Home Page

True OriginsContentsPrefaceIntroductionChapter OneChapter Two

Chapter ThreeChapter FourChapter FiveChapter SixChapter SevenChapter Eight

Chapter NineChapter TenChapter ElevenChapter TwelveChapter ThirteenChapter Fourteen

Chapter FifteenChapter SixteenChapter SeventeenBibliography

[The True Origins of Irish Society Copyright © 2003 by Desmond Keenan
Hard copy of book available from and]

Chapter Eleven

The Sixth Century II

 Summary.  Describes religious affairs in Ireland in the Sixth Century


Development of the Church


Growth of Literacy

Monasticism in Ireland

Monastic Founders

Distribution of Monasteries    


Development of the Church


            Once again we come across a curious distortion in the sources. Much of what we know of the development of the Church in Ireland in the sixth and subsequent centuries comes from the lives of the saints, and these were mostly accounts of monks. Almost all Irish sources date from later than the sixth century, so we have to consider what would have been the contemporary practice in Britain and Gaul.

            By the beginning of the sixth century the Christian Church was well established in the eastern half of Ireland (de Paor, St Patrick, 292) Whereas in the fifth century the earliest churches were mostly in South Leinster (op. cit.  274, 44) by the early sixth century there were many churches in North Leinster and Mid-Ulster, largely in the territories of the Southern Ui Neill and the Oirgialla. There was a scattering of churches in north Donegal (the Northern Ui Neill) in North Connaught (Ui Fiachrach Muaide) and Emly in Munster. They were also to be found in the north and east of the province of the Laigin.  Not all of these may have had a regular resident priest. It was recorded in the Life of St. Buite of Monasterboice, who seems to have been born in the late fifth century, that his parents had to take him to a British priest at the local seaport. But Christianity was probably spread much wider than the foundation of churches would indicate. St Brendan of Clonfert seems to have been of the ruling family of the Ciarraige, St Ita of the Deisi, St Ciaran of Saighir from Ossory, St Fachtna from Rosscarbery, and St Senan from the Corcu Baiscind in Clare. All the same the majority of the sixth century saints came from the core region of Christianity mentioned above. Christianity was spreading rapidly in Ireland in the first half of the sixth century and it is impossible to give exact dates of births to the saints in most cases. Some of these may have been born as late as 520 AD.

            So it is reasonable to conclude that by the year 500 Christianity was well established in Leinster, and in Ulster (dioceses of Derry, Clogher, and Armagh plus a few churches in south Down and north Donegal), with a sprinkling of churches in north Connaught, and Emly in Munster. By 520 there seem to have been Christian families among the Ciarraige in Kerry, among the Corcu Baiscind in Clare, the Corcu Loegde in Ossory and Ross and among the Deisi in Waterford. The rest of Ireland became Christian in the 6th century. Diarmait mac Cerbaill 544-64 celebrated the last pagan rites at Tara. Aed Caemh around 570 became the first Christian king of Cashel. Eogan Bel, said to have been the fourth Christian king of Connaught, was killed around 537. By the year 600 all the provincial overlords were nominally at least Christian, and it would seem that all the churches which were later to become the centers of dioceses had been founded. Christianity spread in Ireland about the same time and about the same speed as in Scotland and Wales.

             There is no evidence at all for the existence of a 'Celtic' Church. The Church in Ireland was the same as that in Britain, which was the same as that in Gaul, allowance being made for some variations in local practice. Easter was celebrated on the same date as everywhere else, and that was the date it was celebrated in Rome. Where changes arose it was usually due to the fact that Rome or Gaul introduced changes which were not adopted in the British Isles. The date of Easter, the headdress of bishops, and the tonsure of monks are examples. Nor would feasts of the saints have been observed. Ireland itself had no martyrs, though it is possible that the anniversary date of a British martyr like St Pancras was observed. The rite used for the liturgy would have been at first the Gallican liturgy, but quite early on (possibly in the seventh century) the Roman rite was adopted. (In France the change from the Gallican to the Roman liturgy occurred about 800). This change probably occurred at the same time as the adoption of the Roman date for Easter, and to have been part of the change. With the Roman liturgy would have come also the veneration of the Roman martyrs like Perpetua, Agatha, and Lucy. Even in the fifth century the Christian Church was essentially a Greek-speaking Church. In North Africa where the historical background was Punic not Greek, Latin was adopted as the language of the Church, but even there a bishop would normally be able to read and speak Greek. When the Church developed in Gaul, especially in the northern parts, Latin would have been almost the exclusive language. The Bible had been entirely translated into Latin by 400 AD.

