Saturday 24 November 2012

Ancient Irish Schools

This article, published in the Irish Ecclesiastical Record in 1885, lays out the view of Ireland as an island of saints and scholars which kept the flame of learning burning during the Dark Ages. It is a thesis that has had a more recent outing in Thomas Cahill's popular book How the Irish Saved Civilization, but is one from which modern scholarship has moved away. There is currently much debate on just how dark the Dark Ages really were and on how exceptional Ireland really was. Although this article reflects the romantic view of scholar saints, artistic Celts and sighing oaks, it nevertheless contains some worthwhile information. 

The Irish Ecclesiastical Record was founded in 1865 and in its early years published many articles on Irish saints and the early Irish church. I intend to make a selection of these available through the blog, but to access the footnotes, please consult the original volumes at the Internet Archive.


AT the beginning of the sixth century the dying civilizations of Greece and Rome had almost entirely disappeared. The Goth had glutted his ire. Barbarian horses neighed among the urns of the Caesars; barbarian kings, with few exceptions, reigned from the ruins of Carthage to the walls of China; barbarian soldiers plundered the villas by the Rhine and Garonne, and laid waste the rich provinces watered by the Po and Adige. The hum of industry had ceased, the busy cities were mute, the lamp of the scholar burned no longer. Man, Cardinal Newman tells us, ceased from the earth and his works with him. In such a sad dark time the Irish schools arose and became centres of light.

" While the vigour of Christianity in Italy, Gaul and Spain was exhausted," says Green, “in a bare struggle for life, Ireland, which remained unscourged by invaders drew from its conversion an energy such as it has never known since. Christianity had been received there with a burst of popular enthusiasm, and letters and arts sprung up rapidly in its train. The science and biblical knowledge which fled from the continent took refuge in famous schools which made Durrow and Armagh the universities of the West." " As early as the sixth century," says Hallam, "a little glimmer of light was perceptible in the Irish monasteries, and in the next when France and Italy had sunk in deeper ignorance they stood not quite where national prejudice has sometimes placed them, but certainly in a very respectable position." And Montalembert says "that from the fifth to the eighth century Ireland became one of the principal centres of Christianity in the world, and not only of Christian holiness and virtue, but also of knowledge, literature, and that intellectual life with which the new faith was about to endow Europe."

According to Gorres the church had migrated to Ireland to take up her winter quarters there, and lavished all her blessings on the people who gave her so hospitable a reception. He tells us moreover that monasteries and schools sprang up on every side the monasteries remarkable for their austere piety and the schools for their cultivation of science. " When we look into the ecclesiastical life of this people," continues the distinguished German, " we are almost tempted to believe that some potent spirit had transplanted over the sea the cells of the valley of the Nile with all their hermits, its monasteries with all their inmates, and had settled them down in the Western Isle." Even Froude admits that " the religion of the Irish Celt burned like a star in Western Europe." And the following are the words of one of our most distinguished antiquarians, Sir James Ware. " It is evident from ancient writers of undeniable credit that there were formerly in Ireland several eminent schools, or as we now call them universities, to which the Irish and Britons, and at length the Gauls and Saxons flocked as to marts of good literature."

The Irish Schools were very numerous. According to Ware, 164 monasteries of note were built during the fifth, sixth and seventh centuries, and all the larger monasteries had schools attached to them. There were also many secular schools. It is uncertain when the secular schools were first established. Some say they were in existence seven centuries before Ireland bowed to the cross. Towards the close of the third century the monarch Cormac founded three colleges at Tara. After the Synod of Dromceata, the monarch Hugh also established schools for the education of the bards.

The most famous of the monastic schools were Armagh and Bangor in Ulster ; Clonard, Clonmacnoise and Durrow in Leinster ; Lismore, Mungret and Ross in Munster ; and in Connaught the schools of Arran, Mayo and Clonfert.

About the year 455, or according to Usher, ten years later, St. Patrick founded on the hill of the golden-haired Macha the Monastery and School of Armagh. And Archdall says that Armagh continued for many ages one of the most celebrated ecclesiastical foundations in the world.

