The ancient Irish church/Chapter 13

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Several writers have remarked that the eighth century is a barren one in Irish ecclesiastical history. The Easter controversies were brought to a conclusion in its early years, and the Danish invasions belong to the next century. No great event happened in the meantime. It is therefore in one sense a period that has no history.

Even in political affairs the time was comparatively uneventful. A great battle was fought at the beginning of the century between the hereditary enemies, Meath and Leinster, in which the latter were victorious. In another great battle the Meath men avenged their defeat. Otherwise the period has little to record.

The quietude of the country caused the Church to increase in power and usefulness. The great schools of Ireland rose to the zenith of their glory. Many countries sent their sons to obtain education in the peaceful establishments of the Western Isle; and on the other hand, some of the alumni of the Irish schools, having left their native land, were distinguished for their brilliancy and learning in many a foreign kingdom. Such names as Clement and Albin, the wisdom-seekers, and Virgil the Geometer, are perhaps now seldom mentioned; yet in their day their fame had spread through many countries of Europe. Of the two first we have an interesting story given in the history of the times of Charlemagne. 'Two Scots of Ireland came to the shores of France with some British merchants. They were men who both in secular and sacred writings were incomparably learned. They used to expose nothing for sale, but to cry to the crowd who flocked round for the purpose of buying, If any of you wishes for wisdom, let him come to us and obtain it, for that is what we have on sale.'[1] Of the last, Virgil, who became Bishop of Salsburg, it is said that he anticipated the discoveries of later astronomers, and hardly escaped being condemned as a heretic for maintaining the existence of antipodes.

It is to this century that most of the illuminated manuscripts which still exist are to be attributed. In no age of the Church was the scribe held in such high esteem. 'Sixty-one remarkable scribes are named in the Annals of the Four Masters as having flourished in Ireland before the year 900, forty of whom lived between A.D. 700 and 800.'[2] If no other evidence were left to us than the books themselves, we should have reasons enough to conclude that the eighth century was an age of learning and art. Our only regret is that the remains of that period are so few. The Norseman of the next century cared little for books, and delighted in 'drowning' the volumes which came into his sacrilegious hands. Most of the precious manuscripts therefore have been destroyed, yet enough is left to make us pause in astonishment, for no other country has ever had scribes like these.

Connected with these manuscripts a very interesting question arises. It is as to whether there existed a translation of the Bible peculiar to the Irish or Celtic Church. All the Irish Biblical manuscripts of the eighth century are, it is true, copies of the Vulgate; yet in many places they have readings peculiar to themselves. The subject is still one that awaits fuller investigation. Up to the present the Irish manuscripts have been regarded as the special possession of the archæologists. The Biblical critics do not seem to have thought of taking them in hand and collating them with other manuscripts of the same age. Their importance in this respect has, however, been partly realized, and Dr. Westcott says concerning them, that 'they stand out as a remarkable monument of the independence, the antiquity and the influence of British (Irish) Christianity.'[3]

Haddan and Stubbs have collected for us a large amount of evidence bearing on this point. They have taken the different quotations from Scripture to be found in the earliest Latin works written by Celtic authors; and they have compared them one with another, as well as with the Vulgate and with the old Latin translations which were in use in Africa and Italy before the time of Jerome. The conclusion they arrive at is that Saint Patrick was not acquainted with Jerome's Vulgate, but that after his time it gradually made its way in the Celtic Churches—traces of the old Latin being found as late as the tenth century. They say also that the evidence is 'exceedingly strong,' that the version thus gradually superseded was a special British and Irish revision of the old Latin.[4]

It has been generally assumed that the Irish Church had no translation of the Bible into the vernacular. Haddan and Stubbs say briefly, 'There is no trace of any Celtic version of the Bible.' This is a mistake. There is actually in existence a copy of such a version, contained in an old manuscript volume, known as the Speckled Book, at present preserved in the library of the Royal Irish Academy. O'Curry tells as that this Speckled Book 'appears to have been written by some member of the learned family of the Mac Ægans, about the close of the fourteenth century. It is not a transcript of any one book, but, as will be seen, a compilation from various ancient books, preserved chiefly in the churches and monasteries of Connaught, Munster and Leinster.' Amongst its contents are found 'a Scripture narrative from the Creation to Solomon; the birth, life, passion and resurrection of our Lord.'[5] In another work[6] he speaks of this part as a 'translation, or rather paraphrase of the Old Testament,' and he gives two examples. One of these he renders into English in the very words of the Douay version of Exodus xv. 20; and the other, which is taken from 1 Samuel xxv. 18, he translates, 'The woman gave him five sheep, and two hundred loaves, and two paits (leather bottles) of wine'—a rendering which represents in a fairly accurate way the original Hebrew. If these are to be taken as examples of the work, there can be no doubt that there was in early times a translation of the Bible into Irish; and in any case the book gives evidence that the facts of Scripture were presented to the people in the language that they understood.

