Irish Lay and Monastic Schools

From A Smaller Social History of Ancient Ireland 1906

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CHAPTER VII....continued

4. Some General Features of both classes of Schools.

The "Seven Degrees of Wisdom."—In both the ecclesiastical and the secular schools there were seven degrees for the students or graduates, like the modern University stages of sizars, freshmen, sophisters, bachelors, moderators, masters, and doctors. The degrees in the lay schools corresponded with those in the ecclesiastical schools; but except in the two last grades the names differed. A man who had attained the seventh or highest grade in either class of school was an Ollave or 'Doctor.'

For each degree of both classes of schools there was a specified course of study. In the Bardic schools the minimum length of the whole course was twelve years—but it commonly was much longer—each with its subjects set forth: but we do not know the length in the monastic schools. Classics—Latin and Greek—formed a prominent feature of the instruction in the monastic schools, and among the higher class students Latin was spoken quite familiarly in the schools. Much of what they wrote too is a mixture of Gaelic and Latin; both languages being used with equal facility. At first the Bardic schools taught no language but Gaelic: but later on —under the influence of the monastic schools—they admitted Latin and Greek among the subjects of instruction. The graduates of each grade in the Bardic schools had, among their other subjects, to know a number of Romantic and Historical Tales, so as to be able to recite any one of them when called on, for the instruction and amusement of the company. The number was increased year after year of the course. The Ollave had to be master of 350; but these formed only a comparatively small proportion of his acquirements. *

School Life and School Methods.—Some students lived in the houses of the people of the neighbourhood: "poor scholars"—as they came to be called in later times—who, besides being taught free in the schools, were lodged and fed without charge in the farmers' houses all round: a hospitable custom which continued down to a period within my own memory, and which I saw in full work. A few resided in the college itself; but the body of the scholars lived in little houses built mostly by themselves around and near the school. St. Mobi had fifty students in his school at Glasnevin, near Dublin, who had their huts ranged along one bank of the river—the Tolka. Sometimes several lived together in one large house. In the leading colleges, whole streets of these houses surrounded the monastery, forming a collegiate town.

The poorer scholars sometimes lived in the same houses with the rich ones, whom they waited on and served, receiving in return food, clothing, and other necessaries; like the American custom of the present day. But some chose to live in this humble capacity, not through poverty, but as a self-imposed discipline and mortification, like Adamnan, mentioned here. As illustrating this phase of school life, an interesting story is told in the Life of King Finaghta the Festive. A little before his accession, he was riding one day towards Clonard with his retinue, when they overtook a boy with a jar of milk on his back. The youth attempting to get out of the way, stumbled and fell, and the jar was broken and the milk spilled. The cavalcade passed on without noticing him; but he ran after them in great trouble with a piece of the jar on his back, till at last he attracted the notice of the prince, who halted and questioned him in a good-humoured way. The boy, not knowing whom he was addressing, told his story with amusing plainness:—"Indeed, good man, I have much cause to be troubled. There are living in one house near the college three noble students, and three others that wait upon them, of whom I am one; and we three attendants have to collect provisions in the neighbourhood in turn, for the whole six. It was my turn to-day; and lo, what I have obtained has been lost; and this vessel which I borrowed has been broken, and I have not the means to pay for it."

The prince soothed him, told him his loss should be made good, and promised to look after him in the future. That boy was Adamnan, a descendant and relative of princes, subsequently a most distinguished man, ninth abbot of Iona, and the writer of the Life of St. Columba. The prince was as good as his word, and, after he became king, invited Adamnan to his court, where the rising young ecclesiastic became his trusted friend and spiritual adviser.

Roman alphabet for learners

Roman Alphabet for learners, on a pillar-stone in the graveyard of Kilmalkedar in Kerry. The first letter, A, has been broken off. The three large letters near the centre are not part of the alphabet: they are DNI, an abbreviation of "Domini," which was on the stone before the alphabet was engraved. (From Petrie's Round Towers)

In teaching a child book-learning, the first thing was, of course, the alphabet. St. Columkille's first alphabet was written or impressed on a cake, which he afterwards ate. This points to a practice, which we sometimes see at the present day, of writing the alphabet, or shaping it in some way, on sweetmeats, as an encouragement and help to what has been, and always will be, a difficult task for a child. Sometimes they engraved the alphabet for beginners on a large stone, of which an example is shown in fig. 57.

It was the practice of many eminent teachers to compose educational poems embodying the leading facts of history, geography, or other branches of instruction; and a considerable proportion of the metrical compositions preserved in our ancient books belong to this class. These poems having been committed to memory by the scholars, were commented on and explained by their authors.

Children received a different sort of education in the homes of their parents or foster-parents, which was of a very sensible kind, aiming directly at preparing for the future life of the child. The sons of the humbler ranks were to be taught how to herd kids, calves, lambs, and young pigs; how to kiln-dry corn, to prepare malt, to comb wool, and to cut and split wood: the girls how to use the needle according to their station in life, to grind corn with a quern, to knead dough, and to use a sieve. The sons of the chiefs were to be instructed in archery, swimming, and chess-playing, in the use of the sword and spear, and horsemanship: the daughters in sewing, cutting-out, and embroidery. All this was compulsory in case of children in fosterage.

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* In my larger work, A Social History of Ancient Ireland, there is a detailed account of the seven degrees or stages in both classes of schools, with their names and programmes of study.