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

Chapter Fifteen

                    The Twelfth Century I : Irish Society

Summary. Describes Irish society in the Twelfth Century and in particular Church reform


Church Affairs


Saint Malachy

Visit to Rome

Synod of Kells

Implementing the Reforms

Military Matters

The Economy

Irish Society

Art, Architecture and Learning


Importance of the Twelfth Century

            For the development of Irish Society this century is probably the most important of all. More and greater changes were introduced in this century than in any other. Religious and political life was to a large extent transformed. So too was art and architecture while the new methods of the schools and universities poured in. There had been great changes, imperceptible at first, when Christianity and writing was introduced. The same was true when the Vikings brought a proper trading economy with towns, markets and coinage. But there was nothing like the changes in the twelfth century in their swiftness and scope. Ireland was suddenly dragged into the modern world. Whole new systems of administration and law were introduced, which if they had been embraced by the Gaelic chiefs, as they had been in Scotland, could have transformed Ireland into a prosperous, peaceful, and united kingdom.

            Ireland’s tragedy is not that the Norman’s came, but that the Gaelic chiefs, for selfish personal gain, largely rejected what the Normans brought.  

(This chapter on the social aspects of Irish society is placed before the political aspects reversing the plan in the rest of the book. The reason is that the political events before and after the coming of the Normans run together so that it was preferable to keep them in consecutive chapters. Also, the political changes are best understood, if the sweeping social changes are understood first.)

Church Affairs        

             At the beginning of the twelfth century the first great wave of innovation arrived in Ireland. This was the wave of Church reform commonly called the Hildebrandine reform reached Ireland. In England in 1107 Henry I and Anselm of Canterbury reached a working agreement over investiture similar to that reached later in 1122 between Pope Callixtus II and the Emperor Henry V, a system of joint investiture which ensured that king or emperor had not exclusive authority over ecclesiastical lands. This system worked in England because neither Henry I nor St Anselm wished to push matters too far. But it was unresolved at the time of Henry II and St Thomas a Becket, which led to the murder of the latter. In 1098 Citeaux had been founded and in 1128 Anselm’s chief assistant, William Giffard of Winchester established the first Cistercian monastery in England in 1128 at Waverley in Surrey. In 1104 the hierarchy of Scandinavia was properly established with the appointment of an archbishop of Lund in Denmark. (An archbishopric was formed in Norway about 1150 under the direction of the legate, Cardinal Nicholas Breakspear.)

             One of the most surprising things was that in five hundred years nobody ever got round to organising the hierarchy in Ireland, nor was even a legate sent from Rome. Then several legates were sent in the twelfth century. If the theory proposed in the book is correct that the evangelisation of Ireland came from Britain, the bishops in Ireland were subject to some British bishops, but no attempt was made to assert jurisdiction before Lanfranc. Nor was there any metropolitan bishop in Ireland, despite the effort of the church of Armagh to assert primacy. (This was also the case in Wales and Scotland.) Nor does there seem to have been any attempt, except perhaps in the fifth century, to govern by means of councils. Irish dioceses were largely autocephalous. This was not peculiar to Ireland for it seems to have existed for longer or shorter periods wherever Christianity spread beyond the limits of the Empire which had a strict civil subordination of cities and towns. But in Germany the situation had been regularised as early as the time of St Boniface, and regular hierarchies established perhaps less than fifty years after the first bishops were installed there.

             Every religious reform of religious institutions must begin with reform of the temporalities. Resistance to reform usually comes from those who will lose out financially. It did not matter if control of Church property was in the hands of great Roman families, of the German emperor, or the erenaghs of monasteries and dioceses in Ireland. There is an interesting account of the visitation of Flaibeartach O’Brolcain (Flaherty O’Brollaghan) the abbot of Derry who died in 1175. He was also chief of the Columban monasteries in Ireland, Derry having taken over the leadership from Kells. On his visitation in 1150 he received a gold ring, and a horse from Murtagh MacLoughlin as over-chief and twenty cows as chief of Aileach. From each lord or sub-chief to the number of fifty he received a horse; from every two biatachs (free farmers) one cow; from every three saertachs (free tenants) a cow; from every four diomhains (people of lesser means) a cow. The tribute due from each tuath was stated precisely. More oddly he visited the MacDonlevy lands in Ui Eachach Choba among the Ulaid where he got a horse from each chief and a sheep from each hearth, besides tribute from MacDonlevy and his wife. He received the same from Dal Cairbre that seems to be the same as Dal Riata. Flaherty never was made a bishop, yet the dues to the coarb of St. Columcille seem to have exceeded those to the coarb of St. Patrick in the see of Armagh. When the diocese of Derry was formed it became and remained until the disestablishment of the Church in 1869 the richest see in Ireland.

            Apparently the first duty of a new bishop, as of a new chief, at that time, after receiving the submission of the erenagh, was to try to collect the occasional dues to his see. So the first duty of Celsus after he was made bishop of Armagh in 1105 was to visit every church in Ulster and Munster which recognised the authority of Armagh and collect the tribute in cows, sheep, and silver from each tuath. He made this visitation on various occasions collecting the tribute on each. He was then able to replace the roof on the stone church or cathedral in Armagh that had been roofless for 130 years. The bishop (ard easbog) of Armagh Gelasius in 1138 collected the tribute in Munster, obtaining the full tribute. In 1140 he visited the churches in Connaught and received a ‘liberal tribute’, Turlough O’Connor recognising the position of Armagh. Also in 1140 he got twenty cows from Murtagh MacLoughlin, a horse from every sub-chief, and a cow from every biatach if the annals report accurately. In 1158 he made a circuit of Ui Eachach Choba (Iveagh) and Dal Cairbre (Dal Riata?). From the MacDonlevy chief of Iveagh he obtained a horse, five cows, and a payment in coin, an ounce of gold from the king’s wife, a horse from each chief, and a sheep from each hearth. This tribute was assessed on the tuatha and could not be made without the full co-operation of the chief of the clan. It is obvious that only Cenel Eogain, Ui Eachach Choba and another territory collected the tribute for him.

            At this particular time, the evils of the practice of an hereditary family of erenaghs holding all the lands of the various churches could be regarded as similar to evils of investiture. In both cases, a bishop would not be given the temporalities of his see if he displeased the lay family involved. With regard to simony, the ecclesiastical office would have been purchased from the same landowner, not from a senior ecclesiastic. Again, simony would have been hard to avoid because every applicant would have had to present a gift to the landowners before his application would have been even received.

            Irish bishoprics seem to have been poorly endowed with land. The bishop had by the twelfth century the comparatively low status of the chief of a tuath though when conferred it had been a high one. The land attached to his church and residence may not have exceeded the extent of a single townland. A tribute consisting to a horse from the chief of the tuath, a cow or half a cow from the chief farmers, and a sheep or share in a cow from lesser folk was probably paid only once. The revenues from lending cattle to the clients in his tuath may or may not have been available to him, for more than likely the chief would reserve this to himself. The church lands could also be used by the chief for grazing his cattle on, and the bishop would have to pay his tribute to the chief unless he was classified as a non-tribute payer. The income of a small independent bishopric like Duleek could have been of the order of fifty cows a year for the support of the bishop and his clerics. One of the duties of the reformers was to try to increase the revenues of the bishops, and to get them out of lay control, to enable them to maintain an adequate household of clerics of learning and experience. 

Commencement of Reform               

            Reform of the Church commenced first in 1101 in Munster where the power of the O’Briens had reached its peak. (It is reasonable to assume that the Viking diocese of Dublin that considered itself outside the Irish system had already introduced Anselm’s reforms. Though Anselm had to rebuke Samuel O’Haingli, bishop of Dublin from 1096 to 1121, for having an archbishop’s cross carried before him although he had not sought the pallium from Rome.) Murtagh O’Brien was a warlike man and unlikely reformer and one might be forgiven for suspecting that his chief interest was to get Killaloe made the archiepiscopal see. The reformers knew they could not proceed without strong backing from the civil power to enforce any reforming canons or statutes, so we may suppose that they acquiesced in that ambition, especially given the fact that the church in Armagh was the chief example of the abuses to be reformed. Nor could it be foreseen that the period of O’Brien dominance in Ireland was coming to an end. In any case Murtagh O’Brien in 1098 invited a bishop in one of the tiny dioceses in Meath (probably Clonard), Maelmuire O’Doonan, to be his adviser, and Paschal II (1099-1118) was induced to make him his legate. There were eight separate dioceses in county Meath.

             Papal legates were given delegated powers to act for the Pope in designated areas. There does not appear to have been any restriction regarding time placed on these legatine commissions other than the lifespan of the Pope. (There were eight Popes in the first half of the twelfth century.) The purpose of granting legatine powers to a particular Irish bishop could have been restricted to convoking synods and presiding over them thus supplying the central power lacking in Ireland at the time when there was no archbishop, or even no king, to convoke a synod. Almost certainly, the reason why Paschal was induced to send a legate was his wish to secure an agreement with the de facto king of Ireland, Murtagh O’Brien regarding investiture, for this was the great aim of his pontificate.

            O’Doonan in 1101 summoned a synod at Cashel, apparently the first of any kind held in Ireland for at least three hundred years It was doubtless intended to be a national synod yet was only attended by the clergy and nobility of Munster and Leinster. Though intended to be a Hildebrandine reform laymen were still summoned and participated. If they had not been the decrees would have been ignored.  The decrees were typical of the time. Simony was condemned and ecclesiastical property exempted from secular tribute. This presumably was the tribute to be paid to each new chief; failure to pay the tribute was a signal of revolt, and was very common. It was normally followed by forcible collection if the new chief had gathered sufficient support. The age old practice of coshering, the custom of the chief coming to stay in the rath of a dependent along with all his household was not apparently condemned or discontinued. Rather the custom seems to have been encouraged of endowing dioceses and monasteries of new foundation with exempt lands taken from their defeated opponents. Endowing monasteries with lands taken from their victims seems not to have been new, but for the future such lands would not be subject to forcible coshering. Nobles of course still came to monasteries and expected to be fed but rather from hospitality of the bishop or the abbot not of right. The third point was to restrict the holding of ecclesiastical benefices to clerics. This again was largely a statement of principle than a major change in practice. But it meant for example that if a layman was appointed to any benefice producing revenue he was expected to seek ordination to the appropriate grade of the clergy. An abbot would have to be tonsured at the very least, and a parish priest or bishop ordained. The system of lay families of erenagh, presumably descended from some ordained deacon, who had complete control of the temporalities of the diocese, was to be phased out. The fourth canon tried to deal with the problem of overlapping jurisdictions. This seems to have been aimed at overlapping episcopal and monastic jurisdictions for the dioceses themselves probably did not even touch each other let alone overlap. Concubinage of the clergy was forbidden, though whether this excluded properly married clergy is not clear. It probably did not. The law of sanctuary was reformed, and the clergy were declared exempt from secular courts. Included in this canon were poets, though in any case the canon was more a statement of principle than a change in actual practice. It was also in line with developing canon law in western Europe, where finally all those who could write could claim ‘benefit of clergy’ and demand trial before an ecclesiastical court, Finally, some precision was introduced into the laws of matrimony (Dolley 7ff). The state of the marriage contract at the time is outlined by D’Alton. The chief point was that betrothals were regarded as equivalent to marriage, but did allow revocation. Brehon law allowed divorce. Though the intention was good regarding temporalities, the matter was not finally settled until the disestablishment of the Church in 1869.