Bangor was founded by St. Comgall in 558. St. Bernard speaks of it as a place truly holy, and says that the schools of those educated there so filled both Ireland and Scotland that the verses of David seem to have predicted those very times; viz., ''Thou hast visited the earth and hast plentifully watered it, Thou hast many ways enriched it."

In 527 Clonard was founded by St. Finnian on the left bank of the Boyne ; Durrow in 549 by St. Columba among the oaks of King's County, and on the eastern bank of the Shannon, about seven miles from Athlone, St. Kieran founded Clonmacnoise in 548. Speaking of Clonard, Sir William Wilde says : "From this sanctuary and abode of wisdom undoubtedly sprang much of the learning both of Britain and the continent." Bede calls Durrow a noble monastery ; and Eugene O'Curry says that Clonmacnoise continued to be the seat of learning and sanctity, the retreat of devotion and solitude for a thousand years after the founder's time. To this day its ornamental crosses and foreign inscriptions and ruins hoary with age proclaim " In chronicles of clay and stone, how true, how deep, Was Eire's fame." 

Lismore, founded in 633 by St. Carthage, was the best known of the Munster schools. In the opinion of Dr. Lanigan this school was for a very long time equal at least to any other in Ireland. Ware quaintly remarks that there great numbers made profession of true philosophy.

Early in the sixth century Mungret was founded by St. Nessan ; and about the middle of the same century St. Fachnan founded Ross. According to the Psalter of Cashel Mungret had within its walls six churches, and 15,000 monks, 500 lecturers, 500 psalmists, and 500 employed in spiritual exercises.

The ancient writers speak most favour ably "of the school of Clonfert, founded by St. Brendan about the year 558. A 100 years later the Abbot Colman founded a monastery and school in Mayo. The school of Arran was founded by St. Enda in 480.

There were also many other eminent schools: the school of Kildare called the Stranger's Home ; ivy-wreathed Clonenagh called the Gallic school; the schools of Birr and Old Leighlen, to which students from the Danube and Loire flocked ; Moville, Taghmon and wildly picturesque Glendalough, where the Celt heard explained in his native tongue the Ptolemaic system and the Alexandrine cycle. There was a school on an island in Lough Erne, and a school on an island in Lough Derg ; schools on the islands of Innisfallen and Inniscatthy. The city of Cork has grown round Finnbarr's school, amid the town of Roscrea round the school of St. Cronan. There were schools in the midst of quaking marshes, in the heart of far extending oak woods, and by the margin of many a lake.

Five hundred students, and sometimes three times that number, attended a flourishing school. In an ancient life of St. Comgall we are told that 3,000 attended the school of Bangor; in the life of St. Brendan the same is said of Clonfert. " And if we may venture to give credit to Florence Carty," says Ware, " who reports it out of some manuscript in Oxford, to which I am a stranger, the roll of the students of the University of Armagh at one and the same time formerly exceeded 7,000. At first sight such numbers appear incredible. However, we should remember that the younger monks attended the lectures and are called students ; also that a distinguished professor drew round him all the youth of his clan, and many of the men under forty. Moreover many foreigners came to our schools. Aldhelm says that the English went to Ireland " numerous as bees." Bede tells us that many nobles and gentry from among the Anglo-Saxons came to the Irish schools for the sake of divine study, or to lead stricter lives. "All of them," he says, "the Scots most freely admitted supplied them gratis with daily sustenance, with books, with masters." In the metrical life of Cataldus, by Bonaventure Moroni, multitudes are described as coming from the most distant parts of Europe to the school of Lismore. Petrie proves from monumental inscriptions, from the lives of the early saints, and from the Litany of Aengus, that foreigners from England, France, Italy, and even Egypt, flocked to Ireland in the fifth and sixth centuries. Willibrord studied there for twelve years, Agilbert, afterwards Bishop of Paris, for a considerable time. Merovingian princes and Northumbrian kings came to be instructed by Irish teachers.

Indeed for three centuries Ireland was the light of the West. She filled the empty years with her schools, her missionaries, her men of letters. But evil times came. The Runic rhyme broke the peace of her cloisters. The Saga's chant was heard in her schools. Her emblems of piety were broken and her manuscripts destroyed by the grim worshippers of Odin.

