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Summary. Describes religious
affairs in Ireland in the Sixth Century
Summary. Describes religious affairs in Ireland in the Sixth Century
Once again we come across a curious distortion in the
sources. Much of what we know of the development of the Church in
By the beginning of the sixth century the Christian
Church was well established in the eastern half of
So it is reasonable to conclude that by the year 500
Christianity was well established in
There is no
evidence at all for the existence of a 'Celtic' Church. The Church in
Apart from the Eucharistic prayer of the mass sung by the priest, the rest of the service consisted chiefly of psalms and reading from the scriptures. All chants would have been antiphonal, namely, a verse of the psalm was selected as a refrain. A soloist chanted one or more verses of the psalm, and then all the rest chanted the refrain, and so to the end of the psalm. The reader would then chant the part of the reading from the scriptures, and this would be followed by another antiphonal chant As far as we can see no attempt was made to use the vernacular. One wonders how much familiarity the ordinary people had with Latin. The position of Latin was much the same as the position of English in the world today. So learning to sing short verses in Latin would not have been difficult, nor would the language have been incomprehensible.
The organization of the Church would have been the same
An interesting question has been raised by Hugh Braun
regarding the shape of the earliest English churches. He argues that there were
two basic styles in the late
Cogitosus has left a description of the church of the monastery of Kildare. It was very high. It was adorned with painted boards, which would seem to be icons in the Byzantine fashion. It had inside it three wide chapels, all under the roof of the large building and separated by wooden screens. In the basilical plan these would have been the nave and the two aisles. The eastern part where the altar was normally placed could be cut off by a screen, which may have been the Byzantine iconostasis or rood screen that cut off the sanctuary area from the main body of the church. (The Greek name comes from the placing of icons on it, the English name from the placing of a cross). This iconostasis had a door at either end leading presumably into the body of the church. Though curiously, Cogitosus says that the one on the right through which the bishop and the ministers entered the sanctuary was in an external wall. The one on the opposite side was the one through which the nuns entered to take communion. There was apparently a long dividing partition from east to west down the middle separating the sexes. There were two doors (necessarily) into the main body of the church, one on the right through which the priests and men entered, and one on the left through which the nuns and women entered. The porches and entrances would have been in the western corners (de Paor, St Patrick, 222)
The era of the early monasteries was apparently the golden age of Irish craftsmanship in wood. The most famous builder of the all, Goban Saer was said to have been employed by St Maedhog of Ferns (d 632). It could be very misleading to judge the capabilities of Irish builders of houses in wood from the surviving efforts of the first stone masons. It is also very likely that Irish church builders copied actual wooden churches in Romanised Wales. The builders of oaken houses, ship builders, and the builders of mills were counted as in the Daer Nemed class and given an honour price equal to the lowest grade of nobleman. Those employed by them like carpenters and wood or stone carvers had a status equal to that of the free farmer, the boaire.
Leaving aside the question whether there were any Irish bishops in the fifth century apart from St Patrick who was bishop of a British diocese, and assuming that there were bishops in the sixth century it is hard to determine when bishoprics were formed and how many there were.
A bishop was the chief priest in a Roman town, and his
jurisdiction would have spread as far as the limits of the civil jurisdiction
of the town. Where towns were numerous bishops were numerous. It is hard to
avoid the conclusion that any town that could afford to support a bishop and
several priests and deacons (with their families) had a bishop. A bishop would
normally be chosen from the ranks of the wealthy that had some revenues of
their own from land. Small villages that could only support a single priest and
his family got a priest. But there were no towns or villages
The chiefs lived in their own raths or circular enclosures, and life centered on the great hall. The hall was not large, no more than what we would describe as a large room. But it only held the household, followers, and servants of the chief. The chief and his men would have spent the daylight hours sitting in the porch or under the eaves. A bishop was accorded the rank of a minor chief, so he too would have his own rath. Inside the rath would be hall of the bishop, the wooden church, and the huts of his servants. But that was later, when the bishops had been accorded a status within Irish society. At first their status was that of a stranger, residing only with the consent of the lord of the tuath. But his position would not be that of a refugee but of an honoured guest from whose presence the chief hoped to profit both in this life and the next. He would be like the captain or principal merchant of a trading ship.
When the chief
bishops were accorded their full status in Irish society and awarded a rath and
lands to go with it (doubtless seized from some enemy) a bishop could support
quite a large number of clerics. There is little doubt too that when a bishop
was given the status of a ri tuaithe
he was entitled to all the traditional gifts due to a person of that status.
