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Schools of Britain and Ireland (AD 380-590)

by Augusta Theodosia Drane, O.P. (1910)

Image of Sr. Augusta Theodosia Drane.
Sr. Augusta Theodosia Drane, O.P. (1823-1894)

Although the monastic institute existed in Britain almost from the period of her first conversion to the faith, yet the seminaries which produced her most illustrious scholars were only founded at a comparatively later date. Whatever schools may have existed in connection with the British episcopal monasteries of earlier times, had fallen into decay by the beginning of the fifth century, when fresh foundations of learning began to spring up, the origin of which must be traced to three distinct sources. I say three distinct sources, because the apostolic labours of St. Ninian among the Picts, of St. Palladius in North Britain, and of St. Germanus and St. Lupus in the southern portion of the island, were undertaken among different races, and on different occasions; nevertheless, in reality these three streams flowed forth from one common fountain, which was no other than the Holy and Apostolic See of Rome.

The mission of St. Ninian was the first in order of time. The son of a petty prince of Cumberland, he travelled to Rome for the purpose of study, about the year 380, and being introduced to the notice of Pope Damasus, was placed by him under the care of teachers, and in all probability received into the school of the Patriarchium. There he was thoroughly instructed, regulariter edoctus, in all the mysteries of the faith, and after spending fifteen years in Rome he at last received consecration from the hands of Pope St. Siricius, by whom he was sent back to exercise the episcopal functions in his own country. The fifth century, which was then just opening, was precisely that in which the discipline of the Church received its fullest development. Ninian, who had so long studied the ecclesiastical system at its fountain-head, and who on his homeward journey had visited Tours, and conversed with St. Martin, then drawing near his end, was fully prepared to introduce into his northern diocese the rule and manner of life which he had seen carried out in the churches of Italy and Gaul. At Whitherne in Galloway, where he fixed his see, he built a stone church, after the Roman fashion, and lived in a house adjoining it, together with his cathedral clergy, in strict observance of the ecclesiastical canons. In this episcopal college the younger clerics followed their ecclesiastical studies, whilst a school was likewise opened for the children of the neighbourhood, as appears from the anecdote related by St. Ælred of one little rebel who ran away to escape a flogging, and was nearly drowned when attempting to put to sea in a coracle, or wicker boat, which chanced to be without its usual covering of hides. The great school, as St. Ninian’s seminary is often styled, was resorted to both by British and Irish scholars, and among the works left written by the founder was a Book of Sentences, or selections from the Fathers, which seems to have been intended for the use of his students.

The death of Ninian took place at the time when the churches of South Britain were suffering from the ravages of the Pelagian heresy. Pelagius, himself a Briton by birth, had nowhere found more ready recipients of his doctrines than among his own countrymen, and the infection spread with such alarming rapidity that at the solicitation of Palladius, deacon of the Church of Rome, Pope St. Celestine commissioned the two Gallican bishops, St. Germanus of Auxerre and St. Lupus of Troyes, to visit Britain in the quality of Papal legates, and take the necessary steps for putting a stop to the troubles caused by the heretics. Their first visit took place in 429, on which occasion they introduced many reforms of discipline. One of the chief measures which they adopted in order to check the progress of error was the foundation of schools of learning both for clergy and laity. At Caerleon, then the British capital, they themselves began the good work by lecturing on the Holy Scriptures and the liberal arts. Their scholars appear to have done them credit, for some, we read, became profound astronomers, able to observe the course of the stars and to foretell prodigies (that is, to calculate eclipses), whilst others wholly devoted themselves to the study of the Scriptures.

Under these disciples a vast number of monastic schools soon sprang up in various parts of Britain. Indeed so undoubted is the claim of Germanus to be considered as the founder of the ancient British colleges, that some imaginative writers have assigned to him the origin of our two Universities of Oxford and Cambridge. His most celebrated followers were Dubricius and Iltutus, the first of whom established two great schools of sacred letters on the banks of the Wye, one of which, situated at Hentland, was attended by a thousand students. But this was surpassed by the monastery of Lantwit in Glamorganshire, where St. Iltutus presided over a community of two thousand four hundred members, including many scholars of note, such as the historian Gildas, the bard Taliesin, and the famous prelates, St. Sampson and St. Paul of Leon. Here, according to the Triads, the praises of God never ceased, but one hundred monks were employed each hour in chanting the divine office, which was kept up both by day and night. Iltutus was also the founder, or restorer, of the school of Bangor on the Dee, where had been a college of Christian philosophers in the days of King Lucius, and where, according to Bede, there were seven houses or colleges, each containing, at least, three hundred students; and this, says William of Malmesbury, “we may well believe by what we see; for so many half-ruined walls of churches, so many windings of porticoes, and so great a heap of ruins you may scarce see elsewhere.”

