The ancient Irish church/Chapter 5

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CHAPTER V.


SAINT COLUMBA.


In the last chapter we have been considering institutions rather than events. But in truth the events of the period can for the most part be only vaguely guessed. We know more of the results than of the processes by which they were brought about. We can plainly see that a great transformation was effected in Ireland—that whereas the first years of the fifth century saw her entirely pagan, the early years of the sixth century saw her entirely Christian.

In the meantime, events of the highest importance were happening both in Britain and on the continent of Europe. It was in this century that the great empire of Rome came finally to an end. The last of the Caesars was dethroned, and a barbarian usurper ruled over the mistress of the world. It was in this century too that Gaul became France, and Britain became England. The only influence that these revolutions had upon Ireland was of a negative character, although it was none the less important on that account. They cut off Ireland, to a great extent, from European influences. The wars in France and Italy—the overthrow of kingdoms and setting up of new dynasties—finally, the conversion to Christianity of the barbarian conquerors: these were events that so occupied the minds of men that there was no time to think of the lone island in the Western Sea, which all the time was undergoing a revolution, more peaceful, but none the less important, and was founding and developing its Christian institutions in its own way—modifying them and adapting them, as we have seen, by its own native genius.

The invasion and subjugation of England made this isolation more complete. The Angles and other German tribes who landed in England, unlike their brethren on the Continent, were bitterly hostile to the faith of the people whose lands they seized. The Gauls submitted to and made friends with their conquerors, and the result was that they soon brought them under the power of their religion and civilization. The Britons, on the contrary, contested every inch of their territory, and provoked a war of extermination, in which their nation and religion were alike obliterated. The testimony of language witnesses to us what a radical difference there was in the two cases. When the Franks conquered Gaul, its language was Latin; but that language of the vanquished held its ground, and quite overcame the tongue of the victors, so that modern French may be said to be the direct lineal descendant of the language spoken before the conquest. The English tongue, on the other hand, has not been appreciably influenced by the ancient British. The Celtic element is insignificant at the best, and has been in great part derived from other sources. Thus it happened that while Ireland was being converted to Christianity, a reverse process was taking place in England. There the old British Church was being destroyed, and heathenism was being set up in its place. The effect of this was to introduce a bitterly hostile and unbelieving nation which, like a wedge, separated the Christian Church of Ireland from the Christian countries of Europe.

In the north of Britain the Picts continued still practising the rites of Druidism. They were the only tribe of Celts which had remained unevangelized. They were on more or less friendly terms with the Scots or Irish—making common cause with them occasionally against the British. It seemed natural therefore that the establishment of Christianity, which had begun so auspiciously and progressed so favourably in Ireland, should also be accomplished among those tribes who were of the same race, followed the same manner of life, and had the same tribal organization. The story of how the Irish Church undertook this work and carried it to a successful issue is one of the most interesting, as it is one of the best authenticated in her whole history, and deserves to be told at some length.

In the year 521, that is, about ninety years after the coming of Saint Patrick, Columba was born. He was of the family of the O'Donnells, and was nearly related to the royal house which held sway in the north of Ireland and south-west of Scotland. The story of his early life was written after his later years had shed much lustre on his name, and we are not therefore astonished to find that it is filled with many presages of his future greatness. When quite a youth he became a disciple at one of the large monastic schools for which Ireland was soon to become famous, and at the early age of twenty-five he is said to have himself founded a school and religious establishment at the Oak Grove of Calcaigh, which was the ancient name of Londonderry. Similar establishments were founded at Durrow in the King's County, Kells in Meath, Moone in Kildare, Swords near Dublin, and other places. His after life shows him to have been a man of great determination, strong will and considerable ability. It is therefore not at all improbable that the legend here preserves the truth, and that these and possibly many other foundations owe their origin to his early zeal. We should have heard little about him, however, if it were not for what many would call a strange chance, but which was in reality a remarkable dispensation of Providence, which changed the whole course of his life.

Columba was visiting at the monastery of Saint Finnen of Moville, and while there obtained the loan of a copy of the Psalter. The translation must have been different from that to which he had been accustomed, for he desired at once to obtain one like it for himself. Finnen, however, seemed to think that the value of his book would be diminished if it were not unique of its kind, and Columba knew that it would be useless to ask him to allow a copy to be made. So he secretly worked by night, when he thought that he was unobserved, and in a short time had made for himself the copy that he desired. Unfortunately, the secret was not as well kept as he had imagined. Finnen was made aware of what was being done, and in the end made a claim, that as the original was his, the copy belonged to him also. Columba very naturally failed to see the matter in that light. He had with his own hand made the copy, and he point blank refused to part with it. Ultimately the matter was brought before King Dermaid, who gave the remarkable judgment, 'To every cow belongs its calf, therefore to every book belongs its copy.' This only roused the temper of Columba, who, still holding to his precious possession, replied, 'This in an unjust decision, Dermaid, and I will avenge it on you.' Other causes of irritation followed. An open rupture ensued, and Columba escaped from Tara, fled to the north of Ireland, roused the clans of the O'Donnells, and challenged the king to battle.

