she took him to Carraic in Chulinn, and he stayed there another eight months.

15. At the end of four years, angels of God came from heaven to talk with him. They lifted Adomnán out of the stone chest and took him to the Plain of Birr… “Rise up now out of your hiding-place,” said the angel to Adomnán.

“I will not rise,” said Adomnán, “until women have been freed for me.”

Then the angel said, “Everything which you ask of the Lord you shall have, for the sake of your labour.”


[1] See Canmore: St Ronan’s Church.

[2] Jerry O’Sullivan, ‘Excavation of a women’s cemetery and early church at St. Ronan’s medieval parish church, Iona’, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 124 (1994), 327-65, at 361.

[3] William Reeves, The Life of St. Columba, founder of Hy (Dublin, 1857), 418.

[4] Canmore for instance, states baldly ‘Ronan, to whom the church is dedicated, died in 737.’ This is probably based on W.J. Watson, The Celtic Place-Names of Scotland (Edinburgh, 1926), 309 who, however, is less clearcut in his identification.

[5] Blog: ; ‘Replicating a sacred landscape: the cult of St Odrán in Scottish place-names’ The Journal of Scottish Name Studies 15 (2021), 10-31; ‘Four blessings and a funeral: Adomnán’s theological map of Iona’, The Innes Review 72 (2021), 1-26; ‘Inventing Odrán: saints, pilgrims and politics in medieval Iona’, The Innes Review 73 (2022), 1–30.

[6] Collectanea de Rebus Albanicis, ed. Donald Gregory (Edinburgh, 1847), 3.

[7] Archibald MacMillan, Iona: its History and Antiquities, etc. (London, 1898), 32.

[8] William F. Skene, Celtic Scotland, vol. II: ecclesiastical (Edinburgh, 1877), opposite p. 100.

[9] Reeves, Life, pp. 416-17, 431

[10] Martin Martin, A Description of the Western Isles of Scotland (London, 1716), 262. Note that in the reprinted and retyped edition of Martin Martin published by Birlinn in 1999, this is rendered incorrectly as ‘the Church Ronald’ (p.160).

[11] William Howitt, Visits to remarkable places : old halls, battle fields, and scenes illustrative of striking passages in English history and poetry (London, 1840), 358.

[12] Cosmo Innes, Origines Parochiales Scotiae, vol. 2, part 1 (Edinburgh, 1854), 296.

[13] Innes engaged in some forthright speculation about the ‘Ronan’ in question, linking him with a figure who appears in Bede, for instance, but also joining the dots between several probably distinct Ronans. Reeves was evidently suspicious of his conclusions (Life of Saint Columba, p. 416 note n), and calls his attempt to derive the name Cladh nan Druineach from ‘Clachan Ronain’ ‘an etymological spasm’ (!!!): ibid., p. 418, note o; for Innes’s speculation, see OPS 2.1, p. 297, note 4. This mistake seems connected to his confusion about locations. One further detail to note is that he does not give the name of the church, as such (though he quotes the Rental), saying instead ‘the parish church was dedicated to Saint Ronan’.

[14] W. D. Graham, Antiquities of Iona (London, 1850) front matter: map key; J. Huband Smith, ‘Iona’, Ulster Journal of Archaeology 1 (1853), 79-91, at 80.

[15] ‘An account of the island Icolumbkill taken in April 1771; section 2’, The Weekly Magazine, or Edinburgh Amusement vol. XXIV: 21 April 1774, pp. 97-8; Richard Sharpe gives a thorough edition with commentary on this account in ‘Iona in 1771: Gaelic tradition and visitors’ experience’, The Innes Review 63.2 (2012), 161-259. His comment (p. 223) that Port Rònain is not mentioned again until Reeves needs to be corrected in light of its appearance in both Graham and the account of Smith, which Sharpe must just have missed, as he notes other names from these sources.

[16] I have used the editions of these texts in Pádraig Ó Riain, Corpus Genealogiarum Sanctorum Hiberniae (Dublin, 1985), p. 172 (§722.21) and p. 186 (§733.1-2); I have added some accents and punctuation for clarity; translations are mine.

[17] Gilbert Márkus, Adomnán’s ‘Law of the Innocents’: A seventh-century law for the protection of non-combatants (Glasgow, 1997; 2nd edition, Kilmartin, 2008); Máirín Ní Dhonnchadha, ‘The law of Adomnán: a translation’ and ‘Birr and the Law of the Innocents’ in Adomnán at Birr AD 697, essays in commemoration of the Law of the Innocents (Dublin, 2001), 53-68; 13-32; James W. Houlihan, Adomnán’s Lex Innocentium and the Laws of War (Dublin, 2020).

[18] Alan Macquarrie and Roger Green, eds, The Poems of Roderick Maclean (Ruairidh MacEachainn MhicIllEathain) (Scottish History Society, Woodbridge, 2022), pp. 84-5, and see p. 274 for note on Rona.