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Thursday 23 July 2015
'Pilgrimage for the love of Christ': The Irish Mission to the Continent
We owe our knowledge of the labours and influence of the Irish monks in England and the Continent almost entirely to foreign sources, and, with a very few exceptions, our native annals are almost silent concerning the missionaries who went forth from Ireland in such great numbers. So frequently were they to be met with on the Continent that Walafried Strabo, a writer of the ninth century, remarks that the custom of travelling appeared to have become a part of the Irishman's nature. St. Gildas notes that to voyage overseas, and to journey over broad tracts of land was to the Irish monks not so much a weariness as a delight. "Most of them," he writes, "appear to have been born under a wandering planet." ... Various reasons may be assigned to account for the large number of Irish monks that went abroad, and they certainly did not leave their native land because of any idle curiosity to see foreign countries or through a desire to wander about on the Continent. There was a multitude of monks in Ireland, and an urgent and great need for missionary effort in France and Germany. The Irish Saints had a real vocation for the apostolate, and many of them were impelled by the call to a higher degree of the ascetic life. They fully realised that charity began at home and they did not go away until the faith was secure in Ireland. An early canon attributed to the epoch of St. Patrick states: — One's first work must be to instruct the people of one's own country, following the example of Christ. It is only in the case when no results can flow from such instruction that one is permitted to abandon it following the example of the Apostle.
…The Irish missionaries were wholly absorbed by the great mission which they had undertaken, and in the execution of it they took but little thought of their own welfare. They wandered about from place to place, sometimes through trackless solitudes, always trusting that God would provide for their support. King Clothaire the Second, while hunting the wild boar in the forest of Sequania, met one of them, St. Deicola, and asked him what were his means of livelihood, and how his brethren fared in such a wilderness as that. “It is written," said Deicola, "that they who fear God shall want for nothing. We are poor, it is true, but we love and serve the Lord, and that is of more value than great riches." Special hostelries had to be founded for their support in many parts of the Frankish realm by the charity of their fellow-countrymen. In one of the capitularies of Charles the Bald drawn up after the Council of Meaux, in 845, there is mention made of the hostelries of the Scots, which holy men of that nation built and endowed with the gifts acquired by their sanctity.
It is to be remembered that the Irish monks had been trained in a hard and severe school, where it was the rule that the members of the community were to support themselves by the labour of their own hands. Mendicant orders whose members were dependent chiefly on the offerings of the faithful for subsistence did not exist in Ireland at this time, and were not introduced until many centuries later. The stronger brothers in the early monasteries devoted themselves mainly to manual labour, and all the brethren, including even the scribes and artists, were required to work in the fields. Thus everything that the little community needed was produced by themselves, and it became self-supporting. The companions of St. Columbanus by their incessant labour transformed one of the wildest and most deserted regions in France into fertile cornfields and vineyards. St. Fiacre and his fellow monks changed the portion of La Brieu, near Meux, from a wild forest into a smiling garden. The biographer of St. Remi tells how he received certain pilgrims from Ireland and settled them in suitable places near the Marnei where they might visit and help one another. "They did not," he says, "live only on the charity of those to whom pious Remi had commended them, but also on their own industry and the labour of their hands, in accordance with the custom of the religious bodies in Ireland. This life, united to wonderful holiness and constant prayer, won for them a great love among the natives of the country."
The Irish missionaries usually travelled in groups as it would have been dangerous in that age of violence to journey alone. The group consisted generally of a dozen individuals and their chief, who was to be the Abbot of the future settlement. They set sail first for Great Britain, and then passing through that country, re-embarked at some Kentish port for the Continent. In Europe they travelled for the most part on foot, and according to the rules of certain orders of monks could not travel in any other way, as these rules permitted only an Abbot to use a carriage of any kind. They were clad in coarse woollen garments, worn over a white tunic, their hair was tonsured from ear to ear across the front of the head and long flowing locks hung behind; they carried long staves, and bore at their sides leather water bottles and wallets in which they kept their food, writing tablets and manuscripts. They appeared thus amidst the Franks and Allemani, speaking to them with fiery eloquence, at first through an interpreter, and afterwards in the language of the country which they acquired.
Wherever they settled down they erected little wooden huts and a church within a large enclosure. They supported life by cultivation of the land and fishing and asked for nothing for themselves but a space where they might found their settlement and, at times, a little food. They laboured all day to teach and civilise and sought to influence the people who surrounded them by precept and example. They won the people by their gentleness, earnestness and humility, and both Franks and Romans joined them, so that eventually similar colonies were formed far and near from the first settlement as a starting point.
