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History of the Christian Church, Volume IV: Mediaeval Christianity. A.D. 590-1073.
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§ 15. The Irish Church after St. Patrick.


The Missionary Period.


The labors of St. Patrick were carried on by his pupils and by many British priests and monks who were driven from England by the Anglo-Saxon invasion in the 5th and 6th centuries.5959    Petrie (Round Towers, p. 137, quoted by Killen I. 26) speaks of crowds of foreign ecclesiastics—Roman, Egyptian, French, British, Saxon—who flocked Ireland as a place of refuge in the fifth and sixth centuries. There was an intimate intercourse between Ireland and Wales, where British Christianity sought refuge, and between Ireland and Scotland, where the seed of Christianity, had been planted by Ninian and Kentigern. In less than a century, after St. Patrick’s death Ireland was covered with churches and convents for men and women. The monastic institutions were training schools of clergymen and missionaries, and workshops for transscribing sacred books. Prominent among these are the monasteries of Armagh, Banchor or Bangor (558), Clonard (500), Clonmacnois (528), Derry (555), Glendolough (618).

During the sixth and seventh centuries Ireland excelled all other countries in Christian piety, and acquired the name of “the Island of Saints.” We must understand this in a comparative sense, and remember that at that time England was just beginning to emerge from Anglo-Saxon heathenism, Germany was nearly all heathen, and the French kings—the eldest sons of the Church—were “monsters of iniquity.” Ireland itself was distracted by civil wars between the petty kings and chieftains; and the monks and clergy, even the women, marched to the conflict. Adamnan with difficulty secured a law exempting women from warfare, and it was not till the ninth century that the clergy in Ireland were exempted from “expeditions and hostings” (battles). The slave-trade was in full vigor between Ireland and England in the tenth century, with the port of Bristol for its centre. The Irish piety was largely based on childish superstition. But the missionary zeal of that country is nevertheless most praiseworthy. Ireland dreamed the dream of converting heathen Europe. Its apostles went forth to Scotland, North Britain, France, Germany, Switzerland, and North Italy. “They covered the land and seas of the West. Unwearied navigators, they landed on the most desert islands; they overflowed the Continent with their successive immigrations. They saw in incessant visions a world known and unknown to be conquered for Christ. The poem of the Pilgrimage of St. Brandan, that monkish Odyssey so celebrated in the middle ages, that popular prelude of the Divina Commedia, shows us the Irish monks in close contact with all the dreams and wonders of the Keltic ideal.”6060    Montalembert, II. 397.

The missionaries left Ireland usually in companies of twelve, with a thirteenth as their leader. This duodecimal economy was to represent Christ and the twelve apostles. The following are the most prominent of these missionary bands:6161    See Reeves, S. Columba, Introd, p. lxxi.

St. Columba, with twelve brethren, to Hy in Scotland, a.d. 563.

St. Mohonna (or Macarius, Mauricius), sent by Columba, with twelve companions, to the Picts.

St. Columbanus, with twelve brethren, whose names are on record, to France and Germany, a.d. 612.

St. Kilian, with twelve, to Franconia and Würzburg, a.d. 680.

St. Eloquius, with twelve, to Belgium, a.d. 680.

St. Rudbert or Rupert, with twelve, to Bavaria, a.d. 700.

St. Willibrord (who studied twelve years in Ireland), with twelve, to Friesland, a.d. 692.

St. Forannan, with twelve, to the Belgian frontier, a.d. 970.

It is remarkable that this missionary activity of the Irish Church is confined to the period of her independence of the Church of Rome. We hear no more of it after the Norman conquest.

The Irish Church during this missionary period of the sixth and seventh centuries had a peculiar character, which we learn chiefly from two documents of the eighth century, namely, the Catalogue of the Saints of Ireland,6262    Catalogus Sanctorum Hiberniae published by Ussher from two MSS, and in Haddan & Stubbs, 292-294. and the Litany of Angus the Culdee.6363    Contained in the Leabhar Breac, and in the Book of Leinster.

The Catalogue distinguishes three periods and three orders of saints: secular, monastic, and eremitical.

The saints of the time of St. Patrick were all bishops full of the Holy Ghost, three hundred and fifty in number, founders of churches; they had one head, Christ, and one leader, Patrick, observed one mass and one tonsure from ear to ear, and kept Easter on the fourteenth moon after the vernal equinox; they excluded neither laymen nor women; because, founded on the Rock of Christ, they feared not the blast of temptation. They sprung from the Romans, Franks, Britons and Scots. This order of saints continued for four reigns, from about a.d. 440 till 543.

The second order, likewise of four reigns, till a.d. 599, was of Catholic Presbyters, three hundred in number, with few bishops; they had one head, Christ, one Easter, one tonsure, as before; but different and different rules, and they refused the services of women, separating them from the monasteries.

The third order of saints consisted of one hundred holy presbyters and a few bishops, living in desert places on herbs and water and the alms of the faithful; they had different tonsures and Easters, some celebrating the resurrection on the 14th, some on the 16th moon; they continued through four reigns till 665.