These secular rights would of course have arisen from the secular grants of
land. In itself, the status or honour price did not imply the rights and duties
of a ri tuaithe, nor could there be more than
one ri in a tuath. Before this happened pious laymen or priests were founding
monasteries with churches, and the lands were given to them instead. So the
number of bishoprics in
By the seventh century there were numerous churches in
Some of the duties of a bishop and his authority are
indicated in the decrees of the so-called 'First Synod of Patrick', probably
from the seventh century
A bishop traditionally had to have two priests and an erenagh in his household. It is obvious that the erenagh was originally
the bishop's deacon, whose chief duty was to serve the needs of the poor. In
When St Patrick was in
When great monasteries arose in a the territory of a ri ruirech, wealthy and patronized by the ruling family who supplied most of the members of the community, the position of the abbot or coarba of the founder seems to have outshone that of the bishop especially if his territory was only that of a ri tuaithe. The bishop might reside in the monastery. The abbot might over-rule the bishop in many matters. But the powers and the authority of the bishop was that set out in the canons of the Roman Church and there is no evidence that these were violated in the spiritual sphere. The abbot, to use medieval terms, might be the greater secular lord, but when it came to anything required by the canons he was the subject of the bishop. For example, if the abbot were a priest he required the permission of the bishop to say mass. If the abbot travelled he would require letters from his own bishop to other bishops to enable him to say mass in other dioceses. The abbot would normally be a person closely related to the ri ruirech. (How far these canons were observed in practice is a different matter, but that was and remained the theory.) [Top]
the Christianity like that was preached in
The basic message preached (as noted above) was that told in the Scriptures, and summarized in the three sections of the Creed or summary of the Faith, the works of the Fathers, the works of the Son, and the works of the Holy Spirit. That there was one only God, the creator of heaven and earth, that all men sinned and died in Adam, that God at various times promised a future Saviour; that Jesus was that Saviour and Lord, that Jesus died on the cross and rose again to immortality, that he went to heaven promising to return; and in the meantime he left his Church on earth to preach the good news, and that he sent the Holy Spirit to assist the Church and to make all people holy, and that finally, when he returns all who are saved will be taken up with him into glory, and those who are not saved will be cast out into the exterior darkness.
It should be noted
that there was nothing random or arbitrary about this message, or anything very
strange either to the peoples of the Empire or the barbarians on its fringes.
The message was a particular response or reply to various questions that had
been circulating in southern
How seriously did the ordinary Christians take the Ten
Commandments? The evidence would seem to be that they did not take them very
seriously at all, though
Warfare, greed, and violence were the norm. The over-riding imperative until the final overthrow of the tribal system was to seize more land from one's neighbour. So, before attacking a neighbour, it was essential to establish that the neighbour had acted unjustly, and that the action taken was within the bounds set by the law to redress an alleged wrong. There was no concept of crime as a breach of the laws of the state that the officers of the state alone were allowed to punish. The accuser before the judge was also the executioner of the sentence, and this was true whether the rights of an individual or those of a chiefly family were injured. The services of the learned classes and the clergy were called on for this purpose. But ordinary people could not afford to employ these so no doubt examples were made of them from time to time. But this evidence deals largely with the upper classes.
When we get
comments by foreigners on the low moral standards of the ordinary people in the
seventeenth century allowance must be made for the disturbances of the
time. But in the period of the early
Church too it was impossible to insist on the letter of the New Testament. The
Church could only baptize those who wished to believe and help them to live as
good a life as was possible in the circumstances. Women slaves were a case in
point. They could be used by their owner, or his sons, or his male relatives,
and there was nothing they could do about it. Women who resisted to the point
of death were venerated as martyrs, and venerated in a special manner by the
Roman Church. But it was never an obligation to resist to the point of death.
Other slaves, and indeed all those who were not of the family of the chief,
could be forced to do immoral things, and resistance would have been both
futile and pointless. But it was always possible to encourage them to do their
best in the circumstances. Indeed the very first priests to minister in
What parts of the Christian message were emphasized when
preaching to the barbarian tribes outside the limits of the Empire who were
entirely ignorant of the conditions in which religious thought developed in the
Large parts of St
Patrick’s Declaration are variations on these themes, and begins with the words
Ego Patritius peccator, I Patrick a
sinner. He continues by expounding his belief in the Trinity, an important item
at the time given the widespread prevalence of Arianism, and he is carefully
accurate in his exposition of the dogma. The redemption by Jesus and the future
judgement are mentioned in turn showing that Patrick was following the basic
exposition of the creed. In other matters, as when he refers to his apostolate
and to the Spirit praying within him he reflects
It must be stressed again that there never was a distinct
‘Celtic’ church. Most of what was later regarded as distinctive were just aspects that had survived on the islands after
they had been abandoned in
The spread of the Church necessarily brought the introduction of reading and writing. The ancient Church did not depend as much on books as we do, for very much was committed to memory like the psalms. Indeed much of the Bible, especially the New Testament was probably also committed to memory. Yet even in the time of Jesus it was customary to read the sacred texts in the synagogue, and this seems to have been always the custom in the early Church. The language was Latin, so learning to read and write Latin, and also to speak it, was an essential part of the training of a priest. As St Patrick noted in his Declaration, those whose native language was Latin had a great advantage over those who had normally to use a different tongue.
