Religion and Learning

Patrick Weston Joyce

131. The spread of the faith suffered no check by the death of St. Patrick; for churches, monasteries, and convents continued to be founded all over the country. The founders of monasteries in Ireland may be said to have been of two classes. Those of the one class settled in the inhabited districts, and took on themselves functions of education and religious ministration. Those of the other class gave themselves up to a life of prayer and contemplation; and these took up their abode in remote islands or mountain valleys, places generally hard to reach, and often almost inaccessible. Here they lived with their little communities in cells, one for each individual, poor little places, mostly built by the monks themselves. They supported themselves by the work of their hands, lived on hard fare, slept on the bare floor, and occupied their spare time in devotions. There was a very pronounced tendency to this solitary monastic life in the early Christian ages; and on almost all the islands round the coast, as well as on those in the lakes and rivers, the remains of churches and primitive eremitical establishments are found to this day.

132. The three patron saints of Ireland are Patrick, Brigit, and Columba or Columkille.

St. Brigit of Kildare was born about the year 455 at Faughart near Dundalk, where her father, who was a Leinster chief, then lived. She became a nun when very young; and soon the fame of her sanctity spread through the whole country. Having founded convents in various parts of Ireland, she finally settled—about the year 480—at a place in Leinster, where she built her first cell under the shade of a great oak-tree, whence it got the name of Kill-dara, the church of the oak, now Kildare. This became the greatest and most famous nunnery ever established in Ireland. She died on the 1st of February, 523. St. Brigit is venerated in Ireland beyond all other Irishwomen; and there are places all through the country still called Kilbride, and Kilbreedy (Brigit's church) which received their names from churches founded by or in commemoration of her.

133. St. Columba or Columkille of Iona was born in 521 at Gartan in Donegal. He belonged to the Northern Hy Neill, his father being grandson of Conall Gulban son of Niall of the Nine Hostages; but he gave up all the worldly advantages of his high birth for religion. In the year 546 he built the monastery of Derry; after which, during the next fifteen years, he founded a great number of churches and monasteries all over the country, among others those of Kells, Swords, Tory Island, Lambay near Dublin, and Durrow in King's county, the last of which was his chief establishment in Ireland.

In the year 563 he went with twelve companions to the little Island of Iona on the west coast of Scotland, which had been granted to him by his relative the king of that part of Scotland. Here he settled, and founded the monastery which afterwards became so illustrious. He converted the Picts, and he traversed the Hebrides, preaching to the people and founding churches wherever he went. After a life of incessant activity in the service of religion, he died kneeling before the altar of his own church of Iona, in the year 597, in the seventy-sixth year of his age, and was buried within the monastery.

134. Besides the three Patrons, the following are a few of the most eminent of the Irish Saints: St. Ailbè of Emly in Limerick, who was ordained bishop by St. Patrick.

St. Enna or Endeus of Aran in Galway Bay; died about 542, This island was afterwards called Ara-na-Naemh [naive], Aran of the saints, from the number of holy men who lived in it.

St. Ciaran or Kieran, the patron of Ossory: born in the island of Cape Clear: died about 550.

St. Finnen of Clonard, the founder of the great school there: died 549.

St. Ciaran [Kieran] of Clonmacnoise, which became one of the greatest of all the Irish monasteries: died 549.

St. Ita, Ida or Mida, virgin saint, of Killeedy in Limerick; often called the Brigit of Munster: died 569.

St. Brendan of Clonfert in Galway, or Brendan the Navigator: born in Kerry: died 577.

St. Senan of Scattery island in the Shannon: died about 560.

St. Comgall of Bangor in Down, the founder of the celebrated school, which rivalled Clonard: died 602.

St. Kevin, the founder of Glendalough in Wicklow: died 618.

St. Carrthach or Mochuda of Lismore, where he founded one of Ireland's greatest schools: died 637.

St. Adamnan the biographer of St. Columkille; ninth abbot of Iona: died 703.

135. Among the vast number of Irishmen who became illustrious on the continent, the following may be named:—

St. Fursa of Peronne and his brothers Foillan and Ultan; Fursa died about 650.

St. Dympna or Domnat of Gheel, virgin martyr, to whom the great sanatorium for lunatics at Gheel in Belgium is dedicated: martyred in the seventh century.

St. Columbanus of Bobbio in Italy, a pupil of Bangor, founded the two monasteries of Luxeuil and Fontaines: expelled from Burgundy for denouncing the vices of king Theodoric; preached successfully to the Gauls; wrote learned letters; finally settled at Bobbio, where he died 615.

St. Gall, a disciple of Columbanus, patron of St. Gall (in Switzerland) which was named from him.

Virgil or Virgilius bishop of Salzburg, called Virgil the Geometer from his eminence in science: taught, probably for the first time, the rotundity of the earth: died 785.

St. Fridolin the Traveller of Seckingen on the Rhine: died sixth century.

