According to bede, speaking of Iona (Eccl. Hist. 3.14), "This isle is wont always to have an abbot who is a priest as ruler, to whom the whole province and the bishops themselves by an unusual arrangement, are expected to be subject, a situation that goes back to the first teacher (St. columba) who was not a bishop but a priest and a monk." Iona was so much part of the Irish Church that Bede's statement has been given universal application. It has also been rigidly interpreted to mean that in the Irish Church all jurisdiction was in the hands of the abbots of the great monasteries.
The situation in Ireland was in fact much more complex. Priest-abbots were the ultimate in authority within their monasteries, and it is probable that they were the highest authority in the paruchia, the lands, often scattered, which each monastery held by gift as private property. The very possession of great holdings would give the abbot a position comparable to that of a noble or prince and would account for such titles as "Abbot of Rome" for the pope and "Abbot of the Blessed" for Christ himself.
In Ireland the title came to connote high ecclesiastical authority. Nevertheless, the abbot in Ireland was always inferior to the bishop in dignity. This is evident not merely in ecclesiastical documents, e.g., the Collection of Canons and the Lives of the Saints, but also from native secular law. Every Irish noble had his "honor-price," and the honor-price of a bishop was equivalent to that of a king, while the abbot's was on a lower level, depending on his personal prestige and not on his professional status. In the Old Irish Litanies bishops had a place of special honor; they were invoked in groups of seven and even in greater numbers.
According to the Rigail Pátraic, the so-called rule of St. patrick (c. 8th century), every tuath, or state, should have a chief-bishop (prím-epscop) to ordain clergy and act as confessor and spiritual father to princes and nobles. It was the duty of the bishop to see that the tuath had worthy priests to celebrate Mass, to administer the Sacraments, and to bury the dead. The care of all priests rested with the bishop, whose duty it was to supervise priests in giving due and conscientious service to the laity. Obviously, the bishop was by far the most important ecclesiastic in the state. He might live in a monastery, but he was certainly not subject to its abbot. It may be taken as certain that a monk, once raised to the episcopate, ceased to owe obedience to any abbot. The nearest parallel to the Irish monastic bishop is the modern mission bishop of regular orders. All his clergy belong to the same order and have as their immediate head a superior nominated by the order. Thus the bishop would appear to depend utterly on the order, yet he is not subject to its superior general. Similarly, the Irish bishop might depend on the monastery in various ways, but as a bishop he would not be subject to its abbot. It is noteworthy that, when the Synod of Rathbresail (1111) divided Ireland into dioceses on the continental model, more than 50 bishops were present.
In Britain, after the destruction of towns by the Anglo-Saxon invaders, bishops had their sees in monasteries, which at the same time they ruled as abbots. On the Continent bishops might be found living in exempt monasteries, but that did not conflict with a diocesan system already well established.
Bibliography: bede, Ecclesiastical history 3.4, with note by c. plummer, in Opera Historica, 2 v. (Oxford 1896) 2:133–134. adamnan, Life of Saint Columba, ed. w. reeves (Edinburgh 1874), with note 198f. c. plummer, comp., Vitae sanctorum Hiberniae, 2 v. (Oxford 1910), introd. xxxi, n.3; ed. and tr, Irish Litanies (Henry Bradshaw Society 62; 1925). Ancient Laws of Ireland, ed. w. n. hancock et al. 6 v. (Dublin 1865–1901) 1:16, 40, 202; 3:408; 5:22, 234, 412. j. g. o'keeffe, "The Rule of Patrick," Ériu l (1904) 216–224. e. macneill, "Ancient Irish Law. The Law of Status or Franchise," Proceedings of the Irish Academy, Section C 36 (1923) 265–316. h. frank, Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, ed. j. hofer and k. rahner, 10 v. (2d new ed. Freiburg 1957–65) 6:346–347.