They were men whose whole mind was devoted to the great work in which they were engaged, to the exclusion of all thoughts of their own personal interests. When King Segebert offered gifts to Columbanus, the Saint replied : — '' We are followers of Christ, who has plainly said, 'Whosoever will be my disciple, let him deny himself, take up the Cross and follow me.' The things which are in your power to bestow do not attract us, for in these things there is nothing to satisfy the heart of myself and my companions. We seek not comforts, nor to dwell in fertile lands, nor to gratify the flesh. We seek for solitude and some secluded place wherein to live in penitence and devotion." They took no thought of the dangers which they might encounter in travelling to foreign and hostile peoples. A story is told in King Alfred's Chronicle of three Irish missionaries who were washed on the shores of Cornwall. “They came,” writes Alfred, "in a boat without oars from Hibernia, whence they had stolen away, because for the love of God they would be on pilgrimage — they cared not where. The boat in which they fared was wrought of three hides and a half, and they took with them enough meat for seven nights." An old French chronicle tells of the arrival about the year 589 of two Irishmen named Caidoc and Fricor with twelve companions at the little town of Quentonvic, at the mouth of the Somme, and how they followed the great Roman road into the country, preaching the gospel on their way. They arrived at Centule (now St. Riquier) and, as the chronicler puts it, "fought on, perceiving that the inhabitants were blinded by error and iniquity, and were subjected to the most cruel slavery; they laboured with all their strength to redeem their souls and wash them in their Saviour's blood." The people could not understand the language of these missionaries, and rebelled against their teaching. They asked angrily what these adventurers, who had just escaped out of a barbarous island, were in search of, and by what right they sought to impose their laws on them. Violence would have been used towards the missionaries, were it not that a young noble named Riquier interfered in their favour. He took the strangers under his protection, and entertained them at his house. He learned from them to love God above all things, and was filled with sorrow for his past life which he had spent as an unfruitful servant. He resigned all the splendour of his high rank, cut the long locks which were a symbol of his nobility, and became a servant of God. Henceforth his life was one of prayer and mortification, and when he had taken orders he became the founder of the celebrated Abbey of St. Riquier, where Caidoc and Fricor were buried, and where two Latin epitaphs written by St. Angilbert commemorate their virtues and the land of their nativity.
After landing in Europe they had to go amidst people whose language was unknown to them, and though themselves often of noble descent, they found that they were poor and friendless in a strange land. It is frequently recorded how great were their sufferings from poverty, fatigue and lack of equipment, and how many met their death on the way. Yet in the service to which they had devoted themselves they bore all their trials with resignation and a stout heart. "They were competent, cheerful, and self-supporting, faced privation with indifference; caring nothing for luxuries ; and when other provisions failed them, they gathered wild fruit, trapped animals, and fished with great dexterity, and with any sort of rude appliances. They were rough and somewhat uncouth in outward appearance, but beneath all that they had solid sense and much learning. Their simple ways, their unmistakeable piety, and their intense earnestness in the cause of religion attracted the people everywhere, so that they made crowds of converts." [Joyce: "Social History of Ireland," Part I., p. 341.]
Near the end of the seventh and at the beginning of the eighth century the Irish monks had established a series of monasteries which extended from the mouth of the Meuse and Rhine to the Rhone. Throughout the chronicles and the lives of the Saints of this time references are often made to them; and names purely Irish are constantly found such as Caidor, Furseus, Fuilan Ultan, Frillan, Livin. Thus in the life of St. Remi, mention is made of his hospitable reception of ten pilgrims from Ireland. " From that island, I say, seven brothers started on a pilgrimage for the love of Christ. They were men of great piety and virtue. These were Gebrian, Helan, Tressan, Germanus, Veranus, Hebranus, Petranus, and three sisters, Franda or Francla, Portia and Possena.'' In the life of St. Riquier it is recorded how a body of Irishmen preached the faith in Picardy. In Belgium they worked in Malines, Ghent and other places. In the ninth century the number of Irishmen travelling in France waas so great as to be almost burthensome and the Council of Chalons-sur-Saone made canons against the wandering Scots. There is also frequent mention made in the histories of the time of ' episcopi vagi,' bishops without any fixed diocese, who journeyed through France, and of whom the great majority appear to have been our countrymen. Many of the missionary establishments in Germany were either originally Irish or were the offsprings of Irish foundations. In the tenth century we find a great number of Irish monasteries in Germany. Otho I. of Germany consecrated a monastery in the Ardennes which was to remain the property of the Scots, and of which the Abbot was to be a monk of that nation. Adalberon II. decreed that the Abbey of St. Clement in Lorraine was only to receive monks of Irish origin, while that nation supplied sufficient recruits, and his biographer states that he always held the Irish monks in the highest esteem. Cologne in the tenth century possessed a large Irish colony, and the monastery of St. Martin in that city was given to the Scots in perpetuity by Archbishop Eberger in 975. From this date to 1061 the Abbots were all Irishmen. Desibod constructed the monastery of Desibodenberg near Treves, and St. Kilian was the Apostle of Franconia. The monasteries of Honau on the Rhine and Altomunster were of Irish origin and Tirgilius became the Abbot of Salzburg. That Irish monks were present in considerable numbers in the North of Italy is evidenced by the fact that a hostelry was built near Bobbio in 883 for their reception.
In South Germany Marianus Scotus, a native of the North of Ireland, settled at Ratisbon on his way to Rome and founded a monastery in 1076. In less than forty years this monastery was not sufficiently large to accommodate the Irish monks who were labouring at Ratisbon, and a second house, the monastery of St. James, was built. From Ratisbon twelve Irish monasteries were established in various parts of South Germany, and at the time of its greatest prosperity the Abbot of Ratisbon controlled the monasteries of Dels in Silesia, Erfurt in Thuringia, Wurzburg, Nuremberg, Eichstadt in Franconia, Memningen and Constance in Swabia, and Vienna in Austria. Johannes, one of the associates of Marianus, went to Gottweich in Austria, where he died as an Anchorite; another of his monks went to Kief, and a third went to Jerusalem. Frederick of Barbarossa found in Bulgaria a monastery governed by an Irish Abbot, and there are letters still extant from the Irish Abbot of Ratisbon petitioning King Wratislaw of Bohemia for an escort for his messengers through that country on their way to Poland. There is authentic evidence that these Irish monks who went to Germany in the eleventh and thirteenth centuries were worthy successors to the Saints and Missionaries who laboured in France at an earlier period. The houses which they founded were closed to Germans, and almost entirely recruited from Ireland, so that while in France the second generation of monks was largely composed of Frenchmen, the German establishments continued to be thoroughly Irish even in the constitution of their members.
J. M. Flood, Ireland: its saints and scholars (Dublin, n.d.), 55-66.
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