Thursday 3 December 2015

Primitive Irish Monasteries I

Below is the first in a trilogy of papers on early Irish monasteries published in 1883 by Father Jerome Fahy (1843-1919).  Father Fahy is perhaps best known for his work on the diocese of Kilmacduagh, but in this series of papers he takes a closer look at the early Irish monasteries. His byline 'Hibernia Sacra' (Holy Ireland) gives an indication of the tone of his approach which reflects the contemporary romantic and somewhat chauvinistic pride in the early Irish church and its contribution to religion and learning:



IT was the privilege of our National Apostle to scatter the fruithful seed of saving faith throughout the length and breadth of Ireland. The soil proved to be generous and productive. The seeds which he planted and watered, rewarded him with their bright promise of an abundant harvest even long before he was summoned away from the scene of his apostolic labours. He saw the nation to which he preached, not merely yielding obedience to the Divine precepts, but evincing an anxiety to follow the Gospel counsels. It was an unprecedented change. The sons of the Irish without distinction of rank began to embrace the religions state, and the daughters of princes to seek consecration as virgins of Christ. In a word, Ireland through the apostolic labours of St. Patrick, not only embraced the true faith, but also quickly became the most celebrated centre of monastic life in Christendom. This development of monasticism, which was a crowning joy to our Apostle in his old age, was destined to receive a still greater development during the two succeeding centuries: — a development which was alas I destined to be impeded by domestic strife, and destroyed by invasion. Our Apostle's work was fruitful; after he himself had passed away to his merited reward, his blessing was like a fertilising dew on the land. Religious vocations continued to increase, monasteries continued to spring up on all sides ; so that Ireland soon won for itself the enviable title of “the Thebaid of the West."

Columba seems to have inherited our Apostle's rigid spirit of asceticism; and though destined to labour, during the most eventful years of his life, far away from his beloved Ireland, yet even in Ireland as many as thirty-seven monasteries claim him as their founder. Bangor and Lismore soon rose to eminence as centres of learning and sanctity. Their students were numbered by thousands; and not much less numerous were the loving disciples who gathered round St. Kyran at Clonmacnoise to be made familiar there, with those lessons of wisdom which he himself had received from St. Enda on the sanctified soil of Aranmore.

St. Finnean's Monastery at Clonard was amongst the most remarkable of which even that bright period could boast. St. Brendan and St. Jarlath had founded their most celebrated monasteries, respectively at Clonfert and Tuam. Meanwhile the monasteries of Durrow and Armagh attained a position of eminence among them all, which merited for them the proud designation of "Universities of the West."

But besides those monasteries, the fame of which is familiar to all who are even moderately versed in Irish History, there arose a vast number of religious houses, the names of whose founders are well-nigh forgotten. However, some idea of their number may be formed from a statement of St. Bernard, regarding a monk of Bangor, named Molua, who according to the abbot of Clairvaux, founded no fewer than one hundred monasteries. But it would perhaps be tedious to recount how monasteries were multiplied in remote glens and picturesque valleys, and in the islands which stud our bays, our lakes, and rivers. In any case it is more pertinent to the scope of this paper to ascertain the character of Irish monastic life during the period under review: and to realise as far as may be, to what extent religious life in our primitive monasteries came to constitute an important factor for three centuries, in the vitality and action of the Irish Church.

With this object we may dwell briefly on the circumstances which, at that period, specially favoured the growth of monastic life in Ireland. The rude simplicity of our primitive monasteries will be found worthy of attention; and may help to remind us of structures similar in design and purpose which the spirit of monasticism created in other lands. The influx of foreigners to our shores, as to " The storehouse of the past and the birth-place of the future," will serve to remind us of the studies sacred and profane, which engaged the attention of our early monks. The austere religious observances then enforced by Irish monastic discipline, may be found worthy of the reader's attention. And as the student who might wish to dwell on the early glories of our monasteries, would recall with a melancholy pleasure the sacred chant with which they were once resonant, we shall endeavour to ascertain the true character of Irish Church music at that remote period.

