Monasticism in Ireland

St. Patrick, we have said, introduced the monastic system into Ireland. It is said the Irish rule was most rigorous. It was more or less a copy of the French rule, as the French was a copy of the Thebaid. When compared with the rule of St. Basil or St. Benedict no doubt the Irish rule was much stricter, and when the monks of a certain monastery got the option of following either the Columban or the Benedictine rule all gave their preference to the Benedictine. If the Columban monks had a written rule no trace of it has been discovered. The principal practices of their monasteries are, of course, known from many sources. With regard to food the rule was very strict. Only one meal a day, at 3 o’clock p.m., was allowed, except on Sundays and Feast days. Wednesdays and Fridays were fast days, except the interval between Easter and Whit Sunday. Lent and Advent were fast seasons. The food allowed for days not fast was barley bread, milk, fish, and eggs. Flesh meat was not allowed except on great feasts. Milk, butter, and flesh were prohibited on fast days. The daily routine of monastic life was prayer, study, and manual labour.

Irish monasteries grew up quickly to be most important institutions both for Church and State. They were the soul of the Irish Church. The abbots of the principal monasteries—as Clonard, Armagh, Clonmacnoise, Swords, etc.—were of the highest rank and held in the greatest esteem. They wielded great power and had vast influence. The abbot usually was only a presbyter, but in the large monasteries there were one or more resident bishops who conferred orders and discharged the other functions of a bishop. The abbot was superior of the house, and all were subject to him.

Some in their ignorance are apt to look with contempt on old institutions, especially on the old Irish monasteries. The truth is these latter were great in every way. “Every tree is known by its fruit.” If we judge them on that score they were institutions of the highest excellence. Let us first glance at the curicula of the schools. The following were among the subjects taught: Latin, Greek, Hebrew, grammar, rhetoric, poetry, arithmetic, chronology, the Holy Places, hymns, sermons, natural science, history and interpretation of Sacred Scripture. The latter subject was specialised and treated profoundly.

Happily there are extant works produced by members of those institutions. These afford ample proof of a high order of scholarship and culture. We have the works of St. Columbanus, which consist of his Monastic Rule in ten chapters; a book on daily penance of the monks; seventeen short sermons; a book on the measure of penances; an instruction concerning the eight principal vices; a considerable number of Latin verses; and five Epistles—two addressed to Boniface IV., one to Gregory the Great, one to the members of a Gallican Synod on the question of Easter, and one to the monks of his monastery of Luxeuil. Born 432, died 500.

Aileran, who died in 664, professor of Clonard, wrote, according to Colgan, the Fourth Life of St. Patrick and the Lives of St. Brigid and St. Fechin. He also wrote a book on the mystical interpretation of the Ancestry of Our Lord Jesus Christ. This is published in the Benedictine edition of the Fathers, and the editors say they publish it though Aileran was not a Benedictine., because he “unfoulded the meaning of the Sacred Scripture with so much learning and ingenuity that every student of the Sacred Volume and especially preachers of the Divine Word will regard the publication as most acceptable.” This is high praise from competent and independent judges.

Sedulius, who lived in the eighth century, was, according to Ware and Usher, one of the most learned men of the age. He wrote theological treatises and criticisms. Cogitosus wrote the Life of St. Brigid in the sixth century. In the seventh century Ireland, being free from the convulsions of the surrounding nations, became the school of learning to the rest of Europe. Commenius, Abbot of Iona in 657, has left a very learned and argumentative tract. He cites Jerome, Origin, Cyril, Cyprian, Gregory, Augustine, etc. He adduces Cyril’s cycles of 95 years; Victorius’s of 532 years, with those of Augustine, Morinus, and Pachomius. He quotes the canons of the Church, which shows his acquaintance with ecclesiastical discipline. The Easter question was the subject on which he wrote.

Virgilius flourished in the 8th century, who was deeply versed in mathematics, geography, and astronomy. He was the first to teach the sphericity of the earth, and the antipodes.

A few quotations from foreigners on Irish schools will not be out of place. Alcuin, the most celebrated scholar of the age, writing of Willibrord, a Northumbrian, Archbishop of Utrecht, says:

“When he arrived at the 20th year of his age, he was inflamed with the desire of a stricter life and a love of visiting foreign parts. And because he heard that learning flourished greatly in Ireland he intended to go there, moved principally thereto by the fame of its holy men, particularly of the blessed father Egbert and the venerable priest Wigbert, who both for the love of a celestial country had forsaken their houses and kindred, and retired to Ireland. The blessed Willibrord, emulating the sanctity of these two holy men, embarked for this island, where he joined himself to their society, like a diligent bee, that he might, by means of their vicinity, suck the melifluous flowers of piety and build up in the hive of his own breast sweet honeycombs of virtue. There for the space of twelve years under those illustrious masters he treasured up knowledge and virtue, that he might be enabled to become the teacher of many nations.”

The Venerable Bede writes:

“It was now that many noble English and others of inferior rank, leaving their native country, withdrew to Ireland, to cultivate letters or lead a life of greater purity. Some became monks, others attended the lectures of celebrated teachers; these the Irish most cheerfully received and supplied without any recompense, with food, books, and instruction.”

Mosheim writes:

“That the Hibernians were lovers of learning, and distinguished themselves in those times of ignorance by the culture of the sciences beyond all other European nations, travelling the most distant lands, with a view to improve and communicate their knowledge, is a fact with which I have long been acquainted, as we see them in the most authentic records of antiquity discharging with the highest reputation and applause the functions of doctors in France, Germany, and Italy both during this and the following century. But that these Hibernians were the first teachers of scholastic theology in Europe, and so early as the 8th century illustrated the doctrines of religion by the principles of philosophy I learned but lately from the testimony of Benedict, Abbot of Amuane in the province of Languedoc, who lived in this period, and some of whose productions are published by Baluzius in the fifth tome of his Miscellanea.”

The Irish, according to this learned writer, not only distinguished themselves by the culture of the sciences beyond all other European nations, but travelled the most distant lands with a view to improve and communicate their knowledge. Not only did they convert and civilise many countries of Europe, they also imparted a knowledge of agriculture, built asylums, hospitals, refuges, and introduced the arts and sciences. Saints Colman, Modestus, Virgilius, and others laboured in Austria. Saints Kilian and Firmin were the apostles of Franconia. Columbanus, Gall, Fridolin, were the first to preach the Gospel in Burgundy, Alsace, Helvetia, Suevia. St. Virgilius was the apostle of all Bavaria. St. Columba preached to the Picts, and in the north of England. The labours of the Irish monks extended to many other regions, including Switzerland, Saxony, and Northern Germany. Those people were not lazy.

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