Early Christian Ireland (2)

Eleanor Hull
Early Christian Ireland | start of chapter

His task was a hard one. He was plundered and bound in irons by a chief who “eagerly desired to kill him”; he faced Laery, King of Tara, surrounded by his host of Druids; he had to grieve over the raids of Coroticus, a British king, who carried off newly baptized Christians “still in the white array” of their baptism, to sell them into the hands of Scots and apostate Picts of Strathclyde, cruelly butchering and slaughtering others with the sword. He revised the native system of law and committed it to writing. He taught everywhere the Latin tongue, the language of the Church and of the Scriptures, as he used them. He had to face slander both from the elders of the Church in Britain, and even from “his dearest friend,” whom he does not name, but who would seem from the context to have been St Germanus, his teacher at Auxerre, who also gave him consecration.[16] But he succeeded where Palladius had failed; partly, no doubt, because of his familiarity with the Irish tongue, acquired during his years of slavery, but still more because of the simple sincerity of his own life and teaching.

In his old age he writes thus in the opening of his Epistle to Coroticus:

“Patrick, the sinner, unlearned verily; I confess that I am a bishop, appointed by God in Ireland. Most surely I deem that from God I received what I am. And so I dwell in the midst of barbarians, a stranger and an exile for the love of God. He is witness if this be so.”

It was undoubtedly the intention and hope of St Patrick to establish in Ireland a Church system similar to that with which he had been familiar in Britain, in Rome, and in Gaul. Roman Britain had long been Christian, and three British sees had been represented at the Council of Arles in 314, and a larger number at the Councils of Sardica in 347 and of Rimini in 359. At an even earlier date Christianity had spread into parts of Britain where the Roman arms had never penetrated, for Tertullian, in 208, had already spoken of “districts in Britain, inaccessible to the Roman arms, but subdued to Christ.”[17]

Whence this original Christianity had penetrated to Britain it is impossible to say. But the Roman districts of Britain, at least, were early organized into sees, and Patrick, who was proud of his Roman faith and citizenship,[18] and who came to Ireland the second time as an ordained bishop, would naturally endeavour to establish in the country of his adoption the orderly system to which he had been accustomed at home and abroad. In accordance with this desire he founded the earliest bishopric in Ireland, that of Armagh—the first, and for the next 650 years the only fixed episcopal see in Ireland. It is interesting that he chose as the site a spot close to Emain Macha (Navan Fort), the old centre of the heroic tales of Ulster, then disused, so far as we know, but evidently still retaining something of its old prestige. There seems no other reason for the choice of so retired a spot for his bishopric.

The few Christian communities in the south-east of Ireland grouped themselves round native teachers, but they were growing up on native lines, with special peculiarities. In particular, they had no episcopal organization, or fixed sees, and the efforts of the Apostle of Ireland to introduce the system prevailing generally in the churches of Western Christendom did not prove a success. For centuries afterward bishops in Ireland did not occupy fixed sees, and the country was not laid out in dioceses. They exercised their episcopal functions within the monasteries in a position subordinate to the abbot, who was their head and superior officer. Some others were wandering bishops, who moved about within or outside the country on missionary journeys. Even Armagh did not long retain its metropolitan character. On the death of St Patrick in 461–462, he was succeeded in the bishopric by his pupil, St Benen, and from that time till the death of Ailill, the fifth of his successors, there was a regular sequence of bishops of Armagh after the usual Church manner of organization; but from 526 onward the title of bishop is, except in rare instances, dropped, and the holders of the see are styled abbots, the future bishops being apparently, as in other Irish monasteries, subject to the abbot.[19]

Thus Armagh, unable to resist the pressure of native custom, fell into line with the other Christian settlements all over the country and became primarily a monastic centre. It was not until the twelfth century that the archbishopric of Armagh was restored, and the bishopric of Cashel substituted for the abbacy of Cashel in the south, by the direct action of the Pope. Between the time of St Patrick and this late date the native Irish Church had quietly pursued her way, covering the land with Christian settlements formed on a tribal basis and within the limits of the tribe, each under some noted saint or teacher who was the inspiring spirit of his group and the abbot of his monastery.

The importance attached to the office of abbot in Ireland is quaintly expressed by the Irish custom of calling the Pope Abbot (Abb) of Rome instead of Bishop of Rome, while in a singular invocation known as the “Path Protector” St Columcille speaks of Christ as “Son of Mary, the Great Abbot.”

It was only slowly, in the course of centuries, that the native Church gave up certain national peculiarities, such as the form of the Irish tonsure, and the old date of keeping Easter. It retained its marked monastic character all through the period of its greatest activity, and it carried on that work of evangelization and education not only within, but far beyond the limits of Ireland, which has ever since been considered its greatest glory.

