Home Page

True OriginsContentsPrefaceIntroductionChapter OneChapter Two

Chapter ThreeChapter FourChapter FiveChapter SixChapter SevenChapter Eight

Chapter NineChapter TenChapter elevenChapter TwelveChapter ThirteenChapter Fourteen

Chapter FifteenChapter SixteenChapter SeventeenBibliography

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

Chapter Twelve

                     Seventh and Eighth Centuries

 Summary. This chapter describes the history in the seventh and eighth centuries. The more detailed
descriptions of the clans and their incessant warfare may be skipped.


Western Europe

Life in the Seventh and Eight Centuries

Overchiefs of Tara

Religious Affairs

The Paschal Controversy

Cultural matters

The Eight Century Western Europe

Over-chiefs of Tara

The Other Provinces

The Monasteries

The Parish Clergy


The Hierarchy

Religious Art


The Seventh Century

Western Europe

            The death in 604 AD of Pope St. Gregory the Great, once described as the 'last, and saddest, of the Fathers of the Church' in a way marked the end of the Roman world. The description as ‘saddest’ reflects his belief that the whole world was falling into ruins, and the end of the world must be near. After his time the city of Rome declined, and the power of the papacy was not really revived until the time of Leo IX (d.1049). Most of northern and central Italy was under the Lombards, who placed their capital at Pavia from 620. Rome remained the largest city in Italy, and the Pope had in practice the power of an independent duke.

            In 622 the flight of Muhammad from Mecca to Medina marked the beginning of the Muslim era, and throughout the seventh century the Arabs advanced. They conquered the Persian Empire in the east, but their attack on Constantinople failed. To the west they conquered the whole of North Africa, and crossed into Spain at the beginning of the eighth century.

            France remained divided into the three Merovingian kingdoms during this period. Towards the end of the century, in 687, Pepin of Herstal, mayor of the palace in Austrasia, and grandfather of Pepin the Short managed to unite the Franks for a while. The territory controlled by the Franks included a large part of what is now western Germany as far as the Elbe and the borders of Czechoslovakia. The Franks themselves were a Germanic-peaking people originally. East of that line Slavs and Huns controlled Europe.  The missions of the Irish monks were to the lands controlled by the Franks and to the Germanic tribes bordering them like the Friesians, Saxons, Bavarians, and Lombards. They did not venture into the Slavic or Hunnish regions.

             If the death of St Patrick in 492 marked the conversion of Ireland, the conversion of Clovis king of the Franks in 496 marked the conversion of the Frankish conquerors of Gaul. The mission of St Augustine in 597 marked the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons. All three, from a Roman point of view were barbarians from outside the empire who had been raiding and pillaging within the empire. 

            In England the Anglo-Saxon heptarchy continued. The word heptarchy is misleading as it refers only to rulers of the Anglo-Saxons. If there were seven independent states it was only for a short while. Consolidation of power proceeded more rapidly in England than in Ireland, Scotland or Wales. The independent states were soon reduced effectively to three, Northumbria in the north, Mercia in the Middle, and Wessex in the south. Northumbria was formed from a union of two smaller chiefdoms Bernicia and Deira around 590, and soon became the greatest military power, reducing the Britons of Strathclyde, the Scots, and the Picts to vassalage. With the rise of Mercia at the end of the century, they were able to shake off the vassalage. This was the century of Northumbrian power.

In the course of the seventh century the Anglo-Saxon states completed their conquest of Britain south of the Firth of Forth, except for Wales, which assumed much its present size and shape. In 637 the Northumbrians took Edinburgh capital of the British chiefdom of Gododdin. About 640 Oswy of Northumberland acquired the British chiefdom of Rheged by marriage and extended Northumbrian rule to the opposite coast, and cutting Wales off from the chiefdom of Strathclyde. The capital of Rheged was Carlisle, and it probably corresponded roughly with St Patrick’s diocese of Carlisle. In 684 the Northumbrians raided the coast of Ireland. This left only one British kingdom, Strathclyde, in the North. Scotland was now divided into four chiefdoms, the Gaelic one of Dal Riata in the northwest, that of the Picts in the northeast, the British chiefdom of Strathclyde in the Southwest, and English Northumbria in the southeast. Thus four different languages were spoken in Scotland, three of them derived from the original British or Gaulish. After the death of Aidan mac Gabhrain the Dal Riatan kingdom seems to have gone into decline, and the Pictish and British chiefs shared sovereignty. It was the Pictish chiefs who limited the Northumbrian advance, and stabilised the frontier on the Firth of Forth. An attempted Northumbrian advance into Wales was defeated by an alliance between the Welsh chiefs and Mercia, who attacked Northumbria. The first mention of Mercia is in connection with this alliance. Penda, whose name and origin may be Welsh or British, then ruled Mercia. He remained a pagan, though his son allowed the preaching of Christianity. Wales still remained divided into several chiefdoms. The boundaries of these chiefdoms were further east than the present Welsh border, which was not established until the following century.

In the southwest, the Anglo-Saxon advance continued. The Anglo-Saxons from Wessex reached the Bristol Channel by 600, cutting off the British chiefdoms in central England from those in the southwest. There was an English-speaking monastery in Exeter by 690. By 600 too the Anglo-Saxons controlled Worcestershire and Gloucestershire. In the course of the seventh century, the West Saxons crossed the Severn and occupied Herefordshire, from which they were later driven by the Mercians. Much of Shropshire was contained in the British chiefdom of Powys.           

            In 597 Gregory sent a mission to convert the Angles led by St Augustine of Canterbury. In the course of the century the Anglo-Saxons became Christian. Among the things that Augustine brought from Rome was the collection of Gregorian chants, named after Pope Gregory. Soon after a centre for teaching the chants was established at Wearmouth, and clergy came from all over England to learn it. There was no notation for music, or even any fixed melody, so variations were always creeping in. By the eleventh century when the Sarum Rite was composed, the English chants again varied considerably from the Gregorian. In 627 Edwin of Northumbria was baptised at York by Paulinus, one of St Augustine's mission, but Paulinus had to flee from York on Edwin's death. His successor, Oswald, in 635 invited Saint Aidan a monk of Iona to Northumbria to convert his people. Aidan was made bishop of Lindisfarne and organised the Church on traditional Irish principles. The East Anglian and West Saxon chiefs next embraced Christianity. After 650 the Mercians accepted Christianity, and its chief Wulfhere, son of Penda, became enthusiastic for its spread, assisting St Chad. St Hilda of Northumbria founded a double monastery at Whitby. In 651 St Aidan died and the controversy over the date of Easter came to a head, for nobody would raise it when he was alive.  At the synod of Whitby 664 the Anglo-Saxons embraced the Roman date for the computation of Easter, and in general the latest Roman way of doing things. The appointment of the great archbishop Theodore of Tarsus as archbishop of Canterbury in 668 led to the strengthening of order and disciple in accordance with the latest canons. The latest version of the Gregorian chant was introduced too, the arch-cantor of Rome being sent to teach it.  In 673 Theodore held a national synod at Hertford, and the decision on the date of Easter was extended to all of England (The Celts in Devon and Cornwall accepted the new date in 703 AD)

            In the second half of the seventh century came the first generation of English saints like Hilda, Chad, Wilfred, and Cuthbert. St Bede was born in 673 and at the age of seven was placed in the monastery of Wearmouth by his father. Wearmouth was founded in 673 by St Benedict Biscop who introduced full Roman usages, the Benedictine Rule, and built in stone and glass. A few years later he was sent to Jarrow, and remained there for the rest of his life. The monastery of Jarrow was founded in 681.  The Anglo-Saxon monasteries in many ways leap-frogged ahead of the older Celtic monasteries. In another respect too the Anglo-Saxons leaped ahead. They succeeded, especially in Mercia, in cultivating heavy clays with a great plough, thus opening up great swathes of land to tillage. After 670 various missions were sent to convert the Friesians on the Continent who were still pagan. It seems that many Friesians had come to England and had embraced Christianity. This was just over a hundred years after the mission of St Columbanus. By the year 700 there was little difference between any of the kingdoms in the British Isles.

            Yet it is a curious fact that as far as art is concerned it is impossible to tell whether a particular piece of art was made in Ireland or Northumbria. Indeed, it would seem that the revival and development of the La Tene art which was characteristic of the period first took place in North Britain. [Top]

Life in the Seventh and Eight Centuries

            The relatively favourable climatic conditions continued in these centuries. There is little sign of any expansion of the limited settled areas. Society was dominated by the pastoral warriors who, especially in Ulster, were to tend the herds of cattle until the end of the sixteenth century. It was against their interest to expand the settled or tilled land. Cattle-rearing on the marshes and in the woods also suited their warlike life-style. The Ulster wars in the reign of Elizabeth demonstrated how effective the bogs and woods were as defences.

            The population of Ireland fluctuated considerably because of the great plagues that swept Europe, yet on the whole it grew. Wasteland was recovered on a small scale in the vicinity of the settled areas (O'Corrain 48), but this seems chiefly to have consisted of improving the pasture in the woodlands probably by the use of fire rather than by drainage. Drainage did not recommence on a large scale in western Europe until after 1,000 AD. By 800 AD all land, and all fishing, turbary, hunting, forestry, grazing, or other rights, had been appropriated by one clan leader or another. This implies that before that date some areas had not been claimed. It does not imply any extension in the tilled areas, or townlands. There is no evidence that Irish society at any time consisted of wandering pastoralists, or that a change occurred in these centuries from pastoralism to mixed farming (O'Corrain, loc.cit.)

            It is likely that there was some improvement in agricultural techniques. The Romans had various books on agriculture, and if they were not read in Ireland doubtless they were in other parts of western Europe, and the techniques borrowed. Monasteries and churches meant a body of literate land-owners. The mould-board plough was introduced after 600 AD. The addition of a flat mould board caused the plough to make the ploughed sod stand on its end. This facilitated the breaking up of the sod and the mixing of the upper and lower surfaces. (The curved iron mould-board that inverted the sod to kill the weeds was a nineteenth century invention.) 

             The improvement in ship-building continued. War fleets, especially on the east coast, became a feature of the time. Long sea voyages became possible. The Norse by 800 AD were able to undertake long voyage out of sight of land by sailing along a line of latitude. Latitude could be easily measured by measuring the height of the pole star above the horizon. It was possible to sail from Norway to Greenland by sailing due west and keeping the Shetlands on one side and the Faeroes on the other. The Norse, at the beginning of their expansion around 800 AD had no technical innovations in ship-building, and doubtless none in navigation either. We can assume that in shipbuilding and navigation around 800 the Irish were their equals (Foote and Wilson 255ff). Though the question may be asked, if the Irish mariners could reach Iceland why would they want to? There were no particular goods to trade. Most of the islands that the Norse found congenial enough were unattractive to the Irish.

            We can perhaps conclude that in the immediate pre-Viking period social conditions in Ireland were still reasonable. The climate was favourable, and agriculture advancing. There were of course, as in all primitive societies, plagues and animal pestilences, and bad years, which could produce local famines and mortalities. Raiding was endemic and traditional, but so too were the defences of the peasants. Raids came in the summer only when rivers were fordable and there was grass enough for the accompanying cattle. They came along definite routes at a fixed pace, and the smoke of burning houses would signal their approach. Cattle could be dispersed with their mouths bound up, and stored food and valuables hidden. Craftsmen, clerics, and scholars could take refuge in the chief's fortified lios or ringfort that would be too strong for a raiding party to storm even if they ever got that far. The Irish warband never developed siege techniques, nor did the Irish chiefs build defensive buildings. The surrounding forest were the trees could be plashed along the roads seem to have been the chief defence against a superior enemy force. 

             As O’Corrain notes, the concept of the tuath and its sacral king had become irrelevant long before the year 800 (p 31). This does not mean that the tuath itself disappeared. It survived as units of political and religious organisation. But the ri or local chief became subordinate in most things to the ruiri and later to the ri ruirech. And the ri became just the head of a subordinate branch of the ruling family, or head of a sept as it was called.  The change was probably inevitable as the numbers of the prolific ruling class grew. Originally the lands in their tuath and the tributes from other tuatha would have been adequate. As their numbers grew their first step would have been to dispossess all non-related landowners within the tuath, and then to seek out other small and poorly-defended tuatha elsewhere. But as their numbers still increased they had to use their military power to systematically steal the lands of the adjacent tuatha. In the Life of St. Moninna it is mentioned that a chief of the Dal nAraide ruled three territories, one in north Down and two in Co. Louth. The territory of the Ulaid presumably extended this far south in the middle of the sixth century. In the course of the seventh century, the Dal nAraide subdued more tuatha in Antrim and Down: the Boandrige, the Eilne, the Latharnae, and the Ui Derce Cein (Doherty in Brady, O’Dowd, and Walker). It should be noted that when the power of the mesne lord waned, subdued tuatha could revive. This happened in northern Meath after the decline of Sil nAedo Slaine, the Gailegna, Luigne, Saithne and others tuatha revived (O’Corrain 19). They were however to be over-run shortly by the expanding Ui Briuin Breifne from the west.

 What is surprising is not that this concentration of power and land-holding occurred, but that it occurred so slowly. In England, a national kingdom developed within a few centuries. Elsewhere in Europe, great duchies and counties were formed. It may be that over most of Ireland the terrain lent itself to defence. There was no great difficulty in over-running a tuath; the problem was to hold it during the following winter. There was no equivalent of the simple motte and bailey castle of the Normans. The raths of the chiefs were not built for defence. Yet even a stone-built rath like that at Aileach proved surprisingly vulnerable, perhaps simply by burning the gates. The Irish were not skilled at sieges either offensively or defensibly.

There was also the diffuse nature of authority. If a chief of whatever grade was killed, his rath destroyed and his fields wasted, the headship would pass to a different member of the derb fine who might live a hundred miles away. There were so many possible claimants to the chieftainship, and so many warriors able to gather followers as soon as there was a vacancy, that persistence in resistance was almost unbelieving. Then too in a warrior culture the penalty of failure was unthinkable; a member of the noble classes might be reduced to beggary, or worse, he might have to work. All these factors were extremely noticeable between 1537 and 1603 when the strong Tudor monarchy set itself to establish law and order in Ireland.

             Within the tuath the balance of power between the warrior overlord class and the various grades of cultivators changed as the overlord class increased in numbers. If the overlord class formed only 5% of the population their exactions from the lower classes would have been restrained. But as it grew in numbers and strength their exactions and oppressions would have grown correspondingly. By the sixteenth century in most of Ireland the great hope of the cultivating classes would have been to secure a lease on a confiscated and planted estate with the protection, such as it was, of English law. It is not at all surprising that the laws were codified at a time when they were being systematically brushed aside. The general pattern of change between the sixth and the sixteenth centuries was that the noble classes seized more and more of the land, and the prosperous farmers were forced further and further down the social scale. M’Kenna gives various examples of parishes in Clogher where almost all the land was in the hands of the local ruling families, the MacMahons and McKennas. O’Corrain notes a similar concentration of land in the hands of the Dal Cais from the eighth century onwards, but there is no reason to believe that this practice originated then. . But it very doubtful if we can project the atrocious living conditions of the Irish working classes back to the seventh or eighth century.

