The ancient Irish church/Chapter 4

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We have now to ask, What were the distinguishing characteristics of the Church thus founded by Saint Patrick and his companions? Concerning the doctrinal teaching nothing need be added to what has been already said. We have seen that the great central truths of Christianity were clearly taught, and that as far as we can now judge, they were not obscured by those additions and corruptions which in after ages caused them to be almost forgotten. In some matters of organization and of rites and ceremonies the Church of Ireland stands by itself and is unique in the history of Christendom. Let us dwell for a short time on these peculiarities.

The first thing that strikes us in the state of the ancient Irish Church is its intensely monastic character. In other countries monasticism has formed one of the institutions of the Church. In Ireland the whole Church was monastic. Some writers have urged, as an explanation of this phenomenon, that there must have been an early connection between Ireland and the East—in fact, that Ireland owed its first knowledge of Christianity to an Eastern source.

Monasticism is undoubtedly of Eastern origin. It arose in times of persecution, when Christians, sooner than give up their faith, or even take outward part in the rites of heathenism, left the cities and took refuge in the deserts, sheltering themselves until the time of danger was over. All were not so enthusiastic. Many conformed outwardly to the pagan worship, and were allowed to remain in their homes unmolested. In this way the Christians were divided into two classes—those who preferred the desert to a denial of their faith, and those who, less inflexible in their principles, were ready to make concessions for the sake of peace. After the persecutions had ceased the two classes continued to be distinct. Men still retired to the desert, not now to escape from prison and torture and death, but from the worldly pleasures and pursuits that were absorbing the thoughts of men and hindering them from paying due attention to their eternal interests. Naturally, the hermit was still regarded as the better Christian, when compared with him who continued in the world, and took part daily in the business and pleasures of life.

Amid all its extravagance, we can discern in this development of monasticism a germ of sound principle. Multitudes of those who professed Christianity when the profession began to be a mark of honour rather than disgrace knew little and cared less for the faith which they embraced. The name of Christ was on their lips, but the spirit of paganism was in their hearts. There were, no doubt, other and better ways in which earnest men could have protested against the formality of the age than that of separating themselves from their fellows, but still, it was a protest, and we know that in some ways it had its influence in directing men's minds to the paramount claims of our holy religion.

The institution soon grew in popularity and spread rapidly, not only in the East, where it took its rise, but also in the West, where the more practical and less emotional disposition of the people would have led us to suppose it would never have found favour. Amongst its advocates were some of the greatest men of the age. Basil and Athanasius, Augustine and Jerome, Ambrose and Martin, and many besides, vied with one another in extolling the virtues of what was called the 'religious' life, and in inducing men and women to follow its rule.

The movement was at its height when Christianity was first preached in Ireland. Saint Martin had already founded his famous establishments at Tours and Poictiers. Tradition says that Saint Patrick was for a time an inmate of one of these monasteries. He certainly was very much influenced by the example that they presented. Full of enthusiasm for the system, he went forth, and wherever he obtained a footing his first care was to found a religious community.

The appearance presented by these establishments was as different as can well be conceived from anything that we have at the present day. A wall built of earth or of loose stones formed an enclosure, and served as a means of defence against enemies, as well as of separation from the rest of the tribe. Within this cashel or wall were the churches—exceedingly small of size, and quite unsuitable for anything approaching what might be called 'stately' worship. Any one who has ever seen the ruin of an Irish church belonging to the period before the twelfth century will not need to be told that the ritual of that age must have been of the simplest character possible. In some places there would be only one such church within the enclosure. In other places there might be as many as seven. Seven was indeed a favourite number, and the remains of these groups of seven churches are still to be found in several places, while the memory of seven churches formerly existing is continued by tradition in many others. They were all simple rectangular buildings, without chancels. All around the churches were grouped the cells of the members of the community—small bee-hive shaped huts, each inhabited by one or two or three of the inmates. Beside these there was sometimes a general refectory, where the meals were partaken in common, also a hall for penitential exercises, and possibly some other buildings. There would also be a cemetery—occasionally two, one for the women and another for the men. The churches were in like manner sometimes restricted to one sex. The buildings were mostly of wood, or of wattles daubed with clay; only rarely were they made of stone.

