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Irish Monasticism

The ‘Catalogue of the Saints of Ireland’ divided the Saints of Ireland into three orders. The first contains all those bishops deemed to have received their ministry from St Patrick. The second lists monks who had received their ministry from Britain. The third consists of hermits. But the document is of 9C or even 10C and is clearly designed to boost the prestige of Patrick and his bishops over against the monks and hermits. But these orders were not consecutive but contemporary one with another and should be dated to the 6C. This century was one of great expansion which saw not only bishops, but monks and hermits, spreading everywhere in Ireland. The result was that the monasteries became the de facto centres of the church. Monasticism, with its multiple forms, had great appeal because its adaptability.

The traditional founder of the monastic movement is said to have been St Finnian of Clonard (548) who had received training in Wales. He was undoubtedly a great founder and teacher. But there were many before him. Patrick’s relation to the monastic life is unclear though interesting. Some deny he founded any monasteries on the grounds that bishops came first and monks later. Yet St Patrick was firmly in favour of the dedicated life; he refers to it four times. Most explicit is his statement that, ‘The sons of the Irish and the daughters of their kings are monks and brides of Christ’. But even if this only referred to individuals not communities – and this is not clear- for a bishop in the 5th C to be so positive is unusual. His companion St Tassach (470), founder of the church at Raholp just 2 miles from Saul, is said to have spent 7 years on Rathlin O’Birne off the coast of Donegal with other hermits before 500. If so this is of extraordinary interest. St Enda (530) spent many years first as a hermit, founder of a monastery and teacher of many on Inishmore, the main island of Aran Co Galway. St Donard (507) at Maghera Co Down is said to have had a hermit’s cell on top of Slieve Donard in the Mountains of Mourne. St Forthchern (5C), who is said to have been a bishop and then a hermit in Meath, may have been the teacher of Finnian. St Buite (523) founded Monasterboice in Co Louth. St Senan (546) evangelised West and South Clare and he and his disciples founded many places around the Clare coast and on the islands of the Shannon estuary. There are also several remarkable women saints from the early period, St Gobnait (5C) at Ballyvourney (Co Cork), St Arraght (5C) at Killaracht and Monasteraden (both Co Sligo), St Monnina at Killevy (Co Armagh) (517), St Brigit (524) at Kildare, St Bronagh at Kilbroney, Rostrevor (Co Down) and St Ita (570) at Killeedy (Co Limerick).

St Columba (597) was perhaps the most prolific founder of monasteries of all. Born at Garten in Co Donegal, he was of royal blood, of commanding stature and evidently of great charisma. He eventually left Ireland for Scotland where, from this base on Iona, he evangelised among the Picts. His ‘Life’ written by St Adamnan gives a vivid picture of an Irish saint and monastery.

In Ireland the church was always the local church. There was nothing else. The local tribe was the point of meeting one with the other, and the number of tribes was enormous, though they might be joined up in little kingdoms or bigger ones. When the tribe responded to the Gospel, an enclosure would be set aside, with boundaries and ‘termon’ crosses, sometimes with a ditch, sometimes with a wall, clearly marking out to everyone that the area was sacred. Within it a tiny church of wattle and daub would be built. That would not take long.

In many places there seems to have been no shortage of aspiring monks. As for sites, as one travels to the places they chose one is amazed by the astonishingly beauty of the places they picked. In particular the sea islands (particularly off the West coast) and the many Lough Islands furnished such places in abundance. Even today travelling throughout the island the memory of the founding saints is singularly well preserved, though often there is little detail. Something is known of some 250 from this early period but this does not include many more, without number, whose names are hardly known, were never recorded, or which have become lost.

Whoever they were, bishops, monk or hermits (and some bishops were monks or even hermits) some founded several churches. 4000 is the estimated overall number. Of course nothing survives of the perishable materials used. But where wood was plentiful, churches were also made of planks; or if there was little wood, in stone. Apart from Duleek (7C), the first stone churches however appear to be the tomb-shrines of founder saints in the 8C, but then in increasing numbers from the 8th -10th centuries. As stone churches these can be recognised by the ‘antae’, that is, flat projecting gable-ends, which imitate upright corner timbers on their wooden predecessors. They had doors in the west (gable) end and sometimes a wonderful doorway made of very large well-dressed stones. As the churches were often small, the people stood outside – outdoor altars being in some cases provided where they could say their prayers. There were perhaps a few larger churches, first in wood, and later in stone.