The first period may be called episcopal, though in a rather non-episcopal or undiocesan sense. Angus, in his Litany, invokes “seven times fifty [350] holy cleric bishops,” whom “the saint [Patrick] ordained,” and “three hundred pure presbyters, upon whom he conferred orders.” In Nennius the number of presbyters is increased to three thousand, and in the tripartite Life of Patrick to five thousand. These bishops, even if we greatly reduce the number as we must, had no higher rank than the ancient chorepiscopi or country-bishops in the Eastern Church, of whom there were once in Asia Minor alone upwards of four hundred. Angus the Culdee gives us even one hundred and fifty-three groups of seven bishops, each group serving in the same church. Patrick, regarding himself as the chief bishop of the whole Irish people, planted a church wherever he made a few converts and could obtain a grant from the chief of a clan, and placed a bishop ordained by himself over it. “It was a congregational and tribal episcopacy, united by a federal rather than a territorial tie under regular jurisdiction. During Patrick’s life, he no doubt exercised a superintendence over the whole; but we do not see any trace of the metropolitan jurisdiction of the church of Armagh over the rest.”6464    Skene II. 22

The second period was monastic and missionary. All the presbyters and deacons were monks. Monastic life was congenial to the soil, and had its antecedents in the brotherhoods and sisterhoods of the Druids.6565    Ammianus Marcellinus (XV. 9) describes the Druids as “bound together in brotherhoods and corporations, according to the precepts of Pythagoras!” See Killen, I. 29. It was imported into Ireland probably from France, either directly through Patrick, or from the monastery of St. Ninian at Galloway, who himself derives it from St. Martin of Tours.6666    See next section. St. Patrick also is said to have been one of St. Martin’s disciples; but St. Martin lived nearly one hundred years earlier. Prominent among these presbyter-monks are the twelve apostles of Ireland headed by St. Columba, who carried Christianity to Scotland in 563, and the twelve companions of Columbanus, who departed from Ireland to the Continent about 612. The most famous monastery was that of Bennchar, or Bangor, founded a.d. 558 by Comgall in the county of Down, on the south side of Belfast Lough. Comgall had four thousand monks under his care.6767    Angus the Culdee, in his Litany, invokes “forty thousand monks, with the blessing of God, under the rule of Comgall of Bangor.” But this is no doubt a slip of the pen for “four thousand.” Skene II. 56. Bangor on the northeastern coast of Ireland must not be confounded with Bangor on the westem coast of Wales. From Bangor proceeded Columbanus and other evangelists.

By a primitive Keltic monastery we must not understand an elaborate stone structure, but a rude village of wooden huts or bothies (botha) on a river, with a church (ecclais), a common eating-hall, a mill, a hospice, the whole surrounded by a wall of earth or stone. The senior monks gave themselves entirely to devotion and the transcribing of the Scriptures. The younger were occupied in the field and in mechanical labor, or the training of the rising generation. These monastic communities formed a federal union, with Christ as their invisible head. They were training schools of the clergy. They attracted converts from the surrounding heathen population, and offered them a refuge from danger and violence. They were resorted to by English noblemen, who, according to Bede, were hospitably received, furnished with books, and instructed. Some Irish clergymen could read the Greek Testament at a time when Pope Gregory J. was ignorant of Greek. There are traces of an original Latin version of the Scriptures differing from the Itala and Vulgate, especially in Patrick’s writings.6868    Haddan & Stubbs, Vol. I., 170-198, give a collection of Latin Scripture quotations of British or Irish writers from the fifth to the ninth century (Fastidius, St. Patrick, Gildas, Columbanus, Adamnanus, Nennius, Asser, etc.), and come to the conclusion that the Vulgate, though known to Fastidius in Britain about a. d.420, was probably unknown to St. Patrick, writing half a century later in Ireland, but that from the seventh century on, the Vulgate gradually superseded the Irish Latin version formerly in use. But “there is no trace anywhere of any Keltic version of the Bible or any part of it. St. Chrysostom’s words have been misunderstood to support such a supposition, but without ground.”6969    Haddan & Stubbs, I. 192; Comp. p. 10. Ebrard and other writers state the contrary, but without proof. If there had been such a translation, it would have been of little use, as the people could not read it, and depended for their scanty knowledge of the word of God on the public lessons in the church.

The “Book of Armagh,” compiled by Ferdomnach, a scribe or learned monk of Armagh, in 807, gives us some idea of the literary state of the Irish Church at that time.7070    First published in the Swords Parish Magazine, 1861. It contains the oldest extant memoirs of St. Patrick, the Confession of St. Patrick, the Preface of Jerome to the New Testament, the Gospels, Epistles, Apocalypse and Acts, with some prefaces chiefly taken from the works of Pelagius, and the Life of St. Martin of Tours by Sulpicius Severus, with a short litany on behalf of the writer.

In the ninth century John Scotus Erigena, who died in France, 874, startled the Church with his rare, but eccentric, genius and pantheistic speculations. He had that power of quick repartee for which Irishmen are distinguished to this day. When asked by Charles the Bald at the dinner-table, what was the difference between a Scot and a Sot (quid distat inter Scottum et Sottum?), John replied: “Nothing at all but the table, please your Majesty.”



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