Clontarf and After (3)

Eleanor Hull
Clontarf and After | start of chapter

The churches that they erected bore foreign names, such as St Olaf (or Olave), St Werburgh, and St Audeon, and they enshrined in them the relics of foreign saints. The rapidity of their church building shows that the Danish people as well as their princes had become Christian. About 1040, twenty-five years after the battle of Clontarf, the foundations were laid of the church of the Holy Trinity, known later as Christ Church Cathedral, church dedications to native saints beginning about this time to give way in favour of dedications to the Trinity, or to the Blessed Virgin and Church saints. Its history had a complete parallel development to that of Christ Church at Trondhjem. It remained so Danish in sympathy that even at the end of the fourteenth century no Gael could get employment in connexion with this church.

All these churches were crowded together within the narrow limits of Danish Dublin, close round the fort or castle. In later days the Norman successor to Archbishop O'Toole built St Patrick's outside the walls as a rival to the Danish cathedral, the ancient differences between the two cathedrals and their struggles for priority witnessing to the double national and spiritual life existing side by side. In the end priority was secured by the older church.

Nevertheless, just as the Danes had bishops of Irish nationality, so they were supported in their church extension by the Irish population of the towns. The Irish contributed grants of land to Dunan, or Donatus, the first bishop, for the foundation of his church and the episcopal palace beside it. The Danes seem to have taken part in the popular election of the bishops, a novel and interesting feature of the Danish Church system in Ireland, and at the Synod of Athboy in 1167 Ragnall, chief of the foreigners, attended, surrounded by a bodyguard of a thousand horsemen.

At the Synod of Kells (Ceanannus), held in 1152 and presided over by Cardinal John, who brought the pallia for the four archbishops, Dublin, Cashel, Tuam, and Armagh, Danish and Irish bishops sat together and conferred in common on the new arrangement of the dioceses.[22] Possibly the example of the Danish Church in their midst may have helped to bring about the abandonment of the ancient system of Church government, hitherto so tenaciously adhered to, and consecrated by the example of the founders of the Church.

Leading ecclesiastics, both of the Irish and Danish sees, united in an effort to bring the Celtic Church into conformity with the Roman discipline. The energy with which they applied themselves to the task is shown by the number of conferences and synods held during this century, seven meetings having been held between 1110 and 1167. They must have been imposing assemblies. As many as twenty-five bishops and over three hundred clergy “both monks and canons” attended one of them.

At the Synod of Usneach in 1105 “three hundred and sixty priests and one hundred and forty deacons and many other clerics” were present.[23] At later meetings large numbers of laity attended, thirteen thousand horsemen, of whom, as we have seen, one thousand were Danes, having been present at the Synod of Athboy in 1167.

It was at the Synod of Rathbreasal, held in 1110 and presided over by Gilbert of Limerick in his capacity of legate of the Holy See, that the question of regulating the diocesan system was seriously taken up.[24]

The general plan adopted was that of two archbishoprics, Armagh and Cashel, under whom ten bishops were appointed for the North of Ireland and ten for the South. It is noticeable that their decisions in respect of Leinster and Connacht are put in the form of suggestions rather than commands, these two provinces being too independent of the rule of Cashel or Armagh for it to be taken for granted that they would adopt the decisions of the archbishops and clergy of either.

The views of the Danes of Dublin, in particular, were, no doubt, an uncertain factor in the situation. But the first bold step had been taken. The principle had been laid down that a bishop, in Ireland as elsewhere, must be attached to a diocese, and the first efforts were made to mark out these new dioceses, which naturally followed the general limits of the tribal boundaries. The wandering unattached bishop and the bishop attached only to a monastery disappeared as an institution with the signing of the Acts of the Synod of Rathbreasal (1110).

As the head of his diocese the bishop took henceforth an independent and superior position. He was brought out of the monastery into the world. There does not seem to have been any wide opposition to the change among the bishops, but the old abbacies naturally resented a change which placed them under the jurisdiction of the bishop in whose diocese the abbey stood. Great foundations, proud of their descent from the early saints and counting their origin from the first days of Irish Christianity, could not easily accustom themselves to the new position. In spite of all efforts to bring them into the general scheme, monasteries like Clonmacnois, Derry, and Fenagh remained even up to the fifteenth century quite outside it.[25]

The old “evil custom” of hereditary succession and the familiar tribal organization were too deeply rooted to be broken through. While, in general, the South and East of Ireland, with the towns, conformed, Connacht and Ulster stood out for the preservation of their independence. The reformers got much support from the O'Briens and MacCarthys of Munster, but they got none from the O'Neills of Ulster, and with Ulster went Connacht and the West. Ecclesiastically as well as politically, the North and West lay outside the radius of reforming movements, and their customs and ways of life underwent little change.

