Irish Monastic Schools

From A Smaller Social History of Ancient Ireland 1906

« previous page | contents | start of chapter | next page »

CHAPTER VII....continued

2. Monastic Schools.

Two Classes of Schools.—The schools and colleges of ancient Ireland were of two classes, Ecclesiastical and Lay. The ecclesiastical or monastic schools were introduced with Christianity, and were conducted by monks. The lay or secular schools existed from a period of unknown antiquity, and in pagan times they were taught by druids. The Irish monastic schools were celebrated all over Europe in the Middle Ages: the lay schools, though playing an important part in spreading learning at home, were not so well known. These two classes of schools are well distinguished all through the literary history of Ireland, and, without interfering with each other, worked contemporaneously from the fifth to the nineteenth century.

General Features of Monastic Schools.—Even from the time of St. Patrick there were schools in connexion with several of the monasteries he founded, chiefly for the education of young men intended for the church. But when the great monastic movement already spoken of (p. 138) began, in the sixth century, then there was a rapid growth of schools and colleges all over the country: for almost every large monastery had a school attached. Many of these contained great numbers of students. Under each of the three fathers of the Irish Church, St. Finnen in Clonard, St. Comgall in Bangor, and St. Brendan in Clonfert, there were 3000, including no doubt monks as well as students; St. Molaise had 1500; St. Gobban, 1000; and so on down to the school of Glasnevin, where St. Mobi had 50. This last—fifty—was a very usual number in the smaller monastic schools. How such large numbers as those in Clonard, Bangor, and Clonfert obtained living and sleeping accommodation will be found described farther on.

In these schools secular as well as ecclesiastical learning was carefully attended to; for besides divinity, the study of the Scriptures, and classics, for those intended for the church, the students were instructed—as we shall see—in general literature and science. Accordingly, a large proportion of the students in these monastic schools were young men—amongst them sons of kings and chiefs—intended, not for the church, but for ordinary civil or military life, who attended to get a good general education. Those great seminaries were in fact the prototypes of our modern universities.

Extent of Learning in Monastic Schools.—John Scotus ErigenaWe have ample evidence that both the Latin and Greek languages and literatures were studied with success in Ireland from the sixth to the tenth century; and that the learned men from the Irish schools were quite on a par with the most eminent of the Continental scholars of the time, and not a few of them at the head of all. Columbanus, Aileran the Wise, Cummian, Sedulius, Fergil the Geometer, Duns Scotus, and many others, all Irishmen, and educated in Irish schools, were celebrated throughout Europe for their learning. The most distinguished scholar of his day in Europe was John Scotus Erigena ('John the Irish Scot'), celebrated for his knowledge of Greek, and for his theological speculations. He taught Philosophy in Paris, and died about the year 870.

Foreign Students.—Tomb-stone of Seven Romans in AranIn all the more important schools there were students from foreign lands, from the Continent as well as from Great Britain, attracted by the eminence of the masters and by the facilities for quiet, uninterrupted study. In the Lives of distinguished Englishmen we constantly find such statements as "he was sent to Ireland to finish his education." The illustrious scholar Alcuin, who was a native of York, was educated at Clonmacnoise. Among the foreign visitors were many princes: Oswald and Aldfrid, kings of Northumbria, and Dagobert II., king of France, were all educated in Ireland. We get some idea of the numbers of foreigners from the ancient Litany of Aengus the Culdee, in winch we find invoked many Romans, Gauls, Germans, and Britons, all of whom died in Ireland. To this day there is to be seen, on Great Aran island, a tomb-stone, with the inscription "VII Romani," Seven Romans. It is known that in times of persecution Egyptian monks fled to Ireland; and they have left in the country many traces of their influence. In the same Litany of Aengus mention is made of seven Egyptian monks buried in one place.

