The ancient Irish church/Chapter 15

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We have seen that in the eighth century there was a decrease of influence in the Columban order, and a corresponding increase in the power of Armagh. The ninth century and the Danish invasions did still more for the diminution of the one and the advancement of the other. The repeated attacks made on Iona itself, and the transference from thence of the leading members of the community with all their most precious possessions was in itself a terrible blow. Kells, the 'new Iona,' never obtained the prestige of the old, and ceased after a time to be considered the mother church of the order. Derry afterwards obtained the pre-eminence: but this shifting of the central authority, accompanied as it was with frequent attacks from the barbarians, could only weaken the influence of the order, and quickly bring to an end that supremacy which it once enjoyed.

A serious dispute arose about this time between the followers of Columba and one of the most powerful of the Irish kings of the ninth century. We are quite in the dark as to how the controversy arose, or what were the questions on either side. We only know that in 814 'the families of Columkill went to Tara and solemnly cursed and excommunicated the king.' There was a time when such a ceremony would probably have cost the monarch his throne. Tara itself was deserted simply because an ecclesiastic had cursed it. But the 'families of Columkill' were now of little account. The king was unmoved by the curse; the other churches in Ireland did not recognize the excommunication, and the monarch died at length in the odour of sanctity. Such an incident must have done much to diminish the already lessened influence of the Columban order.

On the other hand, the progress of Armagh was no less marked. Its inland position saved it from the first onslaughts of the Danes. While other churches were being burned and plundered, it remained in peace; and when, at length, it began also to taste the horrors of war, the struggle had become a national one, the whole country had been already aroused, and Armagh came to be regarded as a centre of national life. In the early years of the ninth century she had a succession of ambitious and able prelates, whose aim was not merely to uphold her ancient prestige, but to extend her influence all over the land. In connection with these abbots we have to notice the curious fact that their right to the position was fiercely contested, and that for the first fifty years of the century there were opposing lines of ecclesiastical succession. With the meagre information that we have on the subject, it is not easy now to decide exactly why this contention arose and continued so long. It is not improbable, however, that the opposing abbots were the nominees of rival kings, and that the contention was as much political as religious.

In the year 783 the rule of Armagh was extended over part of Connaught. Up to that time it would appear that Armagh stood alone—an important place, it is true, but without daughter establishments like those which belonged to Iona. In this year, however, Dubdaleithe went to Cruachain for 'the promulgation of Patrick's law,' in other words, to bring the establishment under the control of Armagh, and to impose on it the same rules. This Dubdaleithe was the first to raise a contest as to the abbacy. Faindealach was the rightful occupant, and the two were in contention, setting up rival claims, as long as they lived.

Connaught was again visited by the Abbot of Armagh in 810, and in 822 an emissary named Airtri, with the aid of the reigning kings, caused all Munster to be brought into subjection. After that, he completed the work begun in Connaught, 'promulgating the law of Patrick among its three divisions;' and finally he endeavoured to eject his superior, Eoghan, the Abbot of Armagh, and set himself in his place. In this last, however, he was unsuccessful. Eoghan was soul friend to Niall, one of the most powerful chieftains of Ulster, and utilizing the influence which he thus possessed, he sent to him this quatrain, threatening him with the ecclesiastical curse if he did not take up arms in his favour:

'Say to Niall that not lucky for him will be the curse of Eoghan, son of Anmchad.
He will not be in the kingdom in which he is, unless his soul friend be abbot.'

The result was that the chieftains made the cause of the contending abbots their own. A fiercely contested battle was fought, which lasted three days, with the result that Niall was victorious and Eoghan was retained in his abbacy. Some members of the community would have wished the dispute to have terminated otherwise. One of the seniors of Armagh has left the record of his dissatisfaction in these words:—

'Not well have we gained our goal,
Not well have we passed by Leire,
Not well have we taken Eoghan
In preference to any pilgrim in Ireland.'

Eoghan's rival died before him; but no sooner had he himself passed away than the dispute sprang up afresh. Dermot, one of the ambitious school, became abbot, and proceeded to Connaught with the law of Patrick, for the western province does not seem to have taken kindly to the rule of Armagh, and required several successive efforts to bring it into subjection. In 834, however, Forannan was put up in opposition to Dermot, and the two continued as rival abbots until the death of both in the same year, 851.

