The Early Irish Church

St. Patrick is rightly styled the Apostle of Ireland. The Faith, no doubt, was preached and known by many before he began his mission. It is recorded that an Irishman, a Roman soldier, was present at the Crucifixion, who, after the completion of his military service, returned home, preached the faith and converted many. Christianity was solidly established in Britain and Gaul long before the coming of our Apostle; and it is quite certain that there was considerable intercourse between these countries and Ireland during the first centuries of our era, so the faith must have been made known and embraced by many. Paladius came some short time before St. Patrick, but, while he must have converted some, his mission was not a success.

Patrick made his studies at Lerins, now St. Honorat, South of France, and next under St. Germanus. Lerins was the alma mater of many bishops and saints. Being a relative of St. Martin of Tours, he must have spent some time at Marmoutier, a famous monastery founded by that saint. In those institutions he learned the discipline and constitution of the Church, and organised the Irish Church accordingly.

The Church of France was even then divided into dioceses, and the dioceses sub-divided into parishes. Each diocese was territorial and governed by its own bishop. This was the mode of Church government St. Patrick introduced into Ireland—an episcopal Church governed by successors of the Apostles.

St. Patrick could not introduce all at once perfect church government. His principal work at first was to convert and baptise. As the tribal system then prevailed he adopted the policy of addressing himself first to the chiefs or heads of the tribes. The conversion of a chief soon brought about the conversion of the whole tribe. When the chief and tribe were converted the next step was to appoint a bishop over the territory occupied by the tribe. Thus in the early Irish Church bishoprics in Ireland were conterminous with tribal lands. Our Saint did the best he could, but the plan was a bad one. In course of time bishops multiplied unduly. Some assert that there were one hundred bishops in Ireland at the time of St. Patrick, and long after; there were without any doubt at least fifty. This at the time was a necessary evil, for every tribe of any importance should have their own bishop, as they would not submit to the jurisdiction of a bishop belonging to another tribe. Thus the nation was kept divided. The multiplicity of bishops gave offence to the rest of Christendom, and at the Synod of Rathbrasael, held 1115 A.D., they were reduced to 26, besides Dublin and Waterford, under the jurisdiction of the Archbishop of Canterbury—28 in all. There are 26 dioceses at present.

The system of tribal dioceses produced another evil effect: members of the families of the chiefs were raised to the episcopate without the necessary qualifications. The abuse was carried so far that many of the occupants had received no orders at all and enjoyed the benefices without performing the duties attached to them. All this produced nepotism, corruption, and disorders in the Irish Church. At the time of St. Patrick, however, it would seem that many of the bishops were foreigners—Britons, Franks, and Romans. This would appear from that important document known as a Catalogue of the Orders of the Sts. in Hibernia. After giving the number of the first Order of Sts. the text adds: "And these were for the most part Franks and Romans and Britons and Scots by birth." We shall give the full text of this document:

Catalogue of the Orders of the Saints.

Here begins the Catalogue of the Orders of the Saints in Hibernia according to different periods:—

[432-543.]

" (1) The first Order of the Saints was in the time of Patrick, and then all the bishops, 350 in number, were famous and holy and full of the Holy Spirit. They were founders of churches, worshipped one head, Christ, and followed one leader, Patrick. They had one tonsure, one celebration of Mass, and celebrated one Easter, namely, after the vernal equinox. And what was excommunicated by one church, all excommunicated. They did not object to having women as housekeepers and companions, because founded on the rock, Christ, they did not fear the wind of temptation. This Order of Saints lasted during four reigns: to wit, from the time of Laoghaire, the son of Niall, who reigned thirty-seven years; and Olioll, styled Moll, who reigned thirty years; and Lughaidh, who reigned seven years; and this Order of Saints lasted to the very end of Tuathal Maelgarbh, and all remained throughout holy bishops, and these were for the most part, Franks and Romans and Britons and Scots by birth."

[543-599.]

" (2) The Second Order of the Saints was like this. In this second Order now there were few bishops and many priests, 300 in number. They worshipped one head, God, and had different rituals or rites of celebration, and different rules of living, and celebrated one Easter: to wit the 14th of the moon. And they made a uniform tonsure from ear to ear. They shunned having women as companions and housekeepers, and excluded them from the monasteries. This lasted for four reigns also .... Those (saints) received the ritual of celebrating Mass from holy men of Britain; to wit, from St. David and St. Gildas and St. Cadoc. And their names are these: to wit, Finian, Endeus, Colman, Congal, Aedh, Kieran, Columba, Brendan, Brechen, Caineoh, Caemgin, Laidrean, Laisre, Lugeus, Barrideus, and many others who were in the second grade of the Saints."