Another Bangor, the same that still retains the name which was indeed common to all these foundations, owed its origin to Daniel, the fellow disciple of St. Iltutus, who, we are assured, received under his care all the most hopeful youths of West Britain. Paulinus, one of his scholars, founded the college of the White House, in Caermarthenshire, afterwards known as Whitland Abbey, or Alba Landa; receiving among other pupils St. David, who began his studies at Bangor under Iltutus. This celebrated man, whose name in our days is often regarded as almost as legendary as that of his contemporary, King Arthur, completed the extirpation of the Pelagian heresy, and by his apostolic labours merited the title bestowed on him by British historians of “the father of his country.” He was the founder of no fewer than twelve monasteries, in all of which he contrived to combine the hard work of the scholar and the equally hard labour of the monk. Ploughing and grammar-learning succeeded each other by turns. “Knowing,” says Capgrave, “that secure rest is the nourisher of all vices, he subjected the shoulders of his monks to hard wearisomeness…. They detested riches, and they had no cattle to till their ground, but each one was instead of an ox to himself and his brethren. When they had done their field-work, returning to the cloisters of their monastery, they spent the rest of the day till evening in reading and writing. And in the evening at the sound of the bell, presently laying aside their work, and leaving even a letter unfinished, they went to the church and remained there till the stars appeared, and then all went together to table to eat, but not to fulness. Their food was bread with roots or herbs, seasoned with salt, and they quenched their thirst with milk mingled with water. Supper being ended they persevered about three hours in watching, prayer, and genuflections. After this they went to rest, and at cock-crowing rose again, and abode in prayer till the dawn of day. Their only clothing was the skins of beasts.” Yet these austere cœnobites cultivated all the liberal arts, and the monastery of the Rosy Valley, near Menevia, founded in the year 519, was no less a school of polite learning than it was a nursery of saints.

To St. Dubricius, St. Daniel, and St. David, the three dioceses of Llandaff, Bangor, and Menevia owe their origin; the fourth of the ancient sees, that of St. Asaph, sprang out of a monastic foundation which must be traced to a different source. It has been already said that the mission of St. Germanus and St. Lupus had been conferred on them by St. Celestine at the solicitation of the deacon Palladius, who by some writers is said to have been himself a Briton by birth. However that may be, his interest in the affairs of our northern islands induced St. Celestine, in the year 430, to send him to Ireland, after having first consecrated him bishop “over the Scots believing in Christ.” The Christian faith had, in fact, already penetrated into Ireland, either from Gaul or Britain, but the faithful were as yet few in number, and possessed no regular hierarchy. Palladius at first met with such success, that St. Prosper, in his book against Cassian, written about this time, was able to say that St. Celestine, after preserving the Roman island Catholic, had made the barbarous island Christian. He baptized many persons, and erected three churches in which he deposited the sacred books, some relics of SS. Peter and Paul, and his own writing-tablets. But soon afterwards the hostility of the native princes obliged him to withdraw from the country, in order not to expose his followers to persecution. As his mission was to the Scottish people, and not to any particular province or kingdom, he crossed over to North Britain, where several colonies of the Scots had already settled, and there pursued his apostolic labours with more prosperous results. His subsequent history is differently related by different authors. Some represent him as surviving for many years, and firmly establishing the ecclesiastical discipline of the North British Church. Others, with more appearance of probability, represent his death as taking place very shortly after his arrival in Scotland. It is certain, however, that regular discipline was established by him among his clergy, and that episcopal colleges were founded either by him or his immediate successors, in which young children were received and trained for the ecclesiastical state. Here the Scottish Christians of Hibernia would naturally repair, before the establishment of similar seminaries had begun in their own island, and among those who acquired the first seeds of learning in the Bishop’s school was Cœlius Sedulius, whose Irish name is said to have been Sheil. His history is obscure, but, according to Trithemius, he passed over from Ireland into Britain about the year 430, and afterwards perfected his studies in the best schools of Gaul and Italy. Having embraced the ecclesiastical state, he thenceforward devoted himself exclusively to sacred letters; but his “Carmen Paschale,” a Latin poem on the life of our Lord, betrays his familiarity with the poetry of Virgil. From another smaller poem on the same subject are taken two of the hymns used by the Church on the festivals of Christmas and the Epiphany. St. Servanus, the first bishop of Orkney, is represented by some as a disciple of St. Palladius, but it is probable that he lived some years later. He was the founder of the monastery of Culross, where he brought up many youths from childhood, and educated them for the sacred ministry. Among these was one named Kentigern, so beautiful in person, and so innocent in manners, that his companions bestowed on him the title of Mungo, or the dearly beloved, by which name he is still best known in Scotland. When only twenty-five years of age the people demanded him for their bishop; he was accordingly consecrated by an Irish prelate, and chose for his residence a certain solitary place at the mouth of the river Clyde, the site of the present city of Glasgow. Here he erected a church and monastery, where he lived with his clergy according to the apostolic rule, his diocese extending from the Atlantic to the shores of the German Ocean; and over its vast extent he constantly journeyed on foot, preaching and administering baptism. The throne of the Scottish prince Rydderch the Liberal having been seized by one of his rebellious nobles, St. Kentigern was forced by the usurper to quit the country, and took refuge in Wales, where, after visiting St. David at Menevia, he received from one of the Welsh princes a grant of the tract of land lying between the rivers Elwy and Clywd, where he erected the monastery and school of Llan-Elwy. Local tradition affirms that the name of Clywd was bestowed by him on the stream that bounded his domain, in memory of his old home on the banks of the Clyde. Here he was joined by a great number of followers, among whom he established regular monastic discipline. His rule, however, had some peculiarities in it. He divided his community into three companies, two of them, who were unlearned, were employed in agriculture and the domestic offices, the third, which was formed of the learned, devoted their time to study and apostolic labours; and this last class numbered upwards of three hundred. These again were divided into two choirs, one of whom entered the church as the others left, so that the praises of God at all hours resounded in their mouths. From this college a great number of apostolic missionaries went forth, not only into different parts of Britain, but also to Norway, Iceland, and the Orkney Islands St. Kentigern himself continued to journey about, preaching the faith, silencing the Pelagian heretics, and founding churches. On the restoration of Rydderch, in 544, St. Kentigern was recalled to his see, and left the government of his monastery and school at Llan-Elwy to St. Asaph, his favourite scholar, whose name was afterwards conferred upon the church and diocese.