St Brigit’s monastery of Kildare formed a link between the Church of St Patrick and the monastic foundations that sprang up all over the country with an almost simultaneous growth from about 530 onward. It was a mixed convent, and Cogitosus, the father of Muirchu, who wrote her life,[20] tells us that in his time the church of Kildare was large and lofty, with many pictures and hangings and ornamental doorways. It had a partition which ran down the church lengthways, dividing the men who sat on the right from the women who sat on the left side of the nave. It was in her church that the Welsh historian of the Norman conquest saw in 1185 the illuminated book which was of such great beauty that he was ready to assert that it was the work of angelic and not of human skill. Kildare may have been one of the centres for this exquisite work; very early it possessed a school which produced chalices, bells, and shrines.

During the twenty-five years after Brigit’s death many of the most famous of the Irish foundations were established and were in full working order. Nendrum, in Strangford Lough, now Inish Mahee, or Mahee Island, under Abbot Mochaoi; Clonard and Moville, Co. Down, under the two Finnians; Clonmacnois on the Shannon under Ciaran; Bangor under Comgall, Glasnevin under Mobhi, were among the earliest of which we know the history, but the two monasteries of Birr and Clonfert, under the two Brendans, that of Molaise of Devenish in Lough Erne, and that of Senan on Scattery Island in the Shannon, were probably founded about the same date. Many of these famous men studied together in the school of Finnian of Clonard and formed lasting friendships. The latter was known as “Finnian the Wise, teacher of the saints of Ireland.” The most important group of monasteries was that founded by the great Columcille, the future founder of Iona, or Hi, in Scotland, who in rapid succession established the monasteries of Derry, Raphoe, Durrow, Glencolumcille, Lambey, Swords, and many others, the head of the group being Kells, in Co. Meath.

The Ardagh Chalice (c. A.D. 900)

The Ardagh Chalice (c. a.d. 900)

The extension of the monastic system was abnormal, and it cannot be understood unless we have formed a clear idea as to what an Irish monastic foundation of this period was like. It was no single building of large size capable of holding numbers of persons. It generally arose around the person of some teacher whose fame had gone abroad and around whose hut, often intended originally as a hermitage or retreat, the cells of his pupils began to be raised by their own hands, made, according to the conditions of the district, either of wattle or of stone. Gradually, as people gathered, and fresh huts and oratories were constructed, the place would assume the aspect of a regular settlement.

Rules were laid down, and a regular order was introduced into the work and worship of the day, and some of these establishments attracted as many as three thousand persons. They were partly educational, partly agricultural, and wholly religious. They came gradually to include the larger part of the entire Christian population. Each establishment was self-contained, having its own fields for growing corn and vegetables, its own mills, kilns, storehouses, and barns.

The students and monks did the entire work of the place, sowing, reaping, carrying burdens to the mill, grinding corn, and performing in general the duties of the settlement. Even the abbots and bishops are found ploughing the fields, grinding corn, and fulfilling other agricultural offices. The extreme simplicity of life in these early monasteries must be carefully borne in mind. Part of each day was set apart for the instruction of students and part for active duties, while the offices of the Church were regularly and minutely observed. It was a system suited to the needs of a primitive and unlettered people and well calculated to guide and elevate them. These communities set before the entire population a new ideal of ordered, industrial life, sanctified by religion and enlarged by study. The highest saints retained to the end this primitive simplicity.

St Brigit, after she had founded Kildare, still milked the cows, herded sheep, baked bread, churned milk, and carried on the ordinary work of a household, besides her care of the sick and lepers. When Columcille went to Bishop Etchen for consecration, he found him ploughing in his fields; when, in later life, he visited Clonmacnois the monks gathered hastily from the little grange farms on which they were working in order to receive him with honour. He himself and St Ciaran of Clonmacnois reaped and ploughed, and even ground corn in the quern, which was the office of the women-slaves. Nor did they look upon such labours as derogatory; they rather felt them to be ennobling and elevating. St Nathalan, a Scottish Celtic monk, believed “that in the lowly work of cultivating the earth, he approached nearest to the divine contemplation; therefore, though of noble birth, he practised with his own hands the lowly art of cultivating the fields,” and this must have been the attitude of many even greater than he.

Reading and writing, the copying and multiplication of copies of the Gospels and the Psalms, the study of Latin and the making of ecclesiastical bells, crosses, book-satchels, and covers for illuminated books, occupied all of the day not occupied in religious or agricultural matters. The industry of many of these great teachers in copying books, chiefly the Gospels and Psalms, was remarkable. St Patrick is said to have “sowed the four books of the Gospel in Erin”; and St Columba is stated to have written three hundred books with his own hand, this being his chief occupation whenever he went for a time into retreat in the island of Eigg.

