The Golden Age in Ireland

Chapter 6

The Golden Age in Ireland

Egypt, Greece, and the Roman Empire – each in turn enjoyed a Golden Age. In England, the whole nation grew most keenly alive to the poetry and adventure of living during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. This widespread awareness of the wonder of living in so exciting a world resulted in the Golden Age for English literature, music and architecture. English sailor adventurers, whose ships were no larger than the little ‘Revenge’, raced Spanish galleons for the riches of the vast New World. English scholars translated the Bible into English prose so glorious that the sound of it in our ears is apt to make us neglect the sense, unused as we now are to the power of rhythm.

Ireland’s Golden Age arrived much earlier. It lasted roughly from 550 to 850, and started, like every other Golden Age, with the gradual awakening of a whole people to a new consciousness of the miracle of life. In Ireland, Christianity in action can be seen as the golden sun whose life-giving warmth awoke a surge of creative activity among men and women. Indeed, all Golden Ages start with a restless Spring of growth and blossom. This period of change and development is followed by a summer time – sometimes lasting hundreds of years – during which the new pattern of life changes no more than the shape of a leaf on a summer tree.

Like all Celts, the Scots of Ireland have always been intensely interested in their part. Though they saw no more of the Roman Empire than its Latin alphabet brought to them by missionaries from Gaul, Candida Casa and Britain, they were quick to use this fascinating invention of writing both to learn new ideas and to preserve their own ancient laws and legends. Thus, though it is all so long ago, we do know a good deal of the Spring and the Summer of their Golden Age. They themselves noted down the changes caused by bishops giving to abbots and abbesses as leaders of Ireland’s Church.

The fifth-century bishops of the pioneer Church of St. Patrick were not monastic but were each placed by St. Patrick, himself a bishop, in charge of a single church. This was the custom in Asia Minor, and must have been learnt by St. Patrick while he studied on the Mediterranean island of Lerins. Next, from the sixth century onwards, came the change-over to the Celtic kind of monasticism, that fitted so much better into Ireland’s tribal way of life. Without the splendid work of the bishops among the quarrelsome chiefs, however, the sixth-century abbots and abbesses could never have turned Ireland so swiftly into an Isle of Saints, who were as remarkable for their learning and their art as for their holiness.

By 850, monasteries – some containing as many as three thousand self-supporting monks – flourishing all over the length and breadth of Ireland, while swarms of smaller Christian settlements thrived on the coastal islands.

It is interesting to know that, from the seventh century onwards, more and more Scots lived as lonely hermits. They counted themselves true disciples of St. Anthony, the study of whose Life kept alive that strange link between Celtic and Egyptian Christianity.

The story of Celtic Christianity would be ill-told if you failed to see that it is made up of a series of links. St. Martin is linked to St. Anthony by a book. St. Ninian in Scotland and St. Peblig in Wales are linked to St. Martin through contact with the man himself St. David of Wales is linked to St. Ninian through his education at Candida Casa. The great Scot, St. Finian of Clonard, is linked to St. David through his sixth century visits to Menevia to learn about British church music and discipline.

Of course, St. Ninian’s Candida Casa was a far earlier British link with the Scots of Ireland. When his disciples started building monasteries for fifth-century Scots in the Strangford Lough district, Ireland’s few Christians must have been mostly scattered in the south. These Scots had probably been converted by merchants or missionaries of the Celtic Church in Gaul, whose ships would touch at the nearest port. During the fifth century, the west coast of Britain was too harassed by raiding Scots to make it likely that Welsh missionaries would cross the Irish Channel to convert Scots living further north.

St. Patrick himself, however, is an example of how Scots who raided the west coast brought British Christians to Ireland, despite themselves. He tells the story of his capture in his Confession, written to prove how he owed everything to God. The capture took place about 405, when he was only sixteen. One morning Patrick was a care-free British schoolboy who knew far more of the Roman Empire to which he belonged than of his Celtic cousins, the Scots. The next morning, he was a slave shepherd in a foreign land where loneliness drove him to remember all the Christian priest had taught him at home. The friendliness of some Irish children came as a direct answer to his prayer for help. He learnt their language, to be able to tell them about the life of Christ; and they, in their turn, helped him to explore all that was good in their way of life. He would listen for hours to the beautiful songs of the poets, and he grew to enjoy seeing the brilliant colours and gleaming ornaments of the chiefs. By the time he escaped to Gaul, seven years had passed and he had grown to love his Irish friends too much to be able to forget them. It was this understanding love that later made him by far the most successful of Ireland’s early missionaries.