A bishop would naturally have to train the young men who joined him. But various references in the Lives of the saints seem to show that local clerics or monks were entrusted with teaching the reading and writing of Latin to children, and not necessarily with a view towards positions in the Church. When older they could go to a monastery or to a bishop to study the scriptures if they wanted to be priests. Monasteries too could take in children.
Girls were taught to read and write as well as boys. It
was of course customary in upper class circles in the
It is not necessary to assume that all monks and nuns
could read and write. In his Rule St
Benedict assumed that monks could normally read but he made provision for those
who could not. It is fairly safe to assume that as barbarism grew on the
Continent so too did literacy and the use of the Latin language decline among
lay persons other than members of the learned classes. But the learned classes
whether lawyers, physicians, or historians, would all gradually have come to use
Latin both in speech and writing. The Latin language itself became a language
of the learned classes all over
The rather lengthy account of the origin and development
of monasticism, and the spread of monastic literature given above was essential because monasticism was to be central to the
development of Christianity in the
But there was no definite idea of the monastic life or
any direct line of diffusion. One could not for example say that Cassian
learned monasticism in
Not all monasteries were the same, and some monks in
The monasteries were closely connected with the ruling families. It would seem that most monks, and nearly all the famous ones, were members of the local ruling family. Ciaran mac an tSaor (son of the chariot-maker) was a noted exception. The office of abbot was often restricted to a member of the ruling family, if there was one in the monastery. The local chief retained grazing rights, and indeed all the other rights of a chief, over the lands set aside for monastic purposes. This land, it would seem, at all periods of Irish history, was normally recently captured, and so at the disposal of the chief (or lord in the Middle Ages) without infringing the rights of any member of the ruling family. Conquering and expanding families like the Ui Neill were well placed to found monasteries.
The episcopal style, probably semi-monastic in most
cases, seems to have prevailed universally until about 535 AD. The origins of
monasticism properly so-called seemed to have originated in communities of
women. The foundations of St Brigit of Kildare and St Moninna (alias Darerca) of Killeavy,
seem to have antedated any foundations of men (de Paor, St Patrick 46-50). The Life of Moninna says that St Patrick encouraged a group of virgins
and a widow to come together, and gave
them a priest to teach them the psalms. de Paor
however considers that the alternative version that they were guided by St
Mochta more plausible (de Paor 281f). St
Mochta may have been a British disciple of St Patrick who founded the church
(later monastery) of Louth.
Monasterboice has some claim to be the
first monastery of men in
Another early monastic founder may have been Enda of Aran. He
father was from the chiefs of the Oirgialla,
and his mother
from the Fir Arda Cianachta, the
family of St Buite. He is said to have
been converted by his
sister who was a nun, and
to have studied in Candida Casa. (One
interprets the Lives of the saints as on interprets the truth of novels: the
period detail is usually accurate despite the fictitious nature of the story.)
He is said to have been granted land on the
Another monastery that seems to have been early was Nendrum in Strangford Lough, founded by St Mochai also said to have been a bishop. He is said to have been of the Dal nAraide and to have been converted personally by St Patrick, which is possible. He would therefore have been of the Cruithin or Picts that was largely a linguistic distinction. His see if he had one would have included the local tuath, either of the Ui Dubhcrian (Dufferin), the Ui Derco Chein, or the Ui Eachach Arda. The school he founded was said to have been attended by St Finnian of Moville and St Colman of Dromore, and St Columcille is said to have attended Finnian's school at Moville at one time in his life. (The date of his death in the Annals 497 seems too early.)
