02 November 2012

Church History (full-time) 2.2: Early Irish Church History

Glendalough ... the monastic “Valley of the Two Lakes” (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford,

Church of Ireland Theological Institute,

Church History Elective (TH 7864)

Week 6 (Residential Weekend I):

Friday 2 November 2012:

2.2: Early Irish Church History


The monastery at Clonard was once one of the most important centres of learning in the Irish Midlands (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

During the late fifth and sixth centuries, the monasteries became the most important centres of Irish Christianity, including Armagh which claimed its origins in the labours of Saint Patrick, and Clonard, which is associated with work of Saint Finnian of Clonard, who is said to have trained the “Twelve Apostles of Ireland” at his abbey in the Midlands.

The great monasteries included places such as Kells, Glendalough, Clonmacnoise, Durrow, Bangor, Ferns, Tallaght and Finglas.

Monasticism in these islands developed with particular characteristics that are unique, so that for a long time true ecclesiastical authority lay not with bishops but with the abbots of monasteries.

Following the growth of the monastic movement in the sixth centuries, abbots controlled not only individual monasteries, but also expansive estates and the secular communities that tended them. Abbots were not necessarily ordained and many were members of an hereditary caste within noble or royal families.

A late Celtic high cross at Saint Edan’s Cathedral, Ferns, Co Wexford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2009)

This focus on the monastery means the monastic system came to be the dominant ecclesiastical structure in the Irish Church, and the network of monasteries attached to an abbey, rather than the diocese, was the dominant administrative unit of the church.

Bishops had sacramental roles and spiritual authority, but appear to have exercised little ecclesiastical authority in the way that bishops did in continental diocesan structures modelled on the Roman administrative system.

Clonmacnoise on the banks of the River Shannon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The monastic system In Ireland became increasingly secularised from the 8th century on, with the monasteries even making war on each other or taking part in secular wars. For example, 200 monks from Durrow Abbey are said to have been killed when they were defeated by the monks of Clonmacnoise in 764.

Saint Maelruains’ Monastery in Tallaght was part of the reforming Ceilí Dé movement of the ninth century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

A reforming monastic movement emerged in the Ceilí Dé, who were associated particularly with the monasteries in Tallaght and Finglas.

Irish missionaries in Britain

A high cross at Kells, Co Meath … this was once one of the largest monastic communities associated with Saint Colmcille or Saint Columba (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

In the sixth and seventh centuries, Irish monks established monastic foundations in what we now call Scotland – think of Saint Columba (ca 521-597) or Saint Colmcille in Kells and Iona, and in Continental Europe, especially in Gaul – think of Saint Columbanus.

Columba is associated with the foundation of abbeys at both Kells, Co Meath, and Durrow, Co Laois. However, was held partly responsible for the Battle of Cúl Drebene (561) and was sent into exile. In 563, he founded the monastery of Iona which became one of the major centres of Irish missionary activity in Scotland and northern England.

Monks from Iona, under Saint Aidan (died 651), founded the See of Lindisfarne in Anglo-Saxon Northumbria in 635. Aidan was sent from Iona at the request of King Oswald of Northumbria, and the influences of his monks and disciples spread from Lindisfarne throughout northern England and into the Midlands.

Saint Cuthbert (ca 636-687) was involved in founding a monastery at Ripon, but when he and his colleagues from Melrose refused to conform to the date of Easter and other accepted Western practices they were expelled. He became the Prior of Melrose and later Prior of Lindisfarne, and in 685 he became Bishop of Lindisfarne. He is still associated with the Diocese of Durham.

The English historian Bede (ca 673-735) implies that Irish missionary activity in northern England was more successful at converting the English than the mission started from Canterbury in southern England that began with Saint Augustine in 597.

Irish Continental missionaries

Irish monks also founded monasteries across the continent, exerting influence greater than many more ancient continental centres.

Saint Columbanus, a monk from Bangor in Co Down, left Ireland in 590 on a perpetual pilgrimage and moved to Gaul, where he founded monasteries in Annegray and Luxeuil. His fervour and his emphasis on private penance brought new spiritual energy to an area where Christianity was at a low ebb.

However, the observance of Irish customs led to the expulsion of Columbanus and his companions from Gaul in 610, and they eventually settled in Bobbio in what is today northern Italy. He died in 615. His surviving works include letters, sermons, a penitential and rules for monastic and community life.