The remains of monasteries similar in many respects to the description just given have been found in the East. Like the Irish, they have the encircling wall, and the dwellings also are separate huts, instead of being one large building, as in the more modern establishments. The explanation of this resemblance is simple, and does not imply such immediate intercourse between Ireland and the East as has been supposed. All monastic establishments were originally much on the same model, but in the beginning of the sixth century a reformation of the system was brought about by Benedict, whose rule entirely superseded the older system in every country of Europe, Ireland excepted. In Ireland and the East alike his reforms were never received, and therefore the resemblances which we find arise from the survival in both places of the older form, when everywhere else it had become a thing of the past.

Another point must be kept in mind: that although there are remarkable resemblances between Eastern and Irish monasteries—resemblances sufficient to make it probable that they were both derived from the one original—yet the differences between them are still more remarkable. Let us briefly trace some of these differences.

Before the introduction of Christianity, the Druids formed communities similar in many respects to the early monasteries. They were not only priests, but lawgivers, philosophers, historians, teachers and bards. To all these offices the Christian ecclesiastics succeeded. Their establishments were not only centres of religious worship, but schools where whatever learning the land possessed could alone be found. In them, too, the laws of the land were made, for neither in pagan nor Christian times were the kings lawgivers merely by virtue of their office. In some cases a monarch of exceptional wisdom was also an ollav, but as a general rule the duty devolved on the wise men who by natural ability and a long course of mental training had been prepared for the office.

It is needless to say that such 'wise men' were found not among the warriors, but among the religious communities. This will perhaps explain the curious phenomenon that the ancient laws of Ireland had no 'sanction' beyond the force of public opinion. The brehon or judge was in reality a mere arbitrator, and had no way of enforcing his decisions. It is also a remarkable instance of the survival of old customs that we find at the present day the unwritten law of public opinion to be regarded by the native Irish as infinitely more sacred than the law of the land. Englishmen cannot understand this, and it forms one of the great difficulties in the government of the country.

The bards were also for the most part taken from among the monks. The great Columba was himself a bard. These kept alive by their songs the memory of the heroes, and were in fact the historians of the land. All this so revolutionized monasticism that it became in Ireland an entirely different thing from what it had ever been in the Thebaid of Egypt. In every important feature it is easier to find contrasts than resemblances. The Irish monks, if monks they can be called, were not of a kind who separated themselves from the world and the interests of men. On the contrary, they became at once an important factor in society. They instructed the youths and legislated for the people in time of peace, and they advised and encouraged the heroes in time of war.

How far celibacy was practised or encouraged in these communities it is difficult for us now to say. Most of the information we possess comes from men who found it impossible to conceive the idea of a monastic life without the vow of celibacy. Yet even they have preserved enough to show that such a vow was far from being of universal acceptance. All authorities agree in telling us that Saint Patrick's father was a deacon, and his grandfather a priest, and he himself states the fact as if there was nothing in it unusual or that required explanation. Very many monasteries were open to both sexes—a state of things to which we shall again refer when we come to speak of the position of women in the ancient Irish Church.

A curious document exists which is supposed to have been composed in the middle of the eighth century.[1] In this we are told that there were three classes of Irish saints, the first of which was most holy, the second very holy, and the third holy. The first class was like the sun, the second like the moon, the third like the stars. The first order, the most holy, were led by Patrick, and had one Head, Christ. Of these, it is said that 'they rejected not the services and society of women, because, founded on the rock Christ, they feared not the blast of temptation.' The second order, however—very holy, although not as holy as the first, and later in date—'refused the services of women, separating them from the monasteries.' The kind of monastic life revealed in this description of the first order, and which is said to have existed for a considerable time, shows how much the ideal of the East had been modified before it found favour in the eyes of the western islanders.

When we come to the legends of the saints we meet with evidence at every step that both sexes were to be found together in the monasteries. Not that these legends are at all to be taken as serious history. It would require a very large share indeed of faith to receive the half of what they tell us. But we may be certain that they never contain anything that would be considered improper or unworthy of a saint, according to the ideas of the age in which they were composed; and if they record that women were commonly found in the monasteries, it may be taken as a plain proof that it was then neither an unusual nor unheard-of occurrence. To this may be added the fact that until a very late period there is abundant evidence that in some cases at least the highest ecclesiastics were married men.