            In Britain and Ireland, all churchmen would have spoken Latin. All reading and writing was in Latin. All the prayers were chanted in Latin. Those who were taught to read and write, not all clerics, were taught Latin. The rites and ceremonies would have been the same as in Gaul. The vestments would have been they the typical late Roman, a long-sleeved tunic reaching almost to the ankles, and a bell-shaped garment with a hole in the top called a casula or little house so worn that one arm at least was free. The garments were probably white with vertical lines of blue or purple.  (Later in the eighth or ninth century the garments may have been of a dark colour and patterned; see the illustration of St Matthew in the Book of Kells and other contemporary drawings.) The chants would have been much simpler than those brought to perfection in Rome by Gregory the Great (d.604) and more akin to those of Milan. The text on the Three Orders of the Irish saints says that the monastic founders took their order of the mass from St David, St Gildas, and St Doc, i.e. the Latin mass as it was celebrated in Wales in the middle of the sixth century.

    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 as in Gaul. In Ireland however, unlike in Britain, a problem arose. It had come about that a hierarchy of local churches had arisen, the great cities of the Empire, Rome, Alexandria, and Antioch (to which were later added Jerusalem and Constantinople) forming the top tier, the chief cities of provinces forming the second tier, and local towns the bottom tier. These three had bishops forming a graded 'hierarchy'.  Later, in the time of St Martin of Tours (end of fourth century) the Church spread into the countryside. Small rural churches were founded at convenient spots and these were manned by priests only. The concept of a parish as a defined tract of territory with the obligation to pay tithes was a medieval one. In Wales clearly we can see priests from the Roman town of Caerleon travelling into south and mid-Wales and building local churches. The chiefdoms in Wales were Welsh-speaking, but were not 'Celtic'. The Welsh clung to their Roman inheritance. If the Irish, or North British, wanted to see what a Christian church was supposed to look like they had only to travel to Wales. In Wales the churches the founded often were given the prefix llan.

            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 Roman Empire, the long basilical style for large cities, and a small centrally-planned Byzantine style. All the churches of the period were built of wood. It was the great period of Irish timber-work and carpentry and there is no reason why a copy of a Byzantine church should not be made in Ireland in wood as they were later in Russia. After their destruction all that would be left would be a series of regularly spaced postholes (Braun).

            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 in Ireland, just the raths of the members of the ruling families, each with its townland farm, and those of the wealthier landowners the boaires. The bishop's rath would then have been placed close to that of the chief. This was probably true in Armagh where the see would have been placed near the rath of the chief of the Ind Oirthir. The connection with Eamhain Macha would then have been purely coincidental.

            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 Ireland with even minimal endowment was always probably quite small. The monastery was in a position to support a bishop, and the monastery took the place of the town. Each bishop could ordain priests, bless the holy oils, and on occasions confirm. Later, in the eighth century it was deemed essential to prove that a particular monastery had a greater antiquity as a bishopric either to claim episcopal dues or to avoid paying them. So the temptation to fabricate bishops came about. 

            By the seventh century there were numerous churches in Ireland, and the normal canons for clerical behaviour were enforced.  There should have been a bishop or a priest for each distinct plebs of each tuath. The churches that finally became dominant and the nuclei of the medieval dioceses would have been in the territories of the larger or more dominant tribes. Among the southern Oirgialla Clogher achieved this status (and a Patrician origin). The plebs de Dartrie (Dartraige, Dartry) became a parish in the diocese of Clogher (M'Kenna 17). On the other hand the parish of Tehallan, in the lands of the Ui Meith Tire, may at one time have had a bishop (M'Kenna 281, citing the Martyrology of Donegal and Colgan). M'Kenna also notes that a bishop had to have three priests and an erenagh with him (305). In the 12th century over fifty bishops are said to have attended the synod of Rathbreasail in 1111 (Dolley 14). One might suspect that the number of tuatha with bishops became suddenly inflated when it was recognized that some tuatha would, after the reforms, have secondary status. So it may be that the average number of bishops at any time was between twenty and thirty, or one for every four priests. The sheer number of bishops no doubt led to their being considered relatively unimportant. Bishops were given the status of a ri tuaithe only. If there were a hundred recognized tuatha in Ireland at the time, one half of them could claim to be

