Sunday 13 December 2015

The Monastic School of Clonard

I now post part two of Archbishop Healy's account of Saint Finnian and his monastery of Clonard. The writer is in fine form as he introduces us to the 'Twelve Apostles of Erin' including the beautiful story of how Saint Finnian came to select Columba of Terryglass to be the man to minister to him at his life's end. December 13 is the feastday of Saint Columba and last year's post on his life can be found here. There is also an account of a later scholar of Clonard, Saint Aileran the Wise and his writings. The Archbishop finishes with a marvellous flourish against the Norman despoilers of Clonard and their Irish allies and strikes a wistful note in conclusion.

The School of Clonard.

St. Finnian seems to have founded his school at Clonard about the year A.D. 520, when he himself was in all probability not less than forty-five years of age. The place was previously a wilderness inhabited by wild beasts, which seem to have made their lairs in the dense shrubberies that covered the marshy banks of the Boyne and Kinnegad rivers. We are told expressly in Finnian's Life, that a huge wild boar, which had frequented the spot where the saint resolved to remain, abandoned the place for ever. The saint threw himself on his knees in prayer, crying out in the words of the Psalmist—" This shall be my resting-place for ever; here will I dwell for I have chosen it." So he built his hut in Erard's Meadow, where the wild boar had previously kept his lair.

An Irish school and monastery of the sixth century was, as we have seen, very different from the monastic establishments of modern times. Finnian began alone without, it seems, a single disciple. He built his little cell of wattles and clay, for stones are scarce at Clonard, and with such help as he could procure he also built his church quite near his cell, and in all probability of similar materials. We know, indeed, that afterwards there was a daimhlaig or large stone church at Clonard—for we are told that it was burnt down in A.D. 1045 no less than three times in one week, which is to be understood, however, of the furniture and the perishable materials of the roof. This stone church, however, was not built until the place had become famous by the life and labours of the saint. When the little church was built, he fenced around both the cell and the church with a deep trench or fosse which formed the monastic enclosure, and, heedless of the world, began to live for God alone in labour and watching, fasting and perpetual prayer. We are told that he slept on the bare ground, that he had a chain around his naked body which sank into his flesh, and that he wore the same old clothes until they fell to pieces from his back.

His ordinary food was a little bread with herbs and salt and water. On festival days he allowed himself some fish, or whey and porridge; but flesh meat he never tasted. It was not difficult to procure these luxuries; and what time he could spare from labour he devoted to prayer and sacred study, especially to the study of the Sacred Scriptures, for deep knowledge of which he became pre-eminently remarkable.

The fame of a life so austere and self-denying very soon spread abroad, and great numbers came to visit him. He performed many wondrous miracles; and, moreover, gave his visitors such heavenly instruction as showed that he was a man not only of great holiness but of great learning. He bad all the science of the saints, for he had been in the great monastic schools of Britain; some said he had been to Tours, others added that he had gone all the way to Rome— and these statements have come down even to our time, but unsupported by any satisfactory evidence. Then a great crowd of scholars began to gather round him; they were of all ages and came from all parts. Abbots left their own monasteries; even great bishops, some of them older than Finnian himself, left their cathedrals to profit by his bright example, and learn the lessons of divine wisdom that fell from his lips. To Clonard came all the men who were afterwards famous as "The Twelve Apostles of Erin."

Thither came the venerable Ciaran of Saigher, a companion of St. Patrick, to bow his hoary head in reverence to the wisdom of the younger sage; and that other Ciaran, the Son of the Carpenter, who in after years founded the famous monastic school of Clonmacnoise in the fair meadows by the Shannon's shore. Thither, too, came Brendan of Birr, "the prophet," as he was called, and his still more famous namesake, Brendan of Clonfert, St. Ita's foster son, the daring navigator, who first tried to cross the Atlantic to preach the Gospel, and revealed to Europe the mysteries of the far off Western Isles. There, too, was young Columba, who learned at the feet of Finnian those lessons of wisdom and discipline that he carried with him to Iona, which in its turn became for many centuries a torch to irradiate the spiritual gloom of Picts, and Scots, and Saxons. And there was that other Columba of Tir-da- glass, and Mobhi-Clairenach of Glasnevin, and Rodan, the founder of Lorrha near Lough Derg, and Lasserian, the son of Nadfraech, and Canice of Aghaboe, and Senanus from Inniscathy, and Ninnidh the Pious from the far off shores of Lough Erne. It is said, too, that St. Enda of the Aran Islands and Sinellus of Cleenish, and many other distinguished saints spent some time at Clonard, but they are not, like those mentioned above, reckoned amongst "the Twelve Apostles of Erin."

We are told in the office of St. Finnian that he had no less than 3,000 scholars under his instruction, and that, too, not meaning those merely who were there at different times, but that there were so many as 3,000 together in his school. It might seem at first sight that this was a rather extravagant number, and that it would be impossible to find suitable accommodation for so many persons in this wild spot. We must remember, however, not to judge things according to modern notions. There were no school buildings necessary in our sense,—no libraries, lecture halls, or museums.