The fifth century was for Europe a period of calamitous change. The reign of disorder was in the ascendant. The pagan world, undermined by its innate corruption, was in the throes of a mighty change which seemed likely to reduce society into chaos. The greatest empire which the world ever saw was about to perish, and with it those evidences of greatness which a refined pagan civilization had stamped upon it. The barbarians exulting in their new conciousness of power, revelled in the ruin which they caused. And as if to give a still more ruinous completeness to their excesses, their hostility to the Church was bitterly intensified by the poison of heresy which they had largely imbibed. Hence, Churches were destroyed, and monasteries plundered and committed to the flames. ''In such a state of things," writes Dr. Newman, "the very mention of education was a mockery : the very aim and effort to exist was occupation enough for mind and body. The heads of the Church bewailed a universal ignorance which they could not remedy.

It was a great thing that scholars remained sufficient for clerical education: and this education was only sufficient, as Pope Agatho informs us, ''to hand on the traditions of the Fathers without scientific exposition or polemical defence." Under those circumstances it was inevitable that monasticism should have shared in the general decadence of religious influences Ireland, remote, and isolated in the northern seas, was unaffected by the lamentable events which proved so prejudicial to social and religious interests in the south and east. Within its tranquil shores religion was free to assert its influence, and bring with it in its train those blessings which Christian civilization confers. Within the precincts of its monasteries, science found a peaceful asylum, and piety a home. It was under those circumstances that Irish monastic life put forth all its youthful vigour; and combined the early fervour of the east with the strength and vitality of western asceticism. It was then that our country merited for herself the proud title of "Island of saints and scholars," willingly accorded to her by the historians of Europe, and still fondly cherished by her children.

In estimating the numbers with which our primitive Irish monasteries were thronged, it must be borne in mind that there were amongst them many natives of the principal European countries. Hither thronged the English, "as to a fair, to purchase knowledge." Foreigners came from Gaul and Germany, to be made familiar with the secrets of Divine and human science taught in our monasteries. Our Martyrologies show with what success even Romans and Egyptians learned here the science of the saints. Neither must it be forgotten, that the manner in which foreigners were received by the Irish, was worthy of a nation whose hospitality was proverbial. Our monasteries were open to all, without distinction of race, rank, or country: and to all, knowledge and hospitality were gratuitously extended. To this Venerable Bede bears flattering and willing testimony " The Scots (Irish) willingly received them all, and took care to supply them with food, as well as to furnish them with books to read, and their teaching gratis." We should not therefore be surprised at the very large numbers with which we find our monasteries thronged at this period. As many as three thousand students attended each of the monasteries of Bangor and Lismore. In Armagh, the numbers must have been higher still. The number that attended there, even in the ninth century, was computed at 9,000. Such great centres of religious life, and literary activity, as Armagh, Bangor, and Lismore, which were thronged both by lay and ecclesiastical students, must have been in some respects different from the less remarkable monasteries, which were more exclusively devoted to religion. Where eminent teachers attracted large numbers of students, special rules were rigidly enforced regulating the intercourse of the students with each other, and with the public. At Lismore, women were entirely excluded from that portion of the monastic city which was devoted to religion and study. Nor is there any reason to assume that this rule was peculiar to Lismore. We find also that portions of the city of Armagh were set aside exclusively for foreigners. What was then the English quarter, was known as "Trian Saxon," and comprised a third of the entire city. It may be assumed, with a fair show of probability, that the customs sanctioned in those cities were adopted by other monasteries when similar exigencies rendered their adoption necessary.

