The ancient Irish church/Chapter 18

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When Malachy had secured the election of Gelasius to Armagh, the way seemed clear for the carrying out his scheme for Romanizing the Church of Ireland. With this end in view, one of his first acts was to repair to Rome, and seek a personal audience with the Pope. On his way he visited the monastery at Clairvaux and made the acquaintance of Bernard, who afterwards became his biographer. When he arrived at Rome, he was graciously received by Pope Innocent II., who inquired of him particularly concerning Ireland, and who, before his departure, gave him special tokens of his favour, and appointed him legate in the place of Gilbert of Limerick, who now through old age and infirmity was no longer equal to the duties of the office.

Malachy placed his views before the Pope, and presented his schemes of reformation—chief amongst which was the establishment of a regular hierarchy under the control of the papal see: the Pope to send palls to the archbishops, thus at the same time asserting his authority and procuring from them an acknowledgment of the same. The Pope at once entered into his ideas, and agreed to raise the sees of Armagh and Cashel to metropolitan rank. 'With regard to the palls,' said the sovereign pontiff, 'it is well to act in a more solemn way. Having called together bishops, clergy and nobles of the land, you must hold a general council; and thus by the consent and common vote of all, send some honourable persons over to ask for the pall, and it shall be given you.'

On his way back from Rome, Malachy again visited Bernard, and arranged that some young men from Ireland should be received at Clairvaux, and after having spent some time there, should return to their own country with others from the same convent, and establish a branch of the Cistertian order. The result of this was that in 1142, the abbey of Mellifont, near Drogheda, was founded. Shortly afterwards several other branches of the same order were planted in different places. The influence of these Cistertian monks did more than anything else to hasten the Romanizing of the Church of Ireland.

We have so often spoken of the monastic institutions of the Irish Church, that one might readily fall into the mistake of supposing that we have here nothing more than the mere bringing in of a new order of monks, who were to take their place side by side with those already in the country. But we must remember that the same name is often given to things that differ most materially. We speak of the constitution of the ancient Irish Church as 'monastic,' and we speak of the establishment at Mellifont as 'monastic'; we use the same name, but the two systems had scarcely any resemblance. The Irish Christian 'families,' busied with the cultivation of the ground, with the work of education and the arts of civilization, had nothing in common with the cloisters where men were bound with the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. Malachy and Bernard knew well that the two things were quite different, for the one says of his countrymen that they might have heard of the name, but had never actually seen a monk; and the other asserts that Ireland never had any experience in monastic religion.

The Cistertians thus imported into the country were zealous propagandists. Like all enthusiasts, they were narrow-minded, and could see no merit in anything beyond their own system. They therefore toiled incessantly, and laboured in season and out of season for what they deemed to be the reformation of the Church.

Agreeably to the Pope's instructions, Malachy assembled a synod for the purpose of sending a formal request to Rome that the pall should be bestowed on the Irish archbishops. But for some unexplained reason several years were allowed to elapse before this was done. In the meantime, besides establishing branches of the Cistertian order, he endeavoured to obtain the election of his own supporters whenever a see became vacant. In this way he secured that the bishops of Clogher and Cork, as well as the three Danish bishops and the Archbishop of Armagh, should be supporters of his policy and ready to second him in anything that he would propose. The synod was at length held at Holmpatrick in the year 1148. It is worthy of note that this place, which has now reverted to its old Irish name of Skerries, was within the Danish kingdom of Dublin. This fact, together with the long delay and the fact that the synod was a small one, would lead us to suppose that the project which he had in mind was one that did not commend itself to the majority of the people. There are few things, however, that cannot be carried in a popular assembly when a small band know exactly what they want, and work together in order to obtain it. The synod accordingly agreed to ask for the palls, and Malachy himself undertook to go to France, where the Pope was at the time, and present the petition in person. Death came to him before he could accomplish his mission. He had gone as far as the monastery at Clairvaux, but found that the Pope had returned to Italy. While waiting there, intending shortly to pursue his journey, he was taken with fever, and after a few days breathed his last in the place where above all others he would have wished to die.

The petition which he had intended to present to the Pope was taken in hand by the Cistertians, who forwarded it in due course to Rome—the result being that after a time Paparo, a cardinal, was deputed to visit Ireland, and bestow the palls that had been desired. He arrived towards the end of the year 1151, and spent some time in the country. He remained a week at Armagh, and probably visited some other of the bishops. Early in the following year arrangements were made for the holding of a synod, which actually met at Kells on the 9th of March. The place was well chosen, as Kells was the site of an important Columban monastery, and it might disarm opposition to have the meeting held at a centre where all the associations were purely Irish. But the whole business of the assembly was managed by the foreign monks of Mellifont, and the synod was regarded with suspicion by many of the native Irish. The Columban party stayed away. Even the Bishop of Kells kept aloof, and several others were conspicuous by their absence.

As soon as the proceedings opened, it was made manifest that this synod was to be different from any ever held before in Ireland. Formerly, when laity and clergy met, it was to take counsel, and decide by a majority of votes what was for the good of the Church. Now it appeared that they were merely assembled to receive the commands of their ruler. At Holmpatrick they had asked for two palls—one for Armagh and the other for Cashel. The Pope, however, was swayed by other influences, and had already decided that four were to be bestowed. Dublin and Tuam were also to have archiepiscopal rank, and thus the Danish see, which had been only a few years in existence, and had never been in communion with the Church of Ireland, was put on a level with places which had historic associations and had grown with the Church's growth. Some of the clergy were indignant, specially those of Armagh and Down. An old Irish account tells us that 'it was in violation of the rights of the clergy of Patrick and Columkill that the pall was given to the church of Dublin, or even to that of Tuam.'[1] But it was too late now for such protests. When the Coarb of Patrick was only third—an Italian priest (Cardinal Paparo) and a Danish bishop (Christian, of Waterford, papal legate) taking precedence before him—when no place at all was found for the Coarb of Columkill—when French Cistertians were masters of the ceremonies, and Irish abbots were barely tolerated: there was no place left for the assertion of Irish independence. As a free and national institution, the Irish Church ceased to exist at the Synod of Kells.