St. Patrick the Scholar

Has St. Patrick any links with the monastic British Church? Early Irish writers say that he has. Caranoc, St. Ninian’s friend (who later succeeded him as abbot of Candida Casa), is said to have baptized him before St. Patrick went to study in Lerins. Two facts make this probable. St. Patrick’s master did live in Ulster, where Caranoc then worked. And Lerins, where St. Patrick stayed after his escape till he was ordained priest, was just the sort of monastery you would expect Caranoc to choose far an escaped slave who would find Candida Casa too close to Ireland.

Most Celtic saints were born scholars. But those who find lessons hard should take heart to see how God used St. Patrick, though he calls himself ‘slow of tongue’ and ‘the most ignorant . . . of the faithful’. He could not keep up with the rest of the Christian students of the Empire who had chosen the island of Lerins as their refuge from the Teutonic invaders. To him they ‘seemed to be wise and skilled in everything’. Indeed, it was not until 432 (‘when I was almost worn out’) that St. Patrick was consecrated bishop at Auxerre. At last he had been chosen to lead a new mission from Gaul to his beloved Ireland. He landed, not in the south, but in Downpatrick on Strangford Lough, in the district where he knew St. Ninian’s disciples were still at work.

‘And I came in the strength of God,’ says St. Patrick. But this book would grow too long if I told you the full story of how, in that strength, he explored all Ireland, even to the farthest west, during his thirty years as a missionary bishop. We can only show how his dangerous journeys about the Springtime of the Golden Age.

First, St. Patrick paid his old master the ransom without which he was still a slave liable to be recaptured. Next, boldly, he went down to the great annual Spring gathering at Tara to meet the High King, the chiefs, and the Druids. Though St. Patrick failed to convert the High King, he made so great an impression on the chiefs that he did get the necessary permission to preach throughout the land. As for the Druids, they had prophesied his coming, and now they feared and hatred him. But their power over the people began to wane as soon as St. Patrick’s first Irish priest defied them on 25th March, by lighting their sacred Spring bonfire. From then on, the flames on the mountain top symbolized to those watching from Tara both the rebirth of the sun and the Resurrection of Christ who made it.

Like northern Scotland, Ireland’s position on the map had allowed her to escape conquest by the Roman Empire. But the Picts had had to defend their liberty and, in so doing, had learnt to stop quarrelling among themselves. Not so the Scots of Ireland. Feuds among the chiefs constantly broke into wild fighting, so that St. Patrick tells us he expected daily fighting, so that St. Patrick tells us he expected daily to be murdered. Caranoc’s attempt to wander about Northern Ireland unprotected, as St. Ninian did in Scotland, ended in his martyrdom. But St. Patrick knew his Scots. He never travelled without an impressive bodyguard.

Scouts would see the bishop himself approaching their chief’s fortress dressed as a monk and carrying only a staff. But beside him marched his champion – an alarmingly large and well-armed man. Behind these two could be seen other converts – his chaplain, his bell-ringer, his judge in case of disputes, and three nuns to teach women converts how to take Sunday School and how to care for church linen. The rest of the party were craftsmen such as St. Martin found so invaluable.

The chiefs were baptized one after another, converted by the tremendous faith St. Patrick showed in his sermons. They gave him land on which to build his churches and schools, and we read of one chief who even paid for the building with six cows. After founding a church, St. Patrick would move on, leaving his new bishop (trained and consecrated by himself) armed with a Latin copy of the gospels and a kind of ABC of Christian doctrine. These simple little books, used to help to teach the converts, included the creed, and were written out in Latin surprisingly quickly, seeing it was quite strange to them. Without doubt, St. Patrick’s ABC helped to prepare the way for the famous sixth-century scholars of Ireland.

Chief’s, poets and judges of Ireland alike approved the way St. Patrick insisted that his school children should be taught all that was best of the old learning besides giving them an opportunity to learn to read and write in Latin. His bishops were the first to employ women teachers. At least one woman, St. Ita, set up a boarding-school of her own for small boys; and at Armagh St. Patrick, who loved children to the end, much enjoyed hearing of what went on in his own school. One boy had ‘a scrawl so bad that none can tell whether it comes from a human hand or a bird’s claw’. But no doubt he improved, encouraged by the presents of extra food sent by chiefs with the message: ‘For the little boys’.

Till his death in 461, St. Patrick never ceased to fight for the freedom of Irish slaves. One of these freed slaves became St. Brigid and she is linked to St. Patrick by meeting him in church as a very small child. The story has it that he noticed her because she fell asleep during his sermon!

That sermon must have been one of St. Patrick’s last, for he died in 461, only about eight years after St. Brigid was born. His Confession was written at this time; and in it he notes a change in the outlook of Christians. ‘See how in Ireland there has lately grown up a people of the Lord. . . . Sons and daughters of Irish chiefs are becoming monks and nuns and their number increases more and more.