It was the glory of the ancient Irish Church that she always prized the Word of God and taught it to her people. In this connection we cannot do better than quote from an old Irish treatise, said to have been written towards the close of the period we are now considering. 'One of the noble gifts of the Holy Spirit is the Holy Scripture, by which all ignorance is enlightened and all worldly affliction comforted; by which all spiritual light is kindled, by which all weakness is made strong. For it is through the Holy Scripture that heresy and schism are banished from the Church, and all contentions and divisions reconciled. It is in it well tried counsel and appropriate instruction will be found for every degree in the Church. It is through it the snares of demons and vices are banished from every faithful member in the Church. For the Divine Scripture is the mother and the benign nurse of all the faithful who meditate and contemplate it, and who are nurtured by it, until they are chosen children of God by its advice.'[7]

Although the eighth century was in one sense uneventful, we are not to suppose that it was without its important changes. Foremost among them was the bringing of Armagh into prominence, and the decline of the influence of Iona and the Columban monasteries. Up to the present, when we have spoken of Church life, of missionary labour, of religious controversy, it has been mostly in connection with Iona and its dependent establishments. Armagh has not played the same important part. All this was reversed by the time that the eighth century had drawn to a close. The Four Masters refer to Armagh only six times in their annals of the seventh century. In the eighth century they have twenty-three references, and in the ninth fifty-one. On the other hand, Iona, which is referred to twenty times in the eighth century, is only mentioned seven times in the ninth. Let us inquire how these changes were brought about.

When Iona was first established, the south-west portion of Scotland was under the same government and bore the same name as the north-east of Ireland. Under the influence of Columba the Scotch portion became an independent kingdom. The immediate results of this change were small. The Scotch residents did not give up their nationality, but continued to interest themselves in the affairs of Ireland, and to take part in the tribal quarrels as before. Nevertheless, the ultimate result was inevitable. They were drawn towards the Picts, who were their near neighbours, and who, by the efforts of Columba and his followers, were gathered into the Christian Church, while they were separated by the sea from their own fellow tribes in Ireland. The Irish never regarded them as other than an outlying and uninfluential kingdom. In Scotland they soon became the most powerful of all the clans.

Iona and its daughter monasteries in Ireland, though thus disunited politically, were kept in close union by the power of missionary zeal. Men from different parts of the country—from Durrow and Swords and Derry and elsewhere—were coming and going to Iona, and passed through on their way to their work amongst the heathen—first the Picts and then the Saxons. Iona thus formed an outlet for enterprise and energy. The men of greatest learning and of greatest talent alike looked to her to provide scope for the employment of their abilities. All this was changed by the issue of the Easter controversies. The Saxons in a body went over to the Roman party, and those who refused to conform had to leave the country. The Irish missionaries were therefore compelled to retire from the field, and find for themselves other habitations. Thus Colman, as we have seen, led his small body of followers first to Iona, and then to the west coast of Ireland. There could scarcely have been a greater change, and we find it hard to understand how men who had been accustomed to the one life could ever have been able to endure the other. At Lindisfarne they directed a great spiritual enterprise. They were the religious leaders and teachers of the people. The work of education, of evangelization, and of the Christian ministry occupied their time; and they had besides the excitement of controversy, which though no doubt in many ways an evil, yet produces a certain amount of enthusiasm, and stimulates mental and spiritual activity in no inconsiderable degree. At Innisboffin all was changed. The missionaries were forced to become hermits. Every condition of existence was reversed. We are not surprised that some of them found the new régime unendurable, and that those who could work together with loyalty and good-will could not live together in comparative idleness, but had to separate into two distinct communities.

In Iona itself the change must have been very great. From the time of its foundation the very reason of its existence was its missionary work, and when suddenly its whole mission field was closed against it, the inmates must have felt that nothing short of a revolution had taken place. The preparation and training of workers—the consecration of missionary bishops and abbots—the solemn sending forth of labourers with the blessing of the community—the meetings at which reports of success and failure were discussed—all these, which formed the life and soul of the community, were at an end.

In Ireland, the Easter disputes divided the Church into two parties. Bede tells us of Adamnan, who had been abbot of Iona, and whose life of Saint Columba is one of our contemporary sources of information about this period. In the year 683 the Saxons made a descent upon Ireland, devastated the great plains of Meath, and returned to England bearing with them a multitude of captives and great spoil. The year following, Adamnan went into Saxonland to plead the cause of the prisoners, and conducted their case with so much skill that he obtained the release of those who had been carried away, and a 'full restoration of everything he asked.' During his stay amongst the English, he learnt much about the 'canonical rites of the Church,' which he seems never to have known before, and after a time 'changed his mind, and readily preferred those things which he had seen and heard in the English Church to the customs which he and his people had hitherto followed.'[8] Returning to Iona, he thought he could easily persuade his own people to follow his example. In this he was mistaken. So much did they resent his unfaithfulness to their traditional usages, that he soon found his position untenable, and he was forced to resign the abbacy and depart from them into Ireland. Here he met with greater success, and induced nearly the whole country, with the exception of those who belonged to the Columban monasteries, to accept the new ideas. There were therefore, as I have said, two parties: the followers of Columba on the one side, and the rest of the Irish Church on the other.