These three monasteries, if we are
right in attributing an early date
to them were among the Ulaid and Oirgialla in the region of Patrick's mission. There is always the
possibility that like
Without doubt the most important of the monastic
founders, and the real inspiration of the monastic movement was St Finnian of
Clonard who is traditionally said to
have trained twelve of the great monastic founders of monasteries from 544 onwards. (The 'Second Order' of Irish saints
extended from the death of Tuathal Maelgarb 544 AD to the death of Aed Mac
Ainmirech in 598) These were Ciaran mac an tSaor of Clonmacnoise, Ciaran of
Seir, Colman moccu Cremthain Ain of
Terryglass, Columcille of Iona, Brendan of Clonfert, Brendan of Birr, Mobhi Clairineach of Glasnevin, Molaissi of
Devenish, Sinchell of Killeigh, Cainneach moccu Dallan of Aghaboe, Ruadan of Lorrha,
Ninnidh of Inishmacsaint, Mogenach of
Cell Cumili, and Bishop Senach. There were other founders of monasteries who
may have been his contemporaries rather than disciples. Nor should we assume that Finnian
took in raw laymen to train as monks as
would have been the rule in the Middle Ages. Many of the monastic saints who
studied under him could have received their first introduction to the monastic
life elsewhere, and then, as in
clear that a clear
new wave of monasticism spread over the
form of monasticism would have been that
common in northern
It seems clear that in Ireland the two kinds of monastic lives existed side by side, and perhaps even in the same monastery. One could have a married clergy living in a religious community and observing the hours of prayer, the fasts, and the feasts with their brethren under the control of the abbot or bishop as the case might be. At the same time one could have those following what was being increasingly defined as real monasticism, the life of poverty, of solitude, of celibacy, and of guidance by an abbot. Young monks at least were supposed to be under the strict control of their abbot until their training was finished, and needed his permission to leave the monastery. But once this permission was granted they seem to have left the authority of the abbot forever.
More generally we cannot apply the strict divisions of medieval canon law to the earlier period before categories and definitions were fixed. The Gregorian or Hildebrandine reform, for good reasons, sought to make strict distinctions between the respective lives of monks, clerics and laymen. But at an earlier stage various degrees and categories seem to have merged into each other. Priests could live in monasteries or groups. So too could laymen. Priests and laymen could marry, and apparently could live in monasteries the better to practice Christian virtue. For it was virtually impossible for young men of the warrior classes to keep the Ten Commandments. But lay families could also be attached to monasteries, to till the soil, to cook and to wash, and to practice the trades. Students too could attend monasteries chiefly for the purpose of study. There was no particular reason why a married man who was superior in spiritual knowledge, should not be made the abbot or spiritual guide of the monastery. There was a greater likelihood that a married man who was close relative of a chief would be made abbot.
The abbot in most of Western Europe had another function, and that was to safeguard the lands
of the monastery for the ruling family that had granted them in the first place. The lands were not alienated
from the ruling family or
clan, and the clan retained rights, such as grazing, over those
lands. (The strict separation of church lands from lay ownership was a
fundamental principle of the Hildebrandine reform). So the abbacy was normally reserved for a
member of the ruling family. This made little spiritual difference for the
spiritual guidance would be given by the holiest or most learned monk in any
case. That many abuses
arose cannot be denied,
unsurprisingly considering the generally low
level of morality. But one should not suppose
that the Hildebrandine reform was the only possible one or the best
one. One can consider the different
approach of the Puritans for example, or the Methodists.
The Rule of St Columcille may be taken as typical of monastic rules in the British Isles in the sixth century. Like St Benedict he supposes monks living in a monastery under the direction of an abbot. The monastic day was divided into times for prayer, for reading, and for work. Prayer was of two kinds in both rules, the communal singing of the psalms in church and private prayer. Both stress poverty, obedience, seclusion from the world, silence, and prayer. Among the works suitable for a monk Columcille mentions assisting one's neighbour by instruction, writing, sewing garments, or providing for any other needs. Both assume that the monks may have to till their own fields, harvest their own grain, etc. but neither insist on it. There always seems to have been an aristocratic character about western monasticism as distinct from the Egyptian, and an endowment of lands complete with tenants, farm workers, or slaves regarded as normal. The point of giving and accepting an endowment both for monks and the diocesan clergy was to free them for the more useful or essential works in the Church. Where the Rule of St Benedict scored was in the detailed regulations he made to ensure a reasonable and not overstrict observance would be continued, experience having shown that an initial burst of zeal would not last a lifetime.