The Danes first landed in Ireland in 797. They plundered Armagh in 831, and in 838 Turgesius expelled the religious and scholars. In 869 Amlave burned the schools and churches. The schools were again plundered 890, 919, 931 and 941. And the history of Armagh, with little change, is the history of the other schools. During the 9th, 10th, and llth centuries, they were several times plundered. During the reigns of Malachy and Brian some were rebuilt, and it looked as if the bright days of the Eierans,the Carthages and the Colombas were to return. But the Normans came, and the growing light faded. Many of the old schools indeed lived on. Towards the close of the 13th century Franciscan and Dominican schools were also opened in some of the cities and large towns. And in 1320 Archbishop de Bicknore published a document for the establishment of a university. The university was established and annexed to St. Patrick's Cathedral. However, for want of sufficient funds, it slowly declined. Hence, in 1475, the four mendicant orders addressed a memorial to Pope Sixtus IV. for authority to establish another university. The different schools, and perhaps the two universities, struggled on till the Reformation, but strangers came to our schools no more, and the Irish student sighed in vain for the wisdom of the days of old.

Our knowledge of the literary course pursued in our ancient schools is rather meagre. We are told that St. Finian taught scripture for seven years ; that St. Gaul studied grammar and poetry; that St. Camin collated parts of the Vulgate with the Hebrew version of the Scriptures. In his letter on the Paschal controversy St. Cummian shows a thorough knowledge of the various cycles for the computation of Easter. " I enquired diligently," he says, "what were the sentiments of the Hebrews, Greeks, Latins, and Egyptians, concerning the time of observing Easter." Tighernach of Clonmacnoise, quotes Eusebius, Orosius, Africanus, Bede, Josephus, St. Jerome, and many other historic writers. He also collates the Hebrew text with the Septuagint version of the Scriptures. Aldhelm was taught Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, in the school of Mailduff; and Cadroe, theology, philosophy, the Sacred Scriptures, oratory, astronomy, and the natural sciences, in the University of Armagh. Speaking of Dunstan, Dr. Moran says, "that the details which have been handed down to us regarding his studies at Glastonbury, gives us some idea of the literary course pursued in the Irish monasteries at the period. He was first of all instructed in the Scriptures and writings of the Fathers of the Church. The ancient poets and historians next engaged his attention. But he showed a special taste for arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music." Mr. Lecky says that the knowledge of Greek had been kept up in the Irish monasteries some time after it had disappeared from the other seminaries of Europe. It is almost certain, too, that Virgil and parts of Ovid and Horace were read in the same monasteries when they were unknown elsewhere. Perhaps the oldest manuscript of Horace in existence is one at present in the library of Berne, written in Celtic characters with notes in the Irish language.

Jowett, Westwood, Wyatt, Waagen, and Keller, admit that the art of illumination attained a wonderful perfection in our ancient schools. Jowett tells us in the Art Journal " that the early Irish designs exhibit a great inventive power, a stricter adherence to sound principles of art, and a more masterly execution than those of any other contemporaneous people." Westwood, who gives in his series of Bible illustrations eight specimens of illustrated Irish manuscripts, says that, "the copy of the Gospels traditionally asserted to have belonged to St. Columba, is unquestionably the most elaborately executed manuscript of early art now in existence." Matthew Arnold acknowledges that in this art the Celt has done just enough to show his delicacy of taste ; and a writer in a recent number of Longman's Magazine, believes that purely Irish decoration is, take it altogether, the most elegant and ingenious style of decoration which the world has ever seen.