             And there is the old question why the pastoralists of the steppes did not adopt all the features of the city cultures with which they were in contact remained. Why did the Irish never develop towns? Why too did the Vikings, though further from Roman influence, adopt town life sooner than the Irish? Some Irish chiefs soon saw the advantages of Viking towns and captured them. But in the north the O’Neills prevented the development of any town within their sphere of influence until their overthrow in 1603. To get the advantages of town life the O’Neills, all through the Middle Ages, went to Dundalk. No towns meant all the local profits from trade remained in the hands of the military families, but trade remained limited. Towns developed markets, manufactures, and trade, but profits had to be shared with the merchant class. 

            Another quest is why did the Irish not develop cavalry? Cavalry was known since Roman times, and by the sixteenth century no young man whose father could provide a horse would go to battle without it. But cavalry was not adopted in Ireland before Norman times. One obvious reason was the difficulty in keeping animals over the winter. Even in the seventeenth century the O'Neills had to send their cavalry into Leinster for the winter. But one would have expected the richer chiefs to go mounted to war earlier than they did. It may have been that the conditions of the cattle raid which consisted of advancing into an enemy territory, gathering as many cattle as possible, and retreating equally rapidly, did not lend themselves to the use of horses. The Vikings did not use cavalry either for their more ambitious raids. The stirrup and high saddle that allowed the use of a long lance had not yet been introduced, so the mounted soldier had still to depend on the sword or on a short spear for striking downwards. Again, it may be that Irish terrain was unsuited to cavalry, being too marshy or bosky. That cavalry could be widely used in the seventeenth century could imply that there was considerable clearance of woods, and drainage of marshes in the Middle Ages. It could also imply, that warriors preferred riding to battle, even if it made them ineffective in battle.

            Many of the changes for the worse in Irish society formerly attributed to the Viking raids had already appeared in the century before their arrival. [Top] 

Secular Affairs

Overchiefs of Tara

            Aed Uairidnach 605-612 of Cenel Eogain, son of Domnall Ilgalgach.

Mael Coba mac Aedo 612-615 of Cenel Conaill, son of Aed mac Ainmire.

            Suibhne Menn 615-628 of Cenel Eogain (Cenel Feradaig).

            Domnall mac Aedo 628-42 of Cenel Conaill, son of Aed mac Ainmire.

            Cellach and Conall 642-656/8 of Cenel Conaill, sons of Mael Coba.

            Diarmait and Blathmac 656/8-665/6 of Sil nAedo Slaine.

            Senussach 665/6-671 of Sil nAedo Slaine, son of Blathmac.

            Cenn Faelad 671-675 of Sil nAedo Slaine, son of Blathmac.

            Finsnechta Fledach 675-695 of Sil nAedo Slaine, nephew of Blathmac.

            Loinsech 695-704 of Cenel Conaill, grandson of Domnall mac Aed.           

            What is interesting about this century is the way the Sil nAedo Slaine managed to wrench away the overlordship of Tara from the Northern Ui Neill who had largely monopolised it between 564 and 656. The only exception in these ninety two years was the sharing between Aed Slaine and Colman Rimidh. Colman Rimidh of Cenel Eogain, joint ruler with Aed Slaine from 598 to 604, was murdered by his brother in 604. His daughter was said to have been the mistress of Oswy of Northumbria. There was a period of internecine warfare among the descendants of Colman Mor of the Southern Ui Neill, doubtless abetted by the Sil nAedo Slaine, so that the latter succeeded in excluding them from the overchieftainship of Tara until 743. It would seem that Sil nAedo Slaine made efforts to eliminate their rivals (MacNiocall).

 The new over-chief of the Ui Neill was Aed Uairidnach 605-612 of Cenel Eogain (Cenel mhic Earca) a son of Domnall Ilcalgach. He attacked Leinster and exacted the tribute. He was a cousin of St Mura and helped him to found the monastery of Fahan Mura in Donegal. St Mura became the patron saint of the Cenel Eogain. He was succeeded by Mael Coba of Cenel Conaill 612-615, who, after only three years, was slain by Suibhne Menn of Cenel Eogain (Cenel Feradaig) who was over-chief from 615-628. During all this period, the chiefs of Cenel Conaill came from the family of Aed mac Ainmire. This was the great period of domination by this family. It was also a period of relative weakness in the Cenel Eogain, especially in the branch of the Cenel mhic Earca. First, within the Cenel Eogain, they were displaced by the Cenel Feradaig, and then by the Sil nAedo Slaine. In the hundred years between the death of Aed Uairidnach the election of Fergal mac Maelduin in 710 no one from the Cenel mhic Earca branch became overchief of Tara. After 734 all the chiefs from the northern Ui Neill came from the Cenel mhic Earca.

The Cenel Feradaig were descended from Feredach, a brother of Muirchertach mac Earca. Though Suibhne was the only member of this branch to become overchief of Tara, the chieftainship of Aileach alternated between the Cenel Feradaig and the Cenel mhic Earca all through the seventh century, though none became overchiefs of Tara. The chiefs of Cenel Eogain had to strive for the chieftainship of Aileach as well as the over-chieftainship of the Ui Neill. The kingdom or chiefdom of Aileach, which was the same as the chiefdom of Cenel Eogain, was based on the fort of Grianan Aileach a massive stone ring-fort that was built about this time, and was the centre of Cenel Eogain power. Presumably, when one chief succeeded another, the entire household of the late chief departed and were succeeded by the household of the incoming chief. The menials, domestics and outdoor servants would remain. The Cenel Feradaig had expanded southwards towards Clogher and became known as the MacCawells. They displaced the local Oirgialla chief from the Ui Chremthainn, and also got control of the see of Clogher. At one time they were overlords of much of west Tyrone and parts of Fermanagh, but eventually were confined by the expanding O’Neills and Maguires. 

Suibhne Menn was slain near Lough Swilly in 628 by Congal Claen of the Ulaid and was succeeded as over-chief of the Ui Neill by Domnall mac Aedo mac Ainmire of Cenel Conaill who had earlier unsuccessfully attacked Suibhne. Domnall mac Aedo was over-chief of the Ui Neill from 628 to 642. It is possible that Congal Claen briefly seized the overlordship of Tara but Domnall mac Aedo forced Congal Claen into exile. The latter returned in 637 with a mixed band of followers drawn from the British, the Saxons, the Dal Riatan Scots, and the Picts. The Dal Riatan Scots were now backing the Ulaid. The Dal Riata and the Mugdorna also backed Congal Claen, and he may have also received some naval support from the Cenel Eogain. Domnall mac Aedo however defeated them at the battle of Mag Roth (Moira, Co. Down). This was one of the great battles, used by the historians to mark the passage of time.

            On the death of Domnall no overchief emerged though Ceallach and Conall of Cenel Conaill are counted as joint rulers from 642 to 656/8. Eventually Diarmait and Blathmac of Sil nAedo Slaine succeeded and ruled from 656/8 to 665/6 when they died in the great plague. Five successive overchiefs were from Sil nAedo Slaine, none of the branches of the Northern Ui Neill being able to put forward a plausible challenger. They were succeeded by Senussach son of Blathmac of the Sil nAedo Slaine 665/6 to 671, and his brother Cenn Faelan 671-675, and by Finsnechta Fledach (the Festive; Finnechta Fled-ach) 675-95. In the Life of St Molling he is said to have remitted the Boromha tribute. In 676 Finsnechta destroyed Aileach. In 688 Finsnechta retired to a monastery for a while, but was forced to come out and take charge again.  The last overchief in the century was Loinsech of Cenel Conaill 695-704, after which the overchieftainship remained in the north until 722. The Cenel Conaill, at this time the dominant power in the North succeeded in wresting the overchiefship from the Sil nAedo Slaine after 41 years of uninterrupted rule. The days of both were soon to be over. 

            As noted above in the eighty years between the death of Suibhne Menn in 628 and the accession of Fergal in 710 there was no successful contender for the overchieftainship from Cenel Eogain. Indeed from the main line of the Cenel mhic Earca there was no overchief between the death of Aed Uairidnach in 612 and the accession of his great grandson Fergal in 710. Maelfrithrig of Cenel mhic Earca succeeded Suibhne Menn of Cenel Feradaig as king of Aileach in 628. He was then slain by Earnan, brother of Suibhne Menn in 630 who became king of Aileach until he in turn was murdered in 636. Thereafter the chiefdom of Aileach alternated between the two families until 700 after which the kingship of Aileach was exclusively with the Cenel mhic Earca. Maelfritrig's son Maelduin became chief of Aileach 671-681. He was attacked by Finsnechta Fledach in 676 and Aileach was burned. He was involved in a war with the Cianacht, the Oirgialla, and the Cruithin. He was himself killed in a battle with Congall of Cenel Conaill. His wife was of the Cenel Conaill, being a daughter of Mael Coba. Maelduin's son Fergal became chief of Aileach and with him began the irresistible rise of the Cenel mhic Earca who were to exclude all other challengers in the north

            The southern Ui Neill were like the northern branch riven by internal disputes, but as we have seen the Sil nAedo Slaine succeeded in holding on to the overchieftainship for forty years

            Again in this century most of the information comes from the northern half of Ireland. Almost nothing was written down in the other provinces, and little is known except the lists of kings drawn up by later genealogists.  However it is clear that the chiefs in all the provinces were now Christian. In Leinster Faelan of the Ui Dunlainge emerged as king of Leinster. In central Ireland in west Leinster, the Ui Failge were emerging as an important family. In Connaught the Ui Briuin and two branches of the Ui Fiachrach, Ui Fiachrach Aidne and Ui Fiachrach Muaide. The latter became the dominant branch. One chief, Guaire Aidne, was apparently trying to dislodge the Dal Cais from Clare. Among the Ulaid there seem to have been various attacks on the coasts by either British or Northumbrians. The British kingdom of Rheged was under heavy pressure from Northumbria, and some of the British may have turned to piracy, or tried to gain new lands in Ireland as was customary with every clan defeated by a stronger one. [Top]

 Religious Affairs

            We should not exaggerate the importance of abbots in the sixth and seventh centuries. They are remembered because they founded monasteries that later commissioned Lives about them to boost their own importance. They were also usually members of successful noble families that could afford to endow relatively large monasteries, while the endowment of a diocese probably never exceeded the holding of a boaire, about a hundred acres.

            St Declan, abbot and bishop of Ardmore (d. 650), seems to be in this category of abbots, as well as St Carthach (Mo-Chuda) of Lismore (d 637), both in the territory of the Deisi of Waterford. Great efforts were made in the Life of St Declan to place him before St Patrick, along with St Ailbe, but scholars are far from convinced. St Carthach (Mo-Chuda d 637) was said to have been from Kerry, to have studied in Bangor and to have founded a monastery at Rahan, in County Offaly. This monastery developed a famous school that was said to have produced twelve eminent scholars. Blathmac, chief of the southern Ui Neill, drove out Carthach at the instigation of the local clergy in a dispute over the date of Easter. He settled in Lismore. Though regarded as a bishop, it is unclear where his diocese was, it being supposed he resigned his see to enter a monastery. Though its link with the saint was tenuous, Lismore eclipsed Ardmore and was recognised as the see of the Waterford Deisi. It is unlikely that either saint was the first bishop or abbot in the region, but the entire lack of written records allowed the monastic scribes to use their imaginations.

            The Life of St Flannan of Killaloe (fl. c. 650)  was written in the hey-day of O’Brien power in Killaloe, so much of it can be discounted. The monastery there had been  founded by St Molua of Clonfert-Mulloe. Flannan was trained as a monk and was made bishop in the territory or tuath of the Ui Torrdelbaigh  in the present diocese of Killaloe. This  family could have been of the Dal Cais who later ruled the region, but not necessarily so. For some reason, Flannan, not Molua, became the patron of the O’Briens. If a later date in the next century is taken for the period of St Flannan and the  founding of the see of Killaloe he would almost certainly be of the Dal Cais.

            It is difficult too to decide  who controlled the area around the present day Cork city when St Finbarr(d. 623) built his monastery. The region in general was controlled by the Ciaraige Cuirche an insignificant branch of the Ciaraige  but the marshy estuary did not necessarily belong to them. His father was said to have been from Connaught and to have settled among the Muscraige or alternatively among the Eoganacht Raithlind. Connection  with the latter would have  ensured the wealth and size of the monastery that became the most important of the region, and the centre of a bishopric. (St Colman of Cloyne (d 600) would have founded his monastery at Cloyne  among the Ui Liathain slightly earlier. It too became the centre of a diocese.)

            Wexford had been one of the first places in Ireland to have a Christian settlement, that of St Abban. But the diocese was to be centred on the monastery of Ferns in the territory of the rising Ui Chennselaig. The monastery at Ferns was erected by St M'Aedhog (Mogue d. 626) on land granted by a newly converted chief of the Ui Chennselaig (Hy Kinsella). St Daircheall (Molling d 696) was said  to have been a disciple of St M'Aedhog. He founded a monastery at St. Mullens in Carlow, and is said to have been made bishop of Ferns. It is recounted in his Life how he secured from Finsnechta (Finnechta) of Sil nAedo Slaine the abandonment of the Boromha tribute. St Mullins was the burial place of the Ui Chennselaig.

        Further south in Wexford and probably not in the lands of the Ui Chennselaig was the monastery of Taghmon, founded by St. Fintan Munnu (d. 634). He is one of the very few saints whose personality emerges from the legendary Life. He is said to have been a rough-tongued man, who was inclined to speak first and repent afterwards.  He studied under St. Sinnell of Cluain Inish and in Bangor. He opposed the new date for Easter at the Synod of Magh Lena  (Moylena) in 630. St Mura (d 645 ?) was of the Ui Neill being a close relation of Muircheartach Mac Earca. His monastery was at Fahan in Inishowen  and he was the family patron of the O’Neills. Another monastic  founder was St. Molaga (d. 650) who founded Timoleague and reputedly studied under St David in Wales. St. Cronan (c. 650) founded Roscre in Eile in north Munster. Clonfertmulloe (Clonfert of Molua) in Co. Laois was founded by St Molua (Lugid d. 608). He was said to have been trained in Bangor, and to have founded  also the monastery of Drumsnat in Monaghan.