[599-666.]

" (3) The third Order of the Saints was like this. Now they were holy priests and few bishops, 100 in number, who used to dwell in desert places. They lived on vegetables and water and on the alms of the faithful, and held earthly things of no account, and wholly shunned back-biting and slander. These had different rules (of living), and different rituals of celebration, and also different tonsures, for some had the coronal tonsure and some the hair. And they had a different Paschal Solemnization, for some celebrated on the 14th and others on the 13th moon. This Order lasted through four reigns.....And their names are—Petran, bishop; Ultan, bishop; Colman, bishop; Edan, bishop; Lomnan, bishop; Senach, bishop. These were all bishops and many more. And these now were the priests—Fechan, priest; Airendan, Failan, Commian, Ernan, Cronan, and many other priests."

" (4) Note that the first Order was holiest, the second very holy, the third holy. The first glows like the sun, with the heat of charity; the second like the moon sheds a pallid light; the third shines with the bright hues of the dawn."

When a bishop was appointed over the new diocese his first and most important work was the construction of a church. The churches of the 5th, 6th, and 7th centuries were very small and rudely built. The first churches were of wood and circular in shape, and there are 110 remains of these, but we have the remains of stone churches of the period, and we find they were built without cement, and the stones used were very large, from 6 to 17 feet long, which would take four men to lift. The Tripartite Life of St. Patrick furnishes us with the dimensions of the churches he used to build:—" In this wise then St. Patrick measured the ferta, namely, seven score feet in the enclosure, and seven and twenty in the great house (tig mor), and seventeen feet in the chule (kitchen), and seven feet in the aregal, and in that wise it was he used to found the congabala always."

The " great house " was the church, which at the time was circular, and the diameter used to be 27 feet. The roof was formed by overlapping. The doorway was placed at the west-end and covered by a lintel and was broader at the bottom.

Churches with arches and semi-circular window heads were erected in the early part of the 9th century. Recessed semi-circular arches belong to the 10th century. The walls built in this period lose much of massive stone work, and are higher, and cement was used. The windows exhibit a slight recess upon the exterior, and were of greater size. As style advances the sides of the doorways become cut into a series of recesses, chevron and other decorations are commonly found, and various mouldings of doors and windows become rich and striking. The term Irish Romanesque has been applied to this style of architecture. The transition can be traced to the beginning of the nth century, but was not fully developed till a century later. Between the 10th and 13th centuries, decorated art reached a high state of perfection in this country. Cormac MacCuillenen's chapel on the Rock of Cashel, which was consecrated in the year 1134, presents a specimen of Irish architecture which has not been excelled. Donough O'Brien, King of Thomond, founded the cathedral, 1152. It consists of nave and chancel, with a square tower at each side, 55 and 50 feet high. The walls of nave and chancel are ornamented with a row of semi-circular arches slightly recessed, and enriched with chevron, billet, and mouldings. We have remains of many churches scattered through the country which exhibit the highest degree of art. These and the beautifully sculptured crosses and metal work which still remain afford ample evidence of the skill the Irish attained in various departments of art prior to the Anglo-Norman invasion.

The training of the clergy was an important matter for the consideration of St. Patrick and his successors. Colleges or seminaries had to be established for the education and training of young levites to fit them for their future mission. St. Patrick again followed the practices that prevailed in France, where monasticism was the established system. The monks founded in that country schools and colleges in which the future clergy were trained in the practices of discipline and piety. Monasticism was thus introduced into Ireland by St. Patrick, and became an important factor in the Irish Church. Monasteries sprang up in different parts of the country. Clerics and others not only from Ireland but from Great Britain and the Continent flocked into them, and received gratis their education. Some of those institutions contained as many as 3,000 pupils. This may be the place to describe the origin of monasticism.

Read "The History of West Cork" at your leisure

Early Irish History and Antiquities, and the History of West Cork

Read The History of West Cork at your leisure and help support this free Irish library.

Enjoy this book on just about any device of your choice. Full hyperlinked contents and index have been included to make navigation easy, and the experience pleasurable.

The ebook is available in .mobi (for Kindle), .epub (for iBooks, etc.), and .pdf formats. See details ».