The monastic system was still further modified by the spirit of clanship which pervaded all Irish institutions of that age. The Irish chiefs were nominally subject to the kings, but within their own territory they were absolute masters, and wielded a power of life and death over their subjects. It is said that these powers were sometimes shamefully abused, but if so, the abuse did not prevent the members of the tribe from rendering the most faithful adherence and obedience to the hereditary chief. The same spirit was imported into the religious communities. As Montalembert well says, 'The great monasteries of Ireland were nothing else, to speak simply, than clans reorganized under a religious form. From this cause resulted the extraordinary number of their inhabitants, which were counted by hundreds and thousands, and from this also came their influence and productiveness, which were still more wonderful.' In some cases, the original grant of a site carried with it the right of chieftainship, and the ecclesiastical superior thus became the head of the tribe. In others the lay element prevailed, and the chief who led the warriors to battle presided also over the aftairs of the monastery. Generally, however, the rule was that the monastic superior should be chosen from the ruling family and in all cases the monastery and the clan were so closely connected that the interest of the one was identical with the interest of the other.

The clanship of the Irish had its influence on the Church another way. As each tribe was practically independent of all others, and settled its own alfairs in its own way, it was natural that each tribe would desire to have its own bishop. It would never have been tolerated by the chiefs nor desired by the subjects that one belonging to another clan should in any way have authority beyond the circle of his own people. Accordingly we find at a very early age the number of bishops was increased abnormally. Every tribe—in some cases every family—had its own bishop. The present 'rural deaneries' were nearly all ancient bishoprics, and they correspond almost invariably with the territories of the old Irish tribes.

Moreover, as the abbot was a kind of chieftain, and generally near of kin to the ruling house, it is plain that the principle of selection in his case was different from that which would regulate the choice of bishops, and that it would often happen that the abbot would be both unsuitable and unwilling to hold the episcopal office. Under such circumstances, the spirit of clanship led the people to cling to their leader, that is, the abbot, and put the bishop in the second place. The result was that the office of bishop was entirely dissociated from territorial authority—he had no diocese—and the cases were numerous where he was under the control of the abbot, exercising episcopal functions only under his direction. This, in its turn, led to a further increase in the number of bishops. As none of them had a see in the modern sense of the word, and therefore there was no possibility of one prelate interfering with the jurisdiction of another, it began to be a matter of pride in some monasteries to have a number of bishops amongst their inmates. In some cases it seems to have been the usage to have seven belonging to the same establishment. In the Litany of Ængus the Culdee, said to have been composed in the ninth century, there is a list of one hundred and forty-one places in Ireland where this institution of seven bishops existed. Saint Bernard informs us that up to the eleventh century there were no dioceses, bishops were multiplied and changed without order and regularity, so that almost every church had a bishop of its own.

A curious relic of the ancient system of clanship survives in the Irish Church to the present day. In most countries the churches and parishes are dedicated to a 'patron saint.' In Ireland the church was always called after the founder. It is at present easy to tell by the name whether a church has been founded before or after the Anglo-Norman invasion. If it be a church of Patrick, Columba, Kevin, or any Irish saint, it is almost certainly pre-Norman, and it is so called because the saint named founded, or is supposed to have founded, a church on the spot. But if it bear the name of St. Mary or St. Peter, or any saint not associated with Ireland itself, there need be no hesitation in deciding that its origin is to be looked for in that period when the combined influence of Rome and England was changing the old institutions. The reason is that in the ancient Irish Church every community was called the 'family' of the saint by whom it was first established, and each succeeding abbot was regarded as the successor of the founder, inheriting in the church a chieftainship which was similar in many ways to the chieftainship which the leader of the tribe inherited.

There is an old poem extant which purports to give a list of those who composed the 'family' of Saint Patrick. It is found in one of the ancient biographies of Patrick, and has also been copied into the Annals of the Four Masters. If it is in any way a fair description of what an ecclesiastical family was in the early ages, it presents us with a picture very different from anything that we have been accustomed to associate with the monastic life. Instead of speaking of a monasteiy, we would be more inclined to call it an industrial colony—a tribe of men and women who in the midst of a warlike nation devoted themselves entirely to the arts of peace.