Many monasteries were built at tribal centres or at meeting places on tribal boundaries. As some monastic communities grew they attracted a resident local community in an arrangement that was of benefit to all. The monasteries provided their spiritual ministrations to local families and taught the children; families helped with the agricultural labour, and with livestock. The dynamic went well – monastery and village grew together. This enabled the monks to take on such great tasks as creating and copying of literature and highly specialised metal-ware. But there were drawbacks. The principal one was that the tribal leader asserted his right to appoint the abbot, who might well turn out to be one of his own family. Worse still, when tribes were involved in a fight, the monks were expected to join in. Then there were the ‘manaim’.

In spite of the fact that the origin of this term and that of the word ‘monk’ is the same these were not the married monks, but men with families who lived round the monastery and who, with their families, lived under considerable religious discipline alongside their spiritual if not natural brothers in the monastery. This included no small degree of sexual abstinence. Any suggestion that these were monks indulging in gross laxity or immorality has to be discounted. Such a life sounds like another of those Irish solutions which had its rationale ‘on the ground’. It is all about finding ‘in-between meanings’. The Irish have always helped us think outside of our boxes – that is very much part of being Irish. Tertiaries in Western monasteries is another ‘in-between arrangement’. In the East married men have always been encouraged to spend time in a monastery.

In time, over 200 years or so, as has often been the case elsewhere, monasteries ran the danger of becoming too big in wealth and power. This led to jealousy, strife and pillage – even from fellow Irishmen. Monasteries were known to have valuables – indeed they were sometimes used as storehouses. But monasteries could also become secularised – especially if tribal leaders expected abbots to have sons in order to keep the monastery in the family. However such a state of affairs, sad though it is, often gave rise to a new impetus for a more genuine monastic life, a simpler, more solitary life, a life more given to prayer and contemplation.

The true ‘holy man’ sometimes put his cell at, or close by, a local place already deemed sacred by the Celts, such as graves, springs, and trees. This gives us some insight into their approach to the native religion and culture. This is of great importance. They did not regard what was there as simply to be destroyed. Rather, just as earlier the Church had seen the Law and Prophets of the Old Testament and Greek philosophy with its ascetic and contemplative culture, so they saw the existing religious culture as a preparation for the Gospel.
In other words the outlook and practices of an existing culture could be given a new shape and direction within the context of the Gospel.

In the Empire some pagan temples were destroyed and idols smashed. But the situation was different with the Celts. They were not urban temple builders in stone but looked to natural phenomena such as the sun, the sky, the earth, rocks, mountains, water and trees for their deities. Many of their offerings to these have been found in lakes and pits. The days of the seasons were also important to them with regard to continuing fertility and escape from death. Universalised generalisations have to be avoided. But most would agree that the Celts already had some idea of God as three; that they had a very strong sense of creation, awareness of the supernatural and of the unity of things. They had a robust attitude to religious practice; and they believed in a life hereafter.
The early monks and evangelists were able to redirect such sensibilities. Thus the view that saw creation as a manifestation of God could easily be seen as also made by God, and penetrated by his presence.

The Greek and Romans were inclined to work with a dichotomy between matter and spirit. But the Christian belief in Christ the Son of God being born of a woman and uniting himself with humanity gave to the Eastern Fathers a more unitive perception of the divine and the human in the church and in the sacraments and a more cooperative view of their relationship in terms of ‘synergy’ (‘working together’) than was the case in later Western Christianity. In this respect Thom is correct in seeing the early church in Ireland as a ‘Patristic Church’.

The Irish monks showed a great degree of sensitivity to the beauty of creation and God’s presence in it everywhere. Their repentance and asceticism may have been severe by our standards but it was very much motivated by love of God and of one’s neighbour. It is this ‘difference’ from what prevailed in the West which now, by way of reaction, fuels the attraction to ‘all things Celtic’.

It is an interesting comment that ‘the Celtic mind acknowledged no real dichotomy between reality and fantasy, between the world and the ‘world beyond.’ This is precisely what has raised suspicions in people’s minds about the Irish. They may seem at times to blur the edges, to mix the divine and human, to confuse nature and grace – and this is why people call ‘foul’, meaning it is all superstition. I am sure there was confusion and therefore superstition – this will occur in every culture. But this does not mean to say (and here is another fallacy) that the culture is defined by superstition. The church always and without doubt remained very clear as to where the proper lines of demarcation lay between true and false lay and its teaching uncompromised. The conversion of any society is rarely complete..

Two chapters – on holy wells and ancient stones – will consider areas where people have tried to make the accusation of paganism and superstition stick. These are areas where historians are most reluctant to tread because there is more or less nothing in the historical record by which to assess the phenomena. This has created a vacuum in which many have given free reign to strong criticism and wild interpretation.