The year 540 AD marked a definitive stage in the development and definition of monasticism in the Western Church, for in that year St Benedict wrote his Rule for Monks (Benedict, St). He described four classes of monks existing in his day, two good and two bad. The good monks were cenobites who lived in communities under a rule and an abbot, and the hermits or eremites who being of advanced virtue and after long practice of the rule were allowed by their abbot to retire to a solitary place to practice the monastic life alone. The evil monks were those St Benedict called sarabaites and gyrovagues. The word sarabaite is supposedly of Egyptian origin and was applied to monks who wore the habit and lived in small groups perhaps of two or three, and who did much as they pleased having neither rule nor abbot. The word gyrovague come from the Greek and means those wandering about. The wandering would of course have an ostensible religious purpose, to make a pilgrimage, to seek instruction from a famous abbot, or to preach to the heathen. But for St Benedict, these were just excuses to avoid the dura et aspera per quae itur ad Deum, the hard things to be done and suffered to get to God. Ireland doubtless had its fair share of these four kinds of monks. The two good kinds of monks were the cenobites who lived in a monastery under a Rule and an abbot, and the hermits, who having observed the monastic Rule in a monastery were deemed by their abbot to be sufficiently trained for the single combat of the desert.
The Benedictine Rule seems to have been brought to
England in 597 by St Augustine and to have been universally adopted in
English-speaking areas. It spread in France at least from the foundation of St
Benoit-sur-Loire (Fleury) in 655. Rome sent two strong archbishops to England,
Augustine in 597 and Theodore of Tarsus in 664, so the practice and discipline
among the Anglo-Saxons was always closer to Roman practice. But Rome sent no
visitor to Ireland before Cardinal Paparo in 1151. The Rule of St Augustine, so
widespread in Ireland in the Middle Ages, does no appear to have been followed
in Ireland until the twelfth century.
The shape and construction of the monastery was less of a factor than might have been expected. Abandoned Roman buildings, so common on the Continent, were rare in most of Britain and non-existent in Ireland. The building of isolated huts in which the monks slept was a feature of the Egyptian desert and of St Martin's monastery. Small churches and other buildings and offices could be added. For St Benedict and many others an abandoned Roman ruin did just as well. One room could be patched up as an oratory, another as a refectory, another as a scriptorium, another as a dormitory, and it did not matter where they lay. The monk himself lived out of doors, as is done in Africa to this day, and proceeded to each room of the deserted palace or fort at the appropriate hour for the appropriate exercise. He went to the church to pray, to the refectory to eat, to the dormitory to sleep, and so on. But his life was lived out of doors using what shelter there was from the sun or the rain. If there was a piece of open arcade this was ideal. As Benedictine monasteries began to be purpose built, the various buildings were ranged for convenience along such an arcade, and this arcade was also where the monk lived. To the open arcade, called the cloister, in summer and winter he returned after the duty in the separate buildings was discharged. Only the abbot had a room. By the eighth or ninth century an 'ideal plan' for a monastery had emerged with all the various buildings and offices ranged around a square cloister. But the spatial arrangements in St Benedict's own monasteries were as haphazard as those in one composed of little huts. St Benedict had appointed only one oratory in which all the monks would pray. But in Ireland as in Egypt it seems that if the building became too small to hold all the monks they just added another church. It is significant that St Benedict refers not to a 'church' but to an 'oratory' oratorium a place to pray. A church was where the whole community assembled for the celebration of the Eucharist or for other purposes of the whole worshipping community. An oratory was a place for private prayer, by one’s self or in small groups.
The Irish monastery, like all ecclesiastical building, and the houses of the great men would have been surrounded by a circular fence. Within this area the various buildings would have been placed. There would have been an oratory or small church, a hall like the hall of a chief where the monks lived, a separate hut for the abbot, a separate hall for strangers and guests and all kinds of huts and workshops and shelters for animals scattered around (Sharpe in Adamnan). Most of the smaller huts would have been beehive shaped, a form traditionally beloved of illustrators.
When manuscripts were copied or books written we can assume that it was done, as was the practice elsewhere, in a common scriptorium. This would have been close to the bibliotheca or library where the manuscripts of the monastery were kept, and this in turn would have been close to the church where the readings were taken from the various books of the bible and from the works of the Fathers. The bibliotheca or library was probably a large box with perhaps twenty codices in it. The codex or book had by this time replaced the scroll especially for liturgical use. (The present day short readings bound in a single volume did not exist. The reader took the book he was told to read and kept on reading until he was told to stop, as is still the custom in monastic refectories.)
By the twelfth century there were very marked differences between the observance of the Benedictine rule as exemplified by the Cistercians and the traditional Irish interpretation of the monastic life. But the differences would have been much slighter at the time of St Benedict and St Finnian who were contemporaries in 540. All aspects of the monastic life admitted of degrees, and some monasteries were stricter than others especially with regard to fasts. But also one monastery might stress labour in the fields, another writing and learning, a third preaching in the neighbouring villages and instructing the ignorant, or teaching children.