One other British school must be named before passing on to the nurseries of sacred science established in the sister isle, it is that of Llancarvan, whose founder was indeed a British saint and prince, but one who had received his early education in the seminary of an Irish recluse. Few names in the ecclesiastical annals of Britain are more illustrious than that of St. Cadoc; the son of a prince of Brecknockshire, he was placed at the age of seven years under the care of Tathai, an Irish teacher, who had been induced to leave his mountain hermitage, and to take the government of the monastic college of Gwent in Monmouthshire. There Cadoc spent twelve years, studying the liberal arts and the Divine Scriptures. The times were simple, and the habits of the Irish doctor, as he is called, were somewhat austere. The young prince lighted his master’s fire and cooked his frugal repast, whilst in the interval of such homely duties he conned his Latin grammar, and construed Virgil. This sort of school discipline, however, far from disgusting him with learning, inspired him with such a passion for letters, that when his father retired from the world to embrace an eremitical life, Cadoc would not accept of the dignity of chief thus left vacant, but chose to travel to various schools in Britain and Ireland, in order to perfect his studies. At last he fixed on a rural solitude in Glamorganshire, about three miles from the present town of Cowbridge, and there laid the foundation of a church and monastery, which became one of the most famous of all the British schools. It obtained the name of Llancarvan, or the Church of the Stags, because, according to the ancient legend, whilst it was in course of building, some stags from the neighbouring forest, forgetting their natural wildness, came and offered themselves to the service of the saint, suffering him to yoke them to the cart which two weary or discontented monks had refused to draw.

Gildas the Wise, the pupil of St. Iltutus, was invited by Cadoc to deliver lectures in his college, which he did for the space of one year, desiring no other stipend than the prayers of his scholars; and during this time, says John of Tinmouth, he with his own hand copied out a book of the Gospels long preserved in the monastery of Llancarvan. At last the troubles caused by the advancing arms of “the dragons of Germany,” as the Saxons were sometimes termed, obliged Cadoc and Gildas to quit Llancarvan, and take refuge in some small islands lying at the mouth of the Severn called the Holmes. Tradition still points to the Steep Holmes as the place of their retreat; and the wild peony and onion, which blossom there in profusion, but are not to be found on any part of the neighbouring coast, are commonly said to have sprung from those which grew in the garden of Gildas. He did not, however, long remain there, but in company with Cadoc joined some bands of British emigrant who had crossed over to Armorica. The two saints chose for their residence a cave in the little island of Ronech, where their fame attracted a crowd of disciples, who were accustomed twice a day to pass over from the mainland in little boats in order to enjoy their instruction. Cadoc was touched by their perseverance, and at last employed his mechanical genius in the contrivance of a bridge for their use, and did not refuse to deal out to them the bread of science. He made them learn Virgil by heart as well as the Scriptures; indeed his love for the old Mantuan was so enthusiastic that he generally carried the Æneid under his arm, and was accustomed to express his regrets to Gildas that one who on earth had sung so sweetly should be for ever shut out from the joys of heaven. St. Cadoc is said by some to have returned to Britain and found a martyr’s crown at the hands of the pagan Saxons. According to the Glastonbury historians, St. Gildas also returned to his own country, and lies buried among the unnumbered saints of the isle of Avalon.