            The reforms proposed were what we regard as typically Hildebrandine, but it does not follow that the reformers themselves at the time had a clear idea either regarding what was an unwarrantable abuse or how they envisaged the future Church. What was clerical dress supposed to be like? Could brightly coloured garments be worn? Could a priest follow a trade, hunt, or go to war? Could he drink alcohol in a public place? Points like these were to be decided and incorporated in the statutes of later synods and in Roman decrees. The general idea, nevertheless, behind the Hildebrandine reforms was that religious and secular, i.e. warlike affairs, had become too closely intertwined and the result was not good for simple morality like practising the Ten Commandments. The envisaged solution was that secular and clerical roles should be more clearly defined and separated to some extent. To us it might seem that the reformers were taking a very cautious approach, but they themselves probably considered the approach bold and radical. The new Orders, especially of canons, were to supply many of the answers. Gilbert of Limerick wrote and published two works on the subject, especially with regard to the rite of the mass (D’Alton). Apparently, the rite varied very considerably from church to church.

            The great omission is any canon on the burning topic of the day regarding which Anselm and William Giffard of Winchester were forced into exile in 1102, namely investiture. We may assume that the practice of the Irish chiefs was little different from that of the feudal monarchs, but they were not making feudal service for church lands a condition for tenure, at least not openly. That any abbot or bishop would refuse such services to his chief would be unthinkable, but so long as it was not put down in writing it was possible to pretend it did not exist. No Irish chief had any intention of allowing a person on whom he could not rely to become a bishop or abbot if he could help it or prevent it. Nor would he be remiss in securing a valuable office for one of his friends. But so long as he did not make election to the office conditional on swearing feudal and military service there was no need to tackle the question openly. A start had been made.

            One famous act of Murtagh O’Brien at this synod was to endow the diocese of Cashel from seized or abandoned Eoganacht lands. Why he did this is not clear, as the more natural and customary thing would have been to give the lands to his own followers. It may very well have been that he hoped that there would be a single archbishop in Ireland when a proper hierarchy was provided by the Pope, and that that archbishopric would be at Cashel. There is no reason to imagine that Murtagh had any scruple about appropriating Eoganacht lands. 

            In 1105 two men were consecrated bishop who were to push forward the reform, Celsus (Cellach) bishop of Armagh as mentioned above, and Gilbert, or Gilla Espaic, bishop of the new Norse diocese of Limerick, this being the third Norse town to get its own bishop. Gilbert had apparently studied abroad and had met Anselm of Canterbury but did not seek consecration from him. Nevertheless Anselm congratulated him and urged him to promote reform especially in the appointment of bishops and their consecration by three bishops in the proper place. Anselm also urged, and Gilbert tried to comply, that the Roman or Sarum use should be adopted for the celebration of mass and the sacraments in place of the various Irish rites derived from the ancient Gaulish rite (D’Alton). The latter had long since fallen into disuse in France and England.

            In Armagh Celsus came from a local family (Clann Sinaich of the Oirgialla) who had provided bishops to the see of Armagh for fifteen generations whether they were clerics or not, according to St Bernard. More recent scholarship restricts this to nine successive bishops and some earlier ones. There is little doubt that these were married men (married only once according to St Paul’s prescription 1 Timothy 3.2) or indeed laymen who employed an assistant bishop to discharge the duties of a bishop. He was a close relative of the late bishop and probably underage, but at least he sought ordination and proper consecration as a bishop. (St Malachy who followed him was the son of the principal teacher of theology in Armagh, a married man.) He immediately began by asserting the claims of Armagh and took tribute from every church in Ulster and Munster. Whatever had been Murtagh O’Brien’s intentions, Celsus first made sure that the claims of his see, which were largely financial, were conceded. He used part of the money to replace the roof on the stone church in Armagh that had remained a ruin since it was burned by the Norse a hundred and thirty years before. He also made sure that he was the person to adjudicate in secular disputes. The reputation of Celsus as a reformer (and a saint) seems to be based largely on the fact that he was St Malachy’s patron, who ordained him, entrusted him with much of the administration of the diocese during his own frequent absences, and tried to get him established as a bishop, first in Down and later in Armagh. His own activities were largely on the political scene where churchmen were always in demand as intermediaries

            It is just possible that the legatine powers granted to Maelmuire O’Doonan or Gilbert of Limerick included powers to establish one or more archbishoprics and to confirm the newly elected archbishops, i.e. grant them the pallium. But this is extremely unlikely. For, as everybody knew, Ireland had a hierarchy. From the point of view of Rome, the first points to be established were whether Canterbury, as the chief metropolitan see in the British Isles, had, or had traditionally exercised metropolitan jurisdiction in Ireland. The other point would have been to determine if any bishopric in Ireland had been properly constituted a metropolitan authority and had exercised that authority in the normal way. If these points were both established in the negative, then an Irish synod should petition the Pope that one or more metropolitan sees should be established, and the pallia sent to them. This was pointed out later to Malachy when he went to Rome to claim the pallium. The pallium was a narrow neckband or band around the shoulders with narrow pendants before and behind. By the middle of the ninth century all archbishops were required to petition the Pope for the pallium, forwarding at the same time a profession of the faith. By the time of Paschal II an oath of allegiance to the Pope was required instead. By this date too the metropolitans were not allowed to exercise the rights of archbishops before they received it (Catholic Encyclopaedia, Pallium). [Top]       


            In 1111 at a place called Rathbreasail near Thurles, county Tipperary in north Munster, there was held, at Murtagh’s instigation, what was probably the first proper synod of the Irish bishops since the time of Saint Patrick. (This excludes the synods convoked for the sole purpose of deciding the dates of Easter.) It would seem that every bishop in Ireland to the number of fifty attended and they had good reason to do so. If there were about 100 tuatha in Ireland,  50 would have been bishoprics, and fifty merely parishes. However it is reasonable to assume that many chiefs rushed to get a bishop in their tuath if there was the slightest tradition that there had ever been a bishop in it. The normal number of bishops could have been much lower. They were doubtless aware that the number of bishoprics would be cut in half and the system rationalised. Nobody would want to be among those whose sees were extinguished. There was also the fact that a tuath which was merely a parish would have to contribute to the support of the church in a different tuath where the bishop resided. Even among the greater dioceses there was the question of precedence. About three hundred of the lower clergy are also said to have attended, though the number of students and laymen given as three thousand may have been an exaggeration. (Earlier I estimated that the total number of priests in Ireland at any time was about 160. An attendance of 300 priests would seem to indicate the total number of priests in Ireland at about 600, which seems extremely unlikely. If 300 clerics are meant, meaning those to had at least received the clerical tonsure, the figure is more likely.) We can assume that Murtagh took responsibility for housing and feeding them no doubt by means of forced labour and forced exactions of food. Murtagh’s protege, Gilbert of Limerick, was made papal legate and presided, taking precedence over Armagh.

            Celsus of Armagh and Malchus O’Hanvery of Cashel were appointed as ‘archbishops’ at Rathbreasail. (Malchus O’Hanvery, first bishop of the Viking see in Waterford was translated from Waterford to Cashel in 1111.) Bishop O’Doonan’s commission could have extended until the death of Paschal II in 1118, and likewise the commission of his successor Gilbert of Limerick, likewise appointed by Paschal. Or they could have been given the commission for a particular occasion, namely the holding of a synod to establish and confirm a hierarchy. In this supposition the question of applying to Rome for the pallium, which signified both the papal acceptance of the newly elected archbishop, and his empowerment to proceed with his duties as archbishop, would not have arisen before the death of Celsus of Armagh in 1129, but more realistically after the accession of Malachy in 1134 or the election of his successor Gelasius in 1137.  The second archbishop of Cashel was elected in 1131 but it is not obvious why he did not seek the pallium. The O’Briens may still have been trying to get Killaloe recognised as the metropolitan see. However, the likelihood is that the establishment of a hierarchy was not within the remit of either legate. Accordingly Celsus and Malchus would only have been designated archbishops.        

            Ireland, like Wales and Scotland, seems to have presented a problem never envisaged in canon law. Bishops had been consecrated haphazardly in disjoined areas of land, but no hierarchy ever seems to have been established. Irish dioceses were in fact autocephalous, i.e. independent of each other and not subject to each other. This too was true in Scotland and Wales despite the recurring efforts of Canterbury to assert its authority. (The claim of Canterbury would have been stronger in Wales that was once part of Roman Britannia than in either Scotland or Ireland.) There was however another problem in Ireland, which was not found in the comparable regions of Wales and Scotland, and that was the excessive numbers of bishops. When hierarchies were being established within the Roman Empire it mattered little if every town had its own bishop, so long as the largest town in the region had a metropolitan bishop with his learned counsellors to supervise them. When missionaries went into Germany, at first a handful of large bishoprics were established, and as their numbers grew, some of them were given metropolitan status.

             But in Ireland, the only long-established and universally recognised political units were the tuatha that covered at most an area of ten miles by ten. Chiefs like those of the Ui Neill and the Eoganacht had enforced their authority over widely separated areas, and could not agree among themselves regarding who controlled what. Their areas of control were neither fixed nor contiguous. If any tuath wanted a bishop they just had one consecrated. The only rule was that there could not be two bishops in one tuath. The number of these bishops could have reached fifty, but as noted above this figure was probably inflated just before the synod of Rathbreasail. In course of time, some dioceses claimed precedence, and hence tribute, on the grounds of antiquity, and Armagh seems to have succeeded in persuading a lot of people that its diocese had been founded by St Patrick, and that he had established it as the premier see. The only grounds for this claim seems to be the possession of two documents written by one Bishop Patrick who never mentions Armagh or mentions the name of his own diocese. On the other hand, abbots of monasteries could make similar claims, and any appeals in disputes were as likely to be referred to the abbot of a famous monastery as to the bishop of a famous diocese. The standing of both monasteries and dioceses was intimately connected with the standing of the local rulers.

            In the absence of large cities or towns, to form a diocese three conditions seem to have been decided on at Rathbreasail. Each see should occupy the territory of large ruiri or mesne chief, (not the tuath of a ri) and it should be centred on a large cathedral church or monastery within that territory, and that the monastery or church had traditionally been the centre of a diocese. An archdiocese would be that nominated by the ri ruirech or provincial king, the O’Briens and O’Neills being accorded this status.

             As is usual in such matters we can assume that the leading reforming bishops had presented their list to Murtagh O’Brien before hand, and that political realities dominated their choices. There were to be two archbishoprics, or metropolitan sees. Neither Armagh nor Cashel was given the exclusive title. Celsus of Armagh was to be one archbishop, and Malchus O’Hanvery, bishop of Waterford was to be archbishop of Cashel. Dolley sounds a warning about accepting at face value the seventeenth century copy of the decrees. (What is known about the synod was recorded in the lost Book of Clonenagh, cited by Geoffrey Keating in1629, Moody, Martin, and Byrne p.101.) In particular we can very much doubt whether the process of establishing a formal hierarchy with two provinces was ever completed. It is more probable that Gelasius (Gilla mac Liac mac Diarmata mac Rory) in 1152 and not Celsus was the first archbishop of Armagh, and the first to receive the pallium. In this view, Celsus would have retained a more tradition title of ard easbog or high bishop in recognising the primacy of Armagh. D’Alton notes that the two archbishops had honour and dignity but not jurisdiction (190 footnote).

            There were to be two provinces headed by the archbishops of Armagh and Cashel. To the Armagh province were assigned sees in Ulster, Meath and Connaught, and to the province of Cashel, sees in Munster and Leinster. This recognised that Donal MacLoughlin would never accept a single archbishop controlled by Murtagh O’Brien.