In all this, it is well to remark, we have a good example of the system of clanship already described, which pervaded the Church. Columba here acted in exactly the same way as one of the chieftains would have acted if he imagined himself to have been insulted. The result in this case was a battle fought at Cooldreeny, near Sligo, in which Columba and the O'Donnells were victorious, and the King of Ireland was forced to retreat, after three thousand Meath warriors had been laid dead on the held.

The king, worsted in battle, had recourse to other methods. The great fair of Teltown was one of the old institutions of the country. People flocked to it from all parts for the transaction of business, the celebration of games, and the holding of national assemblies. There the king called together a synod to consider the case. Teltown was in the heart of Meath, and we can therefore well understand that although men came from all quarters, the Meath men would be in an overwhelming majority. Accordingly, when Columba appeared before them he found himself in presence of a hostile assembly. In spite of the spirited support which he received from some—notably from Brendan, the Abbot of Birr—a sentence of excommunication was pronounced against him for having been the cause of so much bloodshed.

Columba himself, like many another man of hot temper, was soon sorry for what he had done. In the moment of irritation he had not thought that such terrible loss of life would result from his impetuosity. Nothing shows more clearly the depth and reality of his religious life than the way in which he acknowledged and openly confessed his fault. Nor was his repentance merely in word. He was resolved to exhibit in his life the penitence which he expressed with his lips, and with this end in view he repaired to his 'soul friend,' Molaise of Devenish, and consulted with him how he could make atonement for the evils which he had caused. The advice given was that he should leave Ireland, devote himself to missionary work amongst the heathen Picts, and labour until as many had been won for Christ as had been lost in the battle of Cooldreeny. With a heavy heart, but with firm determination, Columba at once accepted the task thus proposed to him, took with him twelve companions, as well as a retinue of followers, and sailed from the shores of his native country. They first landed on the Island of Oronsay, but as the hills of Ireland were still in view they took again to their boats, pursued their way farther to the north, and eventually settled on the Island of Iona.

In crossing the sea they were not parting from their own countrymen. The south-western portion of Scotland formed the territory of what was practically one of the tribes of Ireland. It was the only part of North Britain that bore the name Scotland; that is, the country of the Scots or Irish. Among the many changes that time has effected in the names of places, none is more remarkable than that the mother country Ireland, whence all the Scots came, should no longer be called Scotland, and that Alba, as North Britain was then called, should appropriate to itself the name of what was at first one of the smallest provinces. The ruler of this Irish kingdom in Scotland, or, as it would be more correctly expressed, Scotic kingdom in Alba, was a near kinsman to Columba, and therefore the right to settle in the island was secured without any difficulty; the favour and protection of the prince were given as a matter of course, and the members of the community set about building a monastic village, formed exactly after the pattern of those to which they had been accustomed in Ireland.

The story of Patrick's preaching was now, as it were, repeated. Pursuing the same tactics, Columba presented himself first of all before Brude, King of the Picts. His success was great from the very beginning. Notwithstanding some opposition, he obtained the protection of the prince, and had permission to go through the land for the purpose of preaching. His biographers tell us of his many miracles, by which he silenced the adversaries and won the respect of the people; Bede, with more truth, tells us that 'he converted the nation to the faith of Christ by his preaching and example.' From that time, and for some centuries following, the little island of Iona became a centre of religious life. Isolated from the rest of the world, it was uninfluenced by the great movements which were causing changes in other countries. Even such matters as the reform of the calendar were unknown in the little northern island, where the community continued their round of fast and festival, unconscious of the fact that their times differed from all the rest of Christendom.