            In Iona, St Adamnan (d. 704) a member of the Ui Neill family became abbot of Iona. He is  chiefly famous for his Life of St Columcille. He favoured the new date for Easter but was unable  to get it adopted in Iona while he lived. It was adopted shortly after he died.

St Fursa (d. 650) was a missionary. His father was said  to have been a Munsterman, and his mother of the Ui Briuin of Connaught. He studied at Inisquin in Lough Corrib, Co. Galway. He was famous for his visions. With his two brothers, Ultan and Foillan he went to East Anglia and was received by king Sigebert who was restoring Christianity at the time, and founded a monastery. In a disturbed period in East Anglia he went to Neuestria and founded a monastery  at Langy on the Marne. He was buried at Peronne  from where his  cult spread. His brothers remained in East Anglia for a  while but finally settled in Brabant.

            It is impossible to say how many Irish monasteries were founded on the Continent in the seventh and eighth centuries, and we must be careful not  to exaggerate their numbers. But there appear to have been several, and the option of combining the monastic life with preaching seems to have been popular. Apart from the monastery of St Gall, all the monasteries seem to have been founded with the aid of Christian princes in nominally Christian regions. 

            It is  clear from the foregoing that there still is little definite information about the Church in the seventh century. Almost all the Lives of the saints were written much later, all contain much incredible matter, and most of them make tendentious or implausible claims about the saint or the monastery he  founded.

            A Bollandist writer, commenting on the Lives of the saints all over Europe, pointed out  that the object of the writer was not to tell the truth but to edify. Total ignorance of the events of the saint's life was no impediment, for the characters were stereotyped. A martyr suffered dreadful tortures and was repeatedly cured by angels, until finally dispatched. A bishop went to a region filled with heathens or sinners, and after his preaching, no heathen or sinner remained. The monk led a life of unimaginable austerity; the widow was devoted to good works frequently assisted by angels, and so on. But there is no reason to believe that  the Lives of most of the Irish saints were wholly invented. The actual details of the saint's life known to the author were probably very scanty in most cases. But on the other hand he was writing about his own country and perhaps not separated by more than a few centuries from the time. The details regarding the conditions of the times given in passing, like the mention of British pirates, or that boys and girls were educated together, are often the most valuable element. [Top]

The Paschal Controversy

            The Paschal Controversy was the big issue of the times after St Augustine of Canterbury had brought the new calculations from Rome in 597. The new rules, already in use in France, were adopted by the English bishops except in Northumbria. The bishops in the British-speaking regions did not adopt the change. Northumbria adopted the new date at the Synod of Whitby in 664.

            The bishops and monasteries in the southern half of Ireland were already considering the matter by the year 630 when a synod was called at Magh Lena (Moylena, north of Tullamore). This was in response to a letter from Pope Honorius I ( 625-638) requesting  them to conform to the practice of the universal Church.

            The problem was an ancient one inherent in all attempts to reconcile the solar and lunar cycles in a single calendar. One of the reasons for having a calendar was to be able to predict on which day of the solar year a particular lunar event to which religious rites were attached would occur. For the Christians the religious feast was Easter, and it was tied to the first full moon after the spring equinox. (All Christian churches make these calculations up to the present day, and tables of the 'moveable feasts' are calculated and printed for up to half a century in advance.) In the early Church and in the city of Rome a prediction cycle of 84 (28 x 3) years had been adopted. But a more accurate cycle of 532 (28 x 19) years was then calculated and adopted in Rome, and from there it spread to all the Christian churches in the West.

            In Ireland, one Cumine (Cummian) took a leading part in studying the new calculation and making other enquiries. Scholars still cannot decide if this was Cumine Ailbe who became abbot of Iona in 657, or Cumine   who was connected  with Clonfert and died in 661 (de Paor, St Patrick, 151). He addressed a letter to Segene, fifth abbot of Iona and to the hermit Beccan. When the  synod met it decided to send envoys to Rome. When they returned it would seem that  most of the churches and monasteries in southern Ireland adopted the new date. For Cumine's Letter was written to refute charges of heresy and wrong usage. The bishop of Emly, and the abbots of Clonmacnoise, of Clonfert (or Birr), Mungret, and Clonfertmulloe, in person or by representative, assembled  at Magh Lena, and agreed to accept the ruling of Honorius. They then sent a delegation to Rome to clarify matter. St Fintan Munnu apparently was present but disagreed. St Laisren (Laserian, Mo-Laissi) of Leighlin supported the new rules and was one of the delegation sent to Rome. The journey to Rome about 631 would not have been particularly difficult at this time as most of France was again more or less united under the Merovingian king Dagobert, while northern Italy was again under the Lombards after a brief re-conquest by the Byzantines. When the delegates returned the synod re-convened at Magh Ailbhe near Leighlin, Co. Carlow, and the churches in southern Ireland adopted the new rules in 634. In 636 St Mochuda was expelled from Rahan near Tullamore probably because of objections by the local clergy to the new rules. These objections were probably the reason why the synod, when it re-convened, met on Leinster soil .A synod, in accordance with the usages of the time, would have included the chief Christian ruler in place of the Emperor. The over-chiefs of Tara were all from the Northern Ui Neill until 656. But according to his Life, Mochuda was expelled by Diarmait and Blathmac of Sil nAedo Slaine, who were then chiefs of the Southern Ui Neill or chiefs of Brega.

             Next we find a letter of Pope John IV in 638 to several northern bishops and abbots requesting them to follow the custom of the Universal Church. The northern churches, despite the urging of St Adamnan, did not adopt the new date until the synod of Birr in 697. As noted above, all the English bishops adopted the change in 673, Devon and Cornwall about 703, Iona in 716, and the Picts and probably Strathclyde about the same time. Wales held out until 768 in the time of Bede (Evans). 

            The same synod of Birr adopted the Cain Adamnan, a canon that pledged that women should not be combatants in battle. It is said that Adamnan had watched a battle in which women were fighting on both sides.  Muirchu moccu Machteni, better known for his Life of St Patrick, was associated with Adamnan in this matter.

            Some attempts were apparently made to hold synodal meetings of the bishops (de Paor, St Patrick, 135, Corish 13). We have no direct records of these but collections of decrees were made, though there is no reason to believe that all the synods were held in Ireland. The third decree in the so-called synod of St Patrick against clerici vagi or wandering priests was, and remains, universal. So too was the decree that the gifts given to a bishop making his pastoral rounds did not become the personal property of the bishop or any priest, but were to be used for the church's necessary expenses and the rest distributed to the poor.  But to speak of a Romanising party, as Corish does shows an anachronistic ultra-montanism. Not that there were no Roman influences, for the fact that two archbishops of Canterbury, Augustine and Theodore of Tarsus came directly from Rome would make that inevitable. But the Roman influence would have been just one of the various influences that came from Britain and Gaul. What made the Paschal controversy special was that the Irish were strenuously defending the Roman tradition brought by St Patrick and the priests and bishops of Britain and Gaul against a modern invention. There never was a question of one party defending a 'Celtic' church while the other tried to introduce Roman usages, though this latter view later found great favour among Protestant writers. 

            The seventh century was also the century of the manufacture of the St Patrick legend. Ireland had no cities and no provinces or ‘dioceses’ governed from those cities, or metropolitan cities with authority over neighbouring towns, so the hierarchy of bishops derived from the structure of the Roman Empire could not be applied. (A diocese was a Greek civil administrative division. The alternative name ‘see’ came from the Latin sedes, a chair, namely where the bishop placed his chair in his cathedral. Cathedra was another name for chair.) The boundaries of Irish sees were apparently the limits of the jurisdiction of particular families like the Dartrige or Mugdorna. Britain south of Hadrian's Wall had been divided into four Roman provinces, and these could form the bases of either four dioceses or four ecclesiastical provinces based on London, Lincoln, York, and Caerwent. In fact Canterbury replaced London for largely accidental reasons, Lincoln, though it was an enormous diocese, never formed a province, and St David’s replaced Caerwent. There seems also to have been a see based on Carlisle, which would include Christians in southern Scotland. There were supposed to be in Ireland five secular provinces which could possibly have formed the basis of ecclesiastical provinces had primogeniture been the rule for the succession of chiefs. But as it was, the chief rath of the provincial overchief moved about. In any case the Five Provinces in the fifth century were little more than poetic names, for no single chief controlled any of them. It was only in the twelfth century that four dominant princely families were firmly established. The monasteries that were the equivalent of cities were founded and patronised by middle-ranking chiefs. For various reasons, the adequate endowment of the larger monasteries, and the largest agglomerations of populations, and the ancient tradition of monastic bishops, persuaded bishops to reside in monasteries.

            Cashel in Munster was a peculiar case and came closest to the foreign model. It was the centre of the Eoganacht Caisil, and was the centre of a bishopric, and had no monastery. The Eoganacht Caisil were largely to dominate Munster. The possible claims of Emly to be the senior church in Munster were brushed aside. Cashel and Emly both later claimed to have been founded by St Patrick. In the twelfth century the metropolitan status of Cashel was formally recognised.

            It is not impossible that St Patrick founded Armagh as a bishopric, though there is no evidence of this. It certainly became one as the various ruling families sought to have the lands they controlled made into a diocese. Armagh was in the territory of the Ind Oirthir, and it remained in the lands of the O’Hanlons of Orior until the Tudor conquest of the North. By 630 the church in Armagh had emerged as the centre of the cult of St Patrick. If he was buried in that place there is no evidence of the fact and Downpatrick among the Ulaid strongly contested the claim.

            The two earliest Lives however do not come directly from Armagh. Both date from the end of the seventh century, at least two hundred years after the death of the saint. One was written by Muirchu moccu Machteni (c. 697) about whom about all we know is that he wrote a Life of St Patrick. Muirchu says that there were earlier imperfect Lives. His work was undertaken by the command of Bishop Aed of Sletty  (or Sleaty, co. Laois). The other was written by Tirechan, who was a disciple of St Ultan (d.656), bishop of Ardbraccan, county Meath. St Ultan was one of the first people to spread the cult of St Patrick, probably because St Patrick was supposed to have founded a church near Ardbraccan. The monastery was supposed to have been founded near Navan in co. Meath by St Breacan in the territory of the Dal Conchobair. St Ultan was of that family and bishop of their diocese. (According to one legend, St. Brigid’s mother was a slave captured from the same family, which is quite possible.) These Lives, though formerly accepted as historically accurate, they are no longer regarded as such. Scholars still comb through them to see if any historical facts may be gleaned from them (de Paor, St Patrick, 154-206).

            Gradually the claim of Armagh to have been founded by St. Patrick, and that it had the primacy of Ireland came to be accepted, and by the twelfth century was undisputed. In fact the strongest claim the diocese had was probably the possession of his two writings, the only certain things known about the saint. Patrick does not mention Armagh itself. Indeed, there is only one place, a wood, he mentions at all (de Paor 95). As de Paor observes, Lives of St. Patrick had to be re-written to accommodate themselves to this new recognition. 

            There was a rival organisation growing up, and that was the tendency of monasteries to be organised into confederations, supposedly derived from a single founder. The purpose of establishing these confederation almost without doubt, was to collect a tribute. It would be anachronistic to consider that the abbot of the chief house had an obligation to inspect the observance of the Rule in the subordinate houses. Besides the tribute, enormous prestige was attached to the office of such a senior abbot, so they were often asked to judge or mediate in secular disputes. The chief example of this was in the northern half of Ireland where a large confederation of monasteries supposedly founded directly or indirectly by St. Columcille was to be found. As these monasteries were under the patronage of the Northern Ui Neill, while the supposed Patrician churches were largely under the Oirgialla, the confederation was more powerful than it might otherwise have been. But from quite an early date, the Ui Neill tried to extend their influence over Armagh as well. There was another confederation under Clonard. [Top]

Cultural matters     

Young people, after they were taught the basics of Latin, and how to read and write, subjects which could even be taught by nuns, proceeded to the elements of literary and mathematical subjects such as were taught by a gramatticus. After that there could be specialisation in subjects like religion, law, medicine, and philosophy as was the case earlier in late Roman times and again in the Middle Ages. Study of these subjects meant the study of a manuscript of a Roman authority. It is recorded in the Life of St. Finbarr that he studied the Gospel of St Matthew, and also perhaps the Epistles of St. Paul, and the ecclesiastical canon under a particular master. St. Matthew’s Gospel was by far the most popular, and the teaching contained in it the most useful for instruction in the Christian religion. The more advanced students could then proceed to the rather formless epistles of St. Paul.

There seems to have been something quite haphazard about this. Almost certainly, the gospel and the epistles would have to be committed to memory. This would have been done by the master, sitting outside his hut, reciting a passage, and all the students would repeat it aloud after him, and so on until they were all able to recite the entire text by themselves. Then the teacher would expound the teaching of Jesus contained in the gospel. This exposition would be based on an exposition by one of the Church Fathers. Novelty was not a recommendation. The exposition, too would be committed to memory. Up until recent times most learning was committed to memory. Only after printing became common in the eighteenth century could students expect to be able to buy books of their own. So we can assume that some exercise was held by the master to ensure that the points he had made were understood. It is too early for there to have been disputations on disputed points or disputed theories that were to come in during the twelfth century. But a student could be asked to repeat what had been said in an earlier lesson, and the other students invited to correct him if he made a mistake. After a student had studied under several famous teachers, he might become aware that the masters did not always agree on particular points, like for example how often the cock crew during the trial of Jesus, for the different gospels give different accounts. In such a case, and when he was a master himself, he was free to make up his own mind.

Astronomy was an important subject because it was closely bound up with the calendar, which was in turn bound up with the date of Easter. Once again, study of the subject was confined to ancient authors. Ptolemy’s Theory was universally accepted and used and it had great predictive value. Calculation of the date of Easter was carried on from Greek and Roman systems. The calculation involved dominical letters, indictions, primes, epacts, and the 'golden number', the latter based on a lunar cycle of 19 years. Ptolemy’s theories on the motions of the heavenly bodies were unquestioned.

 Several of the clerics who attended the synod at Magh Lena seem to have been masters of the abstruse calculations and who could thus predict the date of Easter at least a year in advance in either the old or the new system. It does nor follow however that the standard of scholarship in Irish monasteries was very high. Like most Irish priests in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries they could read Latin with a sufficient facility, and indeed if pressed compose something in that language. They would also have a good grounding in the essential teachings of Christianity. In many dioceses there would have been an expert in theological matters, in liturgical matters, and in canon law. But for most part it is likely that these matters were largely ignored. Priesthood would have been handed on from father to son, and the son would have been instructed by his father. By the twelfth century there was very considerable differences in liturgical practice from place to place. It is unlikely that any Irish monastery had a large and diverse library such as that enjoyed by Bede in Northumbria.