In the course of time some Irish monasteries may have grown to a great size, especially if they attracted students. But in the larger monasteries very few of the inhabitants would have been monks. The earliest monasteries were undoubtedly very small. (The Cistercians in the twelfth century considered twelve monks the minimum, but when a monastery reached twenty five members it was time to consider making a new foundation.) The local chief would give Land. There is little doubt that in the early period as in the Middle Ages, the grant of land would have been from recently conquered territories. St. Columcille was credited with founding many monasteries, and he could easily have received many grants of land from the expanding Ui Neill. It would seem too that the monks were drawn almost exclusively from the ruling classes. St Benedict expressly enjoined that the freeborn should not have precedence over ex-slaves. But it is doubtful if any of the lowborn were allowed into the greater Irish monasteries. (The Cistercians in the twelfth century invented the degree of laybrothers for the illiterate and low-born.) [Top]
It is clear that Christianity was well diffused in Ireland by the year 550, as there is a wide geographic spread of founders. The principal figures in the Irish Church in the sixth century were almost all monks, St Cellach of Killala being an exception. According to his Life he was a son of Eogan Bel, the fourth Christian king of Connaught. In the manuscript on the Three Orders or Irish Saints a list of the twelve monks who were trained by St Finnian of Clonard is given. It contains two Ciarans, two Brendans, two Columbas, and five other founders of monasteries Brendan of Clonfert and Brendan of Birr were contemporaries. Brendan of Clonfert (the legendary 'navigator') was of the Ciarraige of Kerry. According to his Life he was related to the local bishop named Erc, and read the entire bible with him. He got permission from him to study the monastic life under St Jarleth of Tuam. He returned to Bishop Erc and was ordained a priest by him. He sought guidance from St Ita of Killeedy, and apparently made a sea-voyage, or voyages, later elaborated into a famous genre. In 553 he founded a monastery at Clonfert, Co. Kerry. He is said to have been present at the inauguration of Aed Caemh, the first Christian king of Cashel. Of Brendan of Birr little is known other than that he studied the monastic life under St Finnian of Clonard, that he founded a monastery at Birr in North Munster, and that he was a friend of St Columcille.
Next were the two Ciarans, Ciaran of Clonmacnoise, and Ciaran of Saighir (Seir). It is hard to avoid the impression that there were two Ciarans connected with Seir, one a priest in the fifth century and the other the monastic founder in the sixth century. The father of the monastic founder was of the Osraige and his mother of the Corcu Loegde, then the overlords of the Osraige and much of Munster before the rise of the Eoganacht. Ossory then counted as part of Munster. Saighir was famous for its numbers, industry, and wealth, doubtless reflecting it connection with the ruling family of Ossory. It was the principal church in Ossory until supplanted by Aghaboe founded by St Cainneach. St Ciaran of Clonmacnoise was said to have been the son of a chariot-maker from Meath. He was sent to Clonard to be educated by St Finnian, and brought a cow with him to feed himself. The monastery doubtless had extensive grazing rights as part of its endowments. It is recorded that his co-disciples Brendan and Columcille ground their own corn. The king of Tara's daughter was also studying in the monastery. This king may have been Diarmait Mac Cerbaill who was apparently still a pagan. St. Ciaran however had little to do with Clonmacnoise for he died shortly after he founded it. The monastery was on the very border between Meath and Connaught, and seems to have enjoyed the patronage of both kings. It was later famous for its learning, and is now famous for its monastic ruins.
There also two Columbas. St Columcille or Columba is the most famous of all the Irish saints. A good Life of him exists, but in addition innumerable legends were attached to him mostly perhaps transcribed from pagan sources (Adamnan). He was of the Cenel Conaill branch of the Northern Ui Neill. He went to study with St Finnian of Moville and was there ordained deacon. He then joined the famous band in Clonard under St Finnian of Clonard and was there ordained a priest. He joined some of this group in forming a community at Glasnevin, but it dispersed during a plague. He returned north to his home tuath and founded monastery at Derry, the first of many. He founded another at Durrow. It was precisely at this time that the Northern Ui Neill were commencing their breakout from the present Donegal which led eventually to the conquest and occupation of most of Ulster. It was easy to found monasteries on newly conquered lands, and it was also a pious act of gratitude to God for the victories. He instigated an attack by his kinsmen of the northern Ui Neill on the over-lord who was Diarmait mac Cerbaill of the southern Ui Neill because of the latter's breach of ecclesiastical sanctuary. Doing penance for this he went into exile to the island of Iona. One account says the island was granted to him by Brude chief of the Picts, another that it was given by the chief of the Dal Riata. The Dal Riata seem to have been connected by marriage with the Ui Neill, and particularly with Muircheartach mac Earca. The linguistic division between the Picts and Scots spread into Ireland as well where the Dal nAraide in Connor and the Ui Eachach Coba (Iveagh) in Dromore spoke the Pictish language. (The difference between the two languages at the time was probably not very great except for the substitution of c for p for example Cothrig for Patrick.) The monastery became a centre for the conversion of the Picts of Scotland. Though the conversion of western Scotland seems to have proceeded at much the same pace as in Ireland, parts of eastern Scotland seem not to have been converted until the eighth century. Columcille returned at least once to Ireland for the meeting at Druim Cett in 576 where it was agreed that the Dal Riata in Scotland were not subject to the Northern Ui Neill unlike the Dal Riata in Ireland.
