Early Christian Ireland (4)

Eleanor Hull
Early Christian Ireland | start of chapter

In the seventh century we find, on the other hand, Irish students crowding the classes of Archbishop Theodore of Canterbury, who had come to England from Rome in 664, and whose instruction in Greek made his school a centre for those who desired the higher learning. The restless Irish scholars seem to have had some sharp passages at arms with their teacher. Aldhelm, who was also a student, describes how they baited the Archbishop, who, however, proved more than a match for his unruly pupils.

“He treated them as a truculent boar treats the Molossian hounds. He tore them with the tusk of grammar and shot them with the deep and sharp syllogisms of chronography, till they cast away their weapons and hurriedly fled to the recesses of their dens.”

At the same time that Irish students were studying Greek with Theodore at Canterbury, and Latin and the arts under the teachers of Malmesbury, English youths were resorting to Ireland, thus bringing about an interchange of thought and learning which was to the advantage of both countries. Among the numerous students whom Bede mentions as having gone for study to the Irish schools was Aiden, first bishop of Lindisfarne (635), who is said to have spoken English so imperfectly on his return that Oswald, King of Northumbria, who had also made himself proficient in the Irish tongue during a long banishment in that country, went about with him to translate his sermons.

Later the young Northumbrian prince Aldfrid (sometimes erroneously confused with Alfred the Great), who had been excluded from the throne on account of illegitimate birth, and who was of a studious disposition, crossed over to devote himself to literature, “suffering a voluntary exile to gratify his love of knowledge.” He was recalled to the throne on the death of his brother Egbert and proved a worthy and noble king. He is said to have been “most learned in the Scriptures,” and he “nobly retrieved the ruined state of the kingdom while confining it within narrower limits.” In Ireland he was known as Flann Fina, from his mother, Fina, who according to Irish accounts was of the Irish race of Niall. He loved the country of his exile, and a poem in its praise is ascribed to him.

Among other students of high rank was the Frankish prince who afterward became King Dagobert II, who passed his youth in foreign lands as an exile from his country, and whose student days were spent at the school of Slane, in Westmeath. It is a testimony to the widespread reputation of the Irish schools in the seventh century that one of them should have been chosen for the education of this Frankish prince by the lords of his household. On his return home in 670 the young prince was attended by a train of Irish friends, one of whom, St Arbogast, he raised to the see of Strassburg. His successor founded there a monastery for ‘Scots’ or Irish in 687. Another of his followers, Maelceadar, an Irish warrior, became a person of distinction at Dagobert’s Court. His wife, St Waldetrude, the patroness of Mons, accompanied her husband when he went on a visit to his native land to invite Irish teachers to come over and settle in the Frankish kingdom.

Students repairing to Ireland for study were free to pass from school to school and to choose their own masters. There must have been some great attraction in the Irish student’s life, for Aldhelm, in a letter addressed to three young men just returned from Ireland, exclaims, “Why does Ireland pride herself on a sort of priority, in that such numbers of students flock there from England, as if here upon this fruitful soil there were not an abundance of Argive and Roman masters to be found, fully capable of solving the deepest problems of religion and satisfying the most ambitious students?”[44]

Many of the foremost of the Welsh teachers and saints gained part of their education in Ireland. St Gildas, the historian, frequently visited the country and is said to have “revived faith and discipline” and to have given to it a special Mass. St Cadoc, or Cathmael, the Wise, founder of the important monastery of Llancarvan, had been baptized and instructed by an Irish hermit named Tathai, who had settled in Wales and who taught St Cadoc grammar, the Scriptures, and the liberal arts for twelve years. Determining to perfect himself in the advanced learning then only to be acquired in Ireland, St Cadoc passed over in a coracle built by himself to Lismore, where he was received by “the master of the city [monastery] and all the clergy,” and he remained three years “perfecting himself in the learning of the West.” All his life he continued to wear the rough and hairy mantle “such as the Irish wear out of doors,” and one of his special treasures was a small bell of peculiar sweetness which he brought back from Lismore.[45]

St Padarn, St Cybi, and others built churches in Leinster, and as late as 1058 St Sulien the Wise, founder of the college of Llanbadarn Fawy, “stirred by the example of the fathers,” spent thirteen years studying in Ireland. Some valuable manuscripts of his family and school remain.