             In Ulster (including Meath, i.e. the lands of the Ui Neill) the Cenel Conaill got a diocese centred on Raphoe, the Ulaid got two dioceses, one centred on Connor in Antrim the territory of the Dal nAraide, the other centred on Bangor (later at Down) in the territory of the Dal Fiatach. The O’Rourkes of Breifne got a diocese centred on the monastery of Kells. The O’Carrolls in Oriel got Clogher centred on the monastery and cathedral church of that name. The rest of the lands of the Oirgialla were allotted to the cathedral of Armagh, though in fact much of the Oirgialla lands were in the hands of the Ui Neill. This was the archdiocese allotted to the Ui Neill. There remained a problematic bit. Celsus had obviously no intention of conceding any rights to the monastery of Derry, the great rival of Armagh in the north. The hinterland of Derry in Inishowen at this time was passing into the hands of the Cenel Conaill (O’Dohertys) as the O’Neills, now established at Tullaghogue, were unable to hold it. Nor had the O’Cahans yet established themselves as the dominant power in the area. In any case they were dependants of MacLoughlin who does not appear to have attended the synod. So the last place was assigned to Ardstraw among the almost defunct Cianachta of Ui Fiachrach Ardsratha but with the principal church at Maghera in newly acquired Ui Neill lands. The abbots of Derry later were able successfully to claim the see, and it remains the diocese of Derry to this day. In Meath the old division between Sil nAedo Slaine (Duleek) and Clann Colmain (Clonard) was maintained. At a local synod a few months later Meath was divided differently with Clonmacnoise being given western Meath, and Clonard being compensated with the territory of Sil nAedo Slaine, Duleek. Duleek apparently was to be compensated with the petty clans in Louth ‘ who marched with the Oirgialla’, but in the event these lands, in the heyday of the O’Carrolls, were given to Clogher. They afterwards reverted to Armagh. (In 1174 the bishop of Clonard, under Hugh de Lacy, absorbed the sees of Duleek, Trim, Ardbraccan, Kells and Slane, presumably by having the temporalities of those sees transferred to his own. Meath became one of the richest dioceses.) In Connaught, Elphin represented the territory of the O’Connors, Ardagh the lands of the Conmaicne vassals of the Ui Briuin Breifne, Cong the lands of the Ui Briuin Seola, Killala the lands of the Ui Fiachrach Muaide, Tuam was also in lands of the Ui Briuin Seola. Clonfert represented the territory of the Ui Maine. Dublin was not dealt with and the bishop of that see Samuel O’Haingli probably did not attend the synod

            In Leinster, ignoring Dublin, sees were to be established at Ferns (Ui Chennselaig), Ossory, and Glendalough (O’Tooles), while the Ui Dunlainge were given two sees, one at Kildare and one at Leighlin (Carlow). Clearly it was impossible to ignore the ancient monasteries of Kildare and Glendalough, for otherwise there was no need for them to be separates sees. In the case of Glendalough it was assumed that it would incorporate Dublin, but the reverse occurred.

            In Munster, for no very obvious reason, it was decided to make the archiepiscopal see at Cashel the former centre of the displaced Eoganacht that Murtagh O’Brien had endowed with confiscated Eoganacht lands. There was to be a see including Waterford and the monastery of Lismore (Deise). The MacCarthys were given a see based on the monastery of Cork, the Ciaraige given a see based on the monastery of Ardfert. The ancient claims of Emly could not be ignored. The O’Briens got two sees, one based on their old stronghold at Killaloe, and the other on their new residence in Limerick. To Norse Limerick was added the old territories of the Ui Fidgente. There was a decidedly antiquarian slant to this division. As no actual bishops were removed from office, the idea was that successors would be appointed only in the nominated sees.

            It is noteworthy that the boundaries of the dioceses are not exactly delineated. No maps of Ireland existed then or for centuries later. Parts of Ireland were normally but not exclusively named after the ruling family and the boundaries of the diocese were the boundaries of the influence of the ruling families.  It is fairly safe to assume that at least two thirds of Ireland was still scarcely inhabited, and that by the year 1100 the process of draining marshes and clearing woods which had commenced in other parts of Europe a hundred years earlier had scarcely begun in Ireland. The various chiefdoms would still have been separated by wide bands of wasteland and woods. Indeed some definitive boundaries in the middle of bogs were not properly established until the middle nineteenth century. The limits of each diocese were indicated by four reference points (Moody, Martin, and Byrne eds. IX 101 and map.) 

            The tuatha that lost their bishop or never had a bishop would become parishes. The history of Irish parishes still remains obscure, and we have no idea how many parishes were established when Christianity was first adopted, how many subject clans were served by monasteries or hermits, or how many survived the Viking period. In any case the non-monastic parochial clergy had disappeared. In the taxation returns in the early fourteenth century only thirteen parishes were recorded for the parts of Clogher lying in present day Monaghan and Louth. The parish of Clogher was later returned as comprising 72,147 statute acres which if it were perfectly square would measure ten miles by ten (M’Kenna 140). The average size of parish in Monaghan and south Armagh was about 20,000 acres or about five miles by six. (Gillespie and O’Sullivan eds. 13.) In adjacent county Louth where the manorial system of agriculture had been introduced under the Normans, parishes became much smaller at around 2,300 acres (ibid.) In the nineteenth century, after the rationalisation of Catholic parishes that followed the Reformation, there were around 1,000 parishes in Ireland averaging around 20,000 acres (Keenan).

            The establishment and endowment of parishes everywhere was the responsibility of the local bishop with the consent of the local lord who would either contribute the glebe lands or endorse the benefaction.

            There can be little doubt that the revenues of the parishes and deaneries went to the relatives of the chiefs, and that scarcely any provision was made for the education and support of parochial vicars, or the poor and sick. As elsewhere in Europe, the instruction of the poor was left to monks and members of the new religious Orders. The proper organisation of parishes would have to wait the post-Reformation period. For example in 1306, for some obscure reason, the revenues of the deanery of Donaghmoyne in Monaghan (tuath of the ‘Crickmugdorn’) belonged to the monastery of St Mochta in Louth. They were collected by the erenagh of the monastery, and a vicar discharged the duties of the parish, and presumably also of the deanery. The principal landowner in the parish in 1640 was Col. Bryan MacMahon, Member of Parliament, who had 15,766 acres (M’Kenna 351-2). Church lands in the parish in the seventeenth century amounted to 809 acres in 10 lots according to one record, or 420 acres in 7 lots according to another. (This would have been the equivalent of 8 or 10 townlands, or farms of a boaire.) 

            As Dolley observes (16), Ireland now had a recognisable hierarchy, written down on parchment at least, and canon law such as it was could be applied. Gratian did not finish his collection of canons and decrees until 1140 but the relevant materials were extant and known to a greater or lesser degree by local learned clerics. We are lacking in information about how the reforms were implemented. There is nothing at all like the flood of printed information we have about how the reforms of the Second Vatican Council were implemented in the various dioceses. Indeed, the bulk of what we know about events over the next thirty years comes from a single source, St. Bernard’s Life of St Malachy, which reflects one person’s point of view. The Annals from time to time supply curious bits of information such as struck the fancy of the chronicler, for example the tribute the abbot of Derry collected.

            Several questions remain to be answered. Was Malachy in 1139 the first to seek the pallium and if so why was this? Why, when Malachy arrived in Rome to seek the pallium was he sent home, and empowered to convoke a synod for the purpose of petitioning the Holy See to erect metropolitan sees? What did Celsus of Armagh, and Malchus O’Hanvery and Gilbert of Limerick do to get the reforms accepted? After Murtagh O’Brien was incapacitated in 1114 and Ireland was again plunged into turmoil there would be excellent reasons for not appealing to Rome. But why wait three years? The reason must be that many of the bishops and their chiefs were very dissatisfied with the decisions. If these were from the north of Ireland, and included the abbot of Derry and his backer Donal MacLoughlin we can see how the reform came to a dead stop at least as far as re-organising the hierarchy was concerned.

             Samuel O’Haingli the bishop of Dublin died in 1121 and the people of Dublin elected one Grene (Gregorius) and had him consecrated by the Archbishop of Canterbury in defiance of Celsus who if recognised as metropolitan would have to confirm the election. This also indicates that a diocese after choosing a bishop, was free to choose which bishop should consecrate him. [Top]      

Saint Malachy           

            Meanwhile there was much work to be done on trying to implement the other decrees. We would expect a prominent teacher like St. Malachy’s father the lector primarius of Armagh to have a reasonable knowledge of the canons and to advise Celsus about them.  We may guess that most bishops needed to send a scholar to Armagh or Clonmacnoise or other reputable school to find out the practical details, what was the new mass to be like, how did one deal with married priests, what latitude a bishop still had to ordain a worthy married man, what were the proper procedures for dealing with a scandalous cleric, what to do with church property in the hands of laymen, to what extent a bishop should consult the local chief before doing anything, what to do about men or women who had been married several times, and whether those marriages were before the synod of Cashel or after, what kind of a household a  modern bishop should have and how was it to be financed, had a cathedral to have a chapter or would the bishop’s household suffice for public worship. If a chapter were established what were its rights and duties and how was it to be supported, how many of the decrees and canons of the Church applied to Ireland and which were merely exemplary, what were the essentials of the monastic life, and how were monks to be distinguished from pious laymen living in monasteries, how many rules were there and who judged if they were being observed, how was an abbot distinguished from a bishop, should an abbot be a priest or even a bishop and so on? It is reasonable to assume that all over Ireland, pious people, clerical and lay, were working for the reform of their local church and for the rooting out of what were now recognised as abuses.

            The practice of raiding and spoiling monasteries had not died out, and Glendalough was being particularly afflicted by local robber chiefs around 1145 when Lawrence O'Toole was appointed coarb. The progress of reform was not advanced by the sudden illness and incapacitation in 1114 of Murtagh O’Brien that set off another round of wars involving the whole island which lasted until the recognition of the overlordship of Henry II.

            The traditional story of what happened after the death of Celsus has been distorted by Saint Bernard’s Life of Saint Malachy, as usually happens when there is only one adequate written source. But as Dr Samuel Johnson once remarked, No man is on his oath when composing an epitaph. It is not necessary to read St. Bernard too literally. Malachy O’Morgair, we are told, was a diligent student in Armagh who also led a devout life. Celsus ordained him deacon and made him responsible for looking after the elderly poor in the neighbourhood. At the age of twenty five, five years before the canonical age for ordination, Celsus ordained him priest and made him his personal assistant. St Bernard mentions that he introduced singing into the church services, which probably means the full Gregorian chant instead of the monotone chant. If the Sarum rite was introduced at this time Bernard would have mentioned it. More particularly we are told that he insisted on the practice of confession, of receiving confirmation, and the proper celebration of marriage. Malachy then asked permission to go to Lismore to study under Malchus O’Hanvery who had been bishop of Waterford and then archbishop (ard easbog?) of Cashel but who seems by this time to have retired to the monastery of Lismore.