In other and more important things the difference was still more clearly marked. The monastic reforms of Benedict were working great changes among the religious communities of the West; but their influence was bounded by the sea. Even in South Britain they were long unknown—while in Ireland and Iona centuries elapsed before they were introduced. The general tendency of the Church in that age was towards increased splendour of ceremonial, but in Iona the same simple unpretending worship continued as heretofore. Their sanctuary was still only a lowly thatched building made of clay, and much of their worship must have been conducted in the open air. The cultus of the Virgin Mary and the practice of the Invocation of Saints were spreading rapidly throughout Christendom; but Iona knew nothing of them. The universal supremacy of the see of Rome was beginning to be a recognised doctrine. Innocent and Leo had both reigned before Iona was established; Gregory had become Pope while Columba himself was still living; but these great names were almost unknown at Iona. There was little communication between distant countries in that early time; and especially when a land was far removed from the highways of commerce, it knew little indeed of what was going on in the world around, and was simply beyond the influence of the thoughts and opinions that were moving men's minds in other countries. Hence it is that we have in Ireland and in Iona a survival for several centuries of Church life as it existed elsewhere in the beginning of the fifth century.

The earliest Life of Saint Columba was written by Adamnan, who was born about twenty-five years after Columba's death, and who became afterwards his successor as Abbot of Iona. He was thus removed by only one generation from the subject of his biography, and he must have known and conversed with many who had seen the saint. His work is interesting in many ways—not the least as showing how short a time it requires for a name to become surrounded with a whole atmosphere of myth and legend. The book is not a biography in the strict sense. The author does not pretend to give us a detailed account of the incidents of Saint Columba's life, but dwells first on the prophecies, secondly on the miracles, and thirdly on the visions of the saint. As may well be supposed, many of the anecdotes he relates must have been simple ordinary events, which may easily have happened without any miraculous element at all. But Adamnan sees miracles in everything. He revels in the extraordinary; and as we read story after story, in some places one more impossible than the other, we are sorely tempted to give it all up in disgust. But notwithstanding all its improbable miracles, the book is most valuable. It was written while the isolation of Irish Church life was still to a great extent unbroken, and the incidental references it contains portray for us all the more truthfully, because unintentionally, the life led by the community at Iona in its earliest times; and as Iona was formed on the same pattern as the monasteries of Ireland, the description of it will enable us to picture to ourselves the kind of scene which they also presented.

We have to imagine to ourselves a centre of busy activity and cheerful toil. Members of the community were continually coming and going. Sometimes it would be on a missionary expedition to preach amongst the pagan Picts. At other times it would be to visit a king or chief with whom it was of importance to make a kind of treaty, or who was perhaps to be rebuked for some unlawful act that he had done. Often they went to treat for the ransom of captives, or to beg for pity on behalf of the conquered. Occasionally, too, they were sent to Ireland, where perhaps a synod was being held, or where it was necessary to visit their brethren, followers of the same rule in the different establishments, and bring advice from headquarters. Then when they returned, all the brethren would assemble, a report would be given of the results of their mission, and action would be taken accordingly.

Visitors to the settlement were not infrequent. Standing on the opposite shore, they shouted, as a signal that they desired to get across. Then some of the brothers embarked in their coracle,[1] and ferried them over the narrow strait. On arrival they were hospitably welcomed, and found a special house, the 'strangers' hospice' or 'guest room,' set apart for their entertainment.

These visitors were of a varied class. Perhaps it would be a slave who had fled from his master. This the brethren never encouraged; and while they protected the runaway, they endeavoured to persuade him to return to his service; though in some cases they begged for his freedom, or themselves provided the ransom that was necessary. Until the slave was thus made legally free, they would not receive him as a member of the community. Then, again, there were fugitives escaping from the avenger. Some of these were criminals; others were unjustly accused; but to all the monastery was a City of Refuge. When once within its shelter, they were sure they would not be slain without a fair trial, and that the judge would be one that would incline to mercy rather than to severity. Others came seeking medical advice, for the brethren were skilled in the virtues of herbs, and had cures for many ailments. Then there would be those who were pursued by the robber bands of hostile tribes. In the monasteries on the mainland the people would often come, carrying their valuables and driving their flocks and herds before them, for within the consecrated Termon[2] was the only place of safety. The transporting of cattle to Iona would not be an easy task, but the less cumbersome possessions would often be borne by fugitives across the waters. Some too would come to take counsel in their difficulties, spiritual and temporal; young men, in the enthusiasm of their early days, desiring to give up their lives to the work of the Lord; or perhaps old men, tormented by conscience, wanting to know how they could make atonement for a life of sin; sometimes even kings, desiring to explain the grounds of a quarrel before they would make a declaration of war. Then there would be brethren from other parts of the country; abbots and bishops, attracted by the renown of the saint, who would come to sit at his feet for a while— perchance to purchase from him one of his beautiful manuscripts, or to consult with him in some difficulty which had arisen in the administration of their office.