Saint Gall was a disciple of Saint Columbanus, and followed him to Italy in 612. However, Gall remained in what is now Switzerland, where he lived the life of a hermit until his death around 650. The monastery of St Gallen, which takes its name from him, was founded ca 719 on the site of his hermitage.

Pope Honorius I issued a papal privilege to Bobbio Abbey, granting it freedom from episcopal oversight. Many of the monasteries of the Irish missions adopted the Rule of Saint Columbanus, which was stricter than the Rule of Saint Benedict, which was prevalent across western Europe. This rule involved more fasting and included corporal punishment. However, it eventually gave way to the Rule of Saint Benedict by the 8th or 9th centuries.

Irish scholars who had considerable influence in the Frankish court include John Scotus Eriugena (died ca 877), one of the founders of scholasticism and one the outstanding philosophers of the day.

Distinctive Irish practices and divisions

1, The Date of Easter:

The customs and traditions particular to Insular Christianity became a matter of dispute with the wider, Western Church. The most notable dispute was over the proper calculation of the date of Easter.

The insular churches shared a method of dating Easter that was distinct from the system used on the Continent. Calculating the date of Easter is a complicated process involving both the solar and the lunar calendars.

Irish and insular Christianity used a calculation table similar to that approved by Saint Jerome. However, by the sixth and seventh centuries, it had become obsolete and had been replaced, and the divergence emerged.

The first differences over these calculations surfaced in Gaul in 602, when Saint Columbanus resisted pressure from the local bishops to conform to the new calculation.

Most groups, including the southern Irish, accepted the new tables with relatively little difficulty. At the Synod of Mag Léne around 630, the southern Irish accepted the common Easter calculation, Northumbria at the Synod of Whitby in 664, the northern Irish at the Council of Birr around 697, East Devon, Somerset and Wessex, 705, and the Picts in 710.

However, the monks of Iona and their associated monasteries raised significant objections, and Iona did not change its practice until 718. Strathclyde followed in 721, North Wales in 768, South Wales in 777, and parts of Cornwall not until 909.

2, The monastic tonsure:

In Ireland, free men had long hair, and slaves had shaven heads. However, all monks, and perhaps most of the clergy, had a distinct tonsure or method of cutting their hair, as a mark of distinction.

The prevailing Roman tonsure was a shaved circle at the top of the head, leaving a halo of hair or corona this was eventually associated with the imagery of Christ’s Crown of Thorns.

The exact shape of the Irish tonsure is unclear but it appears the hair was in some way shorn over the head from ear to ear, perhaps in a semi-circular shape. Later, the Roman party jeered this as the tonsura Simonis Magi, in contrast to their “tonsure of Saint Peter.”

3, The Irish penitentials:

In antiquity, penance had been a public ritual. A distinctive form of penance developed In Ireland, where confession was made privately to a priest, under the seal of secrecy, and where penance was given privately and ordinarily performed privately as well.

Handbooks or “penitentials” were designed as a guide for confessors and as a means of regularising the penance given for each particular sin.

For some sins, penitents took their place in a separate part of the church during the liturgy, perhaps wearing sackcloth and ashes and took part in some form of general confession. This public penance may have followed a private confession to a bishop or priest. For some sins, private penance was allowed, but penance and reconciliation was usually a public rite that ended with absolution.

The Irish penitential practice spread throughout Continental Europe, where the form of public penance had fallen into disuse. Saint Columbanus was credited with introducing the “medicines of penance”, to Gaul.

Saint John Lateran … the Irish penitential system was adopted at the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Although the Irish practice met resistance, by the beginning of the 13th century it had become the norm, and this uniquely Irish penitential system was adopted as a practice of the Western Church at the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215, with a canonical statute requiring confession at least once a year.

4, Peregrinatio:

A fourth distinctive tradition in the early Irish Church, and one connected with the penitentials, was the concept of peregrinatio pro Christo, or “exile for Christ.” The concept of peregrination in Roman Law refers to living or sojourning away from one’s homeland. It was later used by early Church Fathers, including Saint Augustine of Hippo, who wrote that Christians should live a life of peregrinatio in the material world while awaiting the Kingdom of God. But the idea had two additional unique meanings in Celtic countries.

The penitentials prescribed permanent or temporary exile as penance for some sins. But there was also a tradition of voluntary peregrinatio pro Christo, which involved permanently leaving home and putting oneself entirely in God’s hands. Many of these exiles became missionaries, including Saint Columba and Saint Columbanus.