            He was recalled to the north by an uncle who possessed the ruins and property of Bangor monastery, co. Down, among the Ulaid, which had been devastated by pirates. The monastery had been deserted, but the succession of abbots claiming to be coarbs of Saint Comgall (d. 603) was always maintained. Likewise the parallel succession of erenaghs. When the abbot, Oengus O’Gorman, who was also bishop of Down, died in Lismore in 1123, it would seem that Malachy’s uncle was the erenagh, and offered the monastery to his nephew. There was no dispute regarding the re-population of the monastery. Whether Malachy had been a professed monk before this is not clear though doubtless he had followed the monastic routine in Lismore. Malachy took ten monks from Armagh, took possession and built a little wooden oratory in 1124. He then proceeded to build a church in the latest Continental style that caused some comment. (According to D’Alton, the erenagh objected to the expense of paying for a stone church when a cheaper wooden one would do!) This building probably slightly preceded the building of Cormac’s chapel on Cashel (1127). It seems he did not immediately introduce a Continental Rule, nor does it seem that he was the abbot of the monastery. The first batch of Continental monks of a reformed Order to come to Ireland were Benedictine monks of the Order of Savigny who were brought in by the Dal Fiatach chief Niall MacDonlevy in 1127.Their monastery was about twenty miles south of Bangor, and in Malachy’s diocese. Almost (1124) immediately he was elected bishop of Down being with difficulty persuaded by Celsus and his former teacher in Armagh Ivor O’Hagan to accept. He also had charge of the vacant diocese of Connor. Basically, the diocese of Down was the present county Down whose chiefs were of the Dal Fiatach, while Connor was present county Antrim, whose chiefs were of the Dal nAraide. (This in no way implies that any local pre-Rathbreasail bishoprics had already been absorbed.)

            O’Hagan then founded a monastery of Augustinian canons dedicated to SS Peter and Paul in Armagh in 1126, apparently one of the earliest to adopt the new monastic rules. The old monastery of Armagh was one of the very few that never adopted one of the new Continental Rules. O’Hagan’s monastery seems to have been also within the rath of the cathedral. The O’Hagans were of the Cenel Fergus branch of the Ui Neill. The family were hereditary brehons of judges to the Ui Neill of Tullaghogue who were constantly at war with the MacLoughlins. Tullaghogue was about twenty miles north of Armagh and was under the O’Neill branch of the Cenel Eogain. Armagh was in Orior, a surprisingly durable independent chiefdom that survived until the seventeenth century.

             Bangor was forty five miles north-west of Armagh, in the territory of the Ulaid. Malachy continued to live in Bangor until driven out by raids seemingly by Conor MacLoughlin who burned churches in Connor and Bangor. This was the usual practice among Irish chiefs at the time, and seems to have occurred in 1127. Why precisely Malachy felt it necessary to abandon his diocese and monastery and seek refuge in Munster with Cormac MacCarthy is not clear. It is believed that his new monastery was near Waterville, in county Kerry (Shell Guide p. 458). There is no evidence that a rival bishop was intruded. Dolley suspects that the MacLoughlins were hostile to him (28).

            This and other incidents in his life lead us to believe that Malachy’s real inclination was to the monastic life, but not until he visited Clairvaux did he see realised what he had always desired. Personal religion was developing along with the reform of institutions. New religious orders were being established, several of them based on a pursuit of solitude and prayer, what was called fuga mundi or flight from the world.  It would seem too that none of the existing monasteries were providing for this desire. There were still schools of considerable repute in Armagh and Clonmacnoise, and probably also in Lismore. But whatever religious exercises were still carried on they were not remote from the world. His tutor Ivor at Armagh had at first been a recluse, or hermit, and then founded a monastery of canons regular. Malachy tried to govern his diocese from his monastery. When he fled or was expelled from Bangor he founded another monastery in the south of Ireland under the protection of Cormac McCarthy. Malachy’s problem all his life was that he was the most able and learned person among the reformers, and they wanted him to devote his life to the active works of a bishop.

            As mentioned above, the first of the new type of Continental orders arrived in 1127 when the local Ulaid chief, Niall MacDonlevy introduced a community of the order of Savigny, later to merge with the Cistercians. Though Niall is regarded as the lay founder, inasmuch that he provided land for their support, we can assume that he worked with his bishop, An Augustinian monastery was founded at Saul (or else it adopted the Augustinian Rule) in county Down after 1130, the second of the new Continental orders This was presumably done after consultation with Malachy. Malachy on his return to Bangor introduced the Augustinian canons to his cathedral in Downpatrick (1137). When travelling to Rome in 1139 to obtain the pallia for the two archbishops from the Pope he came across the Arrouaisian monastery in Artois, and adopted its interpretation of the Augustinian Rule. He also visited Clairvaux in Burgundy, and was struck by the life of the Cistercians under St. Bernard. When he came to Rome he asked leave of the Pope to retire to Clairvaux but permission was refused. He left four of his retinue there to be trained as Cistercians, and in 1141 the first Cistercians arrived in Ireland.

            The first Romanesque church in Ireland may have been started in Lismore about 1110 by Malchus O’Hanvery, but there is no direct evidence of this (Harbison, Potterton and Sheehy). Celsus re-roofed Armagh cathedral with shingles about 1125. No attempt was made to introduce stone vaulting. . Malachy’s church at Bangor, about which we have only a passing contemporary reference, was built in the modern style, anticipating Cormac’s Chapel by a year or two. About 1127 Cormac McCarthy commenced the building of the little Romanesque gem called Cormac’s Chapel on the Rock of Cashel, the MacCarthys having by this time established themselves in Cork city. Malachy introduced the Romanesque style when he rebuilt Bangor, but obviously had not the financial resources of Cormac. Gelasius in Armagh later rebuilt the cathedral in the modern style. These were not the first stone churches, for these had been built in an unadorned style for two hundred years. In Ireland, Romanesque features were largely restricted to the ornamentation of the stone carving. Even in this stone carving the number of motifs was restricted.

            Celsus and also the reforming clergy of Armagh had clearly wanted Malachy all along to be his successor, but on the death of Celsus in 1129 Clann Sinaich installed their own choice, Muirchertach (Murtagh or Mauritius) mac Domnaill (1129-34), after their custom. As far as we can see the reformers accepted the fait accompli, because Malachy was unwilling to force the issue. The lists in Moody, Martin, and Byrne recognise Murtagh (and his successor Niall mac Aedo 1134-37) only as abbots of Armagh but with possession of the temporalities, and they seem never to have sought to be consecrated bishops and to have discharged the episcopal office through a deputy like Mael Brigte Ua Brolchain of the Cenel Feradaig a collateral branch of the Cenel Eogain (Moody, Martin and Byrne 240-1, 280. Mael Brigte was probably bishop of the Ui Neill tuath of Derry not recognised at Rathbreasail). Installation of a layman as abbot would have been very simple. He probably would have had to sit in the abbot’s chair, and take hold of the crosier. Then he would have had all the rights to the moneys due to the see of Armagh. Celsus however had tried to take the precaution of sending the crosier, the bacall Iosa (the staff of Jesus), the traditional crosier of the bishops of Armagh, to Malachy. Murtagh was a cousin of Celsus, and Niall was a brother of Celsus. Niall mac Aedo used the bacall as symbol of his authority as he went around collecting the tribute (D’Alton).

            The reluctant Malachy was persuaded to seek proper canonical election as bishop of Armagh and coarb of St Patrick. He was consecrated bishop in 1132, so it would seem that he had not been consecrated bishop in Connor after his appointment. Murtagh made a circuit of the north to collect the tribute due to the coarb of St Patrick while Malachy made a similar circuit of Munster. This would have brought Malachy a useful revenue to support himself and his household

            When Murtagh died however in 1134, it was decided that Malachy should attempt to take possession of Armagh. It may be that Conor MacLoughlin was getting old and had survived an attempt to depose him in 1128, and so was unlikely to back the Clann Sinaich claimant too strongly. Malachy made the attempt in 1134 and was successfully installed in Armagh cathedral. Or it may be that the proposal that Malachy, after his installation in Armagh, should resign the see in favour of the abbot of Derry had already been put to MacLoughlin. Many of the events in this period are explicable only on the supposition of a personal animosity of Conor MacLoughlin either against Malachy or against his family. Malachy undertook to act as bishop until a neutral successor could be chosen, and he designated the abbot of Derry who was sympathetic to reform. Malachy was duly installed in 1134 and resigned in favour of Gelasius in 1136. All parties agreed this to and Gelasius MacRory (Gilla meic Leic of the Ui Briuin of Connaught) was duly consecrated and installed in 1137 and Malachy now returned to his diocese of Down. In 1137 the pretender Niall (Nigellus) fled from Armagh.  Malachy had previously been bishop of the two dioceses of Down and Connor, but on his return from Armagh, of Down only. (However no bishop was appointed to Connor until after Malachy’s death, so presumably Malachy remain in charge of both dioceses, though nominally only bishop of Down, and not Connor to which he had been originally appointed. One of his first acts was to install a community of canons regular in Down (later called Downpatrick) in the place of the former monastery in that place, which may have had few or no monks at the time. He continued to reside in Bangor and had his cathedral there. Conor MacLoughlin died in 1136 and was succeeded by his nephew Muirchertach (Murtagh) MacLoughlin who had difficulty in maintaining his position until he defeated Donal O’Gormley in 1145.

            It is worth noting a major difficulty that the reformers had when they were establishing a proper hierarchy, namely the persistence of clerical families who kept up the claim to the traditional tributes and gifts. The most conspicuous example was the monastic paruchia or family of Columcille and of the abbots of Derry who claimed to be the coarbs or successor in rights of that saint. The abbot of Iona was formerly the head but after the Viking invasions the title passed to either the abbot of Kells or the abbot of Derry. Gelasius MacRory, was abbot of Derry and coarb when he was elected Archbishop of Armagh in 1137 and was succeeded as coarb of Columcille by the abbot of Kells. About 1150 Flaibeartach O’Brolchain (Flaherty O’Brollaghan) the abbot of Derry was acting as coarb of St Columcille. The latter was of the branch of the Cenel Feradaig that had already given two acting bishops to Armagh (as opposed to the titular coarb) who got the revenues. Derry had been burned in 1149 so the following year 1150 Flaherty made an official visitation or circuit to collect his tribute. This has been described at the beginning of this chapter. Both Celsus and Malachy were able to collect tributes as far away as Munster. [Top]    

Visit to Rome

In 1139 after Malachy had returned to Down he set out for Rome to get formal approval of the Pope for the decisions of the Irish bishops and the synod of Rathbreasail in 1111. There can be little doubt that the decision to send Malachy was taken somewhat earlier, when he was bishop of Armagh, and probably when he was still in the south of Ireland. (D’Alton mentions in passing a synod at Cashel in 1134.) It was decided that quite a large body should accompany him. We can assume that several of them were monks from reformed monasteries, for four agreed to adopt the Cistercian Rule. Money would have to be collected for the journey. (Later practice was to borrow the money from Jews who were allowed to charge interest to Christians.)

             Both the journey itself, when all seemed to have been settled peacefully in Ireland, and the reply of the Pope make us suspect that we are not in possession of all the facts. There was no reason for the Pope to refuse to confirm the acts of a synod convoked and presided over by a papal legate and grant the pallia unless some person or persons were putting reasons before him. The Pope (Innocent II) agreed in principal with what had been decided at Rathbreasail, that there should be two provinces, each with twelve suffragans, and Malachy was advised to return to Ireland to implement this development and when all had been decided to convoke a national synod which would petition the Holy See for the pallia

             Malachy, travelling to the continent for the first time, made the personal acquaintance of two of the leading Continental reformers, Bernard of Clairvaux the Cistercian and Gervaise of Arrouaise of the Arrouaisian Canons. On his return to Ireland he began introducing their Rules. The first ruler to respond was Donough O’Carroll of Oriel.  Corish notes that by 1170 there were sixty monasteries in Ireland, especially in the North, following the Augustinian Rules, particularly in the Arrouaisian interpretation. Most women religious in medieval Ireland were to follow the Augustinian Rule.

