Synod of Fidh Aengussa

Margaret Anne Cusack
start of chapter | Chapter XIV

We must now give a brief glance at the ecclesiastical history of Ireland, before narrating the events which immediately preceded the English invasion.

In the year 1111 a synod was convened at Fidh Aengussa, or Aengus Grove, near the Hill of Uisneach, in Westmeath. It was attended by fifty bishops, 300 priests, and 3,000 religious. Murtough O'Brien was also permitted to be present, and some of the nobles of his province. The object of the synod was to institute rules of life and manners for the clergy and people. St. Celsus, the Archbishop of Armagh, and Maelmuire [4] or Marianus O'Dunain, Archbishop of Cashel, were present. Attention had already been directed to certain abuses in ecclesiastical discipline. Such abuses must always arise from time to time in the Church, through the frailty of her members; but these abuses are always carefully reprehended as they arise, so that she is no longer responsible for them.

It is remarkable that men of more than ordinary sanctity have usually been given to the Church at such periods. Some have withheld heretical emperors from deeds of evil, and some have braved the fury of heretical princes. In Ireland, happily, the rulers needed not such opposition; but when the country had been again and again devastated by war, whether from foreign or domestic sources, the intervention of saintly men was especially needed to restore peace, and to repair, as far as might be, the grievous injury which war always inflicts on the social state of those who have suffered from its devastations.

Lanfranc, the great Archbishop of Canterbury, had already noticed the state of the Irish Church. He was in constant communication with the Danish bishops, who had received consecration from him; and their accounts were probably true in the main, however coloured by prejudice. He wrote an earnest epistle to Turlough O'Brien, whom he addresses respectfully as King of Ireland, and whose virtues as a Christian prince he highly commends. His principal object appears to have been to draw the king's attention to an abuse, of which the Danes had informed him, with regard to the sacrament of matrimony. This subject shall be noticed again. Pope Gregory VII. also wrote to Turlough, but principally on the temporal authority of the Holy See.

The synod had four special subjects for consideration: (1) First, to regulate the number of bishops—an excessive and undue multiplication of episcopal dignity having arisen from the custom of creating chorepiscopi or rural bishops. It was now decided that there should be but twenty-four dioceses—twelve for the northern and twelve for the southern half of Ireland. Cashel was also recognized as an archiepiscopal see, and the successor of St. Jarlath was sometimes called Archbishop of Connaught. The custom of lay appropriations, which had obtained in some places, was also firmly denounced. This was an intolerable abuse. St. Celsus, the Archbishop of Armagh, though himself a member of the family who had usurped this office, made a special provision in his will that he should be succeeded by St. Malachy. This saint obtained a final victory over the sacrilegious innovators, but not without much personal suffering.[5]

The (2) second abuse which was now noticed, referred to the sacrament of matrimony. The Irish were accused of abandoning their lawful wives and taking others, of marrying within the degrees of consanguinity, and it was said that in Dublin wives were even exchanged. Usher, in commenting on the passage in Lanfranc's letter which refers to these gross abuses, observes that the custom of discarding wives was prevalent among the Anglo-Saxons and in Scotland. This, however, was no excuse for the Irish. The custom was a remnant of pagan contempt of the female sex,—a contempt from which women were never fully released, until Christianity restored the fallen, and the obedience of the second Eve had atoned for the disobedience of the first. It appears, however, that these immoralities were almost confined to the half-Christianized Danes, who still retained many of their heathen customs. The canons of St. Patrick, which were always respected by the native Irish, forbid such practices; and the synod, therefore, had only to call on the people to observe the laws of the Church more strictly.

Two other subjects, (3) one regarding the consecration of bishops, the other (4) referring to the ceremonies of baptism, were merely questions of ecclesiastical discipline, and as such were easily arranged by competent authority. In St. Anselm's correspondence with the prelates of the south of Ireland, he passes a high eulogium on their zeal and piety, while he deplores certain relaxations of discipline, which they were as anxious to reform as he could desire.


[4] Maelmuire.—"The servant of Mary." Devotion to the Mother of God, which is still a special characteristic of the Irish nation, was early manifested by the adoption of this name.

[5] Suffering.—This abuse was not peculiar to the Irish Church. A canon of the Council of London, A.D. 1125, was framed to prevent similar lay appropriations. In the time of Cambrensis there were lay (so called) abbots, who took the property of the Church into their own hands, and made their children receive holy orders that they might enjoy the revenues.