St. Brigid and Her Irish Nuns

These first Irish nuns were dedicated to Christ but followed their rule of discipline in their homes. St. Brigid saw that this was hard; and she saw, to, that if the Church needed the services of women it must be prepared to house and feed them. With the blessing of Bishop Mel, a disciple of St. Patrick himself, she began to organize the building of monasteries in which they could live together as monks were doing in Britain. A career of prayer, teaching, nursing and sewing outside their homes appealed to so many Irish girls that, though St. Patrick’s bishops were soon coming to St. Brigid from all over the country to ask for a party of her trained sisters to help in their district, she never once had to refuse.

The Kilbrides and Kilbreedies you find all over Ireland, prove how long and how frequent were the journeys St. Brigid took her chariot along rough tracks. At her chief settlement, the church was built of oak and so called Kildare. It so impressed the monk who wrote her life that he describes it as ‘raised to a menacing height’. But what was most remarkable about her church was a partition running down the middle. On one side, the sisters worshipped and sang while out of sight on the other side their brother monks joined in. These monks lived close by to manage St. Brigid’s farm and to do the jobs she considered too hard for her girls. The double monastery (as this arrangement came to be called) proved to be one of St. Brigid’s most practical ideas.

Just like an abbot, she had her bishop to ordain her monks. He taught them metal work, and soon St. Brigid’s monks were supplying the little churches of Ireland with beautifully made bells, cups, plates and book covers in silver and gold. The countless stories show what an impression St. Brigid made on the proud quarrelsome Irish chiefs. So often they coveted more than they had. But she, who loved God in the men and women she met, spent her whole life recklessly giving to others all she possessed.

She even gave away a baby fox she had tamed, knowing it would amuse a chief who had helped her. But the little fox would have none of it. Escaping, it made its way back at top speed ‘through the wood, the hosts of Leinster behind, both foot and horse and hound’. How much men and women loved her can be imagined when we read that once she even contrived to turn a battle into a picnic. She is among the gayest of the Celtic saints who prepared the way for the summer of Ireland’s Golden Age. She died in 521 and was buried in her church beside her bishop. Above their tombs there hung, not mitres according to the pattern of Rome, but golden crowns as in the Eastern Church, which emphasizes, once again, that the Celtic Church followed the customs of the East and the West.

After the fifth century, the Church in Ireland was ruled by the presbyter-abbots whose numerous monasteries vied with each other in holiness, in learning, in art, and even in size. Over one thousand men went on living and working in St. Columba’s foundations in Kells and Derry after he left Ireland for Iona in 561. His friends, St. Kenneth of Achabo and St. Ciaran of Clonmacnoise were heads of even larger communities. These three men were pupils of St. David’s friend, able of St. Finnian’s Twelve Apostles of Ireland was St. Brendan who ruled three thousand monks at Clonfert on the Shannon, but yet found time to make voyage after voyage in to the vast Atlantic in search of those Blessed Isles thought by the Celts to lie somewhere beyond the sunset. He reached Iceland which, with its fiery mountain, he took to be an outpost of Hell. He made friends with a whale; and may well have been the first European to lane in the West Indies. Till the days of Columbus, men all over Europe read the stories of St. Brendan’s voyage. They were as popular as The Kon Tiki Expedition is to-day (early 1950s).

And when Irish children tired of adventure stories, the land was alive with poets to sing to them of their discovery that the outdoors world expresses the beauty and majesty of God. They sang of Spring, when ‘the woodland birds shake out their glee’. They sang of the sea, as in this fragment of a long poem by St. Columba:

‘That I might see its heaving waves

Over the wide ocean,

When they chant music to their Father

Upon the world’s course . . . .

That I might hear the song of the wonderful birds,

Source of happiness;

That I might hear the thunder of the crowding waves Upon the rocks.’

When St. Columba wants to be grand, he writes Latin verse. Here are lines from a famous long poem:

‘Mark how the power of God supreme

Hath hung aloft earth’s giant ball,

And fixed the great encircling deep,

His mighty hand supporting all . . .’

But the following he wrote in Irish about his favourite monastery:

‘The reasons why I love Derry is

For its quietness, for its purity,

Crowded full of heaven’s angels

Is every leaf of the oaks of Derry.

My Derry, my little oak grove,

My dwelling and my little cell.

Oh, eternal God in heaven above,

Send woe to him who ruins it.’