These episodes deserve particular attention, and throw a great deal of light on the subsequent history. We see that the position of Abbot of Armagh had become so important that for years members of the royal families contended for its possession. We see, too, its influence becoming more and more widely extended, until the ruler at Armagh becomes ruler throughout the whole of Munster and Connaught, as well as of course Ulster, the province in which it is itself situated. An extension of power like this would be sure to arouse still greater ambitions. The time when the Abbot of Armagh was to enjoy archiepiscopal rank was as yet far in the distance, but the seeds were already sown which were sure to spring up in due time. Meanwhile, we may see how its political influence had increased, from an event which happened in the year 889. Two chieftains had 'conflict and dissension' at Armagh, and were with difficulty separated by the abbot. One would think that there the matter would have ended. A good deed had been done, and virtue might well have been left to be its own reward. Not so, however. Each of the contending parties had to pay for the abbot's peaceful interference, and were mulcted in the sum of thirty times seven cumhals (a cumhal was the value of three cows); he was also required to give hostages for his future good behaviour, and to give up four of his followers to be hanged. Thus it will be seen that the Abbot of Armagh had become like one of the ordinary chiefs. Like them, he demanded his 'eric' or fine, for the offence committed, with the alternative of war.

There are few countries in which the Church has not, at some time or other, gained abnormal secular power. This has never worked for good. The weapons of the Church's warfare are not carnal, and when she lays aside the armour that belongs to her, and assumes that of the world, she ceases to be of any power in the pulling down of the strongholds of Satan.

It will not surprise us now to learn that not only at Armagh, but in most parts of the country, the Church became thoroughly secularized. Forced as it was to take up arms in its own defence against the Norse invaders, those arms soon came to be used in internecine strife. Abbots and bishops who ought to have been foremost in promoting peace, became foremost in stirring up causes of civil war, and joined in the battles themselves, forgetful of their sacred profession. In Munster the office of spiritual and civil ruler became united in one, and the succession of bishop-kings founded a kingdom so powerful that eventually it became the greatest in the whole country. The case of one of these bishop-kings will best illustrate the entire secularization of the Church, and the low ebb of spiritual life to which she was brought by the influences then at work.

A certain Felim united in himself the offices of King of Munster and Bishop of Cashel in the early parts of the ninth century. We first find him associated with Airtri, Bishop of Armagh, in bringing the churches of Munster under the 'law of Patrick.' From this we might conclude that he took a great interest in the spiritual welfare of his kingdom; but when we see his subsequent career, and find also that this Airtri was put up as bishop in opposition to the nominee of the northern kings, we cannot help suspecting that this religious zeal covered an ambitious design—possibly the hope that he would become Ardrigh, or chief king, by the help of the northern bishop—a dignity that was actually obtained by one of his successors, the famous Brian Boru. The next thing we read of Felim is his attacking the district near Clonmacnois. Shortly afterwards he burned the churches of the same place, and killed numbers of the 'family.' The same year he was at Durrow in the King's County, where a Columban monastery existed, and he was still at the same work of sacrilege and devastation. He made several plundering expeditions into Connaught. He took the oratory at Kildare in defiance of Forannan, Bishop of Armagh. Several times he made incursions into Meath, plundering and burning wherever he went. Then he led an army towards Wexford, but King Niall went against him, and defeated him. In the account of the battle we learn incidentally that this precious bishop—'the devout Felim,' a bard calls him—had actually taken his crozier with him into the battle. Finally, he went again to Clonmacnois, and plundered the sanctuary once more. This time he met a spiritual foe. An internal disease took him, and the aggrieved ecclesiastics at once asserted that Saint Keiran had appeared to him, and had given him a thrust of his crozier. He lingered in mortal sickness for nearly a year, and in the end died of the 'internal wound inflicted by the miracle of God and Keiran.' After all this terrible record, the Annalists do not hesitate to speak of him as 'anchorite and scribe, the best of the Irish in his time.' And one of the bards wrote concerning him:

'There never went on regal bier a corpse so noble;
A prince so generous under the King of Albain never shall be born.'

If in Felim we have the bishop-prince at his worst, in Cormac, one of his successors, we have the same character at its best. He was a warrior, but not a plunderer; he had all the ability of a statesman, and at the same time he was the liberal patron of art and literature. Though he never actually secured supremacy for himself, he made it an easy task for his successors to place Munster at the head of all the kingdoms of Ireland. Yet his greatness was altogether that of a soldier and king; and from the very excellence of his character we can see how incongruous was the combination of secular and spiritual rule in the one person. We may admire the brave king leading his followers to battle, and falling in the midst of the fighting men; but when we find him described as 'a bishop, an anchorite, a scribe, and profoundly learned in the Irish tongue,' we cannot help thinking that his place should have been in the quiet cloister, rather than in the noisy battle-field.

The monastic system of the Irish Church, modified as it was by the tribal organization, had proved itself excellent in many ways. It had provided peaceful retreats where pursuits of learning and industry might be followed, even in the midst of turmoil and strife. It had proved itself effectual as a missionary organization; but it failed to stand the test of time, and it utterly broke down under the strain of foreign invasion. A Church differently organized might not have produced so many 'saints' and men of learning, but it would not have suffered such complete demoralization merely because some of its sanctuaries had been destroyed.