The greatest number of foreign students came from Great Britain—they came in fleet-loads,as Aldhelm, Bishop of Sherborne (A.D. 705 to 709), expresses it in his letter to his friend Eadfrid, Bishop of Lindisfarne, who had himself been educated in Ireland. Many also were from the Continent. There is a remarkable passage in the Venerable Bede's "Ecclesiastical History" which corroborates Aldhelm's statement, as well as what is said in the native records, and indeed in some particulars goes rather beyond them. Describing the ravages of the yellow plague in 664, he says:—"This pestilence did no less harm in the island of Ireland. Many of the nobility and of the lower ranks of the English nation were there at that time, who, in the days of Bishops Finan and Colman [Irish abbots of Lindisfarne, p. 146, supra],forsaking their native island, retired thither, either for the sake of divine studies, or of a more continent life. . . . The Scots willingly received them all, and took care to supply them with food, as also to furnish them with books to read, and their teaching, all gratis."

Towards the end of the eighth century, it became the custom to appoint a special head professor—commonly called a Fer-leginn, i.e. 'Man of learning'—to preside over, and be responsible for, the educational functions of the college, while the abbot had the care of the whole institution.

« previous page | contents | start of chapter | next page »

Search Library Ireland


My Lady of the Chimney CornerMy Lady of the Chimney Corner

A memorable and moving story of the triumph of the human spirit in the face of adversity. In 1863 the author, Alexander Irvine, was born into dire poverty, the child of a 'mixed' marriage. His parents had survived the ravages of the famine years, but want and hunger were never to be too far away from their door. Irvine was ultimately destined to leave Ireland for America and to become a successful minister and author. He learned to read and write when he had left his home in Antrim far behind, but he came to realize that the greatest lessons he had received in life were at his mother's knee. My Lady of the Chimney Corner is the depiction of an existence that would be unthinkable in modern Ireland; but, more than that, it is the author's loving tribute to his mother, Anna, who taught him to look at the world through clean spectacles. ISBN 978-1-910375-32-7. USA orders. The book is also available as a Kindle download (UK) and Kindle download (US).

Popular Rhymes and Sayings of IrelandPopular Rhymes and Sayings of Ireland

In Popular Rhymes and Sayings of Ireland (first published in 1924) John J. Marshall examines the origin of a variety of rhymes and sayings that were at one time in vogue around different parts of the country, including those which he recalled from his own childhood in County Tyrone. Numerous riddles, games and charms are recounted, as well as the traditions of the ‘Wren Boys’ and Christmas Rhymers. Other chapters describe the war cries of prominent Irish septs and the names by which Ireland has been personified in literature over the centuries. The book is also available as a Kindle download.


Annals of the Famine in Ireland

Annals of the Famine in Ireland

Annals of the Famine in Ireland, by Asenath Nicholson, still has the power to shock and sadden even though the events described are ever-receding further into the past. When you read, for example, of the poor widowed mother who was caught trying to salvage a few potatoes from her landlord’s field, and what the magistrate discovered in the pot in her cabin, you cannot help but be appalled and distressed.

The ebook is available for download in .mobi (Kindle), .epub (iBooks, etc.) and .pdf formats. For further information on the book and author see details ».

Ireland's Welcome to the Stranger

Ireland’s Welcome to the Stranger

This book, the prequel to Annals of the Famine in Ireland cannot be recommended highly enough to those interested in Irish social history. The author, Mrs Asenath Nicholson, travelled from her native America to assess the condition of the poor in Ireland during the mid 1840s. Refusing the luxury of hotels and first class travel, she stayed at a variety of lodging-houses, and even in the crude cabins of the very poorest. Not to be missed!

The ebook is available for download in .mobi (Kindle), .epub (iBooks, etc.) and .pdf formats. For further information on the book and author see details ».

The Scotch-Irish in America

The Scotch-Irish in America

Henry Ford Jones' book, first published in 1915 by Princeton University, is a classic in its field. It covers the history of the Scotch-Irish from the first settlement in Ulster to the American Revolutionary period and the foundation of the country.

The ebook is available for download in .mobi (Kindle), .epub (iBooks, etc.) and .pdf formats. For further information on the book and author see details ».


letterJoin our mailing list to receive updates on new content on Library, our latest ebooks, and more.

You won’t be inundated with emails! — we'll just keep you posted periodically — about once a monthish — on what's happening with the library.