St. Donatus, Bishop of Fiesole [1]

Patrick Weston Joyce

IN every good History of Ireland we are told how missionaries and learned men went in great numbers from Ireland to the Continent in the early ages of Christianity to preach the Gospel and to teach in colleges. A full account of the lives and labours of these earnest and holy men would fill several volumes: but the following short sketch of one of them will give the reader a good idea of all.

Donatus was born in Ireland of noble parents towards the end of the eighth century. There is good reason to believe that he was educated in the monastic school of Inishcaltra, a little island in Lough Derg, near the Galway shore, now better known as Holy Island [2]: so that he was probably a native of that part of the country. Here he studied with great industry and success. He became a priest, and in course of time a bishop: and he was greatly distinguished as a professor.

Having spent a number of years teaching, he resolved to make a pilgrimage to Rome and visit the holy places on the way. He had a favourite pupil named Andrew belonging to a noble Irish family, a handsome, high-spirited youth, but of a deeply religious turn: and these two, master and scholar, were much attached. And when Donatus made known his intention to go as a pilgrim to foreign lands, Andrew, who could not bear to be separated from him, begged to be permitted to go with him: to which Donatus consented. When they had made the few simple preparations necessary, they went down to the shore, accompanied by friends and relatives; and bidding farewell to all—home, friends, and country—amid tears and regrets, they set sail and landed on the coast of France.

And now, here were these two men, with stout hearts, determined will, and full trust in God, exhibiting an excellent example of what numberless Irish exiles of those days gave up, and of what trials and dangers they exposed themselves to, for the sake of religion. One was a successful teacher and a bishop; the other a young chief; and both might have lived in their own country a life of peace and plenty. But they relinquished all that for a higher and holier purpose; and they brought with them neither luxury nor comfort. They had, on landing, just as much money and food as started them on their journey; and with a small satchel strapped on shoulder, containing a book or two, some relics, and other necessary articles, and with stout staff in hand, they travelled the whole way on foot.

Whenever a monastery lay near their road, there they called, sure of a kind reception, and rested for a day or two. When no monastery was within reach, they simply begged for food and night-shelter as they fared along, making themselves understood by the peasantry as best they could, for they knew little or nothing of their language. Much hardship they endured from hunger and thirst, bad weather, rough paths that often led them astray, and constant fatigue. They were sometimes in danger too from rude and wicked peasants, some of whom thought no more of killing a stranger than of killing a sparrow. But before setting out, the two pilgrims knew well the hardships and dangers in store for them on the way: so that they were quite prepared for all this: and on they trudged contented and cheerful, never swerving an instant from their purpose.

They travelled in a sort of zigzag way, continually turning aside to visit churches, shrines, hermitages, and all places consecrated by memory of old-time saints, or of past events of importance in the history of Christianity. And whenever they heard, as they went slowly along, of a man eminent for holiness and learning, they made it a point to visit him so as to have the benefit of his conversation and advice; using the Latin language, which all learned men spoke in those times.


[1] Fiesole in Tuscany, Italy; pronounced in four syllables: Fee-ess'-o-le.

[2] In the "Child's History of Ireland" there is a picture of the round tower and church ruins on this little island.