St Finnian of Clonard is said to have given a copy of the Gospels to every church he founded. Besides the books needed for the services of the Church, we read of boys going to school with leather satchels of books upon their backs, and in the libraries that gradually grew up in connexion with the monastic schools these hand-written volumes were preserved in such satchels hung round the walls on pegs. A few have survived the lapse of time and still exist.

In the beginning few, if any, of the copies were illuminated; they were designed solely to meet the needs of the oratories scattered over the country; but two at least of the most elaborate and precious specimens of Irish illuminated art, the Book of Durrow and the Book of Kells, now in the Library of Trinity College, Dublin, come down from the seventh and eighth centuries, proving that already the art of book-illumination had reached its highest beauty of execution. Kells was the central church of the large Columban group of monasteries, taking precedence even of Iona, so there was a reason for the preservation there of this exquisite specimen of the draughtsman’s art. It once had a wonderful cover of great value from the precious stones with which it was inlaid, but at an early period this cover was stolen, and it no longer exists. The Book of Durrow had a special sanctity from the belief that it was the work of Columcille’s own hand; it seems, at least, to have been copied from his original. Both books are copies of the Gospels. The metal covers, on which the gold-workers of the day lavished their most careful art, are of later date; they were used for enclosing bells, manuscripts, and relics.

An ancient Irish Catalogue of Saints mentions that one of the special features of the ‘second order’ of saints was the great variety in their masses and monastic rules, one of which was said to have been introduced into Ireland by the British or Welsh bishops David, Cadoc, and Gildas. There is no doubt that the rules varied in different monasteries, each founder framing his own rule for the guidance of the monks who joined his foundation. They differed considerably in length and strictness. Some contained only general admonitions to penitence, love of God, fasting, and prayer, with a spirit apart from the world and devoted to the contemplation of heavenly things. Many are in verse, no doubt in order to be more easily remembered or for chanting. One of them, ascribed to the King-abbot of Cashel, Cormac MacCuilennan, in the ninth century, describes the low-voiced congregation singing the melodious song of the believers; he calls on them to join in the chanting of the rule, “the song which the ancients have sung.”[21]

In some rules we can trace the gradual introduction of severer admonitions, added to the original simpler regulations, and imposing greater mortifications. Of one called “An old Irish metrical rule” we have two versions. One, which apparently gives the original standard of an early date, says “These are thy three rules—have thou nought else more dear—patience, humility, and the love of God in thy heart.” The other enjoins more explicit humiliations: “Three hundred prostrations every day and three at every canonical hour; two hundred blows on the hands every Lent will be a help.”[22]

There still exist rules attributed to SS. Ciaran, Manach Liath, or “the grey monk,” Carthach or Mochuta of Rathin, Columban, Maelruain of Tallaght, and other well-known founders of monasteries. They were probably in use in the foundations established by the saints whose names they bear. Some were of great severity; the rule of St Columban, which divided the working day between copying manuscripts, teaching in the schools, and labour in the field and forest, enjoined severe punishments for the least infraction of the orders, amounting to two hundred stripes for some offences or rigorous and prolonged fasting for others.

The discipline in the monastery of St Fintan at Clonenagh was so stern that the neighbouring clerics, feeling that the life of these monks was a reproach to them, begged Fintan, for the love of God, to relax its extreme rigour. His monks were not allowed to have any animals or ever to eat meat; even milk and butter were not permitted and, if offered, must be refused. He finally consented to make some changes for the brethren, but continued the same way of life for himself.

The old Irish tract De Arreis shows to what a pitch punishments for ecclesiastical offences could be carried in the Irish Church.[23] There were, however, monasteries where such excessive austerities were discouraged. In the rule of St Ailbe it is said that if the erennach,[24] who had under his charge the secular affairs and provisioning of the establishment, were wise, his rule should not be too harsh; “as the food shall be, so will the order be.” “Let it not be too strict, neither let it be lax; let it not be a rule without knowledge, so that each may be able to bear his yoke.”[25]

In Tallaght, where Maelruain the Abbot did not approve of listening to music, as distracting the mind from its religious duties, and would allow neither a morsel of meat to be eaten nor a drop of beer, “the liquor that causes forgetfulness of God,” to be drunk during his lifetime, we are told that fasting was not commended, but that a regular measured pittance was preferred by the Abbot. To a man much given to severe austerities he even refused admission, saying, “Those who are here, while they do their proper share of work, are able to eat their rations. Thou wilt not fit among them. Thou wilt neither do active work nor be able to eat thy rations.”[26]