            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  (de Paor St Patrick 135ff). Every priest must belong to some diocese; a canon repeated up to the present day more or less unchanged. There could be no appeal from the decision of a church court in religious matters to a secular judge. Proper clerical garb, doubtless in the Roman style, must be worn, and hair cut in the approved fashion. Again long-lasting canons. Those in orders must attend the morning and evening offices in the church. There were only two offices at the time before the monks added others during the day. A priest might build a church but could not use it for worship without the authority of the bishop. The customary gifts to the bishop doing his rounds must be used for his own necessities or given to the poor. (Gifts to his own relatives were therefore excluded). No priest arriving in the territory of a bishop could say mass or baptize or perform any other service without the permission of the bishop. Every priest arriving in the territory of a bishop must carry letters of commendation with him. No bishop could ordain a priest in the territory of another bishop. A priest involved in a murder is not to be protected by the Church.

            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 Western Europe, the deacon became the bishop's agent for secular affairs and even ecclesiastical affairs abroad. He also became in effect the steward of the bishop's household. At some stage the office became secular and hereditary as indeed became the practice in royal households. The problem then was that the lands of the church passed in lay succession from father to son. An hereditary steward of Church lands would not be an anomaly. This was a question in Ireland, as in the rest of Europe, that the Hildebrandine reform had to tackle. But as far as the sixth century is concerned it is safe to assume that the erenagh was an ordained married deacon.

            When St Patrick was in Ireland, like most missionaries at all times, he seems to have spent more money than he received, and this was the chief grievance of his relatives. But gradually clerics were given status, and lands to maintain their status. The custom of bestowing gifts on occasions when the particular services of a priest or bishop were called for, like baptizing or confirming, was doubtless there from the beginning. It was clear from St Paul, a person who preached the gospel should be supported by the gospel. There arose at some point a fourth source of income and that was the traditional rights of some bishops to receive a tribute. The chief example was the tribute due to the archbishop of Armagh as coarba of St Patrick. There were good financial reasons for claiming the primacy. But this was not paid before the eight century, and probably never in most dioceses. Tithes, the great basis of the revenues of the medieval Church were not levied. The priest or bishop did not have to go around with his cart to collect every tenth sheaf.

            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]


What was the Christianity like that was preached in Ireland by the early priests and bishops? In many ways it was quite unlike our own, for fashions change, and later ages emphasized different aspects. Many of the more devotional or emotional aspects only developed in the Middle Ages. It was then that occurred the great devotion to the humanity of Christ, the Jesus of the Passion and Crucifixion, the Jesus of the Nativity. This was to culminate in devotion to the Sacred Heart. Then arose the great devotion to the Blessed Sacrament enshrined in the feast of Corpus Christi. Devotion to Mary grew and grew. Penitential devotions like wearing hair shirts, or chains, and self-flogging were introduced by the Dominicans in the thirteenth century. St John the Baptist was regarded as a much more important figure than St John the Evangelist, a far more popular figure nowadays.

            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 Europe and the Middle East in the last millennium before Christ. Such questions were what was man for, why did sickness, war, plagues, and death exist?  Was there many or one god? Was god good or evil?  How was virtue rewarded and evil deeds punished? The language too of the holy books was simple and popular. The picture of invisible evil and good spirits surrounding everyone, and illness and madness caused by diabolic possession was easily understood. So too was the picture of Jesus as a man of God going about doing good and casting out demons. Everyone too could see what was likely to happen to him if he offended the local rulers and priests. Those evil men could not triumph if God was with Jesus. The scale too of life in Palestine was the same as that in Ireland. Palestine was about the size of an Irish province, and was partitioned among four main chiefs. So all could see that Jesus would be safe so long as he kept away from the rath of the chief priests in Jerusalem. He would be safe too if he stood in the temple for nobody, not even the priests, would risk acts of violence in a sacred place. People knew of the Roman Empire for it was as close as Wales. Jerusalem, no doubt, was not far from Rome. The problem of preaching the gospel was much less than say preaching in China or Japan today

            In Ireland as in the other barbarian tribes on the borders of the Empire this message was well received after Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Empire. Christianity was increasingly the religion of the officials of the Empire. With regard to the upper classes the fact the Christianity was the official religion of the Roman Empire since the time of Constantine would have been very important. It was the religion of a higher and more developed culture. It brought literacy as well. All the barbarian chiefs along the Empire's northern frontier rapidly embraced Christianity, sometimes in the form of Arianism. The religion of the Empire would have conferred status. It was associated with literacy and all things Roman. The chiefs too recognized that no great change in their manner of life was required, as a chief was unlikely to be excommunicated no matter what he did. There was no feeling that the Church was a holy sect. Anyone who wished to be baptized and saved had just to follow the course of instruction during Lent. Everyone knew that the promises of a holy life would not last long, but man was not required to be perfect from the first day but only to strive to be perfect.