St. Kilian the apostle of Franconia: martyred 689.

St. Cataldus of Tarentum, from the school of Lismore; seventh century.

Clement and Albinus, placed by Charlemagne at the head of two great seminaries.

John Scotus Erigena, celebrated for his knowledge of Greek: the most distinguished scholar of his day: died about 870.

136. In ancient Ireland education and religion went hand in hand, so that in tracing their history it is impossible to separate them. By far the greatest part of the education of the country was carried on by, or under the direction of, priests and monks of the various orders, who combined religious with secular teaching.

137. From the middle of the sixth century schools rapidly arose all over the country, most of them in connection with monasteries. The most celebrated were those of Clonard (in Meath), Armagh, Bangor (in Down), Cashel, Downpatrick, Ross Ailithir now Rosscarbery in Cork, Lismore, Glendalough, Clonmacnoise, Monasterboice near Drogheda, Clonfert in Galway, Glasnevin, and Begerin a little below Wexford. But almost all the monasteries—and convents as well—carried on the function of teaching. Some had very large numbers of students; for instance we are told that at one time there were 3,000 under St. Finnen at Clonard; and some other schools, such as Bangor, had as many. In those great seminaries every branch of knowledge then known was taught; they were in fact the prototypes of our modern universities.

In all the more important schools there were students from foreign lands; the greatest number came from Great Britain—they came in fleet-loads, as Aldhelm bishop of Sherborne (A.D. 705 to 709) expresses it. Many also were from the Continent.

138. Among the foreign visitors were many princes: Aldfrid king of Northumbria, and Dagobert II. king of France, were both, when in exile in the seventh century, educated in Ireland. We get some idea of the numbers of foreigners from the ancient Litany of Aengus the Culdee, in which we find invoked many Romans, Gauls, Germans, Britons, and even Egyptians, all of whom died in Ireland. Venerable Bede, describing the ravages of the yellow plague in 664, says:—"This pestilence did no less harm in the island of Ireland. Many of the nobility and of the lower ranks of the English nation were there at that time: and some of them devoted themselves to a monastic life: others chose to apply themselves to study. The Scots [i.e. the Irish] willingly received them all, and took care to supply them with food, as also to furnish them with books to read, and their teaching, all gratis."

139. In the course of three or four centuries from the time of St. Patrick, Ireland became the most learned country in Europe: and it came to be known by the name now so familiar to us—Insula sanctorum et doctorum, the Island of saints and scholars.

The greatest number of the schools were in monasteries; in these the teaching was not exclusively ecclesiastical; and young persons attended them to get a good general education. Some few schools were purely lay and professional:—for Law, Medicine, Poetry, or Literature. These were taught by laymen.

The highest degree of scholarship was that of Ollave or Doctor: there were Ollaves of the several professions: just as we have doctors of Law, Medicine, Philosophy, Literature, etc. The full course for an Ollave was twelve years: the subordinate degrees had shorter periods.

Men of learning were held in great estimation. They had many valuable allowances and privileges; and an Ollave sat at table next to the king or chief.

140. Great numbers of Irishmen went to teach and to preach the gospel in Great Britain, Wales, and Scotland.

On every side we meet with evidences of the activity of the Irish in Great Britain. Scotland was evangelized by St. Columba and his monks from Iona; and the whole western coasts of England and Wales abound in memorials of Irish missionaries. In the words of Mr. Lecky:—"England owed a great part of her Christianity to Irish monks."

Whole crowds of ardent and learned Irishmen travelled to the Continent, spreading Christianity and secular knowledge among people ten times more rude and dangerous in those ages than the inhabitants of these islands. Irish professors and teachers were in those times held in such estimation that they were employed in most of the schools and colleges of Great Britain, France, Germany, and Italy. To this day in many towns of France, Germany, Switzerland, and Italy, Irishmen are venerated as patron saints. Nay, they found their way even to Iceland; for we have the best authority for the statement that when the Norwegians first arrived at that island, they found there Irish books, bells, croziers, and other traces of Irish missionaries.

141. The term Comorba or Coarb was applied to the inheritor of a bishopric or other ecclesiastical dignity: the archbishop of Armagh is the coarb of St. Patrick: the archbishop of Dublin is the coarb of St. Lawrence O'Toole.

The land belonging to a church was called Termon land; it had the privilege of sanctuary. The manager of church lands was called an Erenach: a sort of steward, usually a layman.

142. For three or four hundred years after the time of St. Patrick the monasteries were unmolested; and learning was cultivated within their walls. In the ninth and tenth and the beginning of the eleventh century, science and art, the Gaelic language, and learning of every kind, were brought to their highest state of perfection But after this came a change for the worse. The Danish inroads broke up most of the schools and disorganized all society. Then the monasteries were no longer the quiet and safe asylums they had been—they became indeed rather more dangerous than other places—learning and art gradually declined, and Ireland ultimately lost her intellectual supremacy.