Early Christian Ireland (3)

Eleanor Hull
Early Christian Ireland | start of chapter

Of the monastic schools of Northern Ireland the three most important were Armagh, Bangor, and Clonmacnois. We have the fullest account of Bangor, preserved by the pen of the great St Bernard, in his life of St Malachy, or Mael Maedoc Ua Morgair, who in the twelfth century rebuilt the monastery, destroyed by the raids of the Danes in the early ninth century, when “its learned men and bishops were slain by the sword,” and the relics of Comgall, its founder, shaken out of their shrine. But the tradition of its ancient fame was fresh in the mind of Malachy as he set about to rebuild, and he had communicated to his close friend, St Bernard, his own enthusiasm for the original Bangor of the sixth century. “For, indeed,” the latter writes, “there had been formerly a very celebrated monastery under the first father, Comgall, which produced many thousands of saints, bringing forth most abundant fruit to God, so that one of the sons of that holy community, Lugaid by name, is said to have been the founder, himself alone, of a hundred monasteries.”

Bangor was founded in 559, and according to the Latin life of Comgall, so great a number of monks resorted to him that there was not room for them, and he had to found cells and monasteries in different parts of Ireland and Scotland to contain them all. He is said to have presided over three thousand monks, but such figures have to be accepted with caution. Still, the numbers in some of the Irish and Welsh foundations were very large.

St Columban the most distinguished of the Bangor saints “who poured forth like a flood into foreign lands,” is said by St Bernard to have established at Luxeuil the system of continuous church worship practised at Bangor, where the choirs succeeded each other in turn, “so that not a moment of the day or night was empty of praise.” The Antiphonary of Bangor, found at Bobbio, shows that St Columban founded his cycle of the divine offices on the order familiar to him in his old monastery. The continuous office may have been a feature of the many monasteries called Bangor, or Benagher, in Ireland and Wales.

No less distinguished was the school of Clonmacnois on the Shannon, founded by St Ciaran near the site already famous as the burial-place of ancient kings, but now to become still more famous as the principal seat of learning and literature in the West. To Colcu, its fer-leginn, or chief professor, Alcuin addressed a letter from the Court of Charlemagne, enclosing a contribution of fifty shekels “from the King’s bounty” and from himself fifty shekels, with a request that they will pray for him and for King Charles. He also sent a gift of oil to divide among the bishops, oil being now “a scarce article in Britain.” He addresses Colcu, who has left a curious poem called “The Besom of Devotion,” as “the blessed master and pious founder,” and his letter is full of interesting details on matters of public interest in France and Europe generally, showing that even an isolated school like Clonmacnois was concerned about the current events of the larger world.

Much literary and historical work of value was accomplished in later times at Clonmacnois. There the Leabhar na h-Uidhre, or “Book of the Dun Cow,” was compiled about 1100; it contains the most ancient surviving collection of the old romances, together with much other material.

The oldest existing annals, written by Tighernach partly in Latin and partly in Irish, were also produced there in the eleventh century, and the Chronicum Scotorum was probably written there. There must have been an extensive library in the monastery, for Tighernach quotes freely from Latin authors as well as from Irish and British authorities. The remains of its churches, its round tower, and its splendid crosses attest its former importance; but of Bangor not a trace is left.

The Norse raids of the ninth century made a break in the continuity of the schools, large numbers of the professors and scholars passing over to the Continent so that they might carry on their work in safety; but when quiet returned the old haunts in Ireland again became homes of study. It was at this time that Clonmacnois and Armagh attained their highest position as places of learning, the number of fer-leginn or professors increased, and Armagh, in particular, held so high a position that it was ordained at the Synod of Clane in 1162 that no one should henceforth be permitted to give public lectures in Holy Scripture or in theology unless he had spent some time studying at Armagh. This would seem to imply that Armagh was then considered the chief school or university. When the city was burned down in 1020 the library fortunately escaped, though the books in the dwellings of the students, all of course in manuscript, were destroyed.