Another Columba (Colman) was St Colman moccu Cremthainn Ain (Crevin Ayin) of Terryglas, Co. Tipperary. He was said to have been of the Leinster royal stock, though his Leinster monastery was on Munster soil. It always apparently retained its connection with Leinster. (In the list given in the Three Orders of Irish saints he is paired with Columcille as the name of both was Columba in Latin.)
Ruadan (Ruan) of Lorrha was a Munsterman, and his monastery was apparently founded on Munster lands in the great central group of monasteries not far from Terryglass. He is chiefly famous for the apocryphal story of his cursing of Tara in the time of Diarmait mac Cerbaill. But the desertion of Tara that was only a ceremonial site by then was probably connected with the fact that the next overlords of Tara were Christian. (We would expect however that each new overlord of the Ui Neill, no matter which branch he came from, would have made at least one ceremonial and symbolic visit to the sacred spot at the beginning of his reign for failure to do so would have allowed a rival to claim the chieftainship in that way. But the big fair with the games would have been absent.)
St Mobhi (Movi alternatively Bercan) had studied the monastic life in Clonard, before founding Glasnevin. Among his disciples were Columcille and Comgall of Bangor. He was visited by St Kevin. Glasnevin was one of the eastern group of monasteries in the future county Dublin. Its school was famous.
St Cainneach moccu Dalann was said to have been born among the Cianacht, his father being a poet of the sept of the Corcu Dalann, and to have studied the monastic life in Wales before going to St Finnian at Clonard, and to St Mobhi at Glasnevin. He was associated with Columcille in his work in Scotland, but later founded the monastery of Aghaboe among the Osraige, and gave his name to a church in Kilkenny that was named after him. How a monk born among the Cianacht came to be invited to found a monastery among the Osraige, especially when there was already a monastery among them at Seir Ciaran, cannot be explained. Aghaboe displaced Seir Ciaran as the chief monastery of the Osraige, and became the centre of the diocese of Ossory until Kilkenny replaced it. He also founded a monastery among the Cianacht in Co. Londonderry. His work in Scotland may have been quite extensive for various churches are named after him, and he is called St Kenneth there. (It is not absolutely certain that Irish and Scottish saints were the same person.)
St Sinchell founded the monastery of Killeigh near Tullamore, St Ninnidh (Ninny) a monastery on Inishmacsaint in Lough Erne, and St Molaissi (Molashe) a monastery at Devenish, also on Lough Erne. Both the latter were on islands about five miles apart. St Comman of Roscommon monastery should also be included among the disciples of St Finnian. He was an Ulsterman. According to his Life he studied in Clonard and was sent by St Finnian to found monasteries in Connaught. St Kevin too can perhaps included also as a disciple of St Mobhi, though it was not until later in his life he sought instruction from him. He was of the Dal Messincorb a small clan of the Laigin in Wicklow. He was instructed by various monks and founded his monastery at Glendalough. Later in life he sought further instruction, in particular from St Mobhi at Glasnevin. Another in this group was St Fintan of Clonenagh. Like St Colman moccu Cremthainn Ain he seems to have been of the chiefly families of Leinster, and he studied the monastic life in Terryglass under St Colman. He founded his own monastery on the other side of the Slieve Bloom Mountains in Leinster territory. His Rule was famous for its strictness. He and his monks tilled the land with their own hands 'like hermits' and owned no animals either for work or food. He was persuaded by St Cainneach to moderate the rule for the other monks but he always adhered to it himself. His most famous disciple was St Comgall of Bangor, who himself had to be persuaded to moderate the excessive strictness of his own Rule. St Comgall of Bangor studied under St Fintan of Clonenagh and St Mobhi of Glasnevin. He was a Cruithin or Pict of the Dal nAraide in Down. He may have studied at Clonard, and certainly he was well acquainted with Columcille. He founded a small monastery, probably of the semi-eremitical kind in Lough Erne, where he practiced excessive strictness so that several of his companions died. Later he returned to his native place and founded the monastery of Bangor where St Columbanus and St Gall studied before leaving for the Continent. It was revived by St Malachy in the twelfth century, Malachy’s family having been the hereditary erenaghs. Bangor replaced Clonard as the nursery of saints in the second half of the sixth century.