            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 Ireland was no worse in this respect than anywhere else in Europe. The fact that the nobles, for example, of whom we have information, regularly married within the forbidden degrees, made the repudiation of a wife easier. In fact there is little evidence that a high level of morality was sought or enforced in Ireland until modern times. But this too must be qualified. The people in the Roman Empire knew exactly the kind of life a good Christian was supposed to live, and they respected those who lived up to the ideal. Those who had a reputation for holiness in their lifetime were venerated as holy persons after death. Saint from sanctus just means a holy person. One of the great appeals of monasticism was that it provided a milieu in which a young man of the noble classes could observe the Ten Commandments.

             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 Ireland probably dealt chiefly with captives from Britain.

            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 Middle East? The questions being answered in the New Testament were those that had been raised in Palestine in the Iron Age, and which were then given a universal significance. Still, it is difficult to reduce the Christian message to a single or simple formula, though attempts were made at an early date in the various creeds to list the most important points as mentioned above. There is much more to Christianity than being saved by believing in the Lord Jesus. It has never been possible to teach Christianity without recounting the entire story of the Bible, the Old Testament as well as the New. The New Testament itself has no single perspective. The gospels are largely collections of miracle stories and aphorisms concluding with an account of the death and resurrection of Jesus. But this latter fact was just a prelude to the outpouring of the Spirit and the formation of the Church. Some of the writers like St John, following the prophet Hosea, stress the infinite love of God for mankind.

             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 St. Paul. There are no echoes of the philosophical discussions of the late Empire, of Neo-Platonism, of hesychasm, or of the characteristic themes of St. Augustine, the great Doctor of the Latin Church, whose thought, often derived from his struggles against Manichaeism, was to dominate all future thinking in the West. There were just the basic teachings of the early Church, the organization of the liturgical life of the Church around the two feasts of Easter/Pentecost and the Epiphany, and the rules for moral conduct as set out in the gospels and epistles. 

            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 Rome and elsewhere on the Continent. The peculiar relationships in some cases between bishops and abbots sprang largely from the facts that there were no cities, that the bishops at times lived in the monastic 'city' and while there they were subject to the temporal rule of the abbot who was usually closely related to the tribal chief. Abbots did not usurp or exercise the spiritual powers of bishops. Elsewhere in Europe the abbot of a rich and powerful monastery could often be a person of greater consequence than a minor bishop. Nor was the control of church property by lay families unique. It was virtually universal in Europe, and for centuries lay families controlled the revenues and resources of the papacy itself. [Top]

Growth of Literacy

            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 Roman Empire for girls to be taught to read and write. Not is it necessary to believe that all the girls who learned to read intended becoming nuns. Various references in the Lives indicate that the girls were often taught in mixed classes with the boys. But these children would all have been closely related to each other, and would be married off to each other in due course. Attendance at such mixed classes was not recommended for boys who wished to become monks. Priests were of course allowed to marry. Girls could also be instructed in convents.

            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 Europe, and increasingly different from the vernacular languages derived from it. [Top]

Monasticism in Ireland

            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 British Isles. There was no tradition of Roman civil life and the episcopal structure built around it.

            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 Egypt, founded a monastery on Egyptian lines in Marseilles, that Candida Casa was a close copy of Marseilles, and that the Irish monastic founders were trained there. The monastic and episcopal roles were frequently combined. St Augustine, St Martin of Tours, and St Germanus of Auxerre, had founded monasteries and combined the monastic and episcopal lives as best they could. There were many resemblances between episcopal and monastic establishments in the West. (In the East too bishops were often monks or resided in monasteries.) The daily life in both revolved around the liturgical services in the church. Both had schools and taught Latin even to lay men and women. Both taught theology and the Scriptures. Priests and monks might be involved in preaching locally, or setting up new monasteries or churches in pagan areas. Women were to be found in both institutions. Priests might marry and monks could not but there was no exclusion of women from the premises.