During these centuries the borders of Ireland had been freely opened to the world, and commerce and friendly intercourse were encouraged with all who desired it. In the most active period of her early Christianity pilgrims seem to have gathered from every land to her shores. A Litany of Saints, known popularly as the Litany of Aengus,[27] composed about the seventh century, mentions lists of these foreigners who came to enter the Irish monasteries, or to make their home in the country. Roman pilgrims to various foundations are mentioned, and Gauls appear to have come in considerable numbers.

The presence of Romans in Ireland is also attested by the inscription Septem romani in the churchyard of St Brecan at Aranmore.[28] In the life of St Senan we hear of a ship’s crew of fifty Italians “from the lands of Latium” coming on pilgrimage to Ireland.[29]

A Frankish priest and an English archdeacon are said to have settled in Glendalough, and seven Egyptian monks in Desert Kilaigh. Greeks are said to have trafficked at the Irish provincial fairs, and some of them appear to have settled down permanently, for as late as Ussher’s day there was a Greek church at Trim in Co. Meath, its site retaining the name of Greek Park up to recent times.

Nor were her nearest neighbours excluded. One of the most important settlements, frequently mentioned, was that of the Saxons in Mayo, in a district which bore the name of “Mayo of the Saxons” until much later times. It was the adverse result of the Synod of Whitby in 664, where the Columban and the Continental teachers disputed the question of the correct date for keeping Easter, that determined the emigration of these Columban monks under Bishop Colman from Northumbria to Iona and thence to Ireland. Colman was accompanied by many of the nobility and of the lower ranks of the English nation, who thought as he did, and they passed over in the year of the great plague, called in Ireland the Buidhe Conaill, which was raging alike in Ireland and England, and settled in the solitary island which Bede calls Inis-bo-finde, or “the Isle of the White Cow,” now Inisbofin, off the coast of Connemara. Here he founded a monastery for the Columban monks of both nations.[30] They were willingly received by the Irish, who supplied them with books and food, but they do not seem to have agreed well, for they eventually separated, the Irish monks remaining at Inisbofin, while the English monks settled in Mayo (Magheo, “the Yew Plain”), where a large establishment grew up, which was constantly recruited from England. Some of them devoted themselves to conventual life, but others, choosing to apply themselves to study, wandered about from one teacher to another according to the Irish plan.

The Litany of Saints speaks of 3300 students who settled in Mayo, under Bishops Gerald [31] and Egbert, the latter a young English noble “who long lived a stranger in Ireland for the sake of the eternal kingdom.” He afterward became Abbot of Iona and did much to induce the monks to adopt the Roman date for the celebration of Easter, having been enjoined to do so in a vision, “because their ploughs do not go straight.” He was stricken with the plague, but recovered, and passed a long and strenuous life in combating the peculiarities of the Columban Church customs and bringing them into conformity with the general Western use.[32] Bede mentions the names of many others who went over to Ireland, either to adopt the hermit’s life or for study. One of these was Wictbert, who became the first missionary to Friesland.

In the notes to the Calendar of Aengus[33] we hear of several early settlements of English besides those of Inisbofin and Mayo in Connacht. One was in the barony of Cianachta, in the present Co. Londonderry; another at Tullalease of the Saxons (Tulach-leis na Saxan), in Co. Cork; still another at O’Connell Gawra (Ui Conaill Gabhra), in Co. Tipperary. This shows that up to the twelfth century, when many of these notes were added to the Calendar, distinct English settlements were recognized in different parts of the country. They must have been still existing when Henry II came over. In the tenth century, when the schools of Armagh were at the height of their influence, they were resorted to in such numbers by English students that one-third of the monastic city was set apart for them. It was known as Trian Saxan, or the “Saxon Third,” or “Quarter,” and retained this name up to a late period.