And here the question naturally suggests itself, how was accommodation provided for such large numbers? What was the style or character of the structures which usually afforded them shelter ? Little indeed remains to remind the traveller of the extent, or style, of those famous monasteries, which, according to Montalambert, possessed religious communities ''the most numerous ever seen in Christendom." Some have entirely perished; of others only a few crumbling ruins remain. Yet, from what remains of our ancient monasteries, and from the light which history casts upon them, our antiquarians have been able to form a fair idea of their general form and character.

But we must carefully distinguish the primitive monasteries, of which I write, from those imposing structures which still remain to us, as precious memorials of the zeal and skill of our mediaeval monks. It must not be forgotten that primitive Irish monasteries boasted a venerable antiquity, even before St. Francis or St. Dominick were raised up by God for the honour of His Church. We do not, therefore, refer to those magnificent piles which were raised in Ireland by the great Mendicant Orders of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, in which pointed arches and graceful columns, and sculptured capitals, and ornate tracery, still proclaim the art of the builders. Neither do we refer to the chaste structures erected earlier still by the Cistercians and Canons Regular; and which are still imposing even in their ruins. Many generations had received their religious and secular training in our primitive monasteries, long before Gothic architecture, even in its simplest form, was known or adopted.

Our earliest monasteries were marked by a rude simplicity of style. Many of them, indeed, consisted of a wooden church or churches, around which were grouped wooden cells for the accommodation of the religious and students. Such was the church which King Diarmait found St. Kiaran constructing at Clonmacnoise. "As he approached he found St. Kiaran planting the first pole of a church.'' It is the opinion of O'Curry that a sculptured panel on the ancient Celtic cross which still stands among the venerable ruins of that holy place, commemorates the event. Such, too, seems to have been the monastery constructed by St. Columba at Iona. Nor was this method of construction entirely peculiar to Ireland. The monastery founded by St. Martin at Marmoutier was also of wood. His oratory was of wood; such also was his little cell, and these might have been regarded by the fathers of Irish monastic life, as models for the construction of their humble religious establishments. It is true that such rude wooden shelters would appear to modem taste as but ill-calculated to afford suitable accommodation to the students who rushed to these monasteries for education. Let us remember, however, that the requirements of the past cannot be estimated from the of the over-fastidious period in which we live. Even in the palmy days of Athens' literary fame, the student's lodgings there, are described “as but a crib or kennel,” in which he sleeps when the weather is inclement on the damp ground — “in no respect a home”.

Considering the large number of monasteries said to have been founded by our early saints, the construction of all in masonry of even the simplest kind, would have been practically impossible. It is, however, certain they were frequently of stone. And as time permitted, the perishable wooden structures used as oratories were gradually superseded in many places by structures of solid masonry. Those stone oratories built after the massive style of the most ancient Pelasgic remains, must necessarily appear to us as rude. But though rude, they were enduring; and in their severe simplicity they were well suited to the heroic and penitential spirit of the period. Among the most ancient of our oratories are those of a conical or beehive-shaped form. The stone cells grouped around those oratories were frequently of a similar shape, and were often inclosed with their oratories within strong fortifications of Cyclopean masonry termed "Caisseals." Such groups of cells, designated ''Cloghans " by the peasantry, may still be seen in considerable numbers in Kerry, also in Mayo, Galway, Clare, and Cork. The rectangular oratory, with its solitary entrance in its western gable, is somewhat more recent, as it is also more commodious. Considerably larger than the oratory was the church (Diamliag). But considering the custom of stone roofing then prevalent in Ireland, even the churches were necessarily small. We frequently find churches and oratories in the same monastic group. It is not improbable they were thus multiplied to meet the exigencies of the community. Though a simple oratory might have been sufficient for a small community, several such churches should have been necessary for such communities as by reason of their reputation for piety and learning grew into remarkable centres of education.

We are fortunate in having from the pen of Dr. Petrie, a description of one of those ancient groups of monastic ruins. As it represents a considerable section of our stone-built primitive monasteries, the sketch may be given here without apology : —

" Of such anchoretical (sic ?) establishments, one of the most interesting and best preserved in Ireland, or perhaps in Europe, is that of St. Fechin, in Ardoilen, off the coast of Connemara, on the north-west of the coast of Galway...