            Not all monasteries were the same, and some monks in Ireland as in Egypt sought out solitary and remote places. But in the British Isles monasteries in general had schools and were places of learning. The monastery of Seir Ciaran founded by Ciaran of Seir was contrasted with Clonmacnoise founded by Ciaran mac an tSaor. The latter was famous for its school and its learning; the former for its industry and farming, and its wealth. Most monasteries were small and often transient, probably being only concerned with the people of a tuath. But each ruiri and ri ruirech seems to have had a particular monastery that his family patronized, and these were the great and famous monasteries. A monastic founder like St Columcille who was closely related to the chiefs of the Northern Ui Neill was well-positioned to receive grants of land and rights of tribute for numerous monasteries.

            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 Ireland if one can accept the statement that St Buite  died on the day St Columcille was born in 521. Details given in his  Life  indicate an early date. He is  said  to have been of the Cianacht of Brega in Meath,  who were being  displaced from Meath into Louth by the southern Ui Neill at  this time. There was no local priest to baptize him so his parents carried him to a local seaport where they found a priest. He may have travelled to Wales and even to the Continent for instruction. He is then said to have gone to Scotland, returned to Ireland to the Picts (Cruithin) in east Ulster, and then gone to the Cianacht of Glengiven (Dungiven) where  the pagan chief at first refused to allow him to preach. Then he settled among his own people in the later barony of Ferrard of the Cianacht. The Fir Arda Cianachta marched  with the Oirgialla but obviously were not originally Oirgialla themselves. Monasterboice was called simply 'The Monastery' and  may at one  time have been the only one. (Its neighbour Mellifont was known as the 'Great Monastery' i.e. the  first built of  stone in the elaborate continental  style).

            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 Aran Islands from  whence the last remnants of the Fir Bolg had been driven. But it is unlikely that the grant was made, as the Life states, by Oengus mac Nad Froich (d 490) or by any Eoganacht king. One  would rather have  expected the grant to have been given by the Ui Maine who  could have been relations, being as said above, of the Oirgialla.

            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 Armagh they were not originally monasteries but became  such in the  course of the sixth century. The same can probably be said of the monastery of St Tigernach at Clones among the Oirgialla. 

            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 Egypt, gone to ask instruction of the more famous abbots. In Finnian's case the fact  that he brought the most up-to-date version of the monastic life from Britain  and the Continent would have been an added attraction. It seems a pity though that he had never heard of the work of his contemporary St Benedict.

            It is  clear  that a clear new  wave of monasticism spread over the British Isles in the sixth century, and  this  form of monasticism was distinguished  from the semi-monastic households of bishops on the pattern of St Martin of Tours. This spread was  comparable to the spread of the Cistercians in the twelfth century. The new and up-to-date form of monasticism became fashionable, the kind of life a fervent young layman  should embrace. It would seem to have come to the British Isles from Auxerre if the details of the Life of St Illtyd of Llanilltyd Fawr in South Wales can be believed. He is alleged to have been a grand nephew of St Germanus of Auxerre and to have been born in Brittany. St Finnian is  said  to have  studied in Wales, and  this  is highly probable. It is also likely that he was Welsh in origin (Sharpe in Adamnan).

            The  form of  monasticism  would have been  that  common in northern France early in the sixth century just before the Rule of St Benedict was introduced to France. It  was a form  that the Egyptian monks  would have easily recognized. It was the form common in Italy in St. Benedict's lifetime before his Rule became widely known. There were monasteries mostly of laymen. Some communities might have  had a priest in their  ranks. Others would have depended on a local priest, and the frequency with which they attended mass would have varied with the availability of a priest. All communities would have tried to get a priest to celebrate Easter for  them. No doubt too hermits living in the most inaccessible places would have tried to attend mass at Easter. The Lives of the various saints seem to indicate that the ordination of monks to the priesthood was not rare. Some of the greater monasteries would have had a bishop living in them.  This practice was not  uncommon in the Eastern Church though there the bishop had a recognized see distinct from the monastery. In the Latin Church the two forms of monasticism were to be strictly distinguished as  those of monks and canons. The monks lived in monasteries under an abbot; the canons served cathedrals under a bishop. Canons kept  their own property, but after the sixth century they were forbidden to marry. Some canons adopted a monastic rule and were known as regular canons (or canons regular from regula a rule).

            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]

Monastic Founders  

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]

Distribution of Monasteries

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.