             Donough O’Carroll of Oriel, was the chief lay founder of the first Cistercian monastery in Ireland at Mellifont probably on land belonging to the newly conquered Cianachta or Fir Arda Cianachta. After their year’s noviciate in Clairvaux, Malachy’s four companions, accompanied by some French monks including a builder, returned to Ireland. The scale of the new monastery in Romanesque style astonished everyone, so that Mellifont became known as the Great Monastery. (The first monastery was smaller than the later one, but traces of the original can still be found.) Though a comparatively simple building in what was called the Transitional style it showed what was to come. Some examples of the style still exist in Burgundy. As he had only made additional gifts in the case of Mellifont we can conclude that the endowments from the conquered lands had originally been under the southern Ui Neill. A great ceremony was held to mark the consecration of the church of Mellifont in 1157 which was attended in person by Murtagh MacLoughlin the over-king, anxious to get his share of the credit. Donough also founded a second Cistercian monastery at Newry in 1153 on the site of an ancient monastery. This could have been on lands of the Ui Eachach Choba, but possibly on lands of minor clans like the Boirche or Mugdorna.  It is interesting in this case that Murtagh MacLoughlin took the matter into his own hands and issued his own charter claiming the right to allow endowments by the chiefs of O’Neach (Iveagh Ui Eachach Choba) and Oirgialla (Oriel) (Canavan. Grants of land to Cistercian monasteries tended to be quite large tracts of unimproved land.

                Almost all of the major chiefs endowed a Cistercian monastery within their dominions. The northern Ui Neill seem to have been the exception doubtless because of their quarrels with St Malachy. The O’Mellaghlins of Clann Colmain on the other hand were quickly off the mark, founding Bective near Navan, co. Meath in 1146, the first daughter house of Mellifont. Dermot MacMurrough followed with Baltinglass about 1148. About the same time Boyle Abbey was founded in Connaught, and Turlough O’Brien founded Monasternenagh in Limerick, Inishlounacht among the Deise of Waterford. It should be remembered that Cistercian houses were intended to be rather small with not more than about twenty monks besides laybrothers. If the community reached thirty they were inclined to found a daughter house. But the most famous houses could have hundreds of monks in the Twelfth Century. The point about the Cistercians is that they provided a model for almost everything a progressive chief or bishop might require, correct books, correct chant, correct buildings, correct land management, correct and elegant writing of Latin and so on. The Order was founded by men who appreciated beauty almost as much as holiness. It was part of the Cistercian Rule that each foundation had to be provided with all the relevant books, each of which had to be copied by hand. Corish mentions that in 1216 several would-be Premonstratensians from Tuam arrived at the motherhouse at Prémontré in Belgium and had to be provided with all the necessary books but also with habits (Corish 41).

            But apart from the Cistercians the Benedictine Rule was not widely adopted. St. Mary’s Abbey outside Dublin belonged to the Benedictines of Savigny, but the whole group of monasteries transferred to the Cistercians in 1147. Very surprising was the absence of the Benedictines who were ubiquitous in England. John de Courci transferred the cathedral of Down from Bangor to Downpatrick and replaced the Augustinian community in Down with Benedictines from Cheshire. Hugh de Lacy founded another Benedictine monastery at Fore near Castlepollard, co. Westmeath.

            . The more flexible Augustinian Rule was more widely preferred. The reformers wanted religious priests living in a community for mutual support and able to perform all the religious exercises deemed appropriate at the time, like chanting the offices in church, administering the sacraments, preaching, and conducting funerals. The solution most widely adopted by the reformers was for individual monasteries to adopt the Rule of Saint Augustine and add on what they liked from the contemporary customaries. It would seem, as in the nineteenth century, the various monasteries largely reformed themselves. All that was needed was to choose or elect a reforming superior.  They formed by far the largest group of monasteries in medieval Ireland. Clearly too, pastoral work was still based largely on monasteries. The development or reform of the parish clergy was not their aim, nor does such an aim seem to have been taken seriously before the Reformation.

            It should be noted too that Rome, in the Twelfth Century, following the example of the Cistercians, tried as far as possible to get groups of monasteries following the same Rule to establish a general chapter of the superiors under a local superior general who would also be responsible for making regular ‘visitations’ of the monasteries in the confederation to maintain disciple and correct abuses. Though for some unexplained reason the monastery of Armagh which had adopted the Culdee reform some time earlier did not follow fashion and remained a Culdee house until its suppression at the Reformation.

            The Irish bishops too adopted the fashion of pulling down old-fashioned cathedrals and building larger ones in the modern style Gelasius, Malachy’s successor at Armagh began constructing Armagh cathedral on the modern scale, and to do this he had to first build a large limekiln. This reminds us that building in stone was still rare. In 1169 a similar re-building was commenced in Cashel. About 1180 the O’Briens began rebuilding the cathedral in Limerick in a style reflecting that of the Cistercians. The abbot of Derry Flaherty was busy restoring the old monastery at Derry. He cleared away houses and built a limekiln. Presumably it was with this building in mind that he so carefully collected the tribute due to the abbot of Derry. The building was commenced in 1164 and finished in 40 days. Presumably it was a very simple building in undressed stone, with small windows with round-headed arches, with timber rafters and wooden shingles if not actual thatch covering them. 

             A legatine commission was given to Malachy when he was returning to Ireland It is indicative of the difficulties in communicating with a large number of people whose consent was required in those days that it was not until 1148 that Malachy managed to convoke a synod. We may assume too that Rome had signified that the presence of laymen at a synod was no longer appropriate. There was no particular rule about the matter, but the general feeling of the Hildebrandian reformers was that the discussion of Church affairs was best restricted to clerics. It would assist Malachy too, as he would not have to pick from among the warring rulers one who would host the event. But this meant that he would have to find a neutral spot and finance it himself, though no doubt with the assistance of like-minded bishops.

            Malachy convoked the synod to meet on the island of Inispatrick opposite Skerries on the Dublin coast in the year 1148. There may still have been a monastery on the island but it would have been very small. No doubt the abbot was a reformer. Fifteen bishops and two hundred other clergy attended, with Malachy, bishop of Down and papal legate presiding in place of Gelasius of Armagh The Synod agreed to petition for the pallia and Malachy was again dispatched to Rome. He had to travel through Scotland because of a dispute between King Stephen and the Pope, and he managed only to reach Clairvaux in Burgundy where he died. The rest of his retinue continued on to Rome where they were received by Pope Eugenius III himself a former Cistercian abbot and disciple of St Bernard.

            The decision taken in Rome was to make four archbishoprics instead of two. Once again we are left guessing. The presumption must be that the clergy assembled at Inispatrick had requested four. The alternative possibility is that persistent lobbying by interested parties over the previous fifty years had finally paid off. Rome decided too to send its own representative to deal with the affairs in Ireland, the first since 432 AD and only the second ever, Cardinal Paparo as legatus a latere. The cardinal also had to travel through Scotland as Stephen in England objected to him, and discussed matters with the archbishop of Armagh and with the bishop of Lismore, Christian O’Conarchy, the first abbot of Mellifont who had been trained in Clairvaux. He arrived in 1151. [Top]   

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Synod of Kells           


            The synod he convoked met first at Kells on the 9 March 1152 and after a few days adjourned to Mellifont, the ‘Great Monastery’. As often we are left ignorant of details, and the question why the synod should first meet at Kells and then adjourn to Mellifont remain unanswered. Presumably Mellifont had larger and more suitable buildings in which to conduct the discussions. Chapter houses of monasteries were regularly used by secular and religious powers throughout the Middle Ages. Hence the question, why go to Kells in the first place, unless as a mark of respect to Gelasius, for it was one of the chief monasteries of the Columban federation? (The monastery was re-built and adopted the Rule of St Augustine, presumably before this date.) There were to be four provinces. In the northern half there were to be seventeen sees instead of thirteen. Armagh was to have nine suffragan sees in what was to become and remain the province of Armagh, Ardagh, Clogher, Clonard (Meath) Connor, Down, Duleek, Kells, Maghera and Raphoe. Only one additional see was created in this area, for Tiernan O’Rourke got his own see called Kells and later Kilmore after the O’Rourkes had lost that part of Meath. Clogher gained much of counties Monaghan and Louth and its seat was moved from Clogher to the monastery of Louth. This reflected the spread of the chiefdom of the O’Carrolls of Oriel in the twelfth century. The see of Ardstraw remained but the cathedral moved to Maghera. The monastery of Derry, despite the efforts of its new and energetic abbot O’Brolchain, did not get a see of its own. O’Brolchain nonetheless went ahead and built a large stone cathedral. There was still a lot of tidying up to be done. Hugh de Lacy made Trim his chief manor, and in 1206 the cathedral of Clonard was moved to Newtown Trim where it remained. The cathedral of Ardstraw/ Maghera was soon shifted to Derry. Dromore (Iveagh) was established in 1192.

             The four existing sees in O’Connor’s territory, Tuam, Clonfert, Cong, and Killala, were reorganised into Tuam as archbishopric, with Clonfert, Killala, Achonry, Elphin, Kilmacduagh, and Mayo, the latter monastery replacing that of Cong as the centre of the O’Flaherty see. Nor was the see of Clonmacnoise confirmed (see Moody, Martin, Byrne p.277). Clearly local rulers were here more successful in gaining a diocese for themselves. But neither Mayo nor Kilmacduagh proved viable in the long term. Mayo was of course the territory of the O’Flahertys (Ui Briuin Seola), Elphin the territory of Ui Briuin Ai or Sil Muiredaig, Clonfert the land of the Ui Maine, Kilmacduagh of the Ui Fiachrach Aidne, and Killala of the Ui Fiachrach Muaide. Kells/Kilmore represented the greatest expansion of the Ui Briuin Breifne. The only secondary families to get recognition were the Luigne as Achonry and the Conmaicne as Ardagh. (Strictly speaking Orior was on a par with these lesser families, but it contained the cathedral of Armagh.) The only importance of Tuam, then or any other time was that it was a monastery near the powerbase of the O’Connors. Despite Rathbreasail the first bishop of Ardagh is recorded in 1152.There was a considerable amount of tidying to be done here as well. Mayo survived until 1240. The diocese of Annaghdown was probably created in 1179 as the O’Flaherty diocese and lasted until 1580.

            The number of sees in the southern half was increased from thirteen to nineteen. Dublin was now recognised and given the five sees in Leinster at the expense of Cashel: Ferns, Glendalough, Kildare, Kilkenny, and Leighlin remaining unchanged.

            In Munster, Cashel was assigned sees at Ardfert, Ardmore, Cloyne, Cork, Emly, Kilfenora, Killaloe, Limerick, Lismore, Roscrea, Ross, Scattery Island, and Waterford. A decision was delayed on Mungret. Cork was the new power centre of the MacCarthys  (Eoganacht Caisil) and Lismore the territory of the Deisi. There was a bishop in Cork some time before 1148, and was presumably a McCarthy appointment. In Munster the major change was the insertion of the large diocese of Cloyne between Lismore and Cork. Cloyne, sometime before 1148 had been designated as the diocese of the Eoganacht Glenamnach (Glanworth co Cork), the Fir Maige Fene (Fermoy, co. Cork, and the Ui Liathain (in east Cork) which presumably were dominated by a single warlord at the time, and was recognised at Inispatrick (Moody, Martin, Byrne p 294). This part, unlike Cork, rendered easy pickings to the Normans a few decades later. Ardfert represented the Ciaraige, Killaloe the O’Brien lands. Emly survived more out of respect for Saint Ailbe than for any other reason. The Corcu Loigde on the seacoast successfully claimed the right to a diocese (Ross), while Scattery Island monastery was made into a bishopric to represent the Corcu Baiscind and the remnants of the Ui Fidgente of Limerick. Kilfenora represented the territory of the Corcu Mruad and Roscrea the territory of Eile. Like the Luigne and Conmaicne in Connaught these lesser additions seem to represent older families displaced but not eliminated by the Eoganacht and Ui Neill. Ross remained independent almost until the present day. Ardmore remained for about fifty years. Roscrea lasted about thirty years. Scattery Island lasted until the end of the twelfth century. Kilfenora lasted until 1750.The temporalities of Lismore were transferred to Waterford in 1356 and the two dioceses were united.