The church here is amongst the rudest of the ancient edifices which the fervour of the Christian religion raised on its introduction into Ireland. Its internal measurement in length and breadth, is but twelve feet by ten, and in height ten feet.

"The chapel was surrounded by a wall allowing a passage of four feet between them, and from this a covered passage about fifteen feet long by three wide leads to a cell which was probably the Abbot's habitation. This cell, which is nearly circular and dome-roofed, is internally seven feet by six, and eight high. It is built like those in Arran, without cement and with much rude art. On the east side there is a larger cell, externally round, but internally square, of nine feet, and seven feet six inches in height. On the other side of the chapel are a number of smaller cells, which were only large enough to contain each a single person. They are hat six feet long, four feet wide, and four feet high, and most of them are now covered with rubbish. They formed a lavra like the habitations of the Egyptian ascetics."

It is a matter of interest to ascertain on such authority as that of Sulpicius Severus, that the monastery of St. Martin at Marmontier consisted merely of a number of separate cells grouped around his humble wooden oratory, like those subsequently established in Ireland. Nor is the interest likely to be diminished by the knowledge that a similar arrangement had been adopted long previously in Egypt by the monks of the Thebaid. We do not think it improbable that Ireland may be indebted, through Athanasius and Cassian, to Marmoutier and the East for the general material plan of our primitive monasteries, as well as for the spirit which prompted their rules and observances. And it may be added that, in the opinion of many eminent antiquarians, eastern art also continued to exercise an influence in Ireland, most noticeable in our romanesque doorways and early illuminated manuscripts. Writing on the subject, a contributor to the Ulster Journal of Archaeology observes: — "There is no doubt that at a somewhat later period we can observe the influence of Greek and Byzantine art upon that of Ireland. The monks found their way not merely to Byzantium, but also to Jerusalem and Alexandria and the Churches of Asia Minor. To this intercourse we can attribute the fret and guilloche, so profusely used in Irish Work, and with a variety and effect never seen in foreign works." Even those who may be only superficially familiar with early Irish art, may remember with what effect those ornamental bands were used, now intersecting at right angles and at equal distances, and again intertwining in graceful curves, so as to present combinations at once striking and beautiful. We are assured also that the sculptured human heads frequently found on our early monastic doorways, sometimes exhibit a " perfectly Egyptian type," as in the case of the doorway of the round tower of Timahoe. The shafts of the doorway of the ancient church of Clonkeen, county Limerick, are said by Mr. Brash to exhibit a style of ornamentation analagous to that found upon the fragments of a pillar from the treasury of Atreus at Mycenae. These analogies maybe recalled with additional interest, when in the course of a future paper we may have occasion to refer to certain monastic observances peculiar to Ireland and the East.

Monastic life in Ireland was eminently fruitful. The monks of the ''Western Thebaid " were in reality what they professed to be — true religions. Their sanctity was neither affected nor disguised. It may be said with truth, that the history of Ireland's saints at this period, was the history of her monks. Our Irish Episcopal Sees were for the most part governed by monks who were promoted to the rank of bishops. As missionaries, Irish monks were found in the foremost ranks in the principal European countries; Irish monks kept the lamps of religion and science so brightly burning in our land that they came to be regarded as the beacon lights of Western Europe. Bede represents Ireland of this period as renowned for their philosophy; and Ussher speaks of them as far beyond any other country in Europe in piety and learning. Thus in the science of the saints our Irish monks were the glory of the Church, while in secular knowledge they stood unsurpassed.

In our next paper we shall see active minds vigorously pursuing such problems as the learning of the period brought before them, and shall dwell at some length on the subject of their success. We shall also consider the general character of the rigorous code of monastic discipline to which they scrupulously adhered.

J. A. Fahy.


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