The chief agent in bringing about the new system was St Malachy, the friend and correspondent of St Bernard, whose beautiful life of the Irish Primate[26] is an invaluable record of the conditions of Church life in Ireland as seen from the Roman standpoint. Malachy, whose real name was Maél Maedóc ua Mórgáir, was born in Armagh in 1095. He was educated by a Danish recluse, Ivar O'Hacon, or Hagan, from whom and from a three years' stay with Malchus, Bishop of the Danish church of Waterford, he imbibed the ideas of church discipline of which he became so ardent a champion. He became Bishop of Connor and Abbot of Bangor and in 1137, for a short time, and most unwillingly, Primate of Armagh. His humility, his love of voluntary poverty, and his energy as a missionary teacher in his backward diocese, of the condition of which he gives a distressing account, disinclined him to undertake the duties of the Primacy. But he was called to larger work even than this.

The decisions of the Synod of Rathbreasal were incomplete without the bestowal of palls on the two Archbishops, and Malachy was empowered to undertake the long journey to Rome to beseech their bestowal on the Archbishops of Armagh and Cashel. Twice he had to make the journey across the Alps, the Pope not considering his credentials sufficient on the first occasion; but the labour was atoned for to Malachy by the opportunity it gave him of cultivating the friendship of St Bernard, at whose Cistercian monastery he rested and where, on his second visit, death overtook him. The almost womanly tenderness felt for him by St Bernard is shown by the letters he addressed to him and by the beautiful memorial sermons delivered to his monks by the great saint on the anniversaries of Malachy's death. When St Bernard died five years later he was buried in the habit worn by his friend.

The formal appeal for the palls was not without effect. At the Synod of Kells (1152) Cardinal John Paparo brought over four palls, one for each province, thus erecting Dublin and Tuam into archbishoprics along with Armagh and Cashel, an unexpected act of generosity not altogether pleasing to the Irish people, who saw the new Danish see of Dublin placed on a level with the ancient Primacy of St Patrick. But the gift had a purpose; it severed the connexion between the Danish Church and Canterbury, and made it part of the Church of Ireland.[27] Henceforth, in spite of local differences, there was up to Elizabeth's day but one Church in the country with four Archbishops, and Rome as the final court of appeal. It was largely to the untiring energy of St Malachy that this consummation was due.

St Malachy had fallen upon an evil time. The synods which met during the twelfth century were not altogether occupied with questions of organization; they were also called upon to deal with social reform. The sweeping condemnation of Malachy when he first undertook the charge of the diocese of Connor, however much we may discount its bitterness as the result of a different point of view in ecclesiastical matters, must have been true of many of the outlying parts of Ireland. There were few priests and neither preaching nor singing in the churches. The people were “dead in regard to rites, impious in regard to faith, barbarous in regard to laws, and shameless in regard of morals”; “though Christians in name, they were in fact pagans.”

The Acts of the Synods and the pages of the annals alike bear out these terrible accusations. The restraints of life had been removed during the long Norse sway. The old monastic system had broken down over large parts of the country, and the new diocesan and parochial system had not yet been established to take its place. It is no wonder that St Malachy was so anxious for a change of organization. Raidings, burnings of dwellings and villages, and the marchings and assaults of bodies of armed men made peaceful occupations impossible. Feuds between bishops and abbots became more frequent. Wars and pestilences were not occasional; they never ceased; the country lived under arms, not only for certain seasons as the vikings did, but at all times.

The annals of the eleventh and twelfth centuries give a lamentable account of the general state of the country, especially in the North and West. There was no sanctity for church or abbot; abbots were killed at the door of their own monasteries, and churches and round towers full of people were ruthlessly fired if they stood in the path of a passing body of troops. The sanctity of oaths, even when sworn on the most sacred objects, was disregarded, and men were killed by treachery and guile even when placed under the special protection of the clergy.[28]

The different states were at constant war with one another, and the uncertainty of succession to the chieftainship opened the way for interminable broils within the limits of each state.