             Even so most of the lesser dioceses were small and in remote less fertile areas that did not permit much economic surplus even when trade and agriculture developed in the Middle Ages. They never were able to support a large episcopal household or chapters of learned canons able to advise the bishop on points of theology or canon law, or to teach in schools and colleges. Dublin was perhaps the only diocese in Ireland that could match a typical diocese in England, France or Germany. Being unable to support the full medieval panoply of Church organisation was not necessarily a bad thing. We know it worked well in the nineteenth century. Paparo suggested that suppressed bishoprics should be made rural deaneries (Church of Ireland Gazette 30 March 1900). He left Ireland immediately on the completion of the synod.

                By the end of the century a considerable part of the property belonging to the old monasteries and bishoprics had been transferred to the new bishoprics with the agreement of the local chiefs. Even as late 1210 transfers of monastic lands to the bishop were being made in Tuam (Otway-Ruthven 39). The solution was to recognise the erenaghs as hereditary tenants of the Church to which they would pay a yearly rental for their lands. Not that ecclesiastical revenues were simple. M’Kenna, in dealing with the revenues of the bishop of Clogher in 1610 quotes from the Inquisition made in that year. ‘Of the eight quarters of herenagh land in the parish of Clogher £3 18s 0d per annum, and yearly refection upon each several quarter, or in lieu thereof the value of the rents together with fines for bloodshed, as well within the said eight quarters as within the said mensal lands; and also eight gallons of ale out of every brewing, namely seven to the bishop and one to his seneschal’ (M’Kenna 144).  Episcopal  lands in Ireland were divided into mensales and censuales; these latter were let out  to the bishop. on the condition that they feed  him and his followers  for so many days in the year; they were of the nature of coshering and were expected twice a quarter or oftener; the bishop might arrive with a retinue of a couple of hundred; the mensal lands were situated near the cathedral and were to supply the bishop's table and to allow him  to dispense hospitality; if the bishop did not visit the censuales  an equivalent amount  was sent  to him’ Article in Dublin Chronicle 1 March 1788. Obviously the sources of revenue for the Irish Church had not changed much by the time of the Reformation). The dues from the erenaghs were almost certainly unchanged from the twelfth century, except for the permission to compound the rents for a fixed sum in cash. This was in addition to desmesne or mensal lands not in the hands or erenaghs. If these had been taken over from monasteries the coarbs of the monastery also retained their rights. They were treated like the erenaghs (Dublin Chronicle 1 March 1788. Also considerable progress had been made in securing exemption from lay taxation of individual monasteries. In 1161 the abbot of Derry was to secure the exemption for twelve Columban monasteries. It is difficult to assess the amount and extent of these exemptions for very shortly with the feudalisation of Church lands the clergy became subject to the usual royal demands for subsidies. Even in the Gaelic areas exactions from local chiefs were still a problem late in the thirteenth century (Otway-Ruthven 38).

            Finally the primacy of Armagh was recognised, but this meant little more than a primacy of precedence for it conferred almost no powers except the right to convoke a national synod and preside over it (Dolley 39ff, Moody, Martin and Byrne, IX passim, Keenan). It should be noted that by not giving a province to Meath Ireland came to have four provinces instead of five. But altogether the system established proved remarkably durable The number of independent dioceses today is about twenty eight, depending on what definition is taken of independence. It may well be that the number of bishops in Ireland had always been around that number.

            As so often we are left guessing about what other matters were discussed. There seem to have been the denunciations common at the time of simony and clerical concubinage. It is doubtful if a law or canon was ever passed making the celibacy of priests’ compulsory in either Ireland or Wales, or for that matter most of Europe. Yet the Hildebrandine reformers seem to have regarded all married priests as having concubines not wives. [Top]                        

Implementing the Reforms 

            The organisation of parishes and the recognition of proper persons presented by the local communities, or local landowners, or local chiefs, must have been a matter of considerable local negotiation. The basic principle was that the local community provided the church building, and the means of supporting the priest, and presented a proper person to the bishop, whether already ordained or not for his installation. The coming of the feudal system simplified this, for the parish could be made co-terminous with the manor, and the responsibility for the parish church made that of the lord of the manor. The decline of the tuath left no one with a definite obligation or right to provide a local parish church, and parishes, like monasteries were doubtless often set up in accordance with the whims of local chiefs. As noted in an earlier chapter, this did not necessarily mean that the ordinary person was far distant from a church he wished to attend. Proximity might still mean within several miles. It is not clear if any attempt was made to provide a parochial clergy who were not monks or canons before the coming of the Normans, or indeed before the Reformation. As late as the fifteenth century, many monasteries still controlled the tithes, and would therefore appoint vicars rather than rectors (Corish 52).

             The land of the monastery or parish still belonged to the tuath unless, as was probably the case with the better-endowed monasteries it had belonged to a conquered territory. Whole new concepts such as that of mortmain had to be introduced into Irish legal terminology. The meant the total alienation or abandonment of the property from the original owners. The properties were not handed over to the bishop; rather they were dedicated in perpetuity to the purposes of the original donors and their successors. Thus a property like a townland granted for the support of a parish priest could not be used for any other purpose, like the support of a member of a chapter. Still less could it be used for the support of the chief’s relatives, except of course by making the relative a cleric. To establish a chapter for the cathedral a reforming bishop like St. Malachy would have founded it easier to take land donated for the support of a monastery and use it for the support of a community of regular canons. The introduction into Ireland of Norman law and practice, and the large amount of forfeited lands distributed to the newcomers no doubt speeded up the processes introduced by the reformers.

            It would appear too that the Roman rites in the form of the usages of Sarum (Salisbury) were adopted at this time, though the universal adoption of the Sarum rite may have come after the arrival of the Normans. We are so used to the Clementine editions of the Roman liturgical books (c.1600) where everything that the celebrant required for each service for each day of the year was collected in one book, that we find it difficult to conceive a time when such books did not exist. (The two principal Clementine books were the missal that contained all the masses for the year, and the breviary that contained all the other daily offices. The Anglican Book of Common Prayer is an abbreviation of both.) There was an extreme diversity of practice within a general framework. The non-monastic priests, if any survived, were probably entirely ignorant of even the basic elements of the rites, having received only a general instruction, most likely from his father, about what to do.

            These matters however do not seem to have occupied much of the time of the episcopal reformers. The introduction of the new religious orders like the Cistercians would have provided exemplars in every diocese of how all rites should be conducted, how all chants should be sung, and each monastery would have been provided with complete copies of the best available manuscripts of all the books in the Bible. The Cistercians were very particular about this. An observant monastery would have had at least manuscripts of most of the books of the New Testament, the Psalter and several books of the Old Testament, a copy of the unvarying parts of the mass, a graduale containing the texts and chants of the variable parts of the mass, and some texts of the Fathers of the Church. From these a service for any given feast could be constructed. So if any aspirant to the priesthood wanted instruction he would have known where to get it. Ignorance by rural clergy of the Latin language does not appear to have been considered a problem anywhere in the Middle Ages. If nuns could commit the entire Psalter to heart, and most if not all the six thousand Gregorian chants, so too could parish priests. But no provision seems to have been made for the instruction of the rural clergy.

            The matter of Church reform has been dealt with at some length in this chapter, for the coming of the Normans made little or no difference to its general character. . By 1252 it is likely that most of the aspirations of the prelates at Kells had been realised.

            After 1153 the reforming movement continued in full swing. In 1158 Murtagh MacLoughlin convened a synod at Bri mic Taidg in Meath. The chief purpose seems to have been to confirm the reforms of Flaherty O’Brolchain, abbot of Derry in the Columban paruchia or confederation of monasteries, and to agree that Derry should be a see. Flaherty had become abbot of Derry about 1150, and was of the Cenel Feradaig. Doubtless the main purpose was to bring the paruchia within the new diocesan system, and it would help if the senior abbot was also a bishop. The archbishop of Armagh at the time was Gelasius or Gilla mac Liag. He too had been erenagh of Derry and coarb of Columcille. Malachy selected him as his successor when the latter in 1138 had resigned from the archbishopric because of local opposition. Gelasius proved more acceptable. He too carefully collected the tributes due to him, built a limekiln and prepared to build a large cathedral. At Kells in 1152 he was formally recognised as archbishop by Cardinal Paparo. In 1162 he summoned a synod at Clane in Kildare which was attended by 26 bishops. . One of its decrees was to enact that the office of lector in theology should only be conferred on clerics who had studied in Armagh. This would imply that the level of study of theology in other Irish centres of learning was not too high. It also strongly condemned the descent of the coarbship to Clann Sinaich. There is no doubt that the latter were just waiting for the archbishop to die before reclaiming what they considered their lawful rights. (Gelasius was an outsider, his father having been a file to the Ui Briuin of Connaught.

            In Dublin Lawrence O’Toole (of the Ui Muiredaig branch of the Ui Dunlainge conquered by Dermot MacMurrough) became archbishop of Dublin, having previously been abbot of Glendalough. Gelasius of Armagh confirmed him as archbishop in 1162. Dermot by this time had married a sister of Lawrence, so he made sure his brother-in-law was chosen. He succeeded in getting the canons of Christ Church cathedral to adopt the Arrouaisian version of the Rule of St Augustine, and he himself joined the community. In 1167 he attended the synod called by Rory O’Connor at Athboy in co. Meath. Dermot MacMurrough strongly promoted the religious reforms. He founded a convent for Augustinian nuns and subjected two other convents to it. He founded monasteries at Baltinglass (Cistercian) and Ferns (Augustinian Canons) and a priory outside Dublin, also for Augustinians of Arrouaise. Another enthusiastic promoter both of religion and his family’s territorial ambition was Donough O’Carroll of Oriel. He re-founded St. Mochta’s monastery at Louth, co. Louth and made it the cathedral church of the diocese of Clogher (Oriel) and introduced the Rule of Augustinian Canons. He provided all the office books necessary as well. He ensured that a proper diocesan bishop was installed and the new regulations were enforced in his territory. He introduced the practice of paying tithes, and also saw that the new rules of marriage were enforced or at least introduced. He assisted in the rebuilding of churches and belfries, in the restoration of monasteries and hermitages. He also helped to build or re-build a monastery and a convent for Augustinian canons and canonesses at Termonfechin, also apparently a parochial church in the same area and a ‘great church’ at an unspecified place. (All these apparently in the territory of the Fir Arda Cianachta, and all doubtless endowed with confiscated lands. Corish, 36, Shell Guide, Louth, Termonfechin.) [Top]                           

Military Matters

            As was normal, Irish practice followed that of Britain and the Continent with some delay, but also with adaptation to the conditions of the country. Cavalry was now common in Ireland and was to become ever more common up until 1690. Social prestige and convenience had perhaps more to do with this than military necessity. But only light cavalry differing little from the auxiliary cavalry units of the Roman army were used. The Normans especially developed the compact body of heavy horses with the rider and horse protected with mail and the rider using a long heavy lance held level under arm. It was something few could withstand except in very well prepared positions. Given steady troops and time to prepare a position, the cavalry charge could be stopped by such means as driving pointed stakes into the ground in front of the infantry. The weapon of the light cavalryman was still the light spear held overhead and thrust downwards. Though we hear of various chiefs possessing bodies of cavalry it is not clear how they were used, and if in fact they were used in battle at all. Horsemen have always had many roles to play in armies. One was to gather information about the country and the dispositions of the enemy. Another was to try to attack the enemy in line of march. Another was for foraging and driving off cattle. But perhaps the most important was the chevachee or mounted expedition to burn, pillage, and loot. As this was the favourite form of Irish warfare and the horse was so eminently suitable for it we must wonder why cavalry had not been adopted in Ireland (and indeed in Britain and Scandinavia) far sooner.