The instruction was altogether oral. There were no books except a few manuscripts, and they were very highly prized. The instruction was generally given in the open air, and no more suitable place could be selected for the purpose than the green fields around the moat of Clonard. If the preceptor took his stand on its summit, or seated his pupils around its slopes, he could be conveniently heard, not only by hundreds, but even by thousands. They were easily accommodated, too, with food and lodging. They built their own little huts through the meadows, where several of them sometimes lived together like soldiers in a tent. They sowed their own grain; they ground their own corn with the quern, or hand-mill; they fished in the neighbouring rivers, and had room within the termon lands to graze cattle to give them milk in abundance. When supplies ran short they put wallets on their backs and went out on their turn to seek for the necessaries of life, and were never refused abundant supplies by the people. They wore little clothing, had no books to buy, and generally, but not always, received their education gratuitously.

The routine of daily life in St. Finnian's monastic school we can easily gather from his own Life, and from what we know of the monasteries in which he was trained. We are told in the Life that on a certain occasion he said to his beloved disciple Senachus, who succeeded him in the abbacy of Clonard: "Go and see what each of my disciples is doing at this moment." Senachus bowed his head and went; and lo! he found them all intently engaged at their various occupations." Some were engaged in manual labour, some were studying the sacred Scripture, and others, especially Columba of Tir-da-Glas, the son of Crimthann, he found engaged in prayer with his hands stretched out to heaven, and the birds came and alighted on his head and shoulders." "He it is," said Finnian," who will offer the Holy Sacrifice for me at the hour of my death," for his, it seems, was preeminently the spirit of holy prayer and meekness.

The study of sacred Scripture, as this reference shows, was especially cultivated at Clonard. It is the most sublime, and in one sense the most difficult of all branches of sacred knowledge. Moreover it is a study in which prayer and meditation can do more for the student than mere human wisdom. It can be best acquired at the foot of the crucifix, and its best teacher is the Holy Spirit of God. But human wisdom, too, is necessary, and all the aids which it supplies; and Finnian made use of that, also, for his own advancement and for the instruction of his pupils. From his youth, under the guidance of St. Fortchern, he had been a diligent student of the sacred Volume; he pursued the same studies in foreign schools under many teachers; God's Holy Word was food for his mind and a lamp to his feet through all his days, and in all his wanderings…

It seems to have been this power of expounding the sacred Scriptures to his scholars that secured for Finnian such prominence in sacred learning beyond all his contemporaries, and filled the school of Clonard not only with scholars but with masters in Israel, who came with the rest to acquire divine wisdom at his feet. Hence he enjoys in history the glorious title of "Tutor of the Saints of Ireland.” Of the Second Order of Saints, the men who shone like the moon in the firmament of our early Irish Church, Finnian has been always recognized as the teacher and the chief. He has been compared to the rose tree to which the bees from every quarter gather in order to extract the honey. His seminary at Clonard has been described by others as a wonderful treasure-house, where illustrious men from all parts of Ireland assembled together in order to enrich themselves with the wealth of ecclesiastical discipline and Scriptural knowledge. The hymn for the Lauds of his office has a stanza:

Trium virorum millium
Sorte fit doctor humilis;
Verbi his fudit fluvium
Ut fons emanans rivulis.

which may be imperfectly rendered in English:

"Before three thousand scholars he,
Their humble master, meekly stood;
His mind a mighty stream that poured
For all its fertilizing flood."

The Four Masters record his death under date of A.D. 548, but it may with more probability be fixed about A.D. 552; Colgan, however, thinks he lived until A.D. 563. The Four Masters frequently antedate by four or five years, so that the date of his death as fixed by them is really equivalent to A.D. 552 of the common era, which date is, we think, nearest the truth. In O'Clery's calendar he is described as "St. Finnian, abbot of Clonard, son of Finlogh, son of Fintan, of the Clanna Rudhraighe (Clan Rory)". Sir James Ware calls him Finnian, or Finan, son of Fintan -placing the grandfather in place of the father:

"He was a philosopher and an eminent divine, who first founded the College of Clonard in Meath, near the Boyne, where there were one hundred bishops, and where with great care and labour he instructed many celebrated saints, among whom were the two Brendans, the two Columbs, viz., Columkille and Columb mac Crimthainn, Lasserian, son of Nadfraech, Canice, Mobheus, Rodanus, and many others not here enumerated. His school was in quality a holy city, full of wisdom and virtue, according to the writer of his life, and he himself obtained the name of Finnian the Wise. He died on the 12th of December, A.D. 552; or according to others A.D. 563, and was buried in his own church at Clonard."