On the other hand, many of the chief Irish founders of monasteries passed part of their early life in Wales. It is even said that when the “Priority and Headship” of the Welsh Church was in question, the population being undecided whether to elect St David or St Gildas, the young Finnian of Clonard, who was standing among the huge assembly, was called upon to give an impartial opinion. He gave his award for St David “in such good Welsh that it might have been his mother-tongue.”[46]

An example of what was constantly going on is the story of the “fleet of Irish ships” which one day sailed into the harbour of Hayle, in Cornwall, where they were attacked by the inhabitants and many killed. The few who escaped entrenched themselves on a hill, and they gradually extended their power over the Land’s End district. A large part of Cornwall became Irish, the original inhabitants taking flight overseas to Brittany, along with emigrants from Devon and Wales. There are also a great number of dedications to Irish saints in Brittany. From the north of Scotland southward to Cornwall we find Irish dedications in great plenty; St Brigit is found all over the Hebrides, St Finnbarr of Cork in Argyllshire, St Cainnech of Aghaboe is the St Kenneth of St Andrews. St Bees Head is so called from St Bega, and Brandon Head, near Bristol, from St Brendan, the navigator saint. The wide influence of the Irish Church in early times is clearly shown.[47]

In the heart of Somerset the romantic village of Glastonbury was in old days known as “Glastonbury of the Gaels.” It was founded by an Irish monk and seems to have been the special resort of pilgrims from Beggery Island in Wexford Harbour. The Irish tradition is very strong in Glastonbury. On either side of the figure of St Dunstan on the great seal of the monastery are found those of St Patrick and St Brigit. It was an old belief that St Patrick died here, but this “Sen-Patrick,” or old Patrick, was probably another saint of the same name. Nevertheless, this tradition was one of the most persistent causes of the flocking to Glastonbury of Irish students and pilgrims.

The life of St Dunstan says that “men of the Irish nation inhabited the place in large numbers, men who were most skilful and had fully given up their mental energies to the prosecution of the liberal arts; who, that they might the more entirely devote themselves to philosophy, leaving their native land and laying aside all their old habits, had hastened to Glastonbury, attracted by love of their first preacher St Patrick, whose corporal shell is from antiquity said to have been deposited there.”[48]

It is possible that it was the presence of these Irish students that infused into the severe mind of St Dunstan that love of music and the liberal arts for which he and his monastery became celebrated, just as in the neighbouring monastery of Malmesbury, founded by an Irish hermit named Maelduf, Aldhelm found a congenial atmosphere for the cultivation of that love of music which led him in later days to sing, on open ways and bridges, songs and religious poems to the chance passer-by.

Though the western coasts were naturally the first to be invaded many Irish wanderers found their way farther afield. The dreamer of one of the earliest visions of heaven and hell, St Fursey, or Fursius (b. 633), was a Galway youth “of noble Irish blood, but much more noble in mind than in birth.” He made his way across England and settled in the kingdom of Sigebert of the East Angles, in order to escape from the crowds that followed him in his own country. There he built his monastic cells “pleasantly situated in the woods and with the sea not far off,” wherein he might the more freely indulge his heavenly studies. It was there he saw his strange vision of the other world, the earliest of those apocalyptic writings which were to find their culmination in the thirteenth century in the Divina Commedia of Dante.[49] Fursey seems to have been accompanied by a band of Irish followers, for, when he decided to cross to France to found his two monasteries of Péronne and Lagry on the Marne, he left behind him at his older foundation two priests of Gaelic name, Gobban and Dicuil, and took with him another named Ultan to join his anchorite cell in France.

This is not the place to relate at length the lives and labours of the Irish evangelists abroad. The place of honour must be assigned to Columban, who passed forth with twelve companions from the great school of Bangor, Co. Down, landed in Gaul, and reached Burgundy about the year 574, at the age of thirty-one. He settled down among the forests of the Vosges, building his simple monastery under the walls of a ruined castle at Annegray, and living chiefly on the wild fruits and herbs of the woods. Here he composed the rule for his monks, and though it was severe the gentle character of its followers drew many to join his order. He boldly attacked the vices of the three kings who ruled in Gaul, and he won over one of them, Sigisbert, who offered him land on which to build.

Twice he was called into Italy to combat the Arian heresy and his conversion of the Lombard king, Agilulph, who began his reign in 590, led to the offer of any piece of land he might choose if he would consent to stay in Italy. He longed for solitude and chose a spot high among the Apennines which was destined to become famous as the monastery of Bobbio, the fourth of the monasteries founded abroad by Columban, the other three, Annegray, Luxeuil, and Fontaines being in Gaul.

The grant of King Agilulph, making over the land to Columban, still exists, as do also a knife, cup, and bell said to have belonged to the founder. But the most splendid memorial of Bobbio is the valuable collection of manuscripts, many of them now in Rome, Turin, and Milan, which formed its library. A catalogue drawn up in the tenth century and attributed to Abbot Gerbert (967–972), who afterward became Pope Silvester II, contains a list of 700 volumes, 220 of which had been presented by scholars who are named, while the rest had been acquired from various unstated sources.

The explanations of passages in the classical books and on copies of portions of the Bible made by Irish students in their own tongue are among the oldest surviving specimens of the Irish written language. They are known as the Turin and Milan ‘glosses.’

