Monasticism, Early Irish

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MONASTICISM, EARLY IRISH

The monastic way of life, which began in Egypt in the 3d century, was introduced into Ireland by St. patrick, who spoke with surprise of the Irish boys and girls who insisted on becoming "monks and virgins of Christ." Their place in the Church, as organized by St. Patrick, however, was secondary. Beginning about 520, monasteries multiplied and by 600 the Church in Ireland had become the most monastic Church in Christendom; but there is no simple explanation for this phenomenon.

The Foundations. St. Patrick's experience showed that the imitation of Christ in humility, poverty, and hardship appealed to the Irish character. In the early 6th century influences favorable to monasticism reached Ireland from Britain; the fame of the Candida Casa of St. ninian, in modern Wigtonshire, and the monasteries of Ynys Pyr, Liancarven, and St. David's (modern Wales) spread as models of spiritual living, which Irish ascetics felt the urge to imitate. In a land whose political organization did not depend on cities, the monastery easily became the center from which the bishop ruled; and the monks were encouraged to take the place once held by the pagan druids as teachers of youth.

The most important name in this vigorous movement is St. finnian of Clonard, called in later literature Magister, in Latin, and in Irish, aite fer nérend lena lind, "the teacher of all Ireland in his day." He trained a group of brilliant young men whom he sent to found independent monasteries, including St. Columcille of Derry and Iona, St. Ciaran of Clonmacnois, St. brendan of Clonfert. Other illustrious founders were St. comgall of Bangor, St. Enda of Aran, St. kevin of Glendalough, St. Cronan of Roscrea, St. Nessan of Mungret, St. Colman of Cloyne, St. Finbarr of Cork, St. Iarlaith of Tuam. More than 100 monasteries of major significance were founded during the 6th century in every part of the country and on the coastal islands. Women, such as St. brigid of Kildare, St. ita of killeedy in Limerick, St. Monenna of Killeavy near Newry, showed themselves capable of equal idealism. Thus a large proportion of the population of the country lived in monastic seclusion as monks and nuns.

All did not follow the same observance, but the surviving Irish rules put more emphasis on the interior spirit than on details of external organization, which they obviously regarded as unworthy of mention.

Monastic Rules. A monastic rule ascribed to the saint Ailbe of Emly is written in Old Irish and represents ancient teaching and practice. It instructs the monk that: his conscience should be tender; he should speak little, work hard, serve the sick, deal gently with sinners, be modest in dress, and be wise, learned, pious, generous and courteous, be constant in prayer, and be zealous in reciting the canonical hours which formed the pattern of daily life. Matins began at dawn. When the bell rang the brethren were to chant the hymn of St. hilary of poitiers, Hymnum dicat. When passing the altar each should genuflect three times, "going into the presence of the King of Angels."

After the morning office came a manifestation of conscience, then readings from the Gospel and spiritual treatises, then work. To keep the body in subjection the stomach was to be kept empty. About three p.m., "except in time of famine," the monk was given his meal. The cook was to be competent and generous; but "dry bread and watercress is the fitting food for the genuine ascetic." It was the duty of all to bear reproof and to confess their faults.

The monastic officials referred to are the abbot, the vice abbot, the oeconomus, the cook, and the priest. Obedience was to be absolute. If this rule was observed, the community would persevere without fault till death, when they would leave earth to receive the royal welcome offered them by the "Abbot of the Archangels."

The rule of St. Fintan of Clonenagh was similar to the rule of St. Ailbe; it was imitated by St. comgall at BANGOR and then carried by St. columban to Luxeuil and Bobbio, whence as the Regula Sancti Columbani it spread to some 50 monasteries. Its influence remained strong until Charlemagne ordered that the Regula Sancti Benedicti should be observed in all the monasteries of his empire.

Distinguishing Characteristics. While the elements of Irish monasticism are found elsewhere, the system had a unity and an originality distinctly its own. Severe bodily austerity was a marked feature of every Irish rule and became a national tradition. The spirit of the rule was anchoritical rather than cenobitical; when the monk had advanced sufficiently in virtue he retired to an uninhabited spot to live in contemplation. Nevertheless the monks did not neglect apostolic duties: at home, the monastic oratories served as parish churches for the surrounding laity; abroad, the Irish monks were missionaries, intent on their own perfection, but hardly less intent on the salvation of the neighbors' souls. A zeal for studies, higher and lower, is indicated by the existence of a school which was second in prominence only to the church in every Irish monastery. In a category by itself is to be placed the prominence of abbots as ecclesiastical rulers who exercised jurisdiction for some six centuries, on a scale without parallel elsewhere in the Church.

The Decline. One reform movement in early Irish monasticism took place in the second half of the 8th century. It gave much promise but succumbed in the disorder caused by the irruptions of the Vikings, who appeared first in Ireland in 795 and continued as a disruptive force in the body politic until their final defeat at Clontarf, in 1014. The result for the monasteries was an everincreasing measure of secularization which grew to such an extent that by the 12th century it could not be remedied without an undesirable social upheaval.

In 1111 Ireland was divided into dioceses on the continental model and in many cases monastic properties passed eventually under the control of the bishops. By 1200 early Irish monasticism had come to an end. The Irish rule was superseded by the Cistercian and by the rule of the Canons Regular of St. Augustine. A few ancient monasteries managed to survive, under the Rule of St. Augustine or as colleges of secular canons.

Bibliography: j. colgan, Acta sanctorum Hiberniae (Louvain 1645; reprint Dublin 1948). c. plummer, comp., Vita sanctorum Hiberniae, 2 v. (Oxford 1910). j. f. kenney, The Sources for the Early History of Ireland (New York 1929). j. ryan, Irish Monasticism (London 1931). l. gougaud, Christianity in Celtic Lands, tr. m. joynt (London 1932). Mélanges Colombaniens (Paris 1950). n. chadwick et al., Studies in the Early British Church (Cambridge, Eng. 1958).

[j. ryan]