We could find no trace of his tomb, because in truth there is now no trace of his church. The hand of the spoiler has devastated Clonard perhaps more completely than any other of our ancient shrines. There was, we know, a round tower there, which is said to have partially fallen in A.D. 1039. "The Cloichtheach of Clonard fell," according to the Four Masters, in that year…

… From the time of St. Finnian to Stephen Rochfort, the Norman Bishop of Meath, who transferred his episcopal residence from Clonard to Newtown, near Trim, we have a chronicle of the bishops and abbots who sat in the chair of St. Finnian. It is not certain that he was himself a bishop, although he is spoken of in his office as Praesul and Pontifex.

It is much more probable, however, that he was a bishop, and his successors, though frequently styled abbots, seem to have been in episcopal orders; and all of them certainly exercised episcopal jurisdiction. The school of Clonard, too, for many centuries retained its ancient fame, and from time to time produced distinguished saints and scholars. St. Aileran the Wise, who, like many other Irish saints, died of the fatal yellow plague that devastated the country in A.D. 664, is described as chief professor of the schools of Clonard. He was also, in Colgan's opinion, the author of what is known as the Fourth Life of St. Patrick, as well as of Lives of St. Brigid, and St. Fechin of Fore, in Westmeath. Moreover, he composed a Litany partly in Latin and partly in Irish, which O'Curry discovered in the Yellow Book of Lecain in Trinity College. Fleming, too, has published a fragment of a Latin treatise by St. Aileran on the "Mystical Interpretation of the Ancestry of our Lord Jesus Christ" This fragment was found in the Irish monastery of St. Gall in Switzerland. It was first published by Fleming in A.D. 1667, and reprinted in the famous Benedictine edition of the Fathers in A.D. 1677. It may, perhaps, with greater readiness be referred to in Migne’s Patrology (vol. 80, page 328). We make special reference to this fragment because we have no other writings of the Clonard school remaining, either of St. Finnian himself or of his immediate successors; and secondly because of itself it furnishes ample proof of the high culture attained at that early age in this great Irish seminary. The Benedictine editors say that although the writer did not belong to their order, they publish it because Aileran "unfolded the meaning of Sacred Scripture with so much learning and ingenuity that every student of the sacred volume, and especially preachers of the Divine Word, will regard the publication as most acceptable (acceptissima)."

This is high praise from perfectly impartial and competent judges, and in that opinion we cordially agree. We read over both fragments carefully, that mentioned above, and also a "Short Moral Explanation of the Sacred Names,” by the same author, and we have no hesitation in saying that whether we consider the style of the latinity, the learning, or the ingenuity of the writer, it is equally marvellous and equally honourable to the School of Clonard. The writer cites not only St. Jerome, St. Augustine, and the author of the "Imperfect Work," but what is more wonderful still, he quotes Origen repeatedly, as well as Philo, the Alexandrine Jew. We cannot undertake to say that he was familiar with these two authors in the original Greek, but even a knowledge of the Latin versions in that rude age is highly honourable to our Irish schools. This fragment shows, too, that a century alter the death of the holy founder scriptural studies of the most profound character were still cultivated with eagerness and success in the great school of Clonard. But evil days came upon this sanctuary of the holy and the learned, especially after the advent of the Danes.

It was plundered and partially destroyed some twelve times in all. But the Danes had half that work of sacrilege to their own exclusive credit—they plundered it on five or six recorded occasions. It was burned no less than fourteen times, sometimes partially, but on other occasions almost wholly, as for instance in A.D. 1045, "when the town of Clonard, together with its churches, was wholly consumed, being thrice set on fire within one week." On another occasion, in A.D. 1136, the men of Breifney, led even then by O'Rorke of the One-Eye, the husband of the faithless Dervorgilla, "plundered and sacked Clonard, and behaved in so shameless a manner as to strip O'Daly, then chief poet of Ireland. Amongst other outrages they sacrilegiously took from the vestry of this abbey a sword which had belonged to St. Finnian the Founder."(Four Masters.)

… His rival, Dermod McMurrough, who was not outdone in villainy by any other Irishman of the time, plundered and burned Clonard in A.D. 1170, and was aided in his foul work by Earl Strongbow and his friends from England; but next year he paid the penalty of his crimes, dying of a loathsome disease, without the sacraments, accursed of God and man, for the Four Masters tell us that "he became putrid whilst living, by the miracle of God, and Columkille, and Finnian, and the other saints of Ireland, whose churches he had profaned and burned" - truly a fitting end for such a life as his. In A.D. 1175 Walter de Lacy founded the monastery of Clonard for the Canons Regular of St. Augustine, but in A.D. 1206, as we observed above, Simon de Rochford transferred the See of Meath from Clonard to Trim and so the ancient glory of the place faded away until now it is merely a name known only to scholars, without even a broken arch or ruined wall to speak with saddening eloquence of its glorious past.

Insula Sanctorum et Doctorum or Ireland's Ancient Schools and Scholars by the Most Rev. John Healy (6th edition, Dublin, 1912), 199-208.

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