A little before this time, and probably in connection with these very Easter disputes, the King of Ireland had decreed that the monasteries of Columba should not enjoy the same privileges as those of Patrick, Finnian and Keiran; that is, that Iona and its dependencies should not be in as favourable a position with regard to immunity from taxation, and probably in other ways, as were the monasteries at Armagh, Clonard and Clonmacnois. Adamnan is said to have cursed the monarch for making this unrighteous law, but his own subsequent conduct only helped in the degradation of his order.

Armagh soon identified itself with the new doctrines, and as it was at this time rising into eminence, and was beginning to assert that supremacy which it afterwards obtained, its influence helped in great measure to destroy the old Irish peculiarities.

The documents belonging to this age have many of them been framed manifestly with a view to uphold the claims of Armagh. For example, the old manuscript volume known as the Book of Armagh, contains among other documents, a canon which provides that cases of extreme difficulty which are beyond the powers of ordinary judges are to be referred to 'the archbishop of the Irish, that is, of Patrick, and the examination of this abbot,' and if found too difficult for him, to 'the chair of the Apostle Peter, having the authority of the city of Rome.' This canon is said to have been decreed by Auxilius, Patrick, Secundinus and Benignus; but it need hardly be remarked that if really made by them and recognised by succeeding generations, much of the history which we have already sketched would have been impossible. It is generally believed to belong to the eighth century.

The biographies of Saint Patrick have all the same tendency. Incidents the most improbable were invented, and stories of miracles were told—all with the purpose of exalting Patrick, and making it appear that Armagh was the central point from which his work was directed. It is a remarkable fact, when taken in connection with the extraordinary number of Lives of Saint Patrick written from the eighth century onward, that Adamnan, the biographer of Columba, never mentions him; nor does Bede, whose information was derived from Columban sources, seem to have been aware of his existence. The first knowledge we have of him from any source besides his own works, is the simple phrase, 'Patrick our Pope,' used by Cummian in 634.

The influence of Armagh was for the most part directed to the bringing of Ireland into conformity with the practices of the Romans. The see rose into prominence as the upholder of the new fashions, and it was no doubt in turn helped in its struggle for supremacy by the exterior support which it thus obtained. The very name Celepedair, 'Servant of Peter,' borne by an abbot of Armagh who died in 757, tells us how this devotion to Rome was begining to take root. Irish ecclesiastics were fond of taking names of this kind. For example, we have Maelpaudhrig, which means Servant of Patrick; Malcolm, Servant of Columba; Celetighearnach, Servant of Tighernach, and many others; but the saints they chose to serve were almost invariably natives of Ireland.

It ought perhaps also to be mentioned among the causes which led to the advancement of Armagh, that for thirty years of the eighth century the monastery numbered amongst its inmates Flaherty, King of Ireland, who, after a reign of seven years, relinquished his crown and took upon him the habit of a monk. The loyalty of the people would not be denied to the king because he no longer held the reins of government; nor did it follow that he had given up all ambition because he had ceased to be a monarch and had become an ecclesiastic.

But though the eighth century saw the pre-eminence of Armagh fairly established, we are not to suppose that this meant anything like the 'primacy' of modern times. Ireland had many who were called archbishops from the very first, but they were merely men eminent among their own order. 'Arch' was nothing more than a prefix of excellence, and might be applied to any office in the Church, and so we have arch-lector, arch-senior, arch-soul-friend, and the like. That some at this time entertained the idea of establishing a real arch-bishopric at Armagh is more than probable, and no doubt this would have been accompanied by a submission of the Church of Ireland to the see of Rome. Both these projects were postponed for some centuries by the events that were about to happen. It was not until the year 1152 that metropolitans were appointed in Ireland. Four of the Irish bishops were then raised to the rank of archbishop by the Pope, and received the pall at the hands of his legate.

  1. Migne, Patrol. Curs., tom. xcviii. p. 1371.
  2. Miss Stokes, Early Christian Art in Ireland, p. 10.
  3. Smith's Dictionary of the Bible, Art. 'Vulgate.'
  4. Haddan and Stubbs, Councils and Ecclesiastical Documents relating to Great Britain and Ireland.
  5. O'Curry, MS. Materials of Anc. Irish Hist., p. 352.
  6. Manners and Customs of the Anc. Irish.
  7. From an Ancient Treatise on the Mass, contained in the Speckled Book. O'Curry, MS. Materials, p. 376. In the remainder of the extract given by O'Curry, the doctrine of the Real Presence is asserted, but not that of Transubstantiation.
  8. Bede, Eccl. Hist., v. 15.