            With regard to foot-soldiers it must not be imagined that the Irish were particularly outclassed. Either with regard to the ranks who composed it, their armour and weapons, or their support and training. They had been fighting against and along with the Vikings for centuries. The fighting men were still as they always had been members of the ruling families bred to raiding and warfare from their earliest youth, and engaged in hunting in times of peace. It is very difficult to estimate how numerous these were. It is probable that they were somewhat more numerous than at the time of the Roman Empire, but not as numerous as they were in the seventeenth century. By that latter time the ruling classes seem to have expropriated most or all of the fertile land for their own support and the support of their horses. It was estimated that Rory O’Connor in a major hosting could call out 30,000 men (Hayes-McCoy 31) but even if we reduce this estimate drastically we probably have a figure of 10,000 to oppose the 2,500 Normans with probably an equal number of Leinstermen. A hosting of this size must have been altogether exceptional but not impossible just as Brian Boru’s army of 2,500 at Clontarf was probably exceptional. It is reasonable to assume that a supreme warlord in Ireland could have increased the numbers he could call on by that extent in two hundred years.

            But the quality of such massive call-outs anytime and anywhere in the Middle Ages or later was probably not high, for we notice the very small establishments kept by rulers in the Middle Ages. As late as 1798 a single properly trained and disciplined regiment of several hundred men could probably have defeated a mob of 30,000 armed with pikes and scythes. In a very poor country like Ireland the problems of maintaining an army of 10,000 men would have limited the time they could stay together as a fighting force. They had to drive all their food along with them, so camp followers, men and women, were probably as numerous as the fighting men, and most or all of the cattle would have been seized from the lands they passed through. The fighting quality of most of the army was probably also very poor. We are only guessing, but each tuath probably did not supply more than twenty or thirty first-class warriors who could march and fight continuously. Whenever needed massive numbers could be recruited on the understanding that they could go home to reap the harvest.

            Rory O’Connor probably had about 2500 well-armed and experienced fighters to oppose the Normans, and no doubt man for man, physically and with regard to their weapons they were equal to their opponents in a straight fight in open country.  The great initial advantage of the Normans, the charge of the heavy cavalry, was a declining asset, for the way to defeat it was to decline combat on ground suitable for a cavalry charge. The other advantage which the Normans had, and which the Government in Dublin continued to some extent to have down the centuries, was experience in Continental warfare. This experience was derived from fighting the greatest military powers in Europe and the Middle East. Almost certainly among the seasoned troops were professional warriors, men whom the local chiefs kept in their own households and who formed his personal bodyguard not least against his own relatives. These were from the free, not noble classes and would correspond to the Anglo-Saxon and Danish housecarls. These came to be called kernes. Kerne or cateran in Scotland came to mean a freebooter of marauder. But later in the Middle Ages the chiefs relied increasingly on professional soldiers mostly brought over from the Gaelic-Norse of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. These did not normally live in the chief’s house but had lands of their own assigned to them. These were the gallowglasses.

            It should be noted that neither the Irish chiefs nor the English kings maintained standing armies. As late as the Napoleonic Wars, when the king of England wanted extra troops, he called on local noblemen to raise regiments. The Connaught Rangers for example were raised by Col. de Burgh in 1793.

            Their weapons were the traditional ones, with slashing weapons like battleaxes and swords still the favourites. Spears and javelins were used for throwing. Archers were apparently not used. Interestingly there was a general tendency on all sides later in the Middle Ages to adopt the light javelin instead of the arrow perhaps because in Irish woods where the highways were plashed the heavier spear or javelin was less likely to be deflected or had greater penetrative power through hurdles or wicker screens. 

            The Irish chiefs had by this time adopted the Norse practice of using fleets of ships. A major campaign normally included a fleet sailing along the coast in conjunction with the army marching inland. This was only of use if the enemy had a seacoast that could be attacked. The defender then had to muster his own fleet and divide his forces. The exact shape of the Irish and Norse boats in the twelfth century is a matter of some conjecture, but it is reasonable to assume that both sides used the development of the Norse longboat devised by King Alfred, the dragon boat, with a higher deck amidships to give the fighting men an advantage. It is unlikely that the ‘castles’ then being built on English ships, fore and aft in time of war, were being used, for their purpose was to accommodate archers. Sea fights could occur, but the purpose of a fleet was more to ravage and harry. It was a variant of the chevachee

            The Normans did not introduce the building of castles. Already, in the first half of the twelfth century, Turlough O’Connor was building 'castles' in Connaught. What was called the first castle in Ireland was built at Athlone in 1129 to control the crossing of the river there. The crossing of the Shannon at this point was of the utmost strategic importance and remained so until well into the nineteenth century. (It was assumed that any Spanish or French invasion would be on the west coast and would try to cross the Shannon at Athlone. Conversely, the positioning of a garrison and military stores at Athlone would allow the quickest response to an invasion.) This reminds us that the rath or lios of an Irish chief was not usually heavily defended, though there were exceptions. The Vikings had selected places that were naturally hard to attack. At Dunseverick in Antrim, and at Carrickbracky in Inishowen were places from which it proved hard to dislodge defended. Neither the Rock of Cashel nor Grianan Aileach had to be besieged. Turlough's fort was on the east bank in the territory of the Ui Maine. When the Normans seized the crossing they built their fort on the west bank and it was there the town grew up.) The earliest O’Connor castles from the 1120s, at Galway, on the Shannon and its tributary the Suck seem to have been placed against sea-raids. The idea was that the raiding party could not move inland leaving its ships unprotected while the garrison in the castle was unsubdued. This had been a central part of King Alfred’s strategy.  Turlough’s castles were not very different from the wooden fortification built by the Normans. They would have been simple defensible points made from logs and earth using natural defensive features of the terrain. [Top]     

The Economy

            There is little doubt that the general improvement in the economy of Europe which commenced after the year 1000 also affected Ireland, though as in other cultural spheres not noticeably until about 1100. It also seems true that the great developments on the Continent in drainage, land reclamation, improved husbandry, increased trade, manufacturing, and urbanisation were not very marked in most of the country until the seventeenth century. The Normans introduced many of these improvements when they came. But it does not follow that there were no improvements before their coming.

            Heavier horses were being imported from Britain, but whether this was primarily for farm work or military purposes is unclear (O’Corrain 58). There was also a great importation of wine in the twelfth century that surprised Giraldus and obviously corresponding exports to pay for it. Wine was for the richer people alone, so we have an indication of the concentration of wealth. The exports continued to be hides for leather and the ‘forest products’ of all northern countries, though Ireland was not as well endowed with these as the Baltic countries and Russia, and later America. Timber was an export until the seventeenth century, but when the export commenced is difficult to say. There can be little doubt however that the Norse trading centres could not have prospered without the slave trade. The greater Irish chiefs had an inexhaustible supply of useful prisoners with which to pay for their imports of luxuries. O’Corrain however considers that most slaves were imported not exported. But if this was the case, what was being exported?

            Trade by this time was being concentrated in the Viking towns, all seaports, but the old trade over the beaches through the local chiefs continued in places until the end of the Middle Ages. With the Viking towns came the use of coinage, though much, and indeed probably most Irish business was conducted without cash at least until well on in the eighteenth century. The town of Bristol handled a considerable part of the Irish trade. The men of Bristol were not strangers to the chiefs of Leinster. (Rather strangely, Henry of Anjou spent some years in Bristol when he was a small boy, so the chiefs of Leinster were not utter foreigners to him.)

            Rory O’Connor was inaugurated as high king in Dublin in 1166. There were no Viking towns in Connaught anymore than there were in the lands of the Ui Neill. Nor were there any in the interior of Ireland. The O’Briens had Limerick, the MacCarthys had Cork, while there were several towns along the east coast.

                A ploughland was comparable in size to a townland or vill, and twenty ploughlands would equal a fifth of a cantred. It was expected that these knights would introduce the manorial system of cultivation to increase their revenue, but how exactly they went about it is unclear. Though the manorial system was introduced in Meath, it was not in the Earldom of Ulster, which nevertheless developed a market economy, McNeill in Brady, Dowd and Walker 48.)

                The other thing that the Normans everywhere had to do, as lands came into their hands, was to introduce the manorial system of agriculture. This was focussed largely on tillage, so the Norman settlers preferred grants in ploughable land. This also necessitated the immigration of people who had the necessary skills. The growing population in western Europe meant that there was always a good supply of skilled immigrants.

            The introduction of Norman organisation and practice result in a huge increase in output. McNeill notes that in Ulster by the year 1300 the revenues of a parish in Norman hands could equal those of a diocese in Irish hands. The revenues of a diocese could increase sixteenfold when in Norman hands. Not all of this can be attributed to increased productivity, but to more regular collection of tithes.

            Norman lands had greater opportunities for exporting to Britain, so agricultural exports could be readily increased. The great ports for exporting were Waterford, Ross, and Cork, followed by Dublin and Drogheda. Waterford, Ross, and Drogheda were on rivers that were navigable for up to twenty miles inland, which would make the export of corn and flour in barrels feasible. Beyond that hides and wool would have to be transported on horseback. The Norman lords like their contemporaries elsewhere in Europe tried to establish market towns, to increase production and exchange. At least fifteen were established in the Earldom of Ulster, though some never became more than tiny hamlets (MacNeill in Brady, Dowd, and Walker). There were fourteen or fifteen in medieval Kildare. In Dublin, there is an extant list of 1600 inhabitants whose trades are given as goldsmiths, tailors, shoemakers, weavers, mercers, cordwainers, tanners, saddlers, lorimers, smiths, carpenter, masons, fishermen, vintners, bakers, butchers, and millers (Otway-Ruthven 124). Obviously, all these trades had been exercised in Ireland before, but here we have them in one town, and supported largely by what they could sell. In places the manorial system was introduced, with a three-crop rotation, but this was not done everywhere. The population in the whole of western Europe was increasing rapidly, and this resulted in a demand for land. Many farmers and other workers poured into Ireland. 

As has been pointed out before in this book, most of the island was not cultivated. Almost every tuath was separated from its neighbour. The dioceses were made from among the existing settlements, but the boundaries of the dioceses were somewhere in the belts of forests. Wider belts everywhere separated the provinces. By the twelfth century, as elsewhere in Europe there were probably many assarts or clearings in the forests, and lesser chiefs driven from the good lands to make some kind of independent living, in clearings and settlements among the forests and bogs chiefly by cattle raiding. These lesser chiefs, who were often bandits, survived because they were tough. They were like the rievers and blackmailers along the Welsh and Scottish borders, and like  them they often survived into the sixteenth century. Much of this land was marginal to tillage, but while the climatic optimum in the early Middle Ages it was possible to establish the manorial system. (The deterioration of the climate in the later Middle Ages meant that farms had to be abandoned, and the old system of cattle-rearing revived in places.) [Top]  

Irish Society

            It has long been recognised that Irish society was constantly changing and that the kind of society described in the law codes lasted only a short time, if indeed it ever existed in one place at one time. The same trends towards concentration of power seen elsewhere in Europe were evident also in Ireland. The chief of the local tuath (ri tuaithe) was no longer the pivotal person, but the chief of the province (ri ruirech). By the twelfth century these had gathered most of the powers into their own hands. They claimed the right within their own province (and those who could assert a claim to the overkingship of Tara in the other provinces) to appoint and depose rulers, and to seize and dispose of lands. As O’Corrain noted (p.32) the developments which gave rise to feudalism in Europe occurred in Ireland too.

