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Ireland Before the Arrival of the Vikings
Celtic Monasticism in Pre-Viking Ireland
According to an Irish bishop living in Italy in the 9th century, Ireland in the seventh and eighth century was, “Rich in goods in silver, jewels, cloth and gold”, with “art and men… renowned in war, in peace, in faith”.
Christian for more than three centuries, Ireland had not been invaded since prehistoric times. Ireland was also the last home of a thriving Celtic tradition, begun a thousand years before in central Europe. This period is referred to as the Golden Age of Ireland, and was characterised by an emphasis on scholarship and craftsmanship. This was all about to change at the very end of the 8th century.
Following the Christianisation of Ireland by St. Patrick in the 4th century, the Irish culture of Celtic monasticism took hold, where new monasteries and monastic settlements replaced any older Roman foundations and became vital centres of religion and learning. This tendency was distinguished from Roman Christianity by its organisations around monasteries led by an abbot rather than a diocese under a bishop. Its distinctively Celtic character was further evident in the fact that these settlements appeared to closely resemble settlements in the Nile valley, or the island of Lérins (now known as St Honorat on the French Riviera), where it is believed St Patrick may have spent time and studied.
Beyond the ramparts we can imagine the cultivated lands, with the necessary farm buildings, a mill and limekiln. One feature of later monastic settlements that was also unique to Ireland was the round tower, over one hundred of which were built.
Daily life involved the study and reproduction of the sacred scriptures of Latin classical and pagan authors. It is known that many texts of European saints reached Ireland from Germany and Spain, such as St Germanus and St Martin. As well as reading and committing to memory these texts, the Irish monk would also copy them, and hence the monastic scholar was the scribe. This scribal art with its illuminated script became one of the splendours of the Golden Age in Ireland.
Monastic Expansion in Ireland and Abroad
During this period, St Enda set up the monastery on the Aran Islands, soon to be eclipsed by St Finnians at Clonard in Belfast, where his twelve outstanding disciples became known as ‘the twelve disciples of Ireland’ and became monastic founders themselves, e.g., Columcille in Durrow, Derry and Iona, Ciarán in Clonmacnoise, Brendan in Clonfert, Co. Galway, Molaisse in Devenish in Co. Fermanagh, Cainneach in Aghaboe, Co. Laois, Mobhi in Glasnevin, Dublin. Other founders were Jarlath in Tuam, Kevin in Glendalough and Finnbar in Cork, all of whose memories continue today. St Brigid and St Itas’ foundations in Kildare and Limerick were no less celebrated.
Just as influences of distant cultures may have reached the shores of the island of Ireland, we know that many Irish monks travelled abroad, and set up monasteries on the continent. The Hiberno-Scottish mission is said to have begun by St Colmcille (Columba) in 563 on Iona. In this way Celtic Christian influence began to spread throughout continental Europe. We can trace the footsteps of the Irish missionaries in England, thanks in large to the writings of the Venerable Bede, and to the continent, e.g. St Fursey in Péronne in Gaul, St Columbanus at Luxeil in France and Bobbio in Italy, and St Fergil in Salzburg, Austria.
Thank you Stephanie! I have been meaning to write you a note and have been so crazy with work since we returned. The trip was unbelievable! We had a wonderful time and loved every minute of the trip.
Andrea Stevens, Plantation, Florida