Among the numerous aspirants within the same family who were more or less eligible for election to the chieftainship the most sanguinary wars arose, all the more embittered because the warfare was between men of the same kith and kin. Even after the introduction of tanistry, by which the successor was designated by the reigning chief and recognized by the people during his lifetime—a system intended to put an end to these tribal disputes—personal ambition or force of character continued to disturb the regularity of the succession. To guard against this there were to be found in every chieftain's courtyard a number of unfortunate youths of high position who were held in confinement, either to secure them from disputing the position of the chief or as hostages for the fealty of their families. Many of them passed long periods in imprisonment, and they were liable at any moment to be blinded or killed in their fetters if their friends showed any disposition to support their claims or if their captors had any reason to doubt the fidelity either of their relations or of their clan. On almost every page of the annals we read of the blinding or execution of some one or more of these unhappy lads, whose only crime was to have been born within the limits of the succession to the lordship of their people.[29]

Nor, when the chief was elected and inaugurated, was the clan permitted to settle down in peace. Every prince or chief, as soon as he was elected, thought it incumbent on him to prove his right to the chieftaincy above his competitors, whom his elevation had defeated and disappointed, by reducing any outstanding province or state that declined to recognize his authority. These expeditions were known as the creacht righi, or regal raids, and they were a constant pretext for external wars.

The rule of succession to the High Kingship equally forbade any possibility of quiet; for any aspirant to the high position from the North to become eligible must possess, besides his own province of Ulster, one province in the South; and an aspirant from Munster must in like manner have the command of Connacht or one of the other provinces besides his own kingdom. Hence the warlike expeditions and circuits made by princes aiming at the supreme power, often undertaken even before the death of the reigning monarch, with a view to establishing their right to the succession. Such a custom cut at the root of any consolidation of the monarchy and led to interminable wars for the supreme authority.[30]

Thus, although in many directions progress had been made during the eleventh and twelfth centuries, the political organization showed no tendency toward settling down into any shape that promised a peaceable or progressive native rule. The Ireland into which the Normans precipitated themselves toward the close of the latter century found the country, so far as the general administration of the provinces was concerned, in a state of anarchy. They added one more factor to the already entangled situation.

If from a political point of view the country showed little progress, it is otherwise when we turn to art, architecture, and poetry. The Irish continued to build their churches on the small scale founded on traditions believed to have been handed down by St Patrick, and when St Malachy, fresh from seeing the great churches of York, Clairvaux, and Rome, proposed to erect a stone oratory at Bangor in 1140 the people were scandalized. They “drew attention to Malachy's frivolity, shuddered at the novelty, and exaggerated the expense.”[31] But the richness with which these small buildings were decorated gives them a distinct place in the original developments of Romanesque.

Cormac O'Cillan, Abbot of Clonmacnois (d. 964), King Brian (d. 1014), and Conor O'Kelly, who built Clonfert in 1166–67, were all great ecclesiastical architects working on purely Irish models. The chapel erected by King Cormac MacCarthy on the Rock of Cashel in 1127 shows this type of design in its greatest luxuriance.[32] Most of the round towers also date from the Norse period, and the finest of the high crosses and metal work. Before the coming of the Normans the erection of the first Cistercian monastery, Mellifont on the Boyne, consecrated in 1157, began a new era in church building.

It is of great interest that there remain certain charters given to monasteries, written both in Irish and Latin, dating from the eleventh and twelfth centuries, which show that grants of land and privileges were legally witnessed and executed before the coming of the Normans to Ireland. The earliest of the Gaelic charters conveys a grant of land at Kells, “with its vegetable garden, to God and pious pilgrims,” no pilgrim having any right in it until he should have devoted himself to God and proved his piety. The grant included two tracts of pasture-land “with their meadows and their bogs … with their houses and outhouses, and with their lawns as far as the Cathach of Domnach Mòr [Donaghmore].”

This charter, which was drawn up about 1080, was made by the King of Tara and the Abbot of Kells, with all the clergy, for a priest of Kells and his kinsmen who had purchased the ground for twenty ounces of gold, and a large number of influential persons became securities for the grant “as they were passing round the land and through the middle of the land;” an early example of ‘beating the bounds.’

A similar grant in Irish was made to Kells (c. 1128–40) also for the support of pilgrims, “in the year when the cattle and swine of Erin perished by a pestilence.” This deed is witnessed, among others, by Tiernan O'Rorke, whose wife ran away to Dermot MacMorrogh, in the presence of his sons, Donchad and Sitric. Most of these early grants secured the land given from any future claims of rent, tribute, or coigny from king or chief.[33]

Even more interesting is a Latin charter founding the monastery of Duisk,[34] in which the signature of King Dermot MacMorrogh himself appears as the founder along with those of the donor, Dermot O'Ryan, chief of Odrone, Lawrence, Archbishop of Dublin, and others. These charters show that lands were regularly conveyed or purchased in the ordinary manner, and also that the Latin hand and language as well as Gaelic were used for such purposes before 1170.