One gets the impression that in Ireland, urban Roman culture and Christianity were grafted on to an existing rural pastoral culture, and so they had very little knowledge of the environments in which Roman civilisation and Christianity developed.  They had therefore little idea regarding what was essential and what was peripheral or conditional. In such circumstances the precise form of the robes of the bishop or the style of his hair became as important as the Easter Message of Salvation. Christianity had been imported into Ireland all in one piece. The habit, too, of learning by rote would not develop a habit of enquiring the reasons for things. There was the need too to always cite an ancient authority, whether from the Bible, the Fathers, or the Doctors of the Church. This would make it very difficult for them to accept change, even when the Roman Church introduced the change.  

In Ireland artistic work flourished. The seventh century was the age of Goban Saer, the great craftsman in wood. But nothing he built survived. He is said to have worked for St Maedhog of Ferns, St Molling, St Molaisse, and St Abban, and to have worked exclusively in the north and east of Ireland. The illumination of manuscripts commenced. In the Book of Durrow, (c. 650) all the elements of illumination were brought together. However, the transcription of religious manuscripts would have been introduced by the first missionaries, and there would always have been a constant stream of Psalters and gospels being produced, none of great antiquity, textual merit, or artistic merit. [Top]

The Eighth Century

Western Europe

            The period of just over a hundred years between 732 and 843 was a period of light and hope in the 'Dark' Ages. Climatic conditions were quite good, and agriculture reasonably prosperous The Frankish kingdom was re-united and grew in strength and prosperity until the Roman Empire in the West was restored when Charlemagne, grandson of Charles Martel, became king of the Franks, and was crowned Holy Roman Emperor of the West in the year 800. In theory this was restoring the western half of the Roman Empire, which lacked its emperor since the deposition of Romulus Augustulus by Odoacre the German in 476. In the year 843 the Treaty of Verdun not only marked the break-up of the Carolingian empire but began a struggle between France and the (German) Empire that has lasted almost until the present day.

            In 711 the Muslims invaded Spain. . The Merovingian rulers of the again divided Frankish kingdom lacked ability, but a Mayor of the Palace called Charles Martel, son of Pepin of Herstal, mayor of the palace of Austrasia early in the eighth century, succeeded more or less in again re-uniting it. In 732 a Frankish-Gaulish army under Charles Martel repulsed an Arab invasion of France at the battle of Poitiers. . The Frankish kingdom was then extended over the Rhine to include much of western Germany. The Muslims retreated over the Pyrenees and never returned permanently to France. But they continued raiding and wasting Gaul for many years still. They consolidated their rule over most of Spain, except for some tiny Christian kingdoms in the mountains in the North, the kingdoms of Galicia and of the Basques.

In 751 Pepin the Short, son of Charles Martel, was crowned king of the Franks by Pope St Stephen II and established the Carolingian dynasty, called after his son Charlemagne. He made a grant of territory around Ravenna to Pope Stephen and these formed the nucleus of the future Papal States. The ‘Donation of Pepin’ (754) formed the basis of papal claims to temporal sovereignty over the Papal States In 771 Charlemagne became king of the Franks, and destroyed the Lombard kingdom in Italy. In 800 he was crowned Emperor of the western Roman Empire, or Holy Roman Empire by Pope Leo III. In Charlemagne's day there was a great revival of learning in western Europe and were followed by the 'Dark Ages' in the ninth and tenth centuries (The Empire was abolished by Napoleon in 1806.)

             The Byzantine rulers lost their grip on Italy and separate states began to emerge in the peninsula. Christianity had spread to the limits of the Roman Empire, and then was virtually wiped out in North Africa by the Muslim conquest. The part of the world controlled by Christian rulers shrank dramatically. In the West it was reduced to the British Isles, the Frankish kingdoms, the little states in Italy, and a tiny strip along the north coast of Spain. In the east the Byzantine Empire included Anatolia, Greece, and southern Italy. By the 10th century Sicily had been lost to the Muslims in the south and the pagan nations of northern and central Europe were attacking from the north, west and east. It was the time called by Hilaire Belloc, 'The siege of Christendom'.

             In northern Europe the pressure by the Friesians and Saxons had ceased, though further north kingdoms were consolidating among the Norse, Swedes, and Danes. These were for the moment confined to Denmark, southern Sweden, and southern Norway. But by the eighth century they had begun to colonise the Orkneys and the Hebrides. We do not know the exact dates, but it was clearly before the first raid on the Irish coast in 795.  Between 600 and 800 the Scandinavian languages developed rapidly and became distinguished from German. But a mutually comprehensible speech was still spoken from Greenland to the Baltic.

             Beyond the Frankish Empire, in central Europe, various Slavic-speaking and Hunnish-speaking tribes struggled for supremacy. While the Frankish kingdom remained strong as it was before the Treaty of Verdun they posed no threat to the Christian lands. Like the Scandinavian lands their inhabitants were still pagan.

            Early in the eighth century in England Northumbria was still the dominant power. In 731 Bede wrote his History of the English Church and People. About the same time the epic poem the Boewulf was written down. But at mid-century the midland kingdom of Mercia came to the fore. Offa 757-96 controlled all of England south of the Humber. Like the Irish chiefs at the time, a new ruler had first to establish his authority within his kingdom, and then attempt to subdue all the other chiefs or kings around him. Offa's Dyke marks the boundary between his kingdom and the Welsh states, and more or less marks the boundary between England and Wales to this day. He engaged in trade with Charlemagne, though the latter refused his daughter to Offa's son. He introduced a new currency. Yet Offa was not followed by strong rulers, and the unification of the English tribes commenced in the next century under the powerful rulers of Wessex. After 820 Mercia was split by a civil war thus allowing the rise of Wessex.

The southern Slavs were converted from Greece in the course of the ninth century. The northern Slavs and Huns as well as the Scandinavian kingdoms were converted from Germany in the 10th and 11th centuries following the rise of the Saxon dynasty in Germany. Between 400 and 800 the boundary of Christendom had been pushed slowly forward beyond the Rhine until it reached the Elbe and the Bohemian Forest.

 St Gall made a start converting some of the German tribes in Switzerland and Swabia. At the end of the seventh century the Anglo-Saxon mission to the Friesians in Holland and northern Germany commenced. St Willibrord established the bishopric of Utrecht in 695 in Friesian lands recently conquered by Pepin II the Younger. In 716 Boniface commenced his mission on the Continent by preaching to the Friesians. Like the Irish monks before them their missions were in various parts of the Frankish Empire. Europe’s frontier in later centuries was in the West, but in these centuries it was towards the East. He later preached in Bavaria, Thuringia, and Hesse, all within the Frankish kingdom, and under the protection of Charles Martel. Various missionaries had partially Christianised the region but there was no proper diocesan system. Boniface was consecrated a bishop by Pope Gregory II and charged with forming a proper diocesan system. He established four regular bishoprics in Bavaria, and four in Hesse and Thuringia. He also founded the famous abbey of Fulda. He was made archbishop of Mainz, and his province included all the other German and Friesian dioceses. All the parts of Germany where he worked were under the control of the Franks. Mainz on the Rhine was in the part of Germany called Franconia.  He had considerable difficulty with wandering Irish monks and priests whom he described as ‘ambitious and free-living clerics’. The doubts we have expressed earlier about the discipline and morality of Irish monks may be recalled. Boniface himself was trained in the stricter disciplines of the English Church introduced by Theodore of Tarsus. Undoubtedly, the frontier conditions attracted as many bad clerics as good. In Central Europe a branch of the Huns established a khanate up to the limits of the Frankish domain. Where the Huns did not rule Slavs did. 

             There seems to have been little difficulty in travelling to the Continent beyond those usual at the time. The great Roman roads seem to have been maintained at least to a standard for packhorses. Pilgrimages of devotion were rare but were still undertaken.  Charlemagne promised to protect English merchants and pilgrims to Rome. Long-distance trade had fallen off since Roman times, but did not altogether cease. Wine for ecclesiastical purposes, and as a drink for the nobility was always traded. There seems too to have been trade in olive oil, salt and iron in addition to some small transportable manufactured goods like glass, textiles and metalwork. Into Ireland wine, salt and iron were imported; hides, furs of wild animals and wool exported (O’Corrain 71).  It is probable that the slave trade continued as they were easily captured in war, and were a useful form of currency. The laws begin to mention trade. It would seem that most of the foreign trade from the British Isles was in the hands of the Friesians. There was certainly too some internal trade in Ireland in items like iron or stone suitable for making querns (O’Corrain 70)

            In Ireland by this time there was a system of roads that allowed people to travel all over Ireland. The word road meant only a cleared path on firm ground which led from one river ford to another and joined places like monasteries and forts. Most of Ireland was still covered by forests and scrub. The Roman paved roads, called streets in England, never existed in Ireland. One kind of road was called a bothar that would seem to mean a cow road. It is not clear what purpose such a road would have unless the people in a particular tuath possessed distant grazing grounds. Ireland had no long-distance waterways, but had many lakes and navigable stretches of rivers, and these were used extensively for local traffic. As elsewhere in Europe carts with either solid or spoked wheels and drawn by horses or oxen, were used for carrying goods. But the things carried would have been bulky items carried locally and normally within the bounds of the farm/townland. One can envisage timber for building or fuel being carried from the woods, or manure being carried to outfields, or perhaps, if there was a local water-mill carrying grain to the mill and flour back. But the pack-horse was always far more important where paved roads did not exist up until at least the eighteenth century. Wheeled carts were probably not used in winter. It is likely that sleds with runners were used more often. By the twelfth century in Wales grain was being carried in carts from distances of forty miles to the bishop of St David's cathedral, but at an earlier date it was the custom of chiefs to move their household round their various farms rather then carry the foodstuffs to a fixed centre. Their unfortunate clients were the people who suffered.

            Travel was normally on foot or by boat, but at this period travel by horse was being preferred by the chiefs. It is likely that in this period, and indeed throughout the whole following Viking period that the climate in the North Atlantic was warmer and less stormy than at present. There is no indication that the Vikings were the first to travel as far as Iceland. Indeed, the famous remark of the geographer Dicuil that there was a spot where one could see to pick the fleas from his shirt at midnight would seem to indicate that there were some people from Ireland who had reached Iceland whose north coast touches the Arctic Circle (vel peduculos de camisia abstrahere tanquam in praesentia solis). The Faroe Islands are about 200 miles north of Scotland, and Iceland a further 200 miles beyond them. With a favourable breeze in summer up to a 100 miles a day could be travelled. Much shorter distances round the British Isles and as far as the Continent could easily be travelled. The first Vikings were not venturing into the unknown but were following well-known routes. It is likely too that those on the north, east, and south coasts of Ireland had more interaction with the peoples on the opposite British coasts than they had with people twenty miles inland on their own side. About 400 miles of the opposite coast could be reached in a single day’s journey. Nor was it impossible to assemble sufficient boats to make an attack on the Isle of Man feasible.  

            There were various technological improvements about this time, which were to be very important in the future. The first was the development of the keeled boat. A keel on a boat meant that it could be sailed in various directions even when the wind was not due aft. A keel was better than merely using a rudder. A keel was only really necessary when sails were used, and the wind was not directly astern. The Norse began building some keeled boats about this time. Another development was the use of clinker construction. This method was used by the Anglo-Saxons In this the planks forming the boat were overlapped and not set edge to edge. This gave greater strength though it increased the drag of the water. Ships in northern waters, where changes in the direction of the wind were frequent, came to rely more on sails than they did in the Mediterranean. But the square sail remained the only kind in northern waters at this time, though the triangular lateen sail had been introduced into southern waters. The other big improvement was the high saddle and stirrup, which was developed somewhere on the steppes. This meant that a thrusting weapon like a long lance could be used on horseback without the rider being pushed out of the saddle. Formerly only a downward slashing sword, and a downward thrusting javelin, besides bows and arrows could be used. But warfare on horseback remained uncommon in Western Europe for many centuries to come.  It became the custom too to shoe horses with iron. A form of padded collar for horses was invented which enormously increased the pulling power of a horse. Before this invention which kept the pressure off the horse's windpipe, a horse was liable to suffocate if it pulled too heavy a load. The great conquests of the Arabs linked India with western Europe in a common culture even if not under the same rulers. The Indian method of denoting numerals, now universal, was transmitted to the West as 'Arabic' numerals. The addition of the character of cipher or zero, of no value in itself but serving to indicate the value of the number immediately beside it, simplified calculations immensely.[Top]

Secular Affairs

            Over-chiefs of Tara

            Congal 704-710 of Cenel Conaill, grandson of Domnall mac Aedo.

            Fergal 710-722 of Cenel Eogain, great grandson of Aed Uairidnach.

            Fogartach 722-724 of Sil nAedo Slaine, great grandson of Diarmait mac Aedo

            Cinnead 724-728 of Sil nAedo Slaine, great grandnephew of Diarmait mac Aedo.

            Flaibertach 728-734 of Cenel Conaill, son of Loingsech.

            Aed Allan mac Fergaile734-743 of Cenel Eogain, son of Fergal.

            Domnall Midi 743-763 of Clann Colmain, descendant of Colman Mor.

            Niall Frossach mac Fergaile 763-770 of Cenel Eogain, half-brother of Aed Allan.

            Donnchadh Midi 770-797 of Clann Colmain, son of Domnall Midi.           

            Congall of Cenel Conaill succeeded Loinsech of Cenel Conaill his second cousin in 704, thus prolonging their family’s rule to fifteen years. There is a peculiar point mentioned in the annals regarding Loinseach, that in the battle in which he was killed, the aged king of Connaught rode into battle in a chariot. It is unlikely that this was a war chariot but a wheeled vehicle suitable for carrying an aged man close to the battle. In 707 Congal invaded Leinster.

 Fergal of Cenel Eogain was over-chief from 710 to 722. He was the son of Mailduin, king of Aileach, who had been slain by Congall. With him the Cenel Eogain, excluded from the chieftainship for 80 years, made a comeback. Fergal’s father had married a daughter of the chief of Cenel Conaill, and he himself married a daughter of Congall of Cenel Conaill. All these warring chiefs were closely related by marriage. He repulsed an attack by the Southern Ui Neill at Armagh in 710. He celebrated the games at Taltiu in 716 and banished the presumptive heir to the chieftainship for a murder committed there.  He tried to takes hostages from the Laigin, and some historians considered he was attempting to exact the boromha tribute.  His reign is marked by an unusual raid north into Meath by one of the Eoganacht chiefs, Cathal mac Finguine of the Eoganacht Glennamnach in 721. He was killed in a battle against the Laigin.

