Monday 21 March 2022

A Famous Irish School and its Founder


 March 21 is the feast of the great monastic founder and teacher, Saint Enda of Aran. An account of his life by Father Albert Barry can be found on the blog here. Below is an account by another nineteenth-century priest, Father William Ganly, who took time out from his duties as a parish priest in County Galway to contribute a number of scholarly articles on the Early Irish Church and its saints to the Catholic press. In 1889 The Catholic World, an American publication of the Paulist Fathers, printed his paper on Saint Enda and the monastic school he founded.  Father Ganly's pride in Saint Enda and his achievements is obvious. He places the saint firmly within the history of early monasticism and sees the traditions begun in the deserts of the Thebaid flowering in an island setting of the Atlantic Ocean. Indeed, Saint Enda outdoes his Eastern monastic progenitors as he 'lived a life of penitence which for rigor was unsurpassed even by the anchorites of the Egyptian desert'. We get a chance too to meet some of Aran's famous alumni who include some well-known Irish saints. For Saint Enda is also presented here as founder of 'one of the great Celtic universities of the golden era of Irish history'. The article comes to a bittersweet conclusion as the author ponders that lost golden age amid the ruins and the wild Atlantic scenery of 'Arran of the Saints':  


ON the eastern shore of Arranmore, in a picturesque valley, sheltered on one side by a range of dark hills and washed on the other by an inlet of Galway Bay, is the primitive little fishing village of Killany. The place commands a view of a magnificent sheet of water, diversified by islands, capes, and headlands, and outlined in the distance by the Twelve Pins of Benbola, which stand like a cluster of pyramids in bold relief against the sky. Beyond this, however, a more melancholy locality could scarcely be imagined. It seems the very home of desolation. The only sound that breaks the monotony of the scene is the querulous whistling of some solitary curlew wending his flight from shore to shore, or the plaintive murmuring of the ocean, dashing itself fretfully against the huge cliffs which loom in the distance. And yet this desolate hamlet was for many centuries a renowned centre of monastic life and intellectual activity.

Let us go back to the year of our Lord 480, and stand beneath the round tower, which, as we are informed, even then kept guard, like some tutelary giant, over the destinies of this lonely valley. A group of buildings of various forms and dimensions lies beneath our gaze. Around an oblong edifice, which is evidently a church, are clustered several other structures varying in size from the narrow cell, intended for a single occupant, to the public hall, destined for the accommodation of the whole community. Encircling the entire collection is a wall of solid masonry whose sameness is only broken by a single gateway, surmounted by a carved cross. Prompted by curiosity, we descend from our point of observation and ask for admittance. The door is opened by a white-robed janitor, who greets us with a cordial benedicite. On entering we find ourselves in a new world. It is a veritable bee-hive of industry and activity. Transcribers, illuminators, carvers, workers in silver and iron, mechanics of various kinds, are all deeply absorbed in their occupations. Here a group, in tunics and cucullas, are engaged in discussing some of the great scholastic problems which have been endless sources of dissension in the past as they are in the present. There a tonsured priest lectures to an attentive class, the dress and faces of many of his auditors denoting their foreign origin. As we pass along, the sounds of psalmody, now soft as the evening breeze, now loud as the murmuring of the ocean, break upon our ears. Have we visited a land of enchantment? Have we witnessed a fairy scene? We have travelled back over the centuries, and conjured up before our imagination what was once a reality. We have seen one of the great Celtic universities of the golden era of Irish history. We have visited the school of "Arran of the Saints."

Saint Honoratus, the great monastic patriarch of Southern Europe, went to his reward (428) a little over half a century before St. Enda arrived in Arran (480). When tracing the walls of his hermitage at Lerins, so like, in many respects, its sister island in the Atlantic, the former never dreamt of the vast edifice which, in the designs of Divine Providence, was to spring up from this humble beginning. Neither could the latter, even in his most sanguine moments, have foreseen the luxuriant harvest that was destined to issue from the little seed he had prayerfully planted on the bleak hillsides of Arran.

The early days of the school of Arran were not, however, without those trials and difficulties which make beginnings proverbially weak, and which have been ever the lot of the saints. The old lives of Saint Enda for several have been written as well as the traditions still existing in Arran are filled with legendary anecdotes which detail with great minuteness the encounters of the holy abbot with a certain pagan chieftain named Corban, who at that time held possession of the island. Extravagant and improbable as many of these narratives undoubtedly are, they should not be altogether rejected. Various circumstances, such as the names of places, the traditions still extant, and local associations, all seem to indicate that these legends are but the echoes of authentic miracles which have become obscured by the lapse of centuries.