We have now to turn to the shores of that island which, if termed barbarous by St. Prosper from the circumstance of its never having formed any portion of the Roman Empire, was soon to become the means of enlightening many a land of more ancient civilisation. The history of the mission of St. Patrick has found too many narrators to need repetition in this place, and we shall only advert therefore to such points as have a particular interest in connection with the Irish schools. Whatever disputes have arisen as to the birthplace of St. Patrick, there has never been any difference of opinion as to the sources whence he derived his education. It seems certain that after his return from his second captivity in Ireland he studied for four years at Tours under St. Martin, whose nephew he is commonly said to have been; after which, in the thirtieth year of his age–that is to say, about the year 418–he placed himself under the direction of St. Germanus of Auxerre, with whom he continued his studies. Hence in the hymn attributed to Fiech it is said of him that “he read his canons under Germanus.” The chronology of the next twelve years of his life is exceedingly confused, but he is stated to have been sent by Germanus to study in an island in the Mediterranean Sea, in mari Tyrrheno, which was evidently Lerins. Nennius adds that he also visited Rome, and spent nearly eight years there, “reading and searching into the mysteries of God, and studying the books of Holy Scripture.” The length of time spent by him in Rome appears uncertain, but most writers agree on the point of his having visited the city, and of his being Romanis eruditus disciplinis. Having returned to Germanus, he is said to have accompanied him in his first visit to Britain, and was afterwards sent back to Rome by that holy prelate, who recommended him to Pope St. Celestine as a fit person to be employed in the Irish mission. The endless differences to be found in the various versions of his life do not affect the main facts here established, namely, that he acquired his ecclesiastical training in the first schools then existing in Christendom–those of Tours Auxerre, Lerins, and Rome–and that his institution to the apostolic office was received from the hands of the Vicar of Christ.

On his journey through Gaul we are told by Jocelin that he turned out of his road in order to pay a farewell visit to “his nurse and teacher,” St. Germanus, who furnished him with a welcome supply of chalices, priestly vestments, and books. The same writer adds that he was accompanied into Ireland by twenty Roman clerics, but it appears probable that his companions were chiefly gathered in Gaul and Britain, and Lanigan mercilessly reduces their number from twenty to two. Passing over the circumstances of his first arrival on the Irish coast, and his ineffectual efforts to convert his old master Milcho, we next find the saint in the neighbourhood of Down Patrick, where he instructed, baptized, and tonsured a young disciple named Mochoe, to whom he also taught the Roman alphabet. This last-named incident is one of very frequent recurrence in the life of St. Patrick. Nennius indeed affirms that he wrote no less than 365 alphabets; but, as Bishop Lloyd quaintly remarks, “the writers of those times, when they were upon the pin of multiplying, used generally to say that things were as many as the days of the year.” It is quite certain, however, that this teaching of the Roman alphabet, the first step necessary for acquiring a knowledge of Latin, formed a very common item in the instruction of the Irish converts. We are not to conclude from this with the Bollandists, that previous to the arrival of St. Patrick the Irish possessed no knowledge of written characters, but it is at least clear that the apostle of Ireland considered it a part of his office to diffuse among the people committed to his pastoral care a knowledge of the letters, as well as of the faith of Rome. He also received into his company a number of young disciples, who, after being instructed in the faith, were gradually admitted to holy orders, and given the care of the newly-formed congregation. Thus, on his road to the great festival of Tara, which fills so conspicuous a place in the history of the saint, he preached the faith to a certain man whose young son Benan, or Benignus, fell at his feet weeping, and desiring ever to be in his company; and the saint, with the consent of his parents, received him as his disciple, or, as he is elsewhere called, his alumnus. This event took place on Good Friday; on the following Easter Sunday, when St. Patrick was invited to Tara to hold a conference with the pagan priests in presence of the king, the young neophyte, robed in white, carried the book of the gospels before his master, who advanced with his clergy in solemn procession, chanting an Irish hymn which he had composed for the occasion.

At another time a pious mother brought him her son Lananus, whom St. Patrick delivered to St. Cassan to be instructed in all good learning; and such was the ardour with which the boy applied himself to study, that in fifteen days he had learned the entire Psalter. Again, Enda of Westmeath is represented entrusting his son Cormac to the care of the saint, to be educated by him; and he himself, in his confession, alludes to the sons of the kings who journeyed about with him (qui mecum ambulant). For this first seminary was not fixed in any college or monastery, but, as the above words imply, was formed of those who accompanied the apostle of Ireland in his ceaseless wanderings over the country. Popular accounts, indeed, generally represent him as founding at least a hundred monasteries, and even those who consider that the greater number of the Irish colleges were raised by his followers after his death, admit the fact of his having established an episcopal monastery and school at Armagh, where he and his clergy carried out the same rule of life that he had seen followed in the churches of Gaul. The government of this monastery was committed in the first instance to Benignus, who afterwards succeeded St. Patrick in the primacy.