             Fergal was succeeded by Fogartach of Sil nAedo Slaine 722 -24.  He was killed in 724 by Cinnead of Sil nAedo Slaine who ruled as over-chief until 728. He was virtually the last of the family of Sil nAedo Slaine to attain the overlordship. The Southern Ui Neill, like the northern branch had by this time split into two independent sub-chiefdoms, the chiefs of Meath (Clan Colmain) and the chiefs of Brega (Sil nAedo Slaine). Brega itself split into a northern branch centred on Knowth and a southern branch centred on Lagore, a division that ruined their chances of attaining the overlordship. Only once more in 944 did a member of the house of Sil nAedo Slaine attain the chieftainship, and then perhaps only as joint ruler.

             Cinnead was succeeded in 728 by Flaibeartach of Cenel Conaill 728-34 who was the last of that family to become over-chief. He spent most of his reign in a war with Aed Allan the son of Fergal, of Cenel Eogain. He had defeated Aed Allan in 725 but Cinnead of Sil nAedo Slaine emerged as over-chief. When he became over-chief the attacks of Aed Allan were renewed. Flaibeartach sent to the Dal Riata of Scotland to get the assistance of their fleet, but he was defeated in three great battles. Though he proved to be the last over-chief from Cenel Conaill, that clan by no means gave up their attempts to attain the honour, but was never again successful.

            So by 734 Cenel Conaill of the Northern Ui Neill and Sil nAedo Slaine of the Southern Ui Neill were no longer credible candidates for the overlordship of Tara. Cenel Conaill became known as the O’Donnells and remained powerful local chiefs until 1603. They were normally until the end in bitter opposition to the O’Neills. The Sil nAedo Slaine remained secondary local chiefs during the Viking period but had their lands granted to Norman lords and disappeared from history.

With the accession of Aed Allan of Cenel Eogain in 734 and the uneasy family agreement to alternate the chieftainship among the Ui Neill an era commenced which lasted for 250 years. The power of the two great families of the Ui Neill remained so evenly balanced that neither was able to get the master of the other. Each produced a succession of powerful warriors. Had either been able to triumph at this stage, a strong united monarchy could have evolved in Ireland during the Viking period. But the chance was lost, and no central native monarchy ever developed.

The first task of the Cenel Eogain was to attack the over-chief Flaiberteach of the Cenel Conaill who had defeated them in 725. Aed Allan campaigned for three years against him until he overthrew him.  Aed defeated the Ulaid, and then revenged his father’s death by defeating the Laigin who were led by Aed of the Ui Chennselaig. He came to an agreement with the Eoganacht of Cashel not to attack each other.

In 743 he was attacked and killed by Domnall mac Murchada Midi, chief of Uisneach, of Clan Colman who may have had the right of succession. During the lifetime of a chief, his expected successor was identified, namely the person within the derb fine most likely to be able to overthrow him. This person was known as the tanaiste, but he was not expected to wait until natural causes removed his predecessor. He was expected by his supporters to kill the incumbent chief if he could so that they all could benefit. The centre of power in Meath had shifted towards the west. Domnall was the first of Clan Colman to attain to the overlordship. This branch had descended through several generations from Colman Mor, son of Diarmait mac Cerbaill and probably should have been excluded from the succession if the rules of the derb fine had been followed exactly. But might is right. This family was one of the most powerful in the land until 1022, after which its power declined until the O’Mellaghlins were merely minor chiefs at the end of the Middle Ages. They too lost much land to the Normans. Domnall Midi added the duties of an abbot to those of his chiefly office. When he died in 763 his sons disputed among themselves, and the over-chiefship passed to Niall Frossach of Cenel Eogain.

            Niall Frossach (763-770/772) remained in power for several years, though he was comparatively undistinguished. He was a son of Fergal by his second wife and was probably born when his father was very old.  He was overshadowed by his more powerful southern rival, Donnchad Midi but also to some extent by his warlike nephew, the chief of Aileach, Maelduin, son of Aed Allan, who kept up the struggle with Cenel Conaill, and by Conchobar (Connor) his brother from whom the sub-clan of Clan Connor of Magh Ithe, later known as the O’Cahans or O’Kanes, the most powerful of the O Neill sub-chiefs. He was also the ancestor of the O’Mullans and the McCloskeys. None of the descendants of Conchobar ever produced an overchief of Tara. Niall's reign was characterised by natural disasters such as earthquakes, plagues and pestilences. It should be noted that these were to be signs of the end of the world, so the monastic chroniclers noted them He did succeed in gathering some tributes from Connaught, Munster, and Leinster without fighting battles, which would seem to imply a divided opposition (DNB). The main line of succession in the north passed through Niall Frossach, and not through his older brother Aed Allan. Though constantly provoked by the raids of Donnchad into his territory he took no action. He resigned in 770 to enter the monastery of Iona.

 Though the Clan Connor of Magh Ithe were to be very important in the Middle Ages when they took over the whole territory of the Cianacht of Dungiven, they were not so at this time. The Northern Ui Neill seem to have made little progress in extending their lands outside of Donegal, though there were probably few tuatha in that county they did not possess by this time. Clan Colmain seem to have been building up their strength in Westmeath, but the lands they controlled also do not seem to have extended over more than a single county. We can take it for granted that all over Ireland the leading families were trying to strengthen their power in a similar manner. The Cianacht, for example, would be doing exactly the same as the Ui Neill to consolidate their power. But it was also quite clear that within a family group a struggle was going on to dominate the group. Among the Cenel Eogain, Clan Feradaig had maintained parity with the Clan mhic Earca until 700 AD, but thereafter were excluded from the kingship of Aileach.

            Donnchad Midi was the son of Domnall mac Murchada Midi, of Clan Colmain, a warlike man who had raided far and wide even into the north, and became over-chief in all but name before the resignation of Niall Frossach. After the death of Cathal mac Finguine in 742 the Eoganacht had become weak again, and the Ui Neill raided into their territory, probably exacting tribute. In 779 Donnchad forced the chief of Aileach, Maelduin son of Aed Allan to give hostages. This Maelduin decisively defeated the Cenel Conaill in 787 at the battle of Urker, finally ending their hopes of attaining the over-chiefship. In 791 Donnchad was again in the north and defeated Aed Oirnidhe then king of Aileach. He was killed in 797.

             Aed Oirnidhe son of Niall Frossach became over-chief. He was called 'oirnidhe' the 'anointed' probably because he was the first over-chief to be inaugurated with a Christian rite. Aed promptly had his revenge by devastating Meath, then devastated Leinster and took hostages, then punished the Ulaid, and drove invaders from Connaught out of Meath.

With the eclipse of Sil nAedo Slaine the significance of Tara virtually disappeared, but it was not finally abandoned as a significant royal place until the 11th century.

            From the beginning of the reign of Muircheartach mac Earca in 507 until 734 a period of 225 years there were 29 overchiefs of the Ui Neill of whom 10 were from the Cenel Conaill, 9 from Cenel Eogain, 8 from Sil nAedo Slaine, and two from other branches, Tuathal Maelgarb and Diarmait mac Cerbaill. Nineteen were from the north and ten from Meath. Between 734 and 1002, a period of 268 years there were 15 over chiefs of whom 7 were from Cenel Eogain, 7 from Clan Colmain, and 1 from Sil nAedo Slaine. With the exception of the latter who was a usurper and probably with opposition, there was a regular alternation between north and south. The average length of reign more than doubled, doubtless because of this agreement to alternate. Internal divisions in Sil nAedo Slaine excluded them, but the Cenel Conaill were excluded by force.

             It is an intriguing thought that if there had been no family compact among the Ui Neill the two clans might have fought it out until one excluded the other and the nucleus of a genuine national state would have been formed as happened in England with the triumph of Wessex. The Cenel Eogain in the ninth century  and early tenth century produced a series of powerful warriors in successive generations, Aed Oirdnide, Niall Caille, Aed Finnliath and Niall Glundub, who could have formed a single powerful ruling house around which Ireland might have been united.  As it was, only a handful of rulers succeeded in exacting submission from the whole of Ireland, and then only for their own lifetimes. Brian Boru was the first to take tribute from the whole of Ireland at the beginning of the 11th century, and Garret More, the Great Earl of Kildare was the last, at the beginning of the 16th century. A few others like Muircheartach O’Brien, Turlough O’Connor, and Muircheartach mac Lochlainn came close to obtaining the submission of the whole of Ireland for brief periods.

            It may very well be that the lands in Westmeath and Offaly controlled by Clan Colmain were among the richest in Ireland. Westmeath to this day is a famous cattle-rearing area. The wealth would have been purely agricultural for manufacturing and trading were minimal. It was also the area where there was the greatest concentration of monasteries in Ireland. It was the area that attracted the first raiders from Munster. The source of the fighting strength of the northern Ui Neill still remains a mystery. The Cenel Eogain were still settled in Inishowen and in the fertile lands in east Donegal around Aileach. Their wholesale seizure of the lands of the Oirgialla does not appear to have commenced before 800.However the nibbling at isolated pockets, begun the sixth century, continued.

            When the southern Ui Neill attacked the northern branch their route to the north would seem to have been through Louth and Armagh, possibly passing through the 'Gap of the North' on the Louth/Armagh border. But this pass would have been held strongly by the Ulaid. The land in south Armagh was wasteland until the eighteenth century. But there may have been passable routes through the lands of the weak Oirgialla clans in Monaghan. Fergal of Cenel Eogain defeated the southern Ui Neill near Armagh in 710. The western route through Donegal would have been made difficult by the Cenel Conaill and the growing power of the Ui Briuin of Breifne. [Top]

The Other Provinces           

In this century we begin to get information about what was beginning to happen in other parts of Ireland. Various changes were taking place in the provinces. In Munster, a powerful chief, Cathal mac Finguine emerged from the Eoganacht Glennamnach whose land was around Fermoy, and he was the first to raid northwards into the lands of the Ui Neill. Before that the most powerful branch of the family had been the Eoganacht Loca Lein around Killarney, but there their power was restricted by the growing power of the Ciaraige Luachra from whom Kerry is named.  The Eoganacht had displaced the Corcu Loegde as the dominant power in eastern Munster. The western Deisi were beginning to settle across the Shannon in co. Clare where they became known as the Dal Cais. The Osraige were growing in strength and were attempting to expand, as were the Ui Briuin Breifne. With the domination of Sil nAedo Slaine, the Cianacht of Meath virtually ceased to exist.

 By the eighth century, the lists of the principal chiefs in the four provinces were complete, but it is far from clear what the designation of principle chief actually signified. It probably meant that a chief of one of the principal families was designated chief of the warband or hosting if all the chiefs of a province got together to resist invasion from another province. In other words he was just the strongest chief in the province, but one who could gain strength in an emergency by calling a hosting. It does not seem that the term ri ruirech, or provincial chief, at this date implied the paying of tribute, even though the mesne chiefs were regularly exacting tributes from their subordinate tuatha or urraghs. An independent tuath was probably by this time a complete rarity. Still it is clear that an unusually powerful overchief like Donnchadh Midi could conquer most of Ulster and Meath, presumably exacting tribute and hostages in his lifetime. This occurred most frequently in Leinster where the Ui Neill were always trying to exact what they called the traditional tribute. To a lesser extent there were limited invasions of Connaught and Munster. Tribute would have been exacted from the border tuatha in those provinces.

There was not a recognised office of provincial chief or ri ruirech. The title went to the most powerful chief of the most powerful branch of the most powerful family in each province. Thus the over-chief of Tara became de facto the over-chief of most of the northern half of Ireland. Eventually, with the domination of the Eoganacht Caisil and the Sil Muiredaig, the chief of Cashel, and the chief of Cruachu became the recognised overlords of their respective provinces. In Leinster, no one family seat ever became the recognised centre of the province. Among the Ulaid, the Dal Fiatach were virtually unassailable. The position of the Oirgialla is unclear. In obscure circumstances, and from quite an early date, they seem to have been payers of tribute to the Ui Neill. How often the tribute was exacted was another matter. Probably, like the boromha tribute claimed from the Laigin it was a fiction which suited the Ui Neill. There is no doubt that the Ui Neill did eventually succeed in exacting it, but only after they had occupied large parts of Ulster.

 Munster does not seem to have had overchiefs of a province, or anyone who could either dominate the whole province, or call a hosting of a whole province. Munster too seems to have been cut off from the rest of Ireland in a way the other three provinces were not. The rising powers in Munster were the Eoganacht Caisil, but they did not dominate until the following century, and the Dal Cais much later still. The Eoganacht of Cashel seem to have been very like their northern counterparts the Cenel Eogain. The part of Munster they had settled in seems not to have been very rich. It possessed a superb defensive site and their territory was so placed that it could block the expansion of the other branches of the Eoganacht. Though trees for building houses may have become scarce most of the surface of Ireland would still have been covered with bogs and scrub. Like the Cenel Eogain they later were forced to shift the base of their power, re-establishing themselves in North Cork when driven from Tipperary. Finally, the expansion of the Normans confined them to the mountainous areas of south and west Cork. Like the O’Neills derived from Cenel Eogain, the MacCarthys derived from the Eoganacht Caisil were great survivors and remained a great power in Ireland until the middle of the seventeenth century.

Nevertheless, the process or local chiefs consolidating their power, first in their own tuath and then over the neighbouring tuatha was proceeding as elsewhere in Ireland. The first chief in Munster to consolidate real power was Cathal mac Fuinguine, chief of the Eoganacht Glennamnach. Like the other powerful chiefs he probably had power over a county, but could still dominate the rival branches of the Eoganacht. This he considered ample to successfully attack Sil nAedo Slaine in 721. His object doubtless was merely plunder, a glorified cattle raid or tain. He was successful so far that he was able to get away safely. The following year the over-chief of Tara was chosen from Sil nAedo Slaine, the former chief having been from the Cenel Eogain. Cathal was able to repeat the feat in 735 with a raid on Leinster.

             The route of the Eoganacht could have been directly northwards through the wastes, forests and bogs as far as the monastery of Roscrea near the slopes of the Slieve Bloom mountains which would then have provided firm going onwards. But it is more likely they proceeded in a more roundabout fashion, holding to the higher ground north-westwards towards Keeper Hill, and then going northeastwards. This would have led through various pieces of land owned by lesser branches of the Eoganacht who would then have been added to the raiding party. A more easterly route would have been blocked by the Osraige. A more northerly route would have led them to the well-guarded lands of Clan Colmain. Further east still nobody seems to have forced their way through the lands of the Laigin. Despite the renown these raids brought Cathal they were not repeated by his successors.

Another power that was beginning to rise was the still tiny family of the western Dal Cais that occupied a small part of Limerick. They expanded across the Shannon into Clare while their territory in Limerick was over-run by the Ui Fidgente. The growth of any family was not without its setbacks. The Clare branch was to become the O’Briens. The former most powerful family, the Corcu Loegde were in continual decline, their lands being taken by the Eoganacht families, until by the twelfth century they were confined to the present diocese of Ross.  In Limerick, the dominant family was the Ui Fidgente, probably a branch of the Eoganacht. Once powerful, they became riven with internal disputes, and their lands were easily conquered by the Norse of Limerick later on, and were finally parcelled out among the great Norman lords.