It was near the alleged scene of one of these legends that St. Enda first celebrated Mass on the island. This spot now known as Killany he selected as the site of his monastery. In due time a little damliagh, or stone church; the prointeach, or refectory; the aregall, or kitchen; the abbot's house, and a cluster of cone-roofed cells were erected. Towards the maintenance of this establishment one-half of the island was set apart. The remaining portion was divided into ten equal parts, on each of which was erected a monastery governed by its proper superior. St. Enda ruled over all. Under him was elected a second in rank, who had the right of succeeding the abbot after his death. The first of these coadjutor abbots is said to have been St. Benedict, brother of the famous Kieran of Saige, patron of the diocese of Ossory, who himself is said to have been one of the many great men who came to St. Enda to learn wisdom and holiness.

The other traces of the internal government of the Arran community which have been handed down to us are of but little importance. Enda ordained that those among the monks who happened to be bishops should have a separate place of burial. All others were to be interred in the common place of sepulture. This regulation seems to have given umbrage to a portion of the community. Eight of the old monks who had accompanied St. Enda to Arran expressed their dissatisfaction. They further found fault with what they deemed the unequal partition of Arran made by St. Enda. To put an end to any doubts which might exist as to his right of governing, the abbot ordered a triduum of fasting and prayer. When this was twice repeated, an angel, we are told, appeared and presented Saint Enda with a chasuble and a Book of the Four Gospels gifts which were understood by all to signify that to him was entrusted the two-fold duty of teaching and governing.

These meagre details throw but little or no light on a question which, in recent years, has given rise to much discussion among archaeologists. What was the rule followed by St. Enda and the monasteries of the early Irish church? To what system of monastic legislation is due the credit of having conferred so many benefits on civilization, and of having given so many citizens to heaven? The well-known antiquarian, Sir James Ware, who, like Ussher and Todd, devoted his energies to the fruitless task of endeavoring to identify modern Protestantism with the teachings and practices of the early Irish church, assures us that the community founded by St. Enda was a branch of the Canons Regular of St. Augustine. It is now, however, almost universally admitted by the best Irish scholars that this institute was unknown in Ireland until introduced for the first time by St. Malachy in the twelfth century. The rule exclusively followed by the monks of the early Irish church was that brought into the country by St. Patrick. This code was only a modification of the monastic system brought originally into Western Europe by St. Athanasius when exiled to Treves by Constantine the Great, in the year 336. It was a rivulet from the great stream which had its origin among the sands of the Thebaid and spread its fertilizing waters towards the regions of the north. Whatever doubt may exist as to the particular form of the monastic code adopted by the Abbot of Arran for the government of his young community, we are certain from the glimpses afforded us that it was based on the great fundamental principles of prayer, labor, obedience, and mortification of the senses. Fasting and abstinence of the most rigorous kind were strictly enjoined upon all. Meat was never used. All kinds of spirituous liquors were absolutely unknown. Bread, meal moistened with water, fish, herbs, and pulse were the only articles of food consumed by the members of the community. The exactness with which the rule of fasting was enforced is illustrated by an anecdote which we find related in Colgan's Life of St. Enda. To test the fidelity of his monks Enda is said to have subjected them every evening to the following curious ordeal. On the waters of Killany Bay was placed a curroch, or canoe, destitute of the usual covering of skins. Every monk was obliged to go into this curroch. If the water entered and nothing but a miracle could have prevented it it was judged as a sign that the occupant had in some manner violated the rule. On a certain occasion all the monks except the cook had gone safely through the trial. Poor Gigias - for that was his name - no sooner entered than the boat sank, and he escaped only with a severe wetting.

"What hast thou done, O Gigias?" asked the abbot.
Gigias confessed that, overcome by hunger, he had taken some of Kieran's dinner and added it to his own.
"There is no room for a thief here," was the reply. So Gigias was obliged to go.