If the visitor were an eminent man, a special feast was made in his honour, and the laws of hospitality being considered paramount to those of ascetism, if he happened to come on a fast day (and they ordinarily fasted both Wednesday and Friday), the abstinence was foregone for that occasion, and the feast of welcome took its place. This was the custom in all the monasteries; for not only do we read of such feasts being given to distinguished strangers in Iona, but we find that the same compliment was paid to Columba when he went to visit other places, and we learn further that all the people in the neighbourhood were accustomed to contribute towards the banquet. As soon as the visitor arrived, one of the brothers proceeded to wash his feet, as a token that while he stayed with them they were all willing to wait upon him as his servants; because, too, the Irish Church at that time retained many Jewish ordinances, among which was the frequent washing of feet before entering upon the services of the sanctuary. At the ninth hour they partook of the common meal. The bread was blessed according to the example of our Lord, and then the company of the brethren partook of it, the strangers at the same time joining the party. But though there was thus a hearty welcome, the visitor was not allowed to prolong his stay indefinitely. If he meant to remain for any great length of time, he was required to take his place in the community, which of course meant that he would have to do his part in the regular work of the establishment.

This work was of a varied character. Some of the inmates were 'hardy fishermen,' who plied their task in the not very peaceful waters that surrounded them. Probably these also looked after the seals, which were 'preserved' by the islanders, and seem to have been used by them as an article of food. Other members of the community tilled the ground, and as the day wore on, the prior drove round in his chariot and visited them at their work. At Iona they all worked in common, and made their way home to their abodes in the evening, often very wearied, particularly in harvest time, and each one carrying a heavy load. It was a kind of family life that they lived, and we are told how Columba used to be always grieved when they returned late to the monastery. In other places—Clonmacnois, for example—each of the brethren seems to have had his own piece of land to till, for which he was held responsible. Besides the tilling of the ground there was the work of tending the animals. Night and morning the milk had to be carried from the 'milking field,' and as each returned thus laden, he paused at the door of Columba's cell, and obtained the saint's blessing. A horse was also employed in this daily task of carrying the milk. Then there was occasional building work to be done. Some of the huts were made of wooden planks, and the timber had to be hewn and prepared for them. This was at times very hard work, especially when storm and rain had to be encountered. Other huts were formed of wattles and clay. Although these did not require the same expenditure of labour at first, they must have been very often in need of repair. Boats, too, had to be built; frail crafts they were, made of wicker covered with skin, yet wonderfully long voyages were sometimes taken in them. Then there was the work of the household. The butcher, the cook and the baker are mentioned, showing that there was a division of labour, in which each had his own task.

The most important business of all, and that for which the Columban monasteries were famous, was the writing and illuminating of copies of the Scriptures. At Iona this work was carried on continuously, and was under the special superintendence of Columba himself. He made it a rule that none of his establishments should be without a copy of the Word of God, and most of the books which were thus scattered through the length and breadth of the land were produced at Iona. The magnificent copy of the Gospels known as the Book of Kells, now in the library of Trinity College, Dublin, though not, as had once been imagined, as old as the time of Columba, is scarcely a century later in date, and was most undoubtedly produced by the brethren who followed his rule. It is by far the most beautifully illuminated manuscript of its age in existence. The greatest care was taken that these copies should be correct. After the writing was finished a number of brethren carefully examined it, lest there should be any error or omission. Then it was jealously preserved in a cover made of precious metal, and a leathern satchel was used to protect it from any injury. It is said that on the day before Columba's death, although his increasing bodily weakness made him conscious that his end was approaching, he was still at his favourite work, and sat for some time in his cell, transcribing the Psalter. At last he came to the words (Ps. xxxiv. 10), 'They that seek the Lord shall not want any good thing.' 'Here, he said, at the end of this page I must stop. Let Baithen write that which follows. The last verse that he wrote was indeed suitable to the saint who was then passing away, for to him eternal good things shall never be wanting. And the verse following was equally suitable to the father who succeeded him, the teacher of his spiritual children: "Come, ye children, hearken unto me; I will teach you the fear of the Lord." And he did succeed him, as Columba had advised, not in teaching alone, but in writing.'[3] We shall see afterwards that there is reason to believe that not only was the work of transcription thus carried on continually, but that the Irish, or at all events the Celtic Church, produced translations of the Scriptures for itself, differing in many important ways from the translations in use elsewhere.