            In Connaught, the Ui Briuin had established a clear ascendancy over the Ui Fiachrach chiefs. The last of the Ui Fiachrach over-chiefs was chosen in 768 but they really counted for little after 707. The Ui Briuin seem to have belonged to the same family from which came Niall Naoigiallach, the father of the Ui Neill. They were divided into three branches, the Ui Briuin Ai in their original homeland in central Roscommon, from whom the O’Connors. The Ui Briuin Seola (O’Flaherty) were settled at first to the east of Lough Corrib in county Galway. The Normans later drove the O’Flahertys into the poorer regions west of Lough Corrib. The third was the Ui Briuin Breifne (O’Rourke) who settled in north east Connaught in county Leitrim, who conquered lesser tuatha in the course of the eight century. In general it would seem all over Ireland from at least the eight century onward, chiefs of tuatha had no independent power, and tuatha existed merely as a unit of tribute or taxation though in many cases the local ruling family remained in place. Muiredach Muillethan of the Ui Briuin Ai was chosen over-chief in 696 and held the office until 702. His family became known as the Sil Muiredaig (Sheel Murry). From 782 onwards they became the dominant family in Connaught and from them came the O’Connor family which was to provide recognised high kings of Ireland. In the borderlands of south Ulster a branch of one of the ruling families of Connaught established themselves among the woods and lakes. They were the Ui Briuin Breifne. Like the Osraige they never became a power of the first rank, but proved hard to dislodge. Both remained until the seventeenth century.

        In Leinster the over-chiefship seems to have passed fairly regularly between representatives of three leading families, all from the northern part of the region. As noted above, we are merely guessing at what the actual powers of a provincial overchief were at this time. Leinster, like Munster, was largely cut off from the rest of Ireland. Its chiefs were tough warriors, and although they were never able to recover the lands taken by the Ui Neill they were resolute defenders of their remaining lands. Parts of their northern frontier remained inviolate until the reign of Mary Tudor. The southern Ui Neill found them as difficult to beat as the northern Ui Neill found the Ulaid. If the Geraldines are considered the legal heirs of the Ui Chennselaig chiefs of Leinster the Kildare section of the border remained unbreached until the siege of Maynooth castle by Henry VIII.  The ruling families were the Ui Dunlainge and the Ui Mail in the north, who were joined by the rising Ui Chennselaig in the south. Most of the over-chiefs were of the Ui Dunlainge. They were divided into the Ui Dunchada, the Ui Faelain, and the Ui Muiredaig, and these three families gained a virtual monopoly over the overlordship. Inland were two clans, the Loigse and the Ui Failge in easily defensible territories. Like other lesser families they were able to dominate their own local areas. Though never very powerful, they were impossible to dislodge until their territories, by then Laois and Offaly, in the sixteenth century were selected by Philip and Mary as the very first plantations, older even than those in America. Probably for the whole period of their existence they were dependent on cattle-raiding and black rent, which was in Ireland as in other parts of the British Isles tolerated when it could not be rooted out. But when the power to root it out was attained it was exercised without mercy.  

            It would seem that the occupation of all the lands of the Cianacht of Brega in Meath by the Sil nAedo Slaine was a marker of a change in policy regarding the occupation of land. We do not know how the original Celtic chiefs obtained control of the various tuatha. But until this date each ruling family seems to have confined itself to its own tuath. Even in the eighth century when the branch of the Deisi called Dal Cais destroyed the ruling family of the Corcu Modruad in Clare in 744 and took the lands of the leading family and imposed a tribute on the rest of the tuath, there does not seem to have been any change in policy. It was a thing always likely to happen to a tuath too weak to defend itself. It provided a rath and farms for some leading member of the conqueror’s family. But when by 743 the Sil nAedo Slaine had expelled all the rulers of their vassals the Cianacht and took their land it points the way towards the systematic grabbing of neighbouring territory by the powerful chiefs between 800 and 1600. This was very noticeable among the northern Ui Neill in the following century when they proceeded systematically to conquer the territory of the Oirgialla and transferred the land to themselves and their followers. Between 800 and 1600 starting from a small barony in Donegal they occupied all of the present counties of Tyrone and Derry, and parts of south Armagh. [Top]

 Religious Affairs

The Monasteries      

These centuries were the heyday of the great monasteries, some of which had grown into small towns. There was nothing unusual in this though elsewhere in Europe it was more normal for towns to grow up around cathedrals, or castles, though the town of Cluny grew up around that great monastery. In much of Asia it was common for a town to grow up around a monastery. Armagh is the only city to survive of the monastic towns, but quite a few survive as villages or small market towns. Kilkenny, Lismore, Tuam, Raphoe, Kildare, Emly, Ross, Ardmore, Cloyne, Clogher,  Roscommon, Louth, Dromore, Lorrha, Navan, Maghera, Duleek, Cong, Clones, Roscrea, Ferns, etc. probably always had some people living in them since the seventh or eighth century. Though Cork was near a monastic settlement, yet itself originated at a Viking settlement. Londonderry was a completely new planter town near the site of an old monastic town. The celebrated ruins of Monasterboice, Glendalough, and Clonmacnoise survived because the towns that grew up beside them perished, and there was no need to plunder their stones. With the exception of Armagh the monasteries were re-founded in the twelfth or thirteenth centuries, either by the importation of foreign monks or the adoption of the Augustinian rule by the existing monks.  Many of the great monasteries like Kilkenny and Ferns became cathedral towns and so survived. (Some modern towns like Birr and Bangor, though on the site of famous ancient monasteries, have little plausible connection with them.).

            Though the medieval and modern idea of a town embraces groups of equal merchants with some powers of self-government, from an economic point of view these were in many ways little different from settlements which were wholly dependent on lords or abbots. Both would have been centres of local exchange and local manufacture. Both would have consisted of a group of buildings, some large and some small within a lios or rath. A monastery included all those within the rath, male and female. They would have been joined to each other by roads, namely marked tracks through the woods and bogs. They would have been visited systematically by merchants, craftsmen, entertainers, and the learned classes, and would have provided some form of housing for these. The monastery provided lodgings for strangers. Hospitality would not be long extended to those who were of no use to the lord or the abbot. But most strangers could probably have obtained a meal and a bed for one night because of the news they brought from other parts. Craftsmen whose skills were needed would be provided with suitable lodgings for themselves and their families within the rath of the monastery or local chief. Bishops would reside in the monastic town. It is likely they had halls of their own within the rath. Local lords would establish a hall in the town, and by 870 Aed Finnliath of the Cenel Eogain had a hall in Armagh. So a large monastery would have had four large residential halls, one for the monks, one for the bishop and his clerics and household, and one for the local lord, and one for guests and visitors. The three latter would have had an officer or seneschal to preside over them, to see that food was prepared and served, latrines cleaned, etc and this officer would have had sufficient servants for the purpose. The monastery bursar would have kept the hall of the monks, and no doubt, a monk or priest would have presided over the hall for the guests. (In the Middle Ages, Dundalk within the English Pale, was more favoured as the site of the town hall by the O’Neills.) It is unlikely that in large monasteries like these that the monastic life was carried on with any degree of fervour, judging by the standards of the Desert Fathers.

            The monasteries were not cut off from the society in which they lived. Rather the two great raths, that of the chief and that of the abbot, corresponded to the local castle and local cathedral or monastery elsewhere in Europe. In both cases ordinary people would attend the church but not the castle. The lands still belonged to the ruling family who donated it, and the abbot was always a close relative of the chief. The involvement of St. Columcille in the battle of Culdrevne was not regarded as strange. That monasteries should take part in the hosting of their clan was regarded as proper. As the lands still belonged to the clan it is scarcely right to describe taking its agricultural surplus as plunder. But a clan would naturally plunder a monastery in a rival's territory. Donnchad Midi of the Ui Neill burned the churches of the Leinstermen. Feidlimidh mac Crimthainn the bishop-chief of the Eoganacht systematically burned churches and monasteries. There were several instances where monasteries settled their differences on the battlefield (O’Corrain 86f).

Though one might doubt whether Durrow lost 200 men in a battle with Clonmacnoise in 764 (O’Corrain 72). If the figure were accepted the numbers of those within the respective raths would have been up to 2000 (ibid). If the figure is accepted we should not consider the existence of an outsize rath, but rather huts of villagers built outside the fence. The size of the monastic towns is likely to be higher if all the inferior classes not allowed to bear arms were included. It is therefore proper to speak of monastic towns. We do not know who was allowed to bear arms, but without doubt much of the population was not allowed. All freemen probably had the right to bear arms, and not merely the members of the ruling family, and the numbers of such freemen would still have been large compared with the numbers of the noble families. There was an ancient canon prohibiting clerics from shedding blood, but whether it was in force, or enforced, in Ireland at this time is not clear. 

            How many monks were there in Ireland at any given time? If we take a calculation suggested earlier of 20 monasteries with on average 25 monks each and 30 lesser ones with about 15 each so that there could have been 50 large enough to house a bishop, we get a figure of 850. If hermits, and those in tiny local monasteries, are added in we get a round figure of about 1,000 monks. This figure is far larger than the number of priests. See below. There was nothing at all comparable to the 8,000 nuns in Ireland in 1900. A more comparable figure would have been the 1,000 nuns in 1850. There were probably never more than 100 nuns in ancient Ireland at any time, and most convents would have been extinct by 1100 AD.

            As was pointed out in an earlier chapter, the various types of monasticism both those praised and those denounced by St Benedict were probably found in Ireland. The larger the monastery, and the more strict the founder, the higher was likely to be the religious observance. But these large monasteries themselves had a fatal flaw. They depended for endowment and recruitment on the noble families, and these families were liable to interfere constantly. It could be put to a boy not likely to be of use on the battlefield, or who had moral scruples, that he would be better off in the family monastery. (The later practice of noble families that the eldest son got the land, the second son went into the army, the third son went into the Church and the fourth son practised the law had the great advantage that four sons were given a ‘living’. Whole convents were founded to provide places where unmarriageable daughters could be sent.) It has been pointed out that many of the characteristics of the Irish Church, or abuses, ante-dated the disturbances of the Viking period (O’Corrain 83). Among these practices or alleged abuses were lay abbots, married clergy, pluralism, family succession in ecclesiastical offices, and the growth of violence towards the Church and its clergy.

 Many of these practices are judged from the point of view of the Hildebrandine reformers. One thing emerged and that was that the discharge of any office was passed on from father to son. There was nothing wrong in principle if the clergy married, trained up their sons to follow them, and these were duly appointed to their father’s office. Nor was there anything wrong in principle if the deacon, who had charge of the temporalities of the church or monastery, handed on his duties and responsibilities to his son, who came to be called the erenagh. There was however something slightly odd about an abbot, who was supposed to be celibate, marrying and having children to whom he could pass on the office. Though these abbots are described as laymen, we can assume that they were given at least the tonsure to give them the status of clerics, even if they had no intention of proceeding to orders. In the Middle Ages those students attending university asked for the tonsure to gain the temporary status of clerics and so avoid military service. There was no presumption that they would actually remain chaste all through their studies, let alone all through their lives. What mattered was that there would be some monks of strict life within the monastery to set and maintain standards. There was also the problem that the family of the erenagh could refuse to hand over the revenues if a bishop from an unwelcome family was chosen. Or who expected a gift from anyone seeking an ecclesiastical office.

The system could have worked with what was in effect an hereditary married clergy such as later to be found in many Protestant Churches. This could only have worked if the lay patrons who made the appointments were determined to appoint only worthy persons. This condition was often found in Protestant Churches. But all over Europe, worthiness for the office was the last thing that the lay patrons desired. What they wanted was wealth and influence for their families, and church and monastery lands were an obvious source of wealth. It was of course not strictly necessary for a priest, bishop, or abbot to have children, for selection would have been made from within the derb fine. But there certainly was succession from father to son even in the eighth century (O’Corrain 84). It became convenient for the family of the monastic founder, usually that of a ruiri, to provide for a branch of the family when they were excluded from the principal derb fine. They had to be provided for in some way, and the lands the family had granted to the Church was as good as any. None of these practices in themselves need have produced moral depravity any more than simony or purchase of office need have done. But it was obvious to the Hildebrandine reformers that the bribing of patrons resulted in most cases in the worst appointments. But the only fair conclusion is that the state of the Irish Church from 800 onwards was no better than it was in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, and that the reforms of the sixth century were as short-lived as those of the twelfth. This being said, it is reasonable to suppose that in every generation there were some priests and monks who practised their calling without reproach.

There were signs in Ireland as elsewhere of a desire to make the monastic life approximate more closely to what was seen as the monastic ideal. There was to be a stricter observance of the Rule, a greater separation from the world, and often a desire to spend more time in solitary prayer. On the Continent Benedict of Aniane (782) and Chrodegang of Metz (c. 760) tried to introduce stricter observance. In Ireland the reform movement was called after the Celi De (Caley Day) the clients of God, or Culdees. One of the earliest reformers connected with it was St Maelruain of Tallaght, and the two monasteries near Dublin, Tallaght and Finglas, became great centres of reform. Terryglas, the Leinster monastery on Munster soil, was also connected with the movement. Maelruain had studied the monastic life under Fer-da-chrich (d. 747) of the monastery of Dairinis near Youghal, Co. Cork. The movement also produced writers with a remarkable devotional style. The great centres of the Culdee movement were largely confined to north Leinster. True Culdees were probably never very numerous.  It was largely an ideal and the rules of the Culdees varied from monastery to monastery. No doubt too their influence was to be found in many other monasteries in Ireland to a greater of lesser degree. In time the word Culdee came to mean a monk of any Irish monastery which had not adopted a modern continental rule (Corish 21ff). The movement was however made famous by two books, the Felire or Martyrology of Oengus and the Felire or Martyrology of Tallaght.  Both were written in Tallaght, the first about 800, the other in the early 10th century. The Felire of Oengus was not a martyrology but a calendar of Irish saints written in verse. It was the definitive list of Irish saints, though Oengus missed some.