The school, which formed a portion of the Cathedral establishment, soon rose in importance. Gildas taught here for some years before joining St. Cadoc at Llancarvan; and in process of time the number of students, both native and foreign, so increased that the university, as we may justly call it, was divided into three parts, one of which was devoted entirely to students of the Anglo-Saxon race. Grants for the support of the schools were made by the Irish kings in the eighth century; and all through the troublous times of the ninth and tenth centuries, when Ireland was overrun by the Danes, and so many of her sanctuaries were given to the flames, the succession of divinity professors at Armagh remained unbroken, and has been carefully traced by Usher. We need not stop to determine how many other establishments similar to those of Armagh were really founded in the lifetime of St. Patrick. In any case the rapid extension of the monastic institute in Ireland, and the extraordinary ardour with which the Irish cœnobites applied themselves to the cultivation of letters remain undisputed facts. “Within a century after the death of St. Patrick,” says Bishop Nicholson, “the Irish seminaries had so increased that most parts of Europe sent their children to be educated here, and drew thence their bishops and teachers.” The whole country for miles round Leighlin was denominated the “land of saints and scholars.” By the ninth century Armagh could boast of 7000 students, and the schools of Cashel, Dindaleathglass, and Lismore vied with it in renown. This extraordinary multiplication of monastic seminaries and scholars may be explained partly by the constant immigration of British refugees who brought with them the learning and religious observances of their native cloisters, and partly by that sacred and irresistible impulse which animates a newly converted people to heroic acts of sacrifice. In Ireland the infant church was not, as elsewhere, watered with the blood of martyrs; it was, perhaps, the only European country in which Christianity was firmly established without the faithful having to pass through the crucible of persecution. And hence the burning devotion which elsewhere swelled the white-robed army of martyrs, but which here found no such vent, sent its thousands to people the deserts and the rocky islands of the west, and filled the newly raised cloisters of Ireland with a countless throng who gave themselves to the slower martyrdom of penance and love. The bards, who were to be found in great numbers among the early converts of St. Patrick, had also a considerable share in directing the energies of their countrymen to intellectual labour. They formed the learned class, and on their conversion to Christianity were readily disposed to devote themselves to the culture of sacred letters. At the Easter festival at Tara, already alluded to, the first convert gained by St. Patrick was Dubtach, the arch-priest and poet of the country. His conversion took place in 433, and after that time he devoted his talents to the service of the faith, and taught whatever science he possessed to a school of Christian disciples.

It would be impossible, within the limits of a single chapter, to notice even the names of all the Irish seats of learning, or of their most celebrated teachers, every one of whom has his own legend in which sacred and poetic beauties are to be found blended together. One of the earliest monastic schools was that erected by Enda, prince of Orgiel, in that western island called from the wild flowers which even still cover its rocky soil, Aran-of-the-Flowers, a name it afterwards exchanged for that of Ara-na-naomh, or Aran-of-the Saints. There may yet be seen the rude stone church of the sixth century within which rest the bodies of the 127 saints of Aran, and at no great distance the remains of small beehive houses which served as the abode of the monks. According to Lanigan, who is seldom disposed to assign a very early date to the monastic establishments of Ireland, the foundation of Enda cannot be fixed later than the year 480. It became the nursery of some of the greatest Irish teachers, and was also the resort of students from beyond the sea. Hither came St. Carthag the elder, St. Kieran, and St. Brendan. Here too St. Fursey spent many years in solitude before going forth to found his monasteries in England and France, and here he at last returned from his splendid cloisters of Lagne on the Marne to end his days and be laid to rest in the rude sanctuary of the “Four beautiful Saints.” Nor does the holy soil of Aran fail to cherish a remembrance of St. Columba the Great. He came here before undertaking his mission to North Britain, and his admiration for the Isle of Saints is commemorated in verses wherein he declares that to sleep on the dust of Aran and within the sound of her church-bells is as desirable as to be laid to rest on the threshold of the Apostles.

A little later St. Finian founded his great school of Clonard, whence, says Usher, issued forth a stream of saints and doctors, like the Greek warriors from the wooden horse. Finian was baptized and instructed by one of the immediate disciples of St. Patrick, and after studying under various Irish masters he passed over into Britain, and there formed an intimate friendship with St. David, St. Gildas, and St. Cadoc. He remained for several years in Britain, and on returning to his own country founded several religious houses, in one of which he lectured on the Holy Scriptures for seven years. At last, about the year 530, he fixed his residence in the desert of Clonard in Westmeath, which had up to that time been the resort of a huge wild boar. This desolate wilderness was soon peopled by his disciples, who are said to have numbered 3000, of whom the twelve most eminent are often termed the Twelve Apostles of Ireland. Finian himself is commonly spoken of as the Master of Saints, and is esteemed, next to St. Patrick, as the greatest doctor of the Irish Church. “He was,” says the writer of his life, “replenished with all science as a learned scribe to teach the law of God; and he was most compassionate and charitable, weeping with those that wept and mildly healing the bodies and souls of all who applied to him. He slept on the bare ground with a stone under his head, and ate nothing but bread and herbs,” and his disciples followed the same severe manner of life. Among them none were more famous than St. Columba, St. Kieran, and St. Brendan. The first of these is known to every English reader as the founder of Iona; and Kieran, the carpenter’s son, as he is called, is scarcely less renowned among his own countrymen. Some anecdotes are told of the school life of these two great men, in which the youthful infirmities so frankly recorded of both will certainly not prejudice our opinion of their future sanctity. A school in those days was not exactly arranged after the fashion of Eton or Rugby: the scholars worked for their own maintenance and that of the house; and under monastic masters this initiation into the holy law of labour was never spared even to those of princely blood. The prince and the peasant were accustomed to work and study side by side; and so it was in the school of Clonard. Columba was of royal extraction, while Kieran was of humble birth. The first task assigned the young prince was to sift the corn that was to serve for next day’s provision, and to the surprise of his more plebeian associates he accomplished it so neatly and with such rapidity that they all declared he must have been helped by an angel. Royal and noble scholars, however, are seldom popular in public schools, and Columba had not a little to endure from his companions on the score of his gentle blood. He exacted a deference from them which Kieran in particular would not submit to, and the result was a continual bickering. But at last, says the old legend, an angel appeared to Kieran, and laying before him a carpenter’s rule and other instruments of his trade, said to him, “Behold what thou hast renounced in giving up the world, but Columba has forsaken a royal sceptre.” The good heart of the carpenter’s son was touched with this reproach, and from that time he and Columba only contended in the generous rivalry of the saints.