There are numerous records both of friendly and warlike relations between the two peoples during the early centuries which accord well with the known facts. Keating remarks that Ireland was a place of refuge for Britons who fled from the oppression of the Romans and Saxons, and that they found land there for themselves and their families, teaching their children Irish and carrying back with them many Gaelic words to England. He speaks of townlands named after them Graig na mBreathnach (“the Hamlet of the Britons”), Baile or Dun na mBreathnach (“the Village or Fort of the Britons”), etc.[34]

Intermarriages between Welsh and Saxon princesses and Irish chiefs are mentioned in many of the old stories. Later on, Keating quotes Hanmer’s record of the visit of a king of Wales named Cadualin, who was banished to Ireland by Edwin, son of Æthelfred, in 635, and of two British princes, Haralt and Conan, who fled to Ireland in 1050 and were protected by the Irish; also of another Welsh chief, Bleithin ap Conan, who was maintained there in 1087. “Thus from age to age did they cultivate alliance and intercourse with one another.”

An earlier Lord of Pembroke than Strongbow is said to have married a daughter of Murtogh O’Brien in 1101; and Griffin ap Conan, the prince who occupied the throne of Wales in the time of Henry I of England, could boast that both his mother and grandmother were Irishwomen, and that it was in Ireland that he was born and educated in polite manners. The Norman-Welsh who accompanied Henry II to Ireland came to a country with which they were familiar, and with which they had long had intimate dealings.

In the North of Ireland the connexion was particularly close. Though the Romans had never, in a military sense, set foot in Ireland, Agricola says that in his day her harbours were well known at Rome. A considerable number of silver coins dating from the time of Constantius II to that of Honorius, with others about the same date, have been found in the North of Ireland, especially about Coleraine, showing that a certain amount of trade was in progress with Roman Britain, or Gaul.[35]

During the seventh and eighth centuries the British took part on several occasions in the wars of Dalriada, or Eastern Ulster, on one side or the other. A host out of Britain, Saxon-land, and France is said to have assisted Con-gal Claen in the great historical battle of Magh Rath, or Moira, against his fosterfather King Donnell, prince of the peoples of Conaill and Eoghan, in 637.[36] This battle is mentioned by Adamnan and called by him Bella Roth.

Besides the intercourse with Britain there was also an independent trade with Gaul and Spain. The oldest version of the “Wooing of Emer,” one of the most famous of the Cuchulain stories, speaks of “wine of Gaul” being brought to Ireland by one who purported to come on an embassy from the King of the Gauls—an early example of a trade destined to continue for many centuries.

In the life of St Ciaran of Clonmacnois we hear of “a cask full of wine from the land of the Franks” being bestowed upon him. This was one of those acts of friendly intercourse which show that a constant interchange was kept up between that now retired spot and the Frankish Court and nobility.

In Jocelyn’s Life of St Patrick we are told that wine, honey, iron, and salt were imported into Dublin from ancient times, while the exports were mead, beer, shoes, and gloves. Wine was at all times a large article of import. Spanish and French wines were the usual beverage drunk in all the larger houses from the fourteenth century onward, whisky (uisge beathadh) becoming common about the sixteenth century, though the bards ignored and perhaps despised it. We hear of a chief of the Hy-Many who received an annual tribute in wine from one of his underlings; it was shipped into a harbour in Connacht, and carried up to his house.

The “sea-laws” of the Book of Aicill relate to trading regulations for vessels arriving either from Britain or from abroad on the Irish coasts;[37] and Jonas in his life of St Columban, who crossed from Ireland to Nantes, speaks of a ship “which plied for the sake of commerce” between the two countries. Among the articles of commerce were the splendid wolfhounds bred in Ireland, which were so highly esteemed throughout the Middle Ages that they were offered as royal gifts to friendly potentates up to the seventeenth century; St Patrick’s vessel sailing to Gaul contained a pack of these noble dogs.[38]

From an early period Leinster was closely connected with Gaul, and a considerable portion of its inhabitants derived their origin from that country. “There was,” says Keating, quoting old traditions, “a special friendly understanding between the Leinstermen and the French.” He makes the curious statement that in early times “every province in Ireland had formed a special alliance of friendship beyond the sea, the Clann Neill [of Western Ulster] with the Scots, the men of Munster with the English, the [Eastern] Ulstermen with the Spaniards, the men of Connacht with the Welsh, and the Leinstermen with the Franks.”[39] He quotes this from a poem of the bard John, son of Torna O’Mulconaire, who lived early in the fourteenth century, when these traditions were still alive among the people.