Admission to the monastery was easily procured. No novitiate was required, and if vows were taken, they were not necessarily lifelong. Any member of the community could return to the world when he pleased. No one was admitted, however, who had a father or a mother dependent on him for support. Even when there were younger brothers able to perform the duty, the parents could not be deserted until a guarantee had been obtained that the younger would take the place of the elder. Married couples were not allowed to separate. The story is told of a woman who sought admission to the convent, and offered to do anything that the saint desired her, provided he did not ask her to live with her husband, whom she hated. The saint simply took the unhappy pair, fasted and prayed with them, and continued these religious exercises without intermission, until at last they agreed to be reconciled, when he sent them away, united in affection, to live happily all the rest of their lives.

As to the doctrines taught, little need be added to what has been already said. They taught in Scotland exactly the same truths which Saint Patrick had enforced in Ireland. The Venerable Bede tells us that the Bible was their one rule of faith, to the exclusion of all other. 'They had none,' he says, 'to bring them the synodal decrees for the observance of Easter, by reason of their being so far away from the rest of the world; wherefore they only practised such works of piety and chastity as they could learn from the prophetical, evangelical and apostolical writings.'[4] Men who were led by such a rule might of course make some mistakes—mistakes, the importance of which would perhaps be magnified by those who imagined themselves to be better instructed—they might be quite unable, for example, to calculate the right time for keeping Easter; they might continue to follow customs that were never intended to be permanent; they might exaggerate the importance of precepts that were intended to be only partial and local in their application: but in every essential point they must have been in the right way. Those who practise the works of piety and chastity which they learn from the prophetical, evangelical and apostolical writings cannot do so without receiving the inward light of the Holy Spirit, and being led to place their trust in Him of whom all these writings testify.

As Christianity was first preached in Ireland at the beginning of the fifth century, the impress of that age continued for long afterwards. The peculiar monasticism, which was such a striking feature of Irish Christianity, and which was reproduced at Iona, was an example of this. So were also the severe penances of which we sometimes read (though not in connection with Iona), the practice of praying for the dead, and the use of the sign of the cross. We may trace the germ—although only the germ—of auricular confession in the institution of 'soul friends,' which will be more fully explained farther on. They were advisers rather than confessors, but we can easily see how the one would readily develop into the other. As yet, however, confession was public; the penance imposed was also public, and absolution was not given until the required penance was complete.

More remarkable was the existence of some practices which we are accustomed to regard as Jewish. We have already alluded to the washing of feet before entering the sanctuary. They had also the distinction of meats into clean and unclean. Vessels too became ceremonially unclean when any defiling substance had come in contact with them. This usage enabled them at one time to show their abhorrence of Romish teachers in a peculiarly irritating manner. Whenever a vessel had been used by one of those who followed the foreign rule, the Irish ostentatiously cleansed it, as if it had been defiled by the contact. They observed the Jewish ordinance of the Levirate marriage, that when a man died and left no seed, his brother should take his wife and raise up seed unto his brother. Consecrated salt was used in some ceremonies. Baptism was administered by preference in running water, and was most probably by immersion. This is mentioned in the lately-discovered Teaching of the Twelve Apostles as having been an early custom in other places. Some of these usages became modified afterwards; but there is abundant evidence that in the earlier times they were all observed.

A closer bond of union joined the several establishments where the rule of Saint Columba was followed than was usual in Ireland. True to the tribal instincts, the abbacy was confined to the kinship of the founder; but in the election of abbots all the Columban monasteries seem to have taken part, and the Abbot of Iona, who was in some measure the head of the order, might have been chosen from any of them. They regarded themselves as the same brotherhood, though living in different places and under different rulers; and this federation of the several monasteries continued until a very late date.

Several incidents might be cited in illustration of this. For example, when Iona was attacked by the Norsemen in the beginning of the ninth century, the relics and valuable possessions of the community were transported to Kells. Again, in the eleventh century, we have the Kells workmen making a metal book-shrine for the O'Donnells of Donegal, to whom they owed allegiance because Columba was an O'Donnell. At a much later date, early in the thirteenth century, the Columban monastery of Derry sent some of its inmates to Iona to repel the Bishop of Man, who wanted to assert his authority, and had erected some buildings there. This was of course a considerable time after the Anglo-Norman invasion of Ireland, and shows how long the confederation, and to some extent the independence of the Columban monasteries, continued.[5]


  1. The coracle is a small boat made of wicker work covered with skins.
  2. The Termon was the boundary of the monastic grounds. It was generally marked by a stone cross.
  3. Adamnan, Vit. Columb., iii. 23.
  4. Bede, Eccl. Hist., iii. 4, Bohn's Ed.
  5. See Stokes' Ireland and the Anglo-Norman Church, where a most interesting chapter deals with the continuance of the Celtic Church in Ireland in Anglo-Norman times.