Of St. Columba’s apostolic mission to North Britain we shall presently have occasion to speak; but first we must trace the fortunes of his schoolfellow, Kieran, who became the founder of another of the most renowned schools of Ireland. Kieran’s future sanctity had been detected by the quick eye of St. Finian before he left Clonard. One day as he was studying St. Matthew’s Gospel, having come upon the sentence, “All things that ye would that men should do unto you, do ye to them also,” he closed the book, saying, “This is enough for me.” One of his comrades, jesting with him, observed, “Then we shall call you not Kieran, but Leth-Matha (half-Matthew), for you have stopped in the middle of the Gospel.” “No,” said Finian, who overheard the remark, “call him rather Leth-Nerion (half-Ireland), for one-half of this island shall be his,”–a prophecy which was fulfilled when half the Irish monasteries accepted his rule. After leaving Clonard, Kieran, having received his master’s blessing and license, repaired to an island in the lake of Erne, where he spent some time studying under St. Nennidius, another of the Clonard scholars. At last he found his way to Aran, where Enda, who was still living, received him joyfully, and employed him during the intervals of study in threshing out the corn for the use of the other monks. After remaining there seven years he founded two great monasteries, one of which was situated on the west bank of the Shannon, at a spot called Cluain-Mac-Nois, or the Retreat of the Sons of the Noble. This foundation took place about the year 548, and thence the austere rule or law of Kieran spread into a vast number of other religious houses.

It is indeed worthy of note that all the great masters of the Irish schools were followers of the most severe monastic discipline. The nurseries of science were often enough the rude cave, or forest hut of some holy hermit, such as St. Fintan, the founder of Cluain-Ednech, or the Ivy Cave, near Mount Bladin in Queen’s County; whose disciples lived on herbs and roots, laboured in the fields, and, like the monks of Menevia, renounced the assistance of cattle. Yet Abbot Fintan was a polished scholar, and particularly noted for his skill as a logician; and learned men came in crowds to the Ivy Cave to perfect themselves in sacred science and the rules of a holy life. One of Fintan’s most celebrated scholars was St. Comgall, who in 559 became the founder of Benchor, near the bay of Carrickfergus. The fame of this great school of learning and religion has been celebrated by St. Bernard, who, in his “Life of St. Malachi,” speaks of the swarm of saints who came forth from Benchor, and spread themselves like an inundation into foreign lands. In the Latin hymn of its old Antiphonary it is extolled as the ship beaten with the waves, the house founded on the rock, the true vine transplanted out of Egypt whose rule is at once holy and learned, simplex simul atque docta. The most famous of its scholars was St. Columbanus, the founder of Luxeuil in Burgundy and of Bobbio in Italy, whose rule spread over most European countries, and promised at one time to rival that of St. Benedict. The letters of Columbanus prove him to have been “a man of three tongues,” to use the ordinary term applied in old times to one who added to his Greek, Hebrew. His acquaintance with the Latin poets is evident in his letter to Hunaldus, and his familiarity with those of Greece in his poetical epistle to Fedolius. And as he was fifty years of age before he left his native land, it is certain that his learning must have been entirely gained in her native seminaries. Another of the Benchor scholars was Molua, or Luanus, as he is called by St. Bernard, who tells us that he founded at least a hundred monasteries. The story of his first introduction to St. Comgall has been often told, but is one of those that can scarcely be told too often. He was keeping his flocks on the mountain-side, when Comgall, attracted by his appearance, wrote out the alphabet for him on a slate, and seeing his eagerness to learn, took him to Benchor and placed him in the school. Luanus conceived such a thirst for the waters of science that he prayed night and day that he might become learned. The prudent abbot, while he admired the zeal of his new scholar, was not without some anxiety lest his craving after human learning might sully the purity of his soul. One day he beheld the boy seated at the feet of an angel, who was showing him his letters and encouraging him to study. Calling Luanus to him, he said, “My child, thou hast asked a perilous gift from God; many, out of undue love of knowledge, have made shipwreck of their souls.” “My father,” replied Luanus, with the utmost humility, “if I learn to know God I shall never offend Him, for those only offend Him who know him not.” “Go, my son,” said the abbot, charmed with his reply, “remain firm in the faith, and the true science shall conduct thee on the road to heaven.”