Several bishops and priests are mentioned as members of this family; but from amongst them, one bishop, named Sechnall, and one priest, named Moehta, are singled out as those who use their office for the special benefit of the community. The others, although ecclesiastics in rank, occupy themselves in secular duties. Bishop Erc, for example, acts as judge, and Bishop Maccaeirthinn has the still more secular office of champion, or mighty man. From this we may conclude that the community was free from outside control, that it made its own laws, and carried on its own wars. The presence of a champion and a body of armed retainers was most necessary, for the rival kings and chiefs often attacked the monasteries. We have also reason to believe that in some (let us hope exceptional) cases the religious communities themselves carried on aggressive warfare, and attacked one another with a vigour which their secular neighbours could not surpass.

Of those who are mentioned as priests we have Mescan the brewer, Bescna the poet, Manach the woodman, and Logha the helmsman. Other officers were the singer, the chamberlain, the bell-ringer, the true cook (the expressive adjective shows how his services were appreciated), three smiths, three artificers, a charioteer, a shepherd, and a scribe. Nor were the women forgotten. The two daughters of Gleaghrann, famous for their beauty, were members of the family, and three other ladies are named, including Lupait, Patrick's own sister, who exercised daily their skill in embroidery. That men and women enjoyed unrestricted social intercourse is shown by the fact that scandals sometimes arose. Of the three embroideresses, two were at one time more or less under a cloud. It was deemed advisable that Lupait should not continue any longer under the same roof as her nephew Mel, although he was a 'saint' and a bishop; and another lady, Erc, was only cured of her passion for Benin the singer by an illness which brought her to death's door.

Once more, it is well to remark that these accounts are not to be taken as history. It never happened that all those mentioned as belonging to the family of Saint Patrick formed members of the same establishment. What we do learn is, that at a much later period than the time of Patrick the ideal of an ecclesiastical community was an association where both sexes met on equal terms; where the services of the Church were duly celebrated; where copies of the Scriptures and of other books were made; where workers in metal and wood and stone pursued their avocations; where the different operations of husbandry were carried on; where the brethren were averse to war, yet able and ready to defend themselves when called on; where excursions by land and water, in the chariot and in the boat, were not infrequent. All this must be borne in mind when we speak of the monastic character of the Irish Church. It bears out fully the view expressed above, that these families would be better described as industrial colonies or Christian communes than by the more usual but misleading name of monasteries.

It will be seen that the constitution of the Irish Church was one that suited itself to the character of the people. This conformity to their national institutions must have aided considerably in the rapid spread of the Gospel amongst them. Nevertheless, it was not altogether an advantage. Under the Druidical system the duties of religion were for the most part vicariously performed. The priests offered the sacrifices, pronounced the incantations, and performed the rites that were necessary, and the fighting men rested content that the favour of heaven had been secured, although they themselves took no part in the religious exercises, and never dreamt of their religion having any effect on their lives. It is to be feared that a state of things almost similar existed when the tribe nominally had become Christian. The warriors were bloodthirsty and cruel as of old, and left the duties of religion to be performed by those who had given themselves up to that particular work. At one time, Ireland was known as the Island of Saints. The history of the country in that age is somewhat disappointing, and would lead us to doubt whether the flattering title was deserved. It differs but little from the history of other periods. We have the same war and bloodshed, the same turbulence and disunion. The explanation is simply this: that two nations, as it were, existed—the one given up to the offices of religion, to the production of books and the pursuit of learning—the other retaining all the lawless and turbulent spirit which had characterized the land from of old. There are few countries in the world where such incongruous elements can exist side by side. But even at the present day it is to some extent the same. Men have been known to pause in the excitement and frenzy of a faction fight and respectfully wait while a funeral passes by, only to break out the moment after in the same untamed and untameable fury.

The other distinguishing characteristics of the Irish Church are its missions and its independence of the see of Rome. The former will occupy our attention when we come to consider the work of Saint Columba and his companions, and of others who left Irish shores to found communities in different countries. The latter will be dealt with in connection with the controversies to which it gave rise.

  1. See this document given in full in Haddan and Stubbs' Councils and Ecclesiastical Documents relating to Great Britain and Ireland, vol. ii., p. 292. Dr. Todd gives a translation in his Life of St. Patrick, p. 88, note.