The monastery of Arran was a veritable bee-hive of industry. Labor was imposed on all as a kind of penitential duty. Those skilled in agriculture were appointed to the unremunerative task of endeavoring to snatch a scanty crop from the inhospitable soil; some ground the corn, while others launched forth in their skin-covered barks to reap the harvests of the deep. Copyists, composers, illuminators, and workers in vellum were employed in the scriptorium; lecturers and catechists gave instructions in the schools. In the meantime the prayers of the community were unceasing. The monks succeeded each other in the choir. They stood around the altar and chanted aloud the praises of God in the words of the royal Prophet.

The soul and centre of this angelical world was St. Enda. He was a model of all virtues, but above all shone his admirable sweetness of disposition and his self-denial. In selecting Arran as the place of his abode he was actuated by no other motives than a desire to hide himself from the eyes of the world, and sanctify his own soul and the souls of his brethren. By a wise dispensation of Providence, however, history has torn away the veil behind which he sought to conceal himself, and the former chieftain stands revealed to us in all the greatness of his soul and in all the beauty of his sanctity. Saint Cummian of Conor, who was born half a century (589) after the death (540) of St. Enda, and who is so well known for his famous letter on the Easter controversy, has left us a poem in which he pictures the holy Abbot of Arran living in a cell of flinty stone and practising austerities of such rigor as to seem almost incredible. Near the church of St. Benan, overlooking the village of Killany, is still pointed out a rude building called the bed of St. Enda. In the words of Froude, who gives the result of a visit to Arran in his Short Studies, "it is such a place as sheep would huddle under in a storm, and shiver in the cold and wet which would pierce through the chinks of the walls." "Enda," says St. Cummian, "loved victory (over self) with sweetness, he loved a prison of hard stone to bring the people to God." This victory over self had only been obtained after a severe struggle. Enda was by nature passionate and impulsive. An anecdote illustrative of his fiery disposition is found in his life. Immediately after assuming the monastic garb he was on a certain occasion engaged in conversation with his sister Fanchea, who loved him most tenderly and who exercised a powerful influence on his life. Their conference was rudely broken by warlike shouts. A neighboring clan, the hereditary foes of the family of Enda, had invaded an adjacent territory and were returning home with their booty, when they were intercepted and attacked by the warriors of Oriel. A bloody battle ensued. Forgetful of his new vocation and filled with the old warlike ardor, Enda seized a weapon and was about placing himself at the head of his clansmen, when his sister interposed and exclaimed: "Enda, my brother, place your hand on your head and remember thou hast taken the crown of Christ." The rebuke was effectual. Enda relinquished his battle-axe and returned to his prayers.

During the interval which had elapsed between this event and his arrival in Arran so thoroughly had he overcome his natural disposition that, like St. Francis of Sales, sweetness and gentleness became his most prominent virtues. In the long range of monastic biography no more charming picture has been presented to us than the paternal kindness with which the holy Abbot of Arran treated the monks under his care. He was a father to all. He shared the sorrows of his brethren, dispelled their doubts, and when despondent he inspired them with a share of the invincible courage which glowed in his own great soul. Among the many anecdotes related in his life is one in which we are told that the monks of Arran, who from the circumstances of their abode became skilful and adventurous navigators, complained that owing to a huge rock which blocked up the entrance to the harbor they were often in danger of shipwreck. The abbot went to the spot, made the sign of the cross on the boulder with his abbatial staff, and prayed that God might do the rest. That night an angel bearing a flaming sword was seen descending from heaven, and, striking the rock like a flash of lightning, it crumbled into atoms.

The fame of the austerities practised by these athletes of penitence spread like an odor of sanctity over all Western Europe. The tide of empire had moved westward, and the wonders of the Thebaid were revived in the Atlantic Ocean. The trackless deep became a highway, and the barren hillsides and gloomy valleys of this desolate island swarmed with human beings. There Saxon and Celt forgot their ancient race hatreds; the Iberian and the Gaul, the Frank and the Teuton might be heard conversing in the common language of all - the Latin of old Rome.

Space will allow us only to cast a glance, in passing, at a few among the crowd who composed that holy company. Foremost among them we find Columkille, the Dove of the Cells, whose hermitage, clothed in a mantle of sweet-brier and wild roses, is still pointed out in a lonely spot by the sea-shore. On his departure from Arran he composed a poem, which has been handed down to posterity, and which is one of the most exquisite relics of ancient Irish literature we possess. Aubrey de Vere - one of Ireland's truest poets - in his English version has transmitted the touching pathos and tenderness of the original with so much fidelity that we are tempted to quote the following stanzas:

"Farewell to Aran Isle, farewell!
I steer for Hy; my heart is sore:
 The breakers burst, the billows swell
'Twixt Aran Isle and Alba's shore.