The story that King Lowry (Labhraidhe) the Exile sought an asylum in France and returned bringing with him many foreigners “who were not of the Gael” seems to have confirmation from other sources. There is a tradition that the province of Leinster (Laighin) was named from the broad green-blue iron heads of the spears (laighne) of the foreigners who accompanied him; and those newcomers, known as Galian, were looked upon with jealousy by the older inhabitants on account of their superior celerity and expertness in matters of camp-warfare, as the story of the Táin bó Cúalnge shows.[40] The name is sometimes applied to the whole of the Leinstermen. The only instance of a chariot-burial being alluded to in Irish story is in connexion with this Lowry, who may have become familiar with this mode of burial of chiefs in Gaul.[41]

There are many Gaulish names in the Irish genealogies, and we hear in early times of a place in Westmeath called Bordgal, the Irish form of the French Burdigala, or Bordeaux. The Litany of Saints mentions seven bishops of the Irish Bordgal, and in the life of St Colman MacLuachan[42] it is stated that two places were bestowed upon the saint in what was afterward Queen’s County, called Bordgal and Lemchail. There seems to have been still another place of the same name, commonly corrupted to Bordwell, in the parish of Aghaboe; old records give it under the earlier form. It would seem likely that these places in Ireland were named by settlers from the French Bordgal, or Bordeaux.

Dr Kuno Meyer,[43] following up an interesting suggestion made by Professor Zimmer, ascribes the revived intellectual impulse visible in Ireland from the sixth century onward to the arrival from Gaul of a body of learned men flying in the fifth century before the irruption of the Goths and Huns, and he relies for this explanation on a passage in the writings of a Gaulish grammarian named Virgilius Maro, who lived in the fifth century, near the time of the exodus of which he speaks, and whose works were read in Ireland. Virgilius says that “the depopulation of the entire Empire commenced … and owing to their devastations all the learned men on this side of the sea fled away, and in transmarine parts, i.e., in Hiberia and wherever they betook themselves, they brought about a very great advance of learning to the inhabitants of those regions.”

Zimmer and Meyer would read “Hibernia” for “Hiberia,” or Spain, which would not be called a “transmarine” district or be reached across sea. The comparative quietude of Ireland would make it a natural place of resort for the hunted scholars. However this may be, it is certain that Ireland never lost touch with the main currents of classical and theological literature in Europe and the East, and that traditions, legends, and apocryphal literature, as well as some knowledge of Greek and a full competence in Latin, survived there, much of which was stamped out elsewhere by the inroads of the barbarians. Ireland never suffered the decay of religion and learning consequent on the devastations which befell Gaul and threw back its civilization for nearly three hundred years.

We may take it that Ireland had, before the seventh century, absorbed into its population large numbers of foreigners. Leinster was intermixed both with British and Gaulish settlers, the South must always have had a considerable Spanish element, and Ulster an admixture both of Norse, Picts, and Scots. There were English or Saxon centres in Ulster, Connacht, and Munster. Even before the historical period of the Norse incursions, which brought in a large new element, the Irish nation, far from being a pure race, must have been one of the most varied in Western Europe; but long before the eighth century these had become absorbed into the older populations, speaking their language, and living in large part like the people among whom they had settled. The stranger, from whatever country he hailed, if left to himself without outside interference made himself speedily at home and grew proud to call himself an Irishman. It was outside influences alone that interrupted this natural process.