The ancient Irish church/Chapter 19

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The decrees of the Synod of Kells were followed up by other measures which had the same end in view: the bringing of the Church of Ireland into conformity with the Church of England and of Rome. At a synod held at Clane, on the Liffey, it was enacted that the teachers in all the ecclesiastical schools should receive their education at Armagh. This, if it could have been carried out, would have been the most efficacious method of all. Then the Cistertians extended themselves, and soon six large establishments were in connection with the order in Ireland. But all this might have had but little effect were it not for an event—the most momentous in Irish history— which happened shortly after, and which completed the work of bringing Ireland under the power of the Pope. I mean the Anglo-Norman conquest.

Early in the reign of Henry II. of England, the king had turned his attention to the conquest of the neighbouring island. A plausible pretext for thus attacking a perfectly independent state presented itself in the slave trade which the Irish had long carried on, buying the children of needy Englishmen, and disposing of them in different parts of Ireland. As further justification there was the religious one, that Ireland alone of Western nations was not subject to the see of Rome, and that, according to the current ideas of that time, the position of her Church was schismatical and heretical.

Henry, though not overburdened with religion, was fully alive to the advantage of the Church's sanction. It was by the interposition of the Church that he had been raised to the throne; for it was the Archbishop of Canterbury who arranged the terms of the Treaty of Wallingford, whereby it was agreed that Stephen was to hold the throne for his life, but the succession was to be secured to Henry. A trusty messenger, therefore, laid his designs concerning Ireland before the Pope, who, by a strange coincidence, happened to be the first and last Englishman that ever occupied the papal chair. The result was that a Bull was issued authorizing the conquest, recognizing that to subjugate Ireland would be to 'widen the boundaries of the Church,' claiming that Ireland belongs of right to the Holy See, simply because it is an island, and reserving an annual tribute of one penny for every house in the country.

No sooner had this Bull been received than Henry brought the subject forward at the Council of Winchester, proposing that an expedition should set out, and that the kingdom should be conquered and handed over to his brother, William of Anjou. The opposition which the king received caused him to relinquish the project for a time; and soon other concerns so fully occupied his attention that it seemed as if the authorization he had obtained would never be utilized.

At length an opportunity presented itself, arising from the disputes among the Irish leaders themselves. Dermot, King of Leinster, had drawn upon himself the enmity of Tiernan, Prince of Breffni. The chief King of Ireland took up the prince's quarrel, and in the battle that ensued Dermot was defeated and had to fly for his life. He made his way to England, and thence to France, presented himself before the King of England, and obtained his sanction to raise what forces he could among the king's subjects.

The story of the conquest of Ireland is one that belongs to the secular history, and need not here be repeated. We have only to consider its influence on the religious condition of the country. On the English side the conquest was regarded as a holy war. The Irish were enemies to the Church, and were to be subdued in order to bring them to obedience. The papal blessing was bestowed on the project from the first. Not only did Pope Adrian issue the Bull to which reference has been already made, but his successor, Alexander III., followed it up with a confirmatory Bull, and wrote letters on the subject to nearly all the parties concerned. In a letter of this latter prelate, he accuses the Irish of the crimes of incest and concubinage; but he somewhat weakens the force of his rebuke by coupling with them, as crimes of equal enormity, that they eat meat in Lent, and pay no tithes. In another letter he says, that 'our dearly beloved son in Christ, the illustrious Henry King of England,' undertook the subjugation of Ireland, because 'he was pressed in his conscience by the voice of a Divine inspiration.' The whole expedition, therefore, was undertaken under cover of religion, and had for one of its professed objects the subjugation of the Irish Church.

One of the first acts of Henry in Ireland was to assemble those of the ecclesiastics who were willing to answer his summons. The bishops answered with alacrity. We have already seen that the dominant party amongst them consisted of men who were either foreigners or Irishmen brought up under foreign influence, and who, like Malachy, 'drew no more from the country of their birth than the fishes of the sea draw from their native element.' Their sympathies were with Henry more than with any Irish ruler. Answering to the king's summons, they assembled in synod at Cashel in 1172, and passed enactments decreeing uniformity between the Irish and the English Churches.

Only one thing remained to be done. It was to destroy those establishments where the old Irish monastic system remained still in force. According to the Romish view, these places were well described by Pope Adrian as 'nurseries of vice.' They kept alive a spirit of opposition to the innovations of the new-comers; and they had with them the hearts of the people—a thing in which the new-comers had to a great extent failed. As long as they remained, the decrees of synods were made only to be broken.

If Henry had been able to establish a vigorous control over the whole of the island, this work could have been easily and promptly accomplished. But the English over-lordship was for a long time only a moderate extension of the old Danish settlements. The allegiance rendered by the native kings who swore fealty to the English sovereign, was very like the allegiance which in former times they gave to their own ardrigh or chief king; that is to say, it was a variable, and often a negative quantity. Within certain circumscribed limits English law reigned supreme, and in these districts the native establishments were ruthlessly destroyed. New monasteries were founded on the ancient sites, and in some places it was made a rule that no Irishman should for the future be admitted as an inmate. These proceedings caused bitter hatred on the part of the natives, but the new rulers utterly disregarded them.

A tragic story is told of Hugh de Lacy, to whom was given the lordship of Meath. He was the founder of many monasteries, which he richly endowed with wealth that was not his own. In founding these he destroyed many of the old Irish establishments. Amongst other places, he built an abbey at Durrow, in the King's County, and before doing so dispersed one of the oldest and most important of the Columban communities. He also erected a castle at the same place. One day while he was superintending the erection of the new buildings, a young man suddenly rushed upon him, severed his head from his body with one blow of his axe, and before the bystanders had recovered from their surprise he had made his escape to the friendly Irish, by whom he was sheltered and regarded as a hero. 'This was in revenge of Columkill,' is the remark made by the Annalists. They tell us, too, that De Lacy was 'the profaner and destroyer of many churches.' The foreign monasteries thought differently. The monks of St. Thomas, Dublin, contended with the Cistertians of Bective for the honour of obtaining De Lacy's body, just as if his relics were the relics of a saint. The authority of the Pope had to be invoked for the settlement of the dispute.

In the more remote parts of the country, where English authority did not extend, the case was different. There the old Irish customs still prevailed, and the people clung to the traditions of their fathers. But the cause was a failing one. The new régime had everything in its favour. The old system had lost its vitality, and only showed the last gasps of a life the vigour of which belonged to another age.

For the most part the English Church party treated the Irish with the bitterest hostility. But its friendship was still more to be dreaded. An Irish abbot or bishop who accepted any rank from the new-comers gave up at once his independence, and by the very act made himself subject to the Pope. And when it suited their purpose they could change their hostility to friendliness.

We have an example in the case of Flaherty O'Brolcan, a contemporary of Gelasius of Armagh. He was Abbot of Derry, and became the leader of the Columban party in Ireland. Under his vigorous rule there was a partial resuscitation of the old life of the order. But it held quite aloof from the innovating movements, and was therefore for the most part ignored by the Danish and English party. An effort was, however, made to identify Flaherty with the Romanizers. A synod was held near Trim in 1158. The papal legate was present, with bishops and clergy, but the laity were excluded. This was in itself characteristic of the new methods, for the Irish synods always admitted the laity. Here Flaherty was given rank, like the other bishops, and the special dignity of Arch-abbot of Ireland was invented for him. But they were only partially successful in securing his adhesion, and so we hear no more mention of the arch-abbacy.