"O Aran, sun of all the West!
My heart is thine! As sweet to close
Our dying eyes in thee as rest
Where Peter and where Paul repose.

"O Aran, sun of all the West!
My heart in thee its grave hath found;
He walks in regions of the blest
The man that hears thy church bell sound."

Next come the founders of the great schools of Moville and Clonard the two Finnians. Saint Finnian of Clonard was a man of such vast learning that, after his return from Arran, he became a kind of consulting theologian for all Ireland. His namesake of Moville was even still more famous. Filled with love and veneration for the Apostolic See, he set out from Arran on a pilgrimage to Rome, and after a long sojourn in the Holy City he returned to Ireland laden with gifts from the reigning pope. He afterwards made several other journeys to Rome, and brought back a vast store of relics, the penitential canons, known as the Canons of St. Finnian, and a copy of St. Jerome's translation of the Holy Scriptures, until then unknown in Ireland. He founded the monastery of Moville in the year 540 and afterwards returned to Italy, where he was elected Bishop of Lucca, in Tuscany, and is to this day venerated in that country under the name of Fridian or Frigidian. He died in 589.

The great Saint Kieran of Clonmacnois, whom Alcuin calls the glory of the Irish race, was also a pupil of the school of Arran. Having come to the island in his youth, and being endowed with a vigorous constitution, he was appointed to the task of grinding all the corn of the community. For seven years he discharged this duty. Visions of his future greatness broke in upon his humble labors. He dreamt, at one time, that he saw a great tree laden with leaves and fruit growing on the banks of the Shannon. It spread out its branches far and near until it covered with its shade the whole of Erin. He related the vision to his abbot, who interpreted it as follows: "The tree," he said, "thou art thyself, for thou shalt be great before God and men, and shalt bring forth sweetest fruits of good works. Proceed, then, at once, and, in obedience to the will of God, build thou there a monastery."

Saint Kieran prepared himself for the work allotted to him. Having been ordained priest, and having said his first Mass at Killany, he took an affectionate farewell of his brethren. The parting was most affecting. Walking between Saint Enda and Saint Finnian of Moville, and escorted by the entire community, he proceeded to the place of embarkation. No words were spoken, but tears flowed in abundance. Long and wistfully did the monks gaze after the bark which bore their beloved brother away from their island home. When returning to his cell, Saint Enda, sobbing with grief, said: "O my brethren! good reason have we to weep, for this day has our island lost the flower and strength of religious observance." St. Kieran died at Clonmacnois in the year 549, having governed the monastery only a short time.

Among the many others who were trained to holiness in this great nursery of saints were Saint Kevin of Glendalough, whom the poet Moore has touched with his poetic wand; St. Jarlath, patron and founder of the See of Tuam; St. Carthage of Lismore; Saint Benignus of Armagh; Saint Colman MacDuagh and St. Mac-Creiche, both natives of Clare; St. Loran Kerr; St. Caradoc; St. Kybi; Saint Papeus, and Saint Brecan, son of Euchu Ball-dearg, prince of the proud Dalcassian race.

It was a gathering at once democratic and cosmopolitan. Prince and peasant, plebeian and patrician worked and prayed side by side. Children of races as divergent as the poles, but united by the catholicity of a common faith, lived together in harmony.

Among the many objects of interest to be seen in this wonderful island is a sculptured cross bearing the inscription "VII Romani," or the Seven Romans. We ask in vain who they were. This solitary monument cast on the shore of time, a relic of the shipwreck of ages is the only evidence of their existence we possess. And yet we know that these strangers were only a few among the countless numbers who came from afar to drink copious draughts of wisdom and holiness from the fountains which flowed in perennial streams in Arran of the Saints.