St Colman Elo founded the monastery of Lynally, in Offaly. According to his Life the grant of land was made to him by Aed Slaine, after his uncle, St Columcille had asked the Ui Neill overlord Aed Mac Ainmirech for a grant of land. (Aed Mac Ainmirech of Cenel Conaill was not necessarily overlord at the time, but if he was, the foundation would have been after 586 AD.) He was said to have been a son of St Coluncille’s sister, and to have been trained in the monastic life by his uncle. He then went to Bishop MacNissi of Condaire (Connor) and there founded the monastery of Muckamore. He was then given the grant of land in Offaly presumably recently conquered from the Laigin.
St Finnian of Moville, patron of the Ulaid, whose monastery was at the north end of Strangford Lough in the territory of the Ui Eachach Arda. Among his students was St Columcille. He is best remembered for his copy of the Latin translation of the Bible by St Jerome called the Vulgate, which Columcille, having been refused permission, secretly copied at night. Whether the two Finnian’s and St Finbarr of Cork were the same individual is discussed by Sharpe (Adamnan 317). [Top]
Munster scarcely appears in this group, apart from the very northern tip. The great monastery of Ros Ailithir or Ross Carbery seems to have been founded at this time on the old style with a bishop/abbot St Fachtna as its head. Its school became famous. St Senan's monastery at Scattery Island in the Shannon estuary also appears to have been founded at this time. According to his Life Senan of the Corcu Baiscind of Clare studied in Wales.
There seems to have been a particular concentration of monasteries in the central part of Ireland where Meath, Leinster, Munster, and Connaught met in the angle between the Shannon and the Slieve Bloom Mountains. To the north were Clonmacnoise of St Ciaran and Durrow near Tullamore of St Columcille. To the south were Terryglass of St Colman and Roscrea of St Cronan. North of Roscrea were Birr of St Brendan, Saighir of St Ciaran, and Lorrha of St Ruadan. Between Birr and Clonmacnoise lay Gallen of St Canoc, said to be a British monastery at one stage and Lemanaghan of St Manchan. Around Tullamore were Durrow and Lynally already mentioned, Rahugh of St Aed, Rahan of St Cartach, Killeigh of St Sinchell, and Tihelly of St Teille. Clonfert of St Brendan lay just over the Shannon, while Aghaboe of St Cainneach and Clonenagh of St Fintan lay just across the Slieve Bloom Mountains. The next greatest concentration of monasteries was in Meath with an extension up into Louth, basically the lands of the Southern Ui Neill which was probably the richest and most densely populated part of Ireland for most of the past two millennia. There was a third concentration in north Leinster, especially in Co. Dublin that was presumably the richest and most densely populated part of Leinster. One would suspect that the central region was also relatively rich and densely populated though it was divided into smaller chiefdoms. It was later conquered by Clan Colmain and later still by the Ui Failge of Leinster who gave their name to the county.
A lesser concentration occurred in the lands of the Northern Ui Neill in north Donegal. This too argues a relatively fertile and inhabited region that would also explain the military power of the northern Ui Neill. In north Kerry in the lands of the Ciarraige were Ardfert, Ratass, Aghadoe and Innisfallen. Minor concentrations are found in the lands or the Oirgialla around Armagh, among the Ulaid around Downpatrich, in the valleys of mid-Leinster, and around Wexford, on the upper Shannon in what was later the diocese of Ardcarn, and among the Deisi in Waterford. The other lesser chiefdoms had one or two major monasteries. Large parts of Ireland had no monasteries and were presumably virtually uninhabited at the time.
It would seem therefore that the full monastic life was brought to Ireland by St Finnian of Clonard and that the great majority of the monasteries were in lands ruled by the Ui Neill or in close proximity to them as in Louth and Dublin. The monasteries of Bangor and Moville were among the Ulaid. It would seem too that it was in these monasteries especially in those in central Ireland that the monks devoted themselves first to compiling records sometime in the seventh century, but making use of earlier written sources. These records throw much light on the affairs of the Ui Neill, and of the monasteries and saints in their territories. Absence of records makes it impossible to state how fast Christianity progressed in other areas. The first Christian king of Munster was an exact co-temporary with the first Christian king of Tara, but that fact tells us nothing of the spread of Christianity in either part of Ireland. Nor does St Finnian's renown as a monastic teacher mean that he was the only Irish monk who sought instruction abroad.
Copyright Desmond J. Keenan, B.S.Sc.; Ph.D. ;.London, U.K.