The Norsemen who ruined Derry and the rest of the Irish monasteries by burning them, did not arrive for three hundred years. Meanwhile, monastic life transformed Ireland into the world-famous Isle of Saints – monks and nuns as famous for their learning as for their holiness. For hundreds of years, this remote little island led the world not only in the practice of Christianity but in the study of philosophy, theology, astronomy, geometry, Greek and Roman literature. If you find this hard to believe, remember that a continual stream of Christian scholars took refuge in Ireland from the time of the Teutonic invasion onwards. They came from Italy, Gaul and Spain, bringing with them the books and knowledge that made them so welcome to Irish abbots. When, in the seventh century, Mohammed’s followers scattered desert monks, some of these Christian refugees reached Ireland from as far away as Egypt and Syria, complete with eastern books and eastern ideas. They would find themselves quite at home in monasteries where the sons of chief took their turn in farming, fishing, shepherding and gardening, and studied side by side with men who had been slaves. The only thing they would find strange was that the services were in Latin instead of Greek.

St. Finnian of Clonard had been deeply impressed by the way the British monks sang to God in relays, day and night. Soon most of the large Irish monasteries had arranged that they too might practice Perpetual Praise in their churches. Next time you think the Sunday psalm is rather long, remember that for hundreds of years, in many Celtic monasteries, teams of monks managed to sing all the psalms every day.

Celtic Craftsmen’s Art

The same energy and patience was shown in the monastery workshops. Book after book was copied, and many of the best scribes were bishops. As you know, in the Celtic Church, bishops, such as St. Brigid’s had plenty of time to practice a craft, seeing they had no diocese and that their abbot ran the monastery. Though it is true that they were treated with special reverence as being worthy to ordain and consecrate, yet they obeyed their abbot like the rest. If you want to see how beautiful was the rounded script written by the bishops and their fellow scribes, take a look at a reproduction of the Book of Kells. You will see that they loved to colour the strangely twisted and elongated animals that often went to the making of the huge capital letters. They ground these colours in their workshops just as they prepared the skins, the ink and the quill pens. The vivid blue is made from a rare stone only to be found in Central Asia and you may well wonder how, in those troubled Dark Ages, traders could think it worth while to keep Irish monasteries supplied.

It is tragic that scarcely a book remains to be marvelled at and that the Norsemen also destroyed nearly all the High Crosses of Ireland carved in stone by those dauntless monks. So tall they are that you have to look far up to see the short cross-bar protruding beyond the ring of glory. Sometimes the whole cross is covered with a design of Celtic interlacings. Sometimes you can see, far up, the small figure of Christ hanging all alone between earth and sky. Celtic Christianity could have no more glorious memorials than the few High Crosses that remain.

Tenderness to Man and Beast

And yet perhaps the most charming memorials of all to the Celtic saints are the hundreds of stories that tell of the tenderness to man and beast. The strict discipline of prayer, learning and work with their hands practised by those Irish monks often gave them the power to heal minds and bodies in what we would call a miraculous way. Animals and birds too were changed by the strength of their unselfish love. When St. Patrick prayed for help on a mountain top, seagulls wheeled about him crying in sympathy. The wild ducks visiting Kildare were fearless of St. Brigid, allowing her to stroke their bright feathers. St. Columba’s old horse wept when his master prepared to die. In Switzerland, St. Gall had a bear for companion and St. Columbanus had such a way with Frankish squirrels that the monk who wrote his life remarked that they frisked all over him like kittens.

Many were the Irish saints who changed wild wolves into faithful dogs. So there may well be truth in the following story. One day when St. Comgall’s monks walked with him along the shore of Lough Foyle, they admired some beautiful white swans floating far out on the water. ‘Holy father,’ they cried, ‘bid them come nearer that we may caress them.’ The birds obeyed the abbot’s call and one, bolder than the rest, rose from the water with a great beating of wings and ‘flew into the bosom of St. Comgall’.

But if Irish monks of the Golden Age discovered that all living creatures are bound together in the love of Christ, they also longed to share something of Christ’s loneliness. This is why abbots, who were usually chiefs or princes, so often left their own beloved corner of Ireland to found a monastery far from relations who could have helped with land and labour. Many monks began to feel they should make the even greater sacrifice of leaving Ireland itself. St. Comgall of the swan story was abbot of Bangor in Ulster. He longed to preach Christ to the Franks who had over-run Gaul. Instead, he made of Bangor a first-class school of missionaries, rousing in the hearts of his monks ‘an unquenchable fire of the love of God’.

Armed with Faith, Hope and Charity, band after band of monks left Ireland. A part of Switzerland is called St. Gall after one of the St. Columbanus, worked for twenty years founding monasteries in the Vosges mountains. Then, at the age of seventy, he crossed the Alps to plant his last Christian settlement in Northern Italy. It was a far cry from Ireland. But as you will see, much of the sunshine of Ireland’s Golden Age was destined to light up the darkness of the Continent.