            Irish monks continued to travel to the Continent, but we have no idea how many. The two most famous in the eighth century were Rumold, bishop of Mechlin (in Belgium) d. 775. He was said to have been a bishop in Ireland who found his efforts being frustrated and went to the continent where he hoped to find greater scope for his efforts. The other was Ferghil (d785) or Virgilius the Geometer (Geographer), abbot of Aghaboe and later bishop of Salzburg (in Austria). He is said to have set out on a journey to the Holy Land, but on arrival in France was persuaded by Pepin the Short to go to the duke of Bavaria. He became abbot of a monastery in Salzburg, and then bishop of that city. He had various disagreements with St Boniface who was inclined to regard him as a heretic. [Top]

The Parish Clergy

            There certainly was a parish clergy. The parish and the tuath would have been co-extensive. Whether indeed any attempt had ever been made to provide a secure endowment for them before the twelfth century may be doubted. In Wales one notes the frequency of placenames beginning with 'llan' followed by the name of a saint. The llan was the circular enclosure which enclosed the church all over the British Isles (Evans 93; Evans assumes that every llan was a monastery for no obvious reason other than a belief that Wales had a monastic church and not a parish-based system). In England the parish seems to have been called after the saint to whom the parish church was dedicated. Most Irish parishes, like Welsh parishes, are able to claim a patron saint from these centuries. This would indicate that some priest had preached the gospel there and had died a Christian death. The title of saint meant no more than a belief that the priest who founded the parish was in heaven and could intercede for the parish. Every priesthood depends on a secure source of income whether it came from assigned lands, or assigned taxes, or plentiful offerings as at a popular shrine. (After the Reformation, Catholic priests, both parish and regular, were able to survive in some numbers on voluntary offerings.) Though a great chief could endow a great monastery with captured lands, the ownership of land within a tuath did not lend itself easily to granting permanent endowments. Lands assigned to the Church in one generation could be revoked in the next.

             In Ireland, as in England and Wales, there would have had to be a round lios or rath containing the church, the priest's dwelling, and the burial ground, and with some portion of land attached to it to provide for the priest. Perhaps a hundred acres or perhaps no more than ten acres would have been assigned to the priest, besides his share of cattle. Or rather to the priest’s family. Even until the nineteenth century, the priest’s family were likely to claim his house after he died. Alternatively, a chief could have presented a married man whose family had land, and the priesthood would have been handed on from father to son, being hereditary like all other occupations. This latter is much more likely. The priest would also receive gifts when asked to perform any rites such as baptising or burying the dead. The sums involved were probably not great; some eggs or fish for example. Their status and honour price was in the saor nemed class with minor chiefs, poets, and the learned classes.  All over Europe and in many parts of the East village priests had no great social status, nor any great education. An ability to read a Latin text even if he did not understand it at times sufficed.

             The priest would have been bound to observe all the canons binding on the clergy especially with regard to hairstyle, and dress. This would have only included the canons in force in Gaul in the fifth century A longer, more dignified form of dress in the late Roman style would have been required but perhaps not often worn. He would have had his hair cut short in the fashion of the late Roman Empire, and probably had to shave at least once a week. They would also have to be able to read Latin. It is unlikely at this period that illiterate priests would have been ordained, required like many nuns only to be able to read a Latin text without understanding it. Their duties were to perform the rites of baptism and communion, to pray for the living and the dead and to offer a public mass on every Sunday and chief holy day (Corish 11). The prayers would of course have been chanted in public in the gloriously painted local oratory. Equally glorious garments, if obtainable, would have been worn. The services consisted of the morning and evening prayers, matins and vespers, composed largely of the psalms in Latin. The main settlement with the parish church would have been very close to the main rath or lios of the chief of the tuath largely for the convenience of the chiefly family.  It is unlikely that there was more than one church in a tuath. It is difficult to estimate the size of the wooden churches from the size of the stone ones that remain for craftsmen would have been far more capable of erecting large wooden structures. But the evidence we have shows that the churches were tiny, not holding more than perhaps fifty persons. Corish notes that the clericus plebis or parish priest still survived until the end of the eighth century. Yet if the non-monastic parish priest as such disappeared it does not mean that existing parishes had likewise disappeared. The evidence, as we will see below, is to the contrary.

            It should be noted too that the image of a solitary celibate parish priest reading his breviary as he walked on the road, and with a single altarboy to give the responses at mass is anachronistic. The priest (and often the bishop) would have been married. The parish church would have had a complement of people in minor orders, a porter and a lector at least. The porter would have had the keys of the door (porta) of the church and would have been responsible for securing the sacred vessels and garments. He would also doubtless have acted as the seneschal or major domo of the priest’s hall, and have been in charge of the domestic servants, male and female. There would have been at least one cook and one washerwoman, and men, perhaps slaves to till his land and herd his cattle, with women to milk the cows and make the cheese. The lector would have read the lessons. If the priest's son had been advanced to the rank of deacon he would have read the gospel. The lector survived a long time as the priest's clerk (clericus, later defined as one who had been tonsured), though the duties of the parish clerk were eventually discharged by a layman. (There is no indication that priests or clerics were ever involved in the civil administration of the parish or tuath.) The lector would doubtless act as the schoolmaster, teaching the elements of reading, writing, and Latin to the children of the richer families. He would often too have performed the duty of the cantor or precentor in leading the chants. He would therefore also have been the teacher of the chant. There could even have been acolytes to carry the candles, an essential function, not a symbolic one in those days. Their duties would doubtless have required them to make the candles as well, perhaps even attending the bees for that purpose. Someone would have to have been appointed to acquire and safeguard a reasonable store of wine, and make sure it did not go sour. Making the holy bread would have been an important duty too of the priest's household. The bread had to be made of wheat. Much sieving and cleaning would have been required to remove all traces of dirt, weed-seeds etc. Then it would have had to be carefully ground by hand, and again sieved to make white bread. One canon laid down that once a man had become a cleric he could not give up that status, and if he dropped out and let his hair grow he was to be excommunicated until he repented and return to his duties. There was a lot to be said for having a hereditary married clergy. All of the persons mentioned above would have been relatives of the priest. We can reasonably assume too, that even at this period, all adult male members of the priest's family could read and write Latin. As members of a learned class they would not have been obliged to take part in the annual forays for purposes of cattle-raiding. Yet still there always seems to have been a shortage of priests, and that one priest might have charge of three or four churches (Corish 17). In a vast rural parish it was easier to provide a local church and an ostiarius or porter to look after it than to provide the full endowment for a priestly family.

 The lack of applicants to the parochial ministry is surprising, for normally in primitive societies there are no shortage of applicants. Undoubtedly the reason was that the endowment of the parish was too small and too insecure. While it was still insisted on that the priest be literate, and of the saor nemed class, there was probably great difficulty in getting young men to apply if they had to support a household on say ten acres. The problem was widespread and elsewhere the solution arrived at was to make a village headman or chief goatherd the parish priest. Such were usually totally deficient in the knowledge of Christian doctrine. (Later the Protestant reforming bishops wrote out sermons and insisted that their parsons should read them aloud, for they were totally incapable of writing their own sermons.)  The widespread adoption of celibacy by the friars also assisted in reaching the poorer and more remote areas, though they too were based in monasteries. Eventually, from the eighteenth century onwards, it was found possible in Ireland to support a full parochial clergy on the gifts of the people alone. For a long time Ireland was probably unique in this respect. (In England and in the United States, no attempt was made to provide a full parochial system, and in England, the Catholic Church depended considerably on the wealthy families.)

The question too must be raised, even if we lack the evidence to answer it, as to the efforts the priests made to contact their flocks, to teach them their duties, to visit them in their houses, to instruct children in the Christian truths, to visit the slaves and the women. These duties were often taken very seriously in the post-Reformation period, but were they also the practice in earlier times? Or did the priests just simply build a little church in a central spot and instruct those who came to it? Or after an initial period of missionary fervour in which every effort was made to meet and convert people, did the priests just settle into a comfortable regime? We will probably never know. So we should be careful about making dogmatic statements, as scholars in previous generations were wont to do.

Much interesting information was given by M'Kenna in his study of the parishes of Clogher diocese. In the 12th century they were in the lands of Donnchad Ua Cerbaill (Donagh O’Carroll) overlord of the southern Oirgialla. The remaining lands of the Oirgialla at the time were assigned to Armagh. County Louth was disputed between them but finally assigned to Armagh. In 1306 there were only 13 parishes in county Monaghan and the parts of Clogher in county Louth. One was called in Latin Gabalynan (Galloon) or plebs de Dartie, the people or parish of the Dartraige. The Dartraige were one of the smaller clans of the Oirgialla. Twelve of the parishes were called ecclesia (church) and one was called plebs (people) the plebs de Crichmugdorn (Cremorne), the people of the Mugdorna (Mourne). The parish of Kilmore and Drumsnat was in the lands or tuath of the Ui Meith Macha. Carrickmacross was in the lands of the Fir Rois. Tehallen was in the lands of the Ui Meith Tire. Donaghmoyne was in the lands of the Mugdorna. (M'Kenna passim). It has been noted that the parishes in south Ulster outside the Pale were enormous compared with the small medieval parishes in Louth which were based on the manor. Parishes of 20,000 to 30,000 acres were found on one side compared with 1,500 to 3,000 acres in Louth (P.J. Duffy in Gillespie and O’Sullivan, 12f).

The question may be asked how many priests were there in Ireland. We can suppose that there was a priest in almost every tuath, which would mean around 100. Every large monastery would have a priest, which would mean perhaps another 50, and the very largest a bishop and 3 priests, say another 50. But the two would not coincide for long, so there would always be some overlap. So perhaps we can estimate the number of priests in Ireland at any given time at about 160. With a population of 500,000 this gives a ratio of 1 to about 3,000. This corresponds well with the ratio given by Corish for the province of Tuam in 1834 of 1 to 3,678, and the diocese of Tuam, the worst in Ireland of 1 to 4,199. Over the whole of Ireland in 1850 the ration was 1 to 2,000. The conditions in the diocese of Tuam, the least urbanised would have been closest to those in the eighth century.

 Of course we cannot compare the modern areas of those parishes with the parish in the eighth century. In those days probably not a tenth of the area was occupied and cultivated. Chiefs, priests, farmers, and cultivators of the soil would have lived close together in the tilled places. In summer the men especially would disperse into the vast forests with the cattle. Even the larger figure of 30,000 acres corresponds to about 50 square miles. If the parish were a perfect circle, and the church exactly in the middle, the furthest distance to walk to the church would have been four miles. A similar parish of 100 square miles would involve a walk of five and a half miles. Presumably the vast bulk of the parishioners were in the centre of the parish. Even if there was only one parish church in a tuath measuring twenty miles by twenty miles the distance from the church would not have been regarded as excessive, a mere ten to twelve miles to church and back. Roads, in the sense of a way provided with drainage channels and a surface of stone would have been non-existent. People were used to walking long distances. Even in the eighteenth century a single free infirmary for every county was regarded as adequate. The poorer classes who qualified for free medical attention would have to walk there. There was also the possibility that there were lesser shrines attended by a priest within the bounds of a parish.

Even in this century, when most tuatha had their own monastery, the household of the parish priest seems to have been disappearing. A priest in a monastery could do all a parish priest could do, and with greater style and grandeur. It is obvious that the religious needs of many of the people were not being met, yet the problem was not tackled until the thirteenth century, when the friars were split into pairs and sent out to preach everywhere. The friars had to simplify matters so that they had to carry only a single book and the smallest and minimum number of vestments and sacred vessels, and to make do with the smallest number of attendants and servers. This in turn paved the way for the provision of a rite by the Council of Trent for the celebration of mass with only a single server. But in the eighth century we should still envisages the priest being assisted at mass by several attendants. Still there must have been many who never got to attend a Christian religious service very often. [Top]


            . It may very well be that north of the Alps attendance at weekly mass was not customary. The weekly celebration of the Eucharist was a Jewish custom, and it was no doubt accepted as the norm in all cities of the Empire especially where there was a colony of Jews. It is not even clear if there was a tradition of weekly mass in rural areas in Italy at the time of St Patrick. It is even difficult to envisage what the weekly Eucharistic celebration was like. We can say pretty accurately what the order of the prayers and readings was like for this was written down at an early date. The readings had not yet attained the fixed form given to the in the Roman missal after the Council of Trent. It seems it was customary for the reader to continue reading from the prescribed book until given a signal to stop. But it is very unlikely that the strictly regimented form that the Roman liturgy was given in the Baroque period existed in more ancient times. Court ceremonial, especially Spanish court ceremonial, military parades, and religious functions copied styles from each other. The result is that modern western worship has a stately and regimented character that is still not found in the Eastern Churches. Church music would have been lighter and brisker unlike the heavy solemnity characteristic of Bach that was widely imitated at a later period. The feel would have been more like the family of the Jews in their homes, with reading from the Bible, explanations of the words and ceremonies by the father of the family, the formal prayer of thanksgiving (called in Greek the Eucharist) and the blessing and sharing of the cup of wine and the loaf of bread. There would have been four processions each with an appropriate chant, at the entry of the clergy, at the bringing up of the offerings, at the reception of communion, and at the withdrawal, and the accompanying chants would have been lively and triumphant. The triumphal character of the chants is still very noticeable on the feasts of martyrs, and Rome itself had many such feasts. Even chants on Good Friday were lively and triumphant, for they celebrated the triumph of life over death. It is impossible to say to what extent the laity participated within the church even on great feast days. The processional chants doubtless consisted of verses of a psalm, with the people giving the response after each verse. The cleric chanting the psalm would of course, chant the refrain first so that everyone was reminded of it, a practice that continues to this day. For this the refrain would have had to be much simpler than the Gregorian chants we know today. But these chants are really only suitable for monastic and cathedral choirs. Whether they were ever used in Ireland before the twelfth century can be regarded as highly doubtful, except perhaps in some of the larger monasteries.

 The atmosphere was probably far more casual, as it has remained in the Eastern Churches, with a greater emphasis on the presence of the holy things. As in the Eastern Churches the holy things would have been regarded as sanctifying things. Protestants in Western Europe and America have completely lost the idea of sacred places and objects, and the reverential atmosphere they inspired. Man was not saved by his own actions but by the power of God acting through the Church. Joy and festivity at coming to the holy place when the holy rites were being celebrated would have been the keynotes whether or not the layman put his foot inside the door of the church. By this time in any case knowledge of Latin would probably have disappeared from among the laity.  There would have been no question at this period of head-counting or insisting on attendance at mass on all Sundays and holy days 'of obligation'. Slaves were probably never allowed to attend mass on Sundays. But the ringing of a handbell outside the church (and later from the round tower) would have indicated to them in the fields or wherever they were, to pay attention and they would devoutly make the sign of the cross to associate themselves with the sacred rites.