Luanus was the founder of the monastery of Clonfert, in Leinster, and the author of another religious rule highly prized by his countrymen. The no less celebrated school of Clonfert, in Connaught, owed its foundation to St. Brendan, the fellow-student of Kieran and Columba. Having passed some years under the direction of St. Jarlath at Tuam, and St. Finian at Clonard, and become as familiar with Greek as he was with Latin, he is declared by his historians to have set sail on a voyage in search of the Land of Promise, which lasted seven years. In the course of these wanderings by sea he discovered a vast tract of land lying far to the west of Ireland, where he beheld wonderful birds, and trees of unknown foliage, which gave forth the perfumes of such excellent spices, that the fragrance thereof still clung to the garments of the travellers when they returned to their native shores.

But it is time to speak of the Irish monastic patriot, whose name is known in our own time, as it was probably revered in his own, beyond any of those that have hitherto been mentioned. It was in the year 563 that St. Columba, after founding the monasteries of Doire-Calgaich and Dair-magh in his native land, and incurring the enmity of one of the Irish kings, determined on crossing over into Scotland in order to preach the faith to the Northern Picts. Accompanied by twelve companions, he passed the Channel in a rude wicker boat covered with skins, and landed at Port-na Currachan, on a spot now marked by a heap of huge conical stones. Conall, king of the Albanian Scots, granted him the island of I, Hi, or Ai, hitherto occupied by the Druids, and there he erected the monastery which, in time, became the mother of three hundred religious houses. If Johnson felt his piety grow warmer amid the ruins of Iona, we surely cannot be indifferent while contemplating the site of that missionary college which educated so many of our early apostles, and diffused the light of faith from Lindisfarne to the Hebrides. The life led by its inmates was at once apostolic and contemplative. If at one time the monks of Iona were to be met with travelling through the islands and highlands of Scotland, preaching the faith and administering baptism where no Christian missionaries had hitherto penetrated, at others they were to be seen tilling the soil, teaching in their schools, and transcribing manuscripts. In whatever labours they engaged, Columba himself was the first to lead the way. “He suffered no space of time,” says Adamnan, “no, not an hour, to pass in which he was not employed either in prayer, or in reading, or writing, or manual work. And so unwearied was his labour both by day and night, that it seemed as if the weight of every particular work of his seemed to exceed the power of man.” He penetrated into the Hebrides, and twice revisited his native shores, but on his return from such expeditions he loved to take part in the agricultural or scholastic pursuits of his brethren. He would hear them read or himself read to them, and overlook their work in the Scriptorium, where he required the most scrupulous exactitude. He himself was a skilful penman, and the magnificent Codex of Kells, still preserved in the library of Trinity College, is known to have been written by his hand. Iona, or I-Colum-kil, as it was called by the Irish, came to be looked on as the chief seat of learning, not only in Britain, but in the whole Western world. “Thither, as from a nest,” says Odonellus, playing on the Latin name of the founder, “these sacred doves took their flight to every quarter.” They studied the classics, the mechanical arts, law, history, and physic. They improved the arts of husbandry and horticulture, supplied the rude people whom they had undertaken to civilise with ploughshares and other utensils of labour, and taught them the use of the forge, in the mysteries of which every Irish monk was instructed from his boyhood. They transferred to their new homes all the learning of Armagh or Clonard. Of St. Munn, one of the pupils of Columba, it is said that he spent eighteen years in uninterrupted study, yet this devotion to intellectual pursuits was accompanied by a singular simplicity and love of poverty. Wherever the apostles of Iona appeared, they carried with them the reputation of frugality and self-devotion. Thus Bede remarks on the extreme simplicity of life observed by Bishop Colman and his disciples, how they were content with the simple fare, “because it was the study of their teachers to feed the soul rather than the body.” “And for that reason,” he continues, “the religious habit was then held in great veneration, and wherever any monk appeared, he was joyfully received as God’s servant; and if men chanced to meet him on the way they ran to him bowing, glad to be signed with his hand and blessed by his mouth. And when a priest came to any village the inhabitants immediately flocked to hear from him the Word of Life, for they went about on no other account than to preach, baptize, visit the sick, and take care of souls.”