In this, as well as in the other great centres of monastic life throughout Ireland, there was an intellectual development unknown among the monks of the Egyptian desert. The prodigies of penance practised by the eremites of the Thebaid found a parallel in Arran, but to these were added the charm that mental culture always gives the actions of mankind. The study of the Holy Scriptures and the writings of the fathers of the church were the great foundation stones on which the Irish scholastic system was erected. In Ireland itself but few relics of her ancient literature, with the exception of legendary narratives, have escaped the vandalism of Dane and Saxon. The libraries of Europe, however, possess ample evidences of the literary eminence to which national feeling lays claim. These records consist chiefly of books of the Gospels, the New and the Old Testament, with glosses on the margin, and distinct commentaries, such as that of St. Columbanus, which bear ample testimony to the depth and fulness of knowledge possessed by the authors. Augustin Magraidin, in his life of Saint Enda, tells us that a book of the Gospels, richly bound and illuminated, was in his time (he died in 1405) still preserved in the monastery of Arran. Among the original works said to have been composed in this island is a poem entitled the "Voyage of the Children of Ua Corra," which tells us of seven brothers who set out in a skin-covered bark, on a pilgrimage of discovery into the depths of the Atlantic, where they met with as many adventures as the heroes of the Odyssey. The study of the Greek and Latin classics formed a portion of the educational course in the Irish schools. From the frequency with which we meet with copies of Virgil, Ovid, Cicero, Lactantius, Plato, and Aristotle these authors would appear to have been special favorites among the Irish monks.

Nor were the fine arts neglected. Besides the art of illuminating, which attained a degree of perfection never since surpassed, metallurgy, sculpture, and architecture were also successfully cultivated. The relics of antiquity still to be found in Arran, such as portions of a round tower, exquisitely carved crosses, incised inscriptions, finely formed arches and cut-stone mullions and lintels, are all eloquent witnesses of the artistic skill of the monks of the early Irish church. From the circumstances of their abode, it will not be considered strange if the science of navigation had a special attraction for Saint Enda and his insular community. They loved the sea. Its solemn voice filled them with joy, for it seemed to them to be for ever chanting a hymn of praise to its great Creator. As they launched fearlessly out upon its waters they mingled their psalms with the cries of the sea-birds, and thus animate and inanimate nature united in adoration of the Almighty. Among the saints who were friends and contemporaries of Saint Enda was the famous navigator, Saint Brendan. Many claim for this holy man, and not without a certain amount of probability, the first discovery of America. Before setting out on his voyage he paid a visit to the Abbot of Arran, to ask his prayers and to be guided by his counsel. As one of Erin's poetic sons -the lamented Denis Florence MacCarthy- has immortalized this pilgrimage in verse, we shall here be excused for quoting a few verses:

"Hearing how the blessed Enda lived apart,
Amid the sacred cares of Ara-Mhor;
And how beneath his eye, spread like a chart,
Lay all the isles of that remotest shore;
And how he had collected in his mind
All that was known of the old sea,
I left the hill of miracles behind
And sailed from out the shallow, sandy Leigh.

"Again I sailed and crossed the stormy sound
That lies beneath Binn-Arte's rocky height,
And there upon the shore the saint I found
Waiting my coming through the tardy night.
He led me to his home beside the wave,
Where, with his monks, the pious father dwelled,
And to my listening ear he freely gave
The sacred knowledge that his bosom held.

"When I proclaimed the project that I nursed,
How 'twas for this that I his blessing sought,
An irrepressible cry of joy outburst
From his pure lips, that blessed me for the thought.
He said that he, too, had in visions strayed
O'er the untracked ocean's bellowing foam;
Bid me have hope, that God would give me aid,
And bring me safe back to my native home."

It was in the midst of these hallowed associations that Saint Enda went to his reward in the year 544, having for over sixty years lived a life of penitence which for rigor was unsurpassed even by the anchorites of the Egyptian desert. His remains were laid to rest in the cemetery of the little mortuary chapel which he himself had built, and which still exists, as if its founder had imparted to it a share of his own immortality.

As one stands over the grave of St. Enda, with the ocean spreading out before him, and the cliffs of Moher looming in the distance, all the associations of the place rush upon him and fill him with emotion. The spirit of the angelic life practised there fourteen hundred years ago comes back upon him in all its beauty. He sees once more the sea covered with craft filled with pilgrims eagerly flocking to this desolate island. He hears the accents of the Celt and the Roman mingling with the rougher cadences of the Saxon and the Cymbri. He listens to the voices of human adoration chanting in concert with the mysterious music of the ocean; and he feels that land and sea, arch and altar, while echoing the praises of the great Creator, also become eloquent of Ireland's glory.


Clifden, Co. Galway.

The Catholic World, Volume LXIX (1889), 464-473.

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