There were other distinctive traditions and practices. Bede implies a baptismal rite that was at variance with the Roman practice, perhaps with some difference in the rite of confirmation

The arrival of the Vikings

Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin … a Viking foundation dating from ca 1030 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

During the ninth and tenth centuries, waves of Norse warriors ransacked large swathes of Ireland, and many monasteries were plundered, robbed of their treasures and religious artefacts.

But the Vikings also brought positive change to the Church in Ireland, and the establishment of towns and cities such as Dublin, settled in 841, Waterford and Limerick opened the way for change.

In 943, the future King Olaf of Dublin was baptised in England, and later retired to Iona. The Norse city dwellers in Ireland became Christians by around the early 11th century.

In 1028, King Sitric the Silkenbeard of Dublin made a pilgrimage to Rome, and Christ Church Cathedral was founded soon afterwards, and certainly before he was deposed in 1036.

The first Bishop of Dublin, Dúnán, was appointed in 1030, and the bishops of the Norse cities initially looked to Canterbury in their loyalty.

Three reforming synods in the 12th century brought sweeping changes, including organisational changes, to the Church in Ireland:

The Round Tower at the South Gate of Saint Columba’s Church, Kells, Co Meath … the Synod of Kells in 1152 defined the provincial and diocesan structures in Ireland (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

● The Synod Rath Breasail in Co Tipperary, in 1111 reorganised and rationalised the diocesan structures, with archbishops in Armagh and Cashel. But Dublin was ignored, as if the only diocese in this part of the island was centred on tyh mountain monastery of Glendalough.
● The Synod of Kells in Co Meath in 1152, presided over by the Papal Legate, Cardinal John Paparo, recognised the place of Dublin and an additional archbishop in Tuam for the west of Ireland, while the Archbishop of Armagh became Primate. The arrangements at Kells still, to a greater degree, shape the diocesan structures of both the Church of Ireland the Roman Catholic Church.
● The Synod of Cashel followed in 1171, and we shall discuss that when we are looking at the Anglo-Norman impact on the Irish Church.

Between Rath Breasail and Kells, Saint Malachy, Archbishop of Armagh, twice visited Rome, in 1139 and again in1148, to attend councils and receving Rome’s endorsement for Armagh’s claims to the primacy.

These three synods transformed the structures, the liturgy and the culture of Irish Christianity, bringing it into line with Christianity on Continental Europe. Because of these synods, we can talk of a 12th century Reformation in the Church in Ireland.

These sweeping changes were strengthened and consolidated with the arrival of the new religious orders that replaced the old traditional monastic system, including the Augustinians, the Benedictines and the Cistercians.

The Cistercians built their first house at Mellifont in 1142, and by 1170 there were 13 Cistercian houses in Dublin. The Augustinians were introduced to Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, by Laurence O’Toole when he became Archbishop of Dublin in 1162, and by 1170 there were about 40 Augustinian houses in Ireland.

The arrival of the Normans

Selskar Abbey … Henry II is said to have done penance here in 1172 for his part in the murder of Thomas a Becket (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

In 1154, the first year of his reign, King Henry II of England obtained a Papal Bull from the English-born Pope Adrian IV, authorising him to go to Ireland “to check the torrent of wickedness to reform evil manners, to sow the seeds of virtue.”

In 1155, Pope Adrian also authorised Henry II to invade Ireland in order “to proclaim the truths of the Christian religion to a rude and ignorant people,” on condition that a penny should be yearly paid from each house to the See of Rome (the so-called “Peter’s Pence”).

Whatever we may think about the veracity of these claims, they were certainly found an excuse to be acted on in 1168 when Dermot MacMurrogh, who had been exiled as King of Leinster, sought Henry’s aid to recover his kingdom.

An Anglo-Norman or Welsh-Norman force arrived in Ireland in 1169, followed by stronger forces in 1170, and Henry landed in Waterford in 1171, to receive the submission of many Irish chiefs.

In late 1171, the Irish clergy gathered at the Synod Cashel accepted Henry II’s claim to Ireland, and swore an oath of fidelity to Henry and his successors. The decrees of the Synod of Cashel mark the end of the divisions of the Church in Ireland from the Church of Western Europe, Irish liturgies were abandoned and the liturgy found in the English Church was adopted.

We shall look at the Anglo-Norman and post-Norman Church in Week 9.

Next: Church History 2.3, Field Trip 1: Tara, Kells, Trim and Drogheda.

Saturday: Church History 3.1, Introduction to Church Art.

Canon Patrick Comerford is lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This lecture on 2 November 2012 was part of the residential weekend in Church History Elective (TH 7864).

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