church. They were accused of ordaining serfs without the consent of their lords, consecrating bishops per saltum, i.e. of making men bishops who had not previously received the orders of priests, and of permitting bishops to be consecrated by a single bishop. This custom can hardly, however, be a reproach to the Irish church, as the practice was never held to be invalid; and besides, the Nicene canons of discipline were perhaps not known in Ireland until comparatively late times. The isolated position of Ireland, and the existence of tribal organization in full vigour, explain fully the anomalies of Irish discipline, many of which were also survivals of the early Christian practices before the complete organization of the church.
After the death of St Patrick the bond between the numerous church families which his authority supplied was greatly relaxed; and the saint’s most formidable opponents, the druids, probably regained much of their old power. The transition period which follows the loosening of a people’s faith in its old religion and before the authority of the new is universally accepted is always a time of confusion and relaxation of morals. Such a period appears to have followed the fervour of St Patrick’s time. To judge from the early literature the marriage-tie seems to have been regarded very lightly, and there can be little doubt that pagan marriage customs were practised long after the introduction of Christianity. The Brehon Laws assume the existence of married as well as unmarried clergy, and when St Patrick was seeking a bishop for the men of Leinster he asked for “a man of one wife.” Marriage among the secular clergy went on in Ireland until the 15th century. Like the Gaulish druids described by Caesar, the poet (fili) and the druid possessed a huge stock of unwritten native lore, probably enshrined in verse which was learnt by rote by their pupils. The exalted position occupied by the learned class in ancient Ireland perhaps affords the key to the wonderful outbursts of scholarly activity in Irish monasteries from the 6th to the 9th centuries. That some of the filid embraced Christianity from the outset is evident from the story of Dubthach. As early as the second half of the 5th century Enda, a royal prince of Oriel (c. 450-540), after spending some time at Whithorn betook himself to Aranmore, off the coast of Galway, and founded a school there which attracted scholars from all over Ireland. The connexion between Ireland and Wales was strong in the 6th century, and it was from south Wales that the great reform movement in the Irish monasteries emanated. Findian of Clonard (c. 470-548) is usually regarded as the institutor of the type of monastery for which Ireland became so famous during the next few centuries. He spent some time in Wales, where he came under the influence of St David, Gildas and Cadoc; and on returning to Ireland he founded his famous monastery at Clonard (Co. Meath) about 520. Here no less than 3000 students are said to have received instruction at the same time. Such a monastery consisted of countless tiny huts of wattles and clay (or, where stone was plentiful, of beehive cells) built by the pupils and enclosed by a fosse, or trench, like a permanent military encampment. The pupils sowed their own corn, fished in the streams, and milked their own cows. Instruction was probably given in the open air. Twelve of Findian’s disciples became known as the twelve apostles of Ireland, the monastic schools they founded becoming the greatest centres of learning and religious instruction not only in Ireland, but in the whole of the west of Europe. Among the most famous were Moville (Co. Down), founded by another Findian, c. 540; Clonmacnoise, founded by Kieran, 541; Derry, founded by Columba, 546; Clonfert, founded by Brendan, 552; Bangor, founded in 558 by Comgall; Durrow, founded by Columba, c. 553. The chief reform due to the influence of the British church seems to have been the introduction of monastic life in the strict sense of the word, i.e. communities entirely separated from the laity with complete separation of the sexes.
One almost immediate outcome of the reformation effected by Findian was that wonderful spirit of missionary enterprise which made the name of Scot and of Ireland so well known throughout Europe, while at the same time the Irish were being driven out of their colonies in Wales and south-west Britain owing to the advance of the Saxon power. In 563 Columba founded the monastery of Hí (Iona), which spread the knowledge of the Gospel among the Picts of the Scottish mainland. From this same solitary outpost went forth the illustrious Aidan to plant another Iona at Lindisfarne, which, “long after the poor parent brotherhood had fallen to decay, expanded itself into the bishopric of Durham.” And Lightfoot claims for Aidan “the first place in the evangelization of the English race. Augustine was the apostle of Kent, but Aidan was the apostle of England.” In 590 Columbanus, a native of Leinster (b. 543), went forth from Bangor, accompanied by twelve companions, to preach the Gospel on the continent of Europe. Columbanus was the first of the long stream of famous Irish monks who left their traces in Italy, Switzerland, Germany and France; amongst them being Gallus or St Gall, founder of St Gallen, Kilian of Würzburg, Virgil of Salzburg, Cathald of Tarentum and numerous others. At the beginning of the 8th century a long series of missionary establishments extended from the mouths of the Meuse and Rhine to the Rhône and the Alps, whilst many others founded by Germans are the offspring of Irish monks. Willibrord, the apostle of the Frisians, for instance, spent twelve years in Ireland. Other Irishmen seeking remote places wherein to lead the lives of anchorites, studded the numerous islands on the west coast of Scotland with their little buildings. Cormac ua Liathain, a disciple of St Columba, visited the Orkneys, and when the Northmen first discovered Iceland they found there books and other traces of the early Irish church. It may be mentioned that the geographer Dicuil who lived at the court of Charlemagne gives a description of Iceland which must have been obtained from some one who had been there. The peculiarities which owing to Ireland’s isolation had survived were brought into prominence when the Irish missionaries came into contact with Roman ecclesiastics. The chief points of difference were the calculation of Easter and the form of the tonsure, in addition to questions of discipline such as the consecration of bishops per saltum and bishops without dioceses. With regard to tonsure it would seem that the druids shaved the front part of the head from ear to ear. St Patrick doubtless introduced the ordinary coronal tonsure, but in the period following his death the old druidical tonsure was again revived. In the calculation of Easter the Irish employed the old Roman and Jewish 84-years’ cycle which they may have received from St Patrick and which had once prevailed all over Europe. Shut off from the world, they were probably ignorant of the new cycle of 532 years which had been adopted by Rome in 463. This question aroused a controversy which waxed hottest in England, and as the Irish monks stubbornly adhered to their traditions they were vehemently attacked by their opponents. As early as 633 the church of the south of Ireland, which had been more in contact with Gaul, had been won over to the Roman method of computation. The north and Iona on the other hand refused to give in until Adamnán induced the north of Ireland to yield in 697, while Iona held out until 716, although by this time the monastery had lost its influence in Pictland. Owing to these controversies the real work of the early Irish missionaries in converting the pagans of Britain and central Europe, and sowing the seeds of culture there, is apt to be overlooked. Thus, when the Anglo-Saxon, Winfrid, surnamed Boniface, appeared in the kingdom of the Franks as papal legate in 723, to romanize the existing church of the time, neither the Franks, the Thuringians, the Alemanni nor the Bavarians could be considered as pagans. What Irish missionaries and their foreign pupils had implanted for more than a century quite independently of Rome, Winfrid organized and established under Roman authority partly by force of arms.
During the four centuries which elapsed between the arrival of St Patrick and the establishment of a central state in Dublin by the Norsemen the history of Ireland is almost a blank as
- It seems probable that the celebrated monastery of Whithorn in Galloway played some part in the reform movement, at any rate in the north of Ireland. Findian of Moville spent some years there.