But to form a just estimate of the great work of the Irish schools, we should follow Irishmen to other countries. According to White, Ireland sent into Germany 115 missionaries, 45 into France, 44 into England, 36 into Belgium, 25 into Scotland, 13 into Italy. Their sound went out into all lands, and their words to the ends of the world. Their osier cells were among the marshes of Holland, and by the waters of Constance. Their images were over the altars of Leige, Ratisbon, and Lecca. They lectured in the schools of Paris, Pavia, and Verona. Their manuscripts are precious relics in the libraries of Louvain and St. Isidore, Wurzburg and Milan, Cambray and Carlsruhe. More than five centuries before the birth of Dante, an Irish saint related the visions in which we have in its chrysalis form the Florentine's immortal poem; eight hundred years before Copernicus published his great work on Astronomy, an Irish saint held, that the earth was a sphere; two hundred and fifty years before Leo placed the imperial crown upon the head of Charlemagne, an Irish saint consecrated Aidan king. The influence of Irish saints was felt from Fingal's cave to the vineyards of Italy. The memory of Fridolin is still a power by the windings of the Rhine, the daughters of Tarentum kneel before the shrine of Cataldus. Glasgow has sprung up round the cell of Kentigern ; Wurzburg round Killian's grave. Edinburgh owes its name to St. Enda, and a canton of Switzerland to St. Gall ; Malmesbury and St. Beeves to Mailduli and Bega. The names of Irish saints are read on Norwegian Runes, and on Pictish tombstones in lonely highland glens. Their names consecrate the hills of Cambria and the crumbling ruins of Cornwall, and cleave to solitary rock and windswept promontory

" Where the Northern Ocean in vast whirls
Boils round the naked melancholy isles
Of farthest Thule; and the Atlantic surge
Pours in among the stormy Hebrides."

And abroad as at home, the cell of the Irish saint became a centre of learning. In his Celtic Scotland, Skene tells us that wherever Columba or his companions planted a monastery, there was kindled, not only the warmth of the new faith, but some light of knowledge contained in the Scriptures and other books which the Columbian monks spent much of their time in transcribing. In his highly interesting work The Making of England, Green relates how Irish teachers gathered round these scholars in the midst of solitary woodlands and desolate fens. With Ealdhelm, Mailduf's pupil, he says, "began the whole literature of the south." And speaking of Bede, he says, "the tradition of the elder Irish teachers still lingered to direct the young scholar into that path of scriptural interpretation to which he chiefly owed his fame.

In the introduction to the life of Marianus Scotus by the Bollandists, we are told that the holy men who went from Scotia to France and Germany, built monasteries as places of retirement for themselves, and schools of learning and discipline for their fellow-workers. Speaking of Columbanus, Montalembert says, that "his bold genius by turns startled the Franks, the Burgundians, and the Lombards." Moore, too, speaking of him, has the following: "The writings of this eminent man that have come down to us display an extensive and varied acquaintance, not merely with ecclesiastical, but with classical literature. From a passage in his letter to Boniface, it appears that he was acquainted both with the Greek and Hebrew languages, and when it is recollected that he did not leave Ireland till he was nearly fifty years of age, and that his life was afterwards one of constant activity and adventure, the conclusion is obvious, that all this knowledge of elegant literature must have been acquired in the schools of his own country." On the epistle of St. Livin (another Irishman) to St. Floribert, Dollinger remarks, "This epistle and his epitaph on St. Bavo are perhaps the best poetical specimens of the time, and awaken within us an idea of the high state of mental cultivation which then existed in Ireland."

Virgilius, Dungal and Scotus Erigena, were beyond doubt the most remarkable scholars of their age. Lecky speaks of Virgilius as one of the few who in the eighth century cultivated profane sciences. Dungal is praised by Muratori for his classic grace of style and for his great knowledge of Scripture and literature. Erigena is described by Hallam as one of the two extraordinary men who in the dark ages stood out from the crowd in literature and politics. The three were Irishmen, and educated in the schools of their native isle.

Indeed the more we study our ancient annals, and the lives of our early saints, the more we study Bede and the chroniclers of the 9th, 10th and 11th centuries, the brighter grows the vision of our former greatness. The past gives up its dead. We see wooded hillside and winding glen crowded with cell and church; we see Celt and stranger gathered round a venerable teacher under the shade of sighing oaks; we see multitudes leaving their country

" To serve as model for the mighty world
And be the fair beginning of a time."

we truly understand the full meaning of the proud title, “Insula Sanctorum et Doctorum."


Irish Ecclesiastical Record, 3rd series, Vol. 6 (1885), 249-257.

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