Ireland's great monastic tradition

Ireland's network of abbeys and monasteries were essential in the spread of Christianity, giving the faith a character distinctive from elsewhere in Europe. Frank Rogers introduces some of the great Irish monastic founders

St Enda, who founded a monastery on Inis Mór, the largest of the Aran Islands, is regarded as the 'Father of Irish Monasticism'
St Enda, who founded a monastery on Inis Mór, the largest of the Aran Islands, is regarded as the 'Father of Irish Monasticism'

"SONS of the Irish and daughters of their under-kings were monks and virgins of Christ - I cannot count their number." Thus wrote St Patrick in his letter to Coroticus in the 5th century.

By the end of the 6th century, monasticism was flourishing throughout Ireland, and in the words of the late Cardinal Tómas Ó Fiaich: "Ultimately, Ireland became unique in Western Christendom in having its most important churches ruled by a monastic hierarchy, many of whom were not bishops."

The Irish social system then prevailing, with its emphasis on kinship and personal rule, readily adapted to the concept of the extended monastic family with an abbot at its head.

Armagh, Bangor, Kildare and Clonmacnoise are examples of monastic institutions with extended paruchiae (the network of monasteries attached to an abbey).

Lying as it did outside the confines of the Roman Empire, Ireland developed her own insular form of Church government - a development that remained unchecked until the Synod of Whitby in 664.

St Enda

Monasticism in the strict sense, involving vows, complete seclusion and a stern sense of discipline, owes its origins in Ireland to St Enda of the Aran Islands.

Returning to Ireland from Ninian's foundation at Whithorn in Scotland, he founded a monastery c.484 on Inis Mór, the largest of the Aran Islands.

There, he and his fellow monks pursued an ascetic form of life consisting of manual labour, prayer, fasting and study of the Sacred Scriptures.

St Enda is known as 'The Father of Irish Monasticism'. Many future abbots received their training at his foundation on Inis Mór, among them St Finnian of Clonard, St Brendan the Navigator, St Jarlath of Tuam, St Ciarán of Clonmacnoise and St Columba of Derry.

Enda's monastery no longer exists but his legacy endures: Patrick Pearse named his school at Rathfarnham after the saint and Omagh Gaelic Athletic Club and St Enda's in Glengormley are named in his honour.

St Finnian of Clonard

Known as 'The Father of the Saints of Ireland', St Finnian received his early training under Saints Cadoc and Gildas in Wales, and upon returning to Ireland he built schools, monasteries and churches throughout the country.

His most famous foundation was Clonard in Co Meath which became a famous seminary of sacred learning and study.

He is said to have gathered 3,000 disciples around him and to have taught the 'Twelve Apostles of Ireland', among whom are listed St Columba of Derry, St Molaise of Devenish, St Sinell of Cleenish and St Ninnidh of Inishmacsaint on Lough Erne.

St Finnian died of the plague in 549.

St Ciarán

St Ciaran's strategically situated monastery on the banks of the River Shannon became a major centre of religion, learning, craftsmanship and trade, and together with Clonard was visited by scholars from all over Europe.

Many of the high kings of Connacht and from Tara were buried within the sacred precincts of Clonmacnoise, and the monastic buildings are among the best preserved in Ireland and are visited annually by thousands of pilgrims and tourists.

Ciarán was a native of Co. Roscommon and he died in 555.

St Comgall, a native of Dalaradia in south Antrim, founded an influential monastery in Bangor
St Comgall, a native of Dalaradia in south Antrim, founded an influential monastery in Bangor

St Comgall

St Comgall was a native of the Dalaradia kingdom of south Antrim.

He was born c.517 and apparently pursued a military career before enrolling under the strict regime of St Fintan of Clonenagh in Co Laois.

He eventually fetched up at Bangor where he founded a monastery c.555 which was noted as a centre of great austerity but also turned out men of great learning and of exemplary self-discipline and dedication; St Columbanus and St Gall were both products of Comgall's monastery at Bangor.

He died around 603. The highly-treasured Antiphonary of Bangor was written in Comgall's monastery some 70 years after the abbot's death.

St Columba (Columcille)

Of royal descent, Columba was born at Gartan in Donegal in 521. He established a monastery at Derry in 546, and his wider monastic paruchia included monasteries at Durrow, Kells, Swords, Drumcliffe and Tory.

Following the Battle of Cúl Dreimhne, for which he felt partly responsible, Columba left Ireland in 563 and established a monastery on the island of Iona where he ruled as abbot until his death in 597.

He returned to Ireland in 575 when he presided at the Convention of Drum Ceat, south of Limavady, which guaranteed the role of poets in Irish society.

Saints Brendan, Kevin and Finbarr

Among the other saints who made a major contribution to Irish monasticism may be mentioned St Brendan the Navigator, who founded a monastery at Clonfert in Co Galway, and who may very well have reached the coast of North America many years before Columbus landed in the Bahamas.

St Kevin founded a monastery in the lonely valley of Glendalough which, like Clonmacnoise, was used as a royal cemetery.

St Finbarr founded a monastery in Cork, where he is patron of the city and diocese.

Female saints

Foremost among the female saints who founded monasteries is St Brigid.

She is credited with the establishment of a dual monastery at Kildare, and her enduring popularity and universality of appeal is attested to by the fact that she is regarded as the patron saint of poets, dairymaids, blacksmiths, healers, fugitives, Irish nuns, midwives and new-born babies.

She is honoured as 'Mary of the Gael' and by the practice of making St Brigid Crosses from rushes; these are traditionally set over doorways and windows to protect the home from any kind of harm.

Together with the harp and shamrock, St Brigid's Cross is frequently used as a symbol representing Ireland.

Three other female saints who founded monasteries are Gobnait of Ballyvourney, Co Cork, Ita of Killeedy in Co Limerick and Moninne of Killeavy in south Armagh.

Women saints were far from being an insignificant minority in Irish monasticism.

The dearth of credible evidence regarding their lives and work is itself a testimony to their humility and self-effacement in their pursuit of Christian perfection.

In their devotion to Christian ideals and in their daily practice of humility, poverty and hardship, these holy men and women of early Christian Ireland sought for themselves a treasure in heaven that moth and rust could not destroy and secured for future generations a faith that time cannot wither nor custom stale.

Frank Rogers is the author of The Story of Ireland in Stained Glass and The History of the Convent Chapel, Enniskillen.