            Where there was no tradition of a weekly religious celebration, and few priests to celebrate it, religious observance would have taken a more traditional form. This would have been the celebration of the great feasts. The monasteries and cathedral churches where they existed would have taken the place of the shrines or assembly places where the seasonal rites had been observed. For the rest, religious or superstitious practices would have been given a Christian gloss and continued as before. Nobody objected to this before the Reformation. If Roman priests or Gaulish druids sprinkled water, then just bless the water in the name of the Holy Trinity and continue. Almost certainly there would have been a great parochial celebration in each parish church on the feast of the patron of the parish. This annual ‘pattern’ continued in places into the nineteenth century. Almost certainly too the four pagan festivals at the four corners of the year which were totally separate from the Easter cycle would have been celebrated. This was easily done by converting them into feasts of saints. The feast of Samhain was celebrated of large parts of Europe, and it became officially the Feasts of All Saints and All Souls. In Ireland, the one in spring became the Feast of St Brigit, though there may also be a confusion with the goddess Brigit. Bealtine seems to have been transferred to the Feast of St John the Baptist in June.

             Even if there were few parish priests, the nobles and the richer landowners could easily go to a monastery to celebrate the great feasts. But it is unlikely that the lower classes ever left their own locality, and many of them may never have received the sacraments or heard a preacher in their lives unless they happened to live quite close to a monastery. From this point of view the religious carvings on the stone crosses would have provided an excellent introduction to religious instruction. It is doubtful if stained glass windows that served the same purpose elsewhere were to be found in the Irish wooden churches, but the 'painted boards’ mentioned by Cogitosus, could have been pictures of biblical scenes as on the crosses. The crosses with scriptural scenes depicted on them date from after 800 AD. In some parts of Ireland monasteries were numerous, but in others they were distinctly scarce, or were there only part of the time. Though quite numerous on the seacoasts they were absent from much of central Munster. But that region may have been largely uninhabited, and any people living there could have been pagans.

            If this model of Christianity seems a bit disappointing, it should be remembered that not only Christianity but also Buddhism was spread by means of monasteries and temples from the Atlantic Ocean through Central Asia right across to the Pacific and from the Arctic to Central Africa. The Christian monastery in Ireland in the eight or ninth century had its counterpart in Ethiopia right up to the present day. The latter monasteries might have been of mud and square-shaped rather than of wattle and round-shaped. But there would have been the same jumble of buildings within, with the monks living in the open air. The young monks, Christian or Buddhist, would have sat at the feet of an older monk out doors who would have repeated the psalms or other parts of the sacred books to them until they had them by heart. Similarly, a monk would have gathered children around him and taught them to read and write. Other monks would have copied manuscripts. Other monks could have instructed the lay people in the monastery, especially the children, in their Christian duties. Various assorted lay people would have looked after the material side of things, while earning their own keep at the same time. The peoples around them would have come to the monastery on the greater feasts, and there would have been one or more priests to celebrate one or more masses or other ceremonies. At each painted high cross someone would have been stationed to explain the figures in each panel, and their significance for the Christian. 

What was the actual level of Christian practice in Ireland three hundred years after the first preaching of the gospel, and before the great disruptions of the raids? There is little doubt that laymen in Ireland, like elsewhere in Europe, were only nominally converted to Christianity, and that there was little evidence of strict Christian practice outside the bounds of the monastic lands. Nationalist historians used formerly paint a glowing picture of the Christian morality in Ireland before the coming of the foreigners. But the evidence accumulated would rather indicate that no such golden age ever existed. It is true the evidence we possess comes largely from reformers and enemies who would naturally paint a dark picture. And in hagiology a bishop or confessor had always to start with a near bestial people and turn them into the holy people of God. But nowadays historians are more likely to apply the description of Sir Henry Sidney in the reign of Elizabeth of the Irish Protestants to Irish laymen in all previous centuries. He said that they regarded matrimony as no more than the conjunction between beasts; perjury, robbery, and murder were counted allowable; they had no consciousness of sin; they were uninstructed in the Christian faith, and it was doubtful even if their children were baptised (cited by Corish, 70). Corish points out that in the eighth century it was doubtful if marriage existed outside the monastic lands.

We know that cattle-raiding was endemic and that murder, even of women and innocent peasants, and looting were an essential part of it. Nor should we suppose that the morals of the lower classes were any better than those of the higher classes. At the same time we cannot impose a higher standard for the eighth century than for the twentieth century. We know that in the twentieth century it was perfectly possible for a member of the IRA to take communion before setting out to murder a policeman, or to cause an explosion. There were also priests to tell him that his cause was just and these actions necessary. Christian teaching was aimed not at stopping warfare but at limiting unnecessary brutality. This was the reasoning behind the Cain Adamnan, and also behind the idea of Christian chivalry.

            How much of this inconsistency of practice was due to ignorance and how much to hypocrisy? Outside the monasteries what system was there, at what we would call the parochial level, for religious instruction, and the performance of the usual religious rites? What was the extent of literacy among clergy and laity? [Top]

The Hierarchy

The question arises that if the parish was co-extensive with a tuath what powers of supervision or invigilation did a bishop have over the parochial clergy. The answer is probably none. The new candidate for the priesthood from an independent tuath would have to seek ordination from some bishop, and every year to get the holy oils. The services of a bishop would also be necessary for confirmation. Yet in the haphazard system by which parishes and dioceses were set up it is hard to see how any proper hierarchy with powers to discipline erring clergymen could exist. There was no question of wandering priests, for each priest would have been ordained for a specific parish. Nor would a certificate of ordination be required, for the priest would normally never travel outside his own tuath.

As elsewhere in the Church the provision of a parish church and attendant parish priest was left to the local landowner. He therefore had the right to appoint or present the parish priest. Presenting a parish priest to a bishop implied that the bishop had a right to refuse. The initiative would have lain with the local lord. He would have presented one, and only one, candidate to the bishop in his tuath. The person presented would therefore in most cases be a relative of the local ri. Appointing two priests would have halved the casual receipts of both. The question would then arise, to which bishop should the presentation be made. In the absence of a hierarchy, the answer would be the nearest one. 

            Armagh was still pushing its claims to primacy, which were gradually accepted in Ulster. Only in the tenth century as the result as a political settlement were the claims accepted in Munster. They were never accepted in Leinster (Corish 8). Corish is probably right in connecting this claim for archiepiscopal status with a desire to introduce a normal hierarchy, and to reduce the influence of monasteries, which was distorting the structure and subverting the hierarchy. Though modern historians speak of the primacy it is more likely that Armagh was seeking metropolitan status, first over Ulster, and then over the whole of Ireland. Irish bishops were perfectly aware of the normal structure of the Church, and Corish notices that attempts were being made to introduce a more modern Roman structure. They were also aware that no hierarchies existed in either Wales or Scotland. Romanised Wales was the land they would have first looked to if they wanted to import patterns from abroad. These efforts were strongly resisted by the monasteries. But the Irish Church had developed piecemeal, and apart from Palladius there never had been a papal envoy to establish a hierarchy. It would have been normal for the Irish bishops to try to regularise their church, but they could never agree which of the dioceses should have the archbishop. The civil headship of a province never stayed in the same place for long. Armagh, Kildare, and Emly claimed jurisdiction over the other bishops in their provinces. They were accorded a correspondingly greater honour price. The honour price of the bishop of Emly was made equal to that of the overchief of Cashel (MacNiocaill 95f). As such he would have been an ard easbog, a high bishop, not an archbishop. Evidently some attempts were being made to regularise the situation and establish a normal hierarchy.

The solution finally arrived at in the twelfth century of having four archbishops, to correspond to the then established provincial overchiefs, was probably the only feasible one. The only possible candidates were those backed by powerful provincial chiefs.

There was the other peculiarity of the Irish Church which inhibited the development of a proper hierarchy, and that was the tendency of the monasteries to form confederations. As every abbot was a close relative of a ruling family, we can suspect that the reason for the confederation was both political and financial than religious. It could be no coincidence that the greatest of the confederations, that of the Columban, those claiming connection with St Columcille, monasteries in the northern part of Ireland was closely connected with the Ui Neill. As was the universal custom, gifts or a tribute, would be payable to the senior abbot. The client monasteries would then get the benefit of the military protection of the Ui Neill. [Top]

Cultural Affairs

Religious Art 

The period from 700 to 850 represents a high point in the development of ecclesiastical art. Great masterpieces of metal work like the Ardagh chalice, of illuminated manuscripts like the book of Kells, and sculptured crosses like those at Monasterboice, date from this period. We can assume that the architecture of the wooden church likewise reached its peak. This is the period people think of the golden age of ancient Christian Ireland.

            There was an extensive religious literature in Latin ranging over the whole field of ecclesiastical studies, biblical commentaries, theology, canon law, music and hymnody, grammatical texts, and hagiography. Astronomical knowledge needed for calculating the calendar was possessed by some. Virgilius of Salzburg, previously abbot of Aghaboe, was famous as a geographer and astronomer. Though useful at the time none of the religious writings are of the first class. Bibles, and parts of the bible, were continuously copied, and occasionally elaborately illuminated. But they possessed no notable degree of accuracy, and are of little use for textual criticism. But a ninth century manuscript of the Old Latin, or pre-Vulgate, version of the New Testament called Ardmachanus from the Book of Armagh is still cited by textual critics.

            Corish notes that at this period Ireland must have had an unusually high number of literate laity for the monastic schools taught laymen as well as clerics (17). The number of laymen learning to read must have been declining as elsewhere in Europe as memorise of Rome faded.

Whatever one might think of the spiritual status of Irish monasteries in the eighth centuries, it was a great century for art and learning. In the eighth century very good metal work was being produced, the illumination of manuscripts was reaching its peak, and the carving of the high crosses began in the eighth century.  A carved stone pillar dates from around 700 AD. The earliest may have been ancient standing stones adapted to Christianity by carving a cross within a circle on it. The Ardagh chalice was an outstanding piece of art.

            The art of the period has often been referred to as 'Celtic' art. Apart from the problematic use of that term, the art was identical to that in Anglo-Saxon Northumbria. It is now called insular art for it was found in many parts of the British Isles. Most of the masterpieces that have survived are of a religious nature. The famous illuminated manuscripts were written at this time. Some of the artistic motifs probably derived from La Tene art, but others from Anglo-Saxon art, and others again from the Mediterranean, and possibly Egypt by way of Italy. The greatest masterpiece, the Book of Kells, was written and designed either in Ireland or Scotland about the year 800.

            High crosses with a circle around them (the Celtic cross) and with their surfaces decorated with ornamental band-work and other designs were introduced, probably from Britain, in the eighth century. The development of high crosses depicting scriptural scenes began in the second half of the eighth century, being also probably influenced by British models. One of the earliest of these, the Moone Cross from Moone in Kildare in Leinster depicts scenes from the Old and New Testaments. The stories they illustrate are also to be found in the devotional works of the Culdees. The images seem to have been derived from continental originals of the Merovingian period. This serves as a useful reminder that the Irish Church was never cut off from the Continent, and was aware of trends there.

            Very belatedly stone was being used in the building of churches. The earliest reference is in the year 788. A stone church was built in the monastic rath in Armagh in 789 AD. The roof was doubtless thatched. First stone walls, and then stone vaulting, were used to lessen the risk from fire. There was an ever-present danger of fire because of the need for candles with naked flames. No surviving remains can be dated earlier than 900 (Harbison, Potterton and Sheehy 49ff).

            As noted above there was a large body of religious literature, none of it remarkable either for its learning or its beauty of language. Some excellent poetry was however produced especially by those of the Culdee movement.

There was no doubt a great amount of transcription of books of the Bible and other Christian works, but the collection and codification of traditional lore and its commission to writing was very much to the fore. This would have been done in the traditional learned families.

Secular Learning

 With regard to secular literature the great epic of the Tain was worked over, and the present version dates from about the eighth century, though the manuscript versions may date from the twelfth century. The Tain was only one of a number of cycles of tales, which were doubtless originally transmitted orally, and written down about this period. Because of the frequent references to chariots it is possible that the tales originated in Britain, as there is little evidence that chariots were used in warfare in Ireland. Other cycles related to the Tuatha De Danann, the Fenians, or to various kings said to have ruled at various times between the 3rd cent BC and the 8th century AD. The stories have a large magical or supernatural element and correspond to modern stories about Superman or Star Trek. There is no doubt that this genre of story was by far the most popular. As in the rather similar Iliad women are brought in as figures to ensnare the warriors. 

            About the same time, the middle of the eighth century, the lawyers, who had split off from the caste of the file or poets began to try to codify traditional law and put it down in writing. By this period, the caste of the file had split into those specialising in praise-poetry, in law judgements, and historians. Though called Brehon law from the Gaelic word for a judgement, it was not a collection of verdicts as in English common law, though it might include such. Rather it was a collection of traditional customs, or legal decisions that had been saved in metrical form by the file-poets. From the sixth century onwards many of these verses had been collected. In the eighth century the lawyers tried to construct an organised corpus of law. The most successful of these efforts was called the Senchas Mor or the great collection of the ancient lore. Unfortunately the act of writing down fossilised the law, a not uncommon fate for such collections. All through Vikings times and the Middle Ages this inhibited innovation and reduced the flexibility of the law to adapt to new situations and new concepts.

            The other group derived from the file, the historians, also at this time reduced their traditions to writing. They were in charge especially of the genealogies. The genealogy was always more than a record of fact. Most genealogies were imaginary in their early stages. The early genealogies in the Bible, for example, dealing with the sons of Noah, tell us more about geography than history, and peoples who were linguistically related were assigned a common ancestor. Genealogies of the ruling classes in Ireland, and all genealogies were of the ruling classes, purported to indicate from whence each ruling family got its right to rule. Tribal and political affiliations were indicated in Ireland, as well as historical descent. In imitation of the Bible, the file extended Irish genealogies back to Noah as well, and a fictional history of ancient Ireland was developed to accompany the genealogies. This was called the Lebar Gabala or Book of Invasions. As late as the nineteenth century Irish historians took this work seriously. As long as the tradition was oral it could always be modified, but the genealogies, true and false, once written down became accepted as sacred and permanently true. The great collection of genealogies was called the Senchas Coitchenn. These genealogies were preserved in medieval manuscripts. 


            . But before 800 we are able to observe the various changes in Irish society brought about by the introduction of Christianity. Though the picture was not as unblemished as that painted by nationalist historians in the past, yet the advances in Ireland, as in the rest of the British Isles, were remarkable. The people were more or less converted to Christianity. Reading and writing became widespread. The monastic life was introduced and prospered. There was a great flowering in the arts. Learning, though not of a very high order, was cherished. Learning in Ireland at the period was no worse than anywhere else in Europe, and often as good as could be obtained elsewhere. Some attempts were being made to restrain the barbarity of warfare. Though Ireland had little trade, navigators were becoming more confident in their command of the sea. The seventh and eighth centuries were probably the most prosperous Ireland had since the Late Bronze Age, being only exceeded (before modern times) by the early thirteenth century. With the onset of the invasions a whole series of trends were accelerated in Ireland generally resulting in the stronger powers swallowing up the weaker ones.



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