            This was the period of the great territorial expansion of the leading clans whose chiefs systematically plundered and conquered the lands of the neighbouring clans, seized their lands and distributed them among their followers, and to the Church. These relatives, not the conquered chiefs, became vassals (urraghs) though some conquered chiefs like the MacMahons of Oriel were regarded as urraghs. Later they were known as septs. It became the policy of the crown in Tudor times to subject the urraghs directly to the crown and not to their overlord. This was Hugh O’Neill’s chief grievance against Elizabeth. In the Middle Ages the structure of Gaelic society closely resembled the feudal structure in Norman Ireland. But in the twelfth century the transition was just taking place.

            The compact of the Ui Neill to alternate the chieftainship between the northern and southern branches probably resulted in losing the only chance to establish a unified monarchy in the whole of Ireland. So from the eleventh century onwards when domination of the entire British Isles became feasible, the Irish chiefs, like the Welsh, were not in a position to be contenders. The Scottish king, on the other hand, though he ruled a poorer land was always in a more powerful position regarding the king of England, and until the reign of Stephen was still claiming to rule Northumbria. In effect Henry of Anjou was able to claim the overlordship of Tara for himself and treat all the others as urraghs. Had there been a single powerful unchallenged king in Ireland in the twelfth century there is little doubt that they would have interfered in England during Stephen’s troubled reign. The claim of the Norse king of Dublin to rule in York would have been a sufficient pretext.

            Irish society had developed in much the same way as the feudal society even if not bound by theories of feudalism. The ri tuaithe ceased to be a significant figure, except locally. He became what in England came to be called the squire, the principal landowner in a parish. Above him were the ruiri or mesne or intermediate chief and the ri ruirech or provincial king. Various chiefs were trying to establish themselves as ard ri or over chief. This was not an institution, but a position a powerful military ruler could hold as long as he could command the forces to do so. O’Corrain cites an example of the territory of a ri ruirech named O’Driscoll in Cork, diocese of Ross. He controlled six lordships, originally tuatha. The chief of the tuath was no longer called ri but tuisech or leader. Within the tuath there were from five to fifteen lesser lords called an oglaech (young warrior) a title that clearly corresponds to miles (knight or knecht). These were obviously the successor of the lower degrees of lords such as the aire desa or aire echta. There were thirty-six of these in O’Driscoll’s territories. If the schematic division of society in the lawcodes ever existed of seven grades of lords and seven grades of freemen it had clearly been simplified. Almost certainly too these various grades of lords would have owned several family farms or townlands, and allowed the original cultivators to remain in possession subject to heavy duties of coshering and other contributions. When transport is poor it makes more sense for a chief and his retinue to move from farm to farm than to try to transport the food to a fixed point (O’Corrain 171-2). Given that a tuath could contain 20,000 acres of which not more than a quarter was arable, and the rest unimproved pasture for cattle, and that there were several lords with multiple holdings on these 20,000 acres, and that provision had also to be made for indispensable members so the free classes like smiths and carpenters, the top heavy nature of society become evident.

            One way or another, the chiefs were getting more and more control of the land in Ireland. We can assume that the lesser lords or gentlemen were clients of the chief, in free clientship, but who definitely owed revenues and returns to the chief. Increasingly too, the landowners were relatives of the chiefs. In two parishes in Clogher in 1659, there were 112 MacMahons, 91 McKennas, 69 O’Duffys, and 56 O’Connollys (M’Kenna 244). O’Corrain notes that in the twelfth century there were 200 families belonging to the Dal Cais in east Clare where there had been none four centuries earlier. As he remarks, they and their families must have represented a sizeable part of the better class of farmer (45). 

                At the lower end of the social scale, if there ever had been the complicated structure of the law codes, by the twelfth century it closely resembled that of contemporary England The free farmer (saertach) still existed, if only because the chiefs had not been able to reduce them all to clientship. The client farmer or biatach was much more profitable to the lord for he had to pay higher dues. The biatach or betagh was gradually being reduced to penury by the exactions of the lords. As O’Corrain remarks, rack-renting was common among the Gaelic landowners at least from the thirteenth century. The third category was the dimain who had no land of his own, and who may have been a sharecropper, or perhaps a cottar who was given a small patch of land in return for cultivating the lord’s lands. The other smaller people mentioned in an earlier chapter, keeping alive by one means or another, doubtless still survived. The tribute due to the coarb of St Columcille illustrates the social structure. A gold ring, and a horse and harness from Murtagh MacLoughlin as king of Ireland, and 20 cows from him as king of Aileach; a horse from every chief of whom there were 50; a cow from every two biatachs or great farmers; a cow from every 3 saertachs or free tenants; a cow from every 4 diomhains or men of lesser means. Doubtless lesser folk provided a sheep or a share in a sheep.  As their lands were seized minor chiefs and landowners were pushed down the social scale. Relatives of the chiefs seized most of the land. O’Corrain notes that this process was well advanced in the O’Brien lands by the twelfth century (p44 f). (For an interesting comparison see Ellis on the situation in Tudor times (Ellis).

            O’Corrain refers to excessive exactions, and many judges without justice. It is unlikely that these practices were new. What was new was that free and ‘noble’ families were being now subjected to them. [Top]

Art, Architecture and Learning

            Some stone churches had been built in Ireland before 1100, but they seem to have been simple affairs following a simple plan common on the Continent in Merovingian times. (Harbison, Potter, Sheehy, p. 80) Architecture revived at the same time as Church reform and the first essay in the Romanesque style was probably in Lismore about 1110 (op.cit. p. 81). Until the arrival of the Continental monastic orders little more was done than to adopt the carved stone ornamentation. This ornamentation was not a straight copy from exemplars in England, thought English influence was strong. Rather the new motifs were blended with the Viking-influenced art of the previous centuries. To this period belongs Cormac’s Chapel on the Rock of Cashel which was more elaborate than any other Irish Romanesque church but which found no imitators. Cormac McCarthy, the Eoganacht chief of Cork (1123-38) built it between 1127 and 1134, though the lands of Cashel had already in 1101 been handed over by Murtagh O’Brien to the proposed see of Cashel. It would seem that Malachy in Bangor had already introduced the more elaborate Continental architecture. There may indeed have been several other Romanesque churches in the Continental style that did not survive. All of them were very small. Cormac’s chapel survived because, when fifty years later a larger cathedral was required a more spacious site was found nearby and the old cathedral was left as it was. The Cistercians who came to Mellifont in 1140 introduced the Burgundian Transitional style in accordance with the Cistercian rule that each monastery should be built to a common plan. The church itself was small and was later replaced by a much larger one. Boyle abbey in Roscommon built at the end of the century, still in the Transitional style, is regarded as a better example of the early Cistercian churches. (Transitional indicates the presence of certain characteristic Gothic features like pointed arches in an otherwise typical Romanesque church.)    

            From 1150 to 1250 was one of the most important periods of Irish architecture. Like in the nineteenth century almost every church was rebuilt, or if none existed one was provided. As in the nineteenth century a tightening of discipline among the monastic orders and the introduction of new orders led to more and more monastic churches being built. The relative poverty of Ireland in both centuries meant that architecture had to be kept as simple as possible and usually within the competence of local builders. Complex structures involving stone vaulting and flying buttresses were avoided.  The main effort regarding ornamentation went into windows and doorways. As in the nineteenth century the results were competent rather than outstanding. At Inch Abbey (c. 1190) lancet Gothic was introduced. Most of the stonework was undressed except for the quoins at the corners, and where dressed stone is found it is usually from later in the Middle Ages. But undressed stone remained the norm throughout the Middle Ages.

            It is usually forgotten but stonework was always brightly painted in bold primary colours more reminiscent of a fair or a circus nowadays. All timber structures had to be given at least a coat of resin from pine trees as a preservative. But stonework, especially undressed stonework bound with a soft lime mortar also benefited from a waterproof coat. Resins, nowadays artificial, but then natural, form the base of all paints. The resin was dissolved in a solvent like linseed oil from flax or turpentine from pine trees. This spread the coat of resin evenly and thinly. The solvent evaporated in the course of a few days leaving a hard waterproof coating of resin behind. But though resin could be used this way as a varnish it was far more common to add coloured pigments. These would normally be formed from ground minerals. Unlike dyes which were absorbed into wood or textiles they were bound in the resin. The addition of bright colours was only for ornamentation and display. This reminds us of important differences between the religious mentality of the Middle Ages and that of Northern Europe in the post-Reformation period. Light and colour predominated, and as building skills improved so did the size of the windows. A deep religious gloom in the interior of a church was utterly foreign to them. So too were slow lugubrious chants. The Cistercians were instructed to chant in a brisk and lively fashion. The triumph of the Risen Christ was still the dominant theme.

             The two great cathedrals in wealthy Dublin were the exception. The coming of Norman knights and noblemen as local lords in Ireland was to provide a fresh stimulus. They introduced different orders, like those concerned with the sick, and the military orders. But they introduced nothing radically different. Coming from lands were the various trends of development in the Twelfth Century were more advanced they often speeded up the adoption of foreign innovations. It should also be remembered that as far as Church affairs were concerned all churchmen spoke the same language, Latin. A vernacular learning undoubtedly existed, but all churchmen were taught to read, write, and speak Latin, all Church services were in Latin, and all works of theology and spirituality. Which of course was one reason why churchmen were sent on diplomatic missions and accompanied kings on their circuits to various parts of their dominions. Another consequence was that the appointment of a monk or priest to be abbot or bishop in a different country was not considered strange. Burgundy was not a strange place to St Malachy, and he and St Bernard could converse easily in a version of Latin derived from the Vulgate or Latin edition of the Bible.

            Metalwork of a high standard was still being produced. Noteworthy are the shrine made for St Patrick’s bell and the Cross of Cong. The powerful Viking influence on local art reached its peak in the first half of the century. The Irish craftsmen preferred to develop the Hiberno-Norse style rather than adopt the contemporary Romanesque style, unlike the stonemasons.

            The illumination of manuscripts never again achieved the standards of the Book of Kells. The art of illumination too was powerfully influenced by Scandinavian styles but did not attain the standards of contemporary metalwork. There are only occasional touches of contemporary Romanesque art. 

            The century was not distinguished by works of literature, law, or science though the usual copying and redacting of older manuscripts continued. The Book of Leinster was compiled in Leinster in Dermot MacMurrough’s time. There seems little doubt however that greater attention was being paid to the study of the Bible, of canon law, and theological works in general. This was particularly so in the school of Armagh. The fact that an Irish synod should insist that in future lectors in theology should have attended the school in Armagh does not indicate great confidence in the other schools. Neither does it indicate a high standard of learning in Armagh. A martyrology or list of saints for each day was composed in the Augustinian monastery of Louth. The author depended considerably on the martyrology of Aengus the Culdee and was itself used in the Martyrology of Donegal. (The name of the composer is uncertain; see DNB under Maelmuire O’Gorman). The verse historian Gillanannaemh O’Duinn, a member of a family of historians, and himself a lay historian died in 1160 (DNB O’Duinn). It was not a century noted for scholarship or literary productions. The study of medicine continued, as it was to continue until the seventeenth century, by students who learned traditional texts by heart. 

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Copyright Desmond J. Keenan, B.S.Sc.; Ph.D. ;.London, U.K.