Eighteen monasteries in Germany and Switzerland, over thirty in France, and many in Italy and the Netherlands (to give these countries their modern names) carried on into the Middle Ages the work and memory of their Irish founders. The canton of St Gall was named after one of the companions of St Columban, who was so much attracted by the quietude of the region that he refused to cross the Alps into Italy, a country then rent by religious disputations. His monastery became one of the chief houses of call in the Middle Ages for pilgrims passing into Italy to visit Rome.

At Salzburg, in the Tyrol, the bishopric dates back to Fergal, or Virgil, once Abbot of Aghaboe in Queen’s Co. Over the canton of Glarus still waves the figure of St Fridolin, its Irish patron saint. St Cathaldus, patron of Taranto in Southern Italy, and St Colman, patron of Lower Austria, were Irishmen. When travellers enter Florence by the western gate they pass under the portals of St Fredianus, or Finnian, the Irish preacher and Bishop of Lucca. As they climb the sweet slopes of Fiesole they may rest beside the spot where Donat or Donatus built his hut and chapel.

Outside the city of Paris may be visited the holy well of St Fiacre, an Irishman whose shrine was so much frequented in the Middle Ages that it gave a special name to the carriages that bore pilgrims thither, and in Paris a cab is still a fiacre. From the shores of Iceland and the Faroe Isles down to the vine-clothed hills of Italy we find the cells, the traditions, and the manuscripts of Irish monks and travellers.

Among the twenty-nine chief monasteries which in the eighth century obeyed the Columban rule were, besides those we have mentioned, the almost equally well-known foundations of Péronne, Reichnau, Ratisbon, Seckingham, and Würzburg.

When, in 723, the Saxon Winifred, better known as Boniface, was sent to the Franks as Papal legate, not one of the German or Bavarian tribes to which he went could be considered pagan, and in this work of Christianization the Irish had borne a considerable part. The last of the Irish foundations to be recognized as such was St James’s of Ratisbon, known as the Monasterium Scotorum. But when the word ‘Scotia’ ceased to be applied to Ireland, and Scotsmen from Scotland claimed the monastery as their own foundation, it was handed over to them by Pope Leo X, and the remaining Irish monks were forced to leave.

It was during the disturbance of the monastic life at home through the onslaughts of the Northmen that Europe was flooded for a second time with Irish missionaries and teachers. The schools in Ireland were broken up, and life and property were rendered insecure. As the Norsemen and Danes penetrated farther into the country the monasteries became the chief points of attack, and the quiet pursuit of learning became more and more difficult. Then the thoughts of Irish men of letters turned naturally to the already existing Irish foundations abroad.

The story of the foreign work of the Irish teachers thus falls into two parts. There were first the early missions like those of Columban and St Gall; of Finnian of Moville, known abroad as St Frediano of Lucca (500–588); of Ursus of the Val d’Aosta (c. 550); and of Cathaldus of Waterford (c. 618), who became Bishop of Taranto about 680, and whose brother Donatus founded a church near Naples about the same date. These men were followed in the ninth century by the great influx of learned men who gathered principally round the schools of Charlemagne and of Charles the Bald; from which centre they spread gradually over all Southern and Central Europe. The earlier movement was inspired by the love of adventure, the desire for solitude, and the craving to undertake missionary work among foreign nations. The later effort was made in response to the well-known ambition of Charlemagne to make the schools at Paris a centre of advanced learning. He welcomed with enthusiasm teachers who could assist him in carrying out his aims.

An old story, which, even if it be rather a parable than an historical fact, well describes what actually happened, tells us that “when the illustrious Charles began to reign alone in the West, and literature was everywhere almost forgotten, it happened that two Scots of Ireland, Clemens and Albinus, came over with some British merchants to the shores of France. These Scots [Irishmen] were incomparably skilled in human learning and in the holy Scriptures. As they had not merchandise for sale, they used to cry out to the crowds flocking to the churches, ‘If anyone is desirous of wisdom, let him come to us and receive it, for we have it to sell.’”[50] The report of these men came to the ears of Charles the Great, who, being a lover of wisdom, ordered them to be brought before him without any delay. He asked them whether the report was true that they did really possess wisdom. They replied that it was so and that they were ready to impart such as they had to any who would seek it worthily. They required nothing in return but food and raiment, a convenient dwelling, and ingenuous minds. This was about the year 772.

Clemens remained in France, and became magister palatinus or Instructor to the Imperial Court, teaching all children of the nobility and of the lower ranks who desired to attend his classes. Albinus was sent as ambassador to Pope Adrian I (772–795) by King Charles, who had succeeded to the Frankish throne in 769;[51] later he was placed by him in charge of the monastery of St Augustine in Pavia, where he continued to lecture until his death to all who desired to receive his instruction. Charles had added the kingdom of Lombardy to his dominions when, in 774, he entered Pavia and took its king Desiderius prisoner.