In every college of Irish origin, by whomsoever they were founded or on whatever soil they flourished, we thus see study blended with the duties of the missionary and the cœnobite. They were religious houses, no doubt, in which the celebration of the Church office was often kept up without intermission by day and night; but they were also seminaries of learning, wherein sacred and profane studies were cultivated with equal success. Not only their own monasteries but those of every European country were enriched with their manuscripts, and the researches of modern bibliopolists are continually disinterring from German or Italian libraries a Horace, or an Ovid, or a Sacred Codex whose Irish gloss betrays the hand which traced its delicate letters. The Hibernian scholars were remarkable for combining acuteness of the reasoning powers with the gifts of the musician and the poet. There were no more accurate mathematicians and no keener logicians than the sons of Erin, whose love of syllogism is spoken of in the ninth century by St. Benedict of Anian. They are admitted to have been the precursors of the mediæval schoolmen, and to have been the first to apply the subtleties of Greek philosophy to Christian dogma. Their love of Greek was, perhaps, excessive, for they evinced it by Hellenising their Latin, and occasionally writing even their Latin missals in the Greek character. In the disputes that arose on the subject of the Paschal computation, they astonished their adversaries with their arithmetical science and their linguistic erudition. St. Cummian, in the Paschal epistle wherein he so ably defends the Roman system, examines all the various cycles in use among the Jews, Greeks, Latins, and Egyptians; quotes passages from Greek and Latin fathers, and manifestly proves how well the libraries of Ireland were furnished, and how competent her scholars were to use them. Nor whilst cultivating the exact sciences did they abandon the muses. Both St. Columbia and St. Columbanus enjoyed a reputation as poets. St. Ængus, the martyrologist, began life as a professional bard, and did not lay aside his harp when he assumed the cowl of the cœnobite; while Ruman, the son of Colman, was called “the Virgil of Ireland,” and is described as an “adept in chronology, history, and poetry.” Rhyme, if not invented in Ireland, was at least adopted by her versifiers so generally, and at so early a period, as sometimes to be designated “the art of the Irish;” and, as Moore observes, the peculiar structure of their verse shows that it belonged to a people of strong musical feeling. Hence they soon became famous for their skill in psalmody, and were esteemed both at home and abroad as first-rate choir-masters; and the legends of the Irish saints are full of passages which describe the kind of ecstasy produced in the minds of this people, so susceptible to the beautiful in every form, by the melody of the ecclesiastical chant. We will give one of these stories, because it introduces us to the founder of the school of Lismore, the last of the great Irish seminaries which we shall notice in this place. Though said to be of noble extraction, Mochuda was employed by a chief in the humble capacity of swineherd. One day as he tended his herd by the banks of the river Mang, he was rapt out of himself by a sight and a sound of beauty altogether new to him. It was the holy bishop St. Carthag the elder, accompanied by a procession of his clergy, who as they went along made the hills of Kerry re-echo to the Psalm-tones, ever ancient and ever new, of the Gregorian chant. St. Augustine has confessed to their power over his heart, and the poor Irish swineherd was not less enraptured by their beauty than the African rhetorician had been. Drawn along, as it were, by the charm of the melody, he left his herd in the fields and followed the singers to their monastery. All night he remained outside the gates, catching at intervals the distant sound of the night office, till when morning dawned he was found there by his master Moelthuili, who desired to know why he had not returned home in the evening as was usual. “Because I was charmed with the holy songs of the servants of God,” replied Mochuda, “and I desire nothing else on earth than that I also may learn to sing those songs.” Moelthuili, who loved the boy, made him large promises of favour if he would remain in his service, but finding his words unheeded, he at last took him to the bishop and begged him to receive the youth among his disciples. St. Carthag bestowed his own name upon him, and admitted him among his scholars, and in process of time the fame of the pupil surpassed even that of his master. In 630 St. Carthag the younger, as he is called, became the founder of Lismore, the fame of whose schools extended into Italy.

“One-half of this holy city,” says an ancient writer, “is a sanctuary into which no woman may enter; it is full of cells and monasteries, and religious men resort thither from all parts of Ireland and England.” One of the most famous masters of Lismore was St. Cathal or Cataldus, the patron saint of Tarentum in Italy, and his numerous biographies in prose and verse never fail to commemorate the glories of his Alma Mater.

Whatever exaggeration may have been committed by the national annalists when they speak of the foreign students who resorted to the Irish schools, it is impossible to doubt that they were eagerly sought by nations of the most distant lands, who, in an age when the rest of Europe was sunk in illiterate barbarism, found in the cloisters of Armagh, Lismore, Clonard, and Clonmacnois, masters of philosophy and sacred science whose learning had passed into a proverb. Camden remarks how common a thing it is to read in the lives of our English saints that they were sent to study in Ireland, and the same expression occurs quite as frequently in the Gallican histories. The prodigious Litany of the Saints, composed in the eighth century by St. Ængus, includes the names not only of Britons, Picts, and Saxons, but also of Gauls, Germans, Romans, and Egyptians, all buried in Ireland. The tomb of the “Seven Romans” may still be seen in the churchyard of St. Brecan in the Isle of Aran, and a church at Meath was commonly known as the Greek Church, so called from having been served by Greek ecclesiastics. Even in the eleventh century the fame of the Irish schools was undiminished, and Sulgenus, bishop of St. David’s, spent ten years studying under their best masters.

Great as was the learning of the Irish scholars, it had in it a certain character of its own. Their theology was deeply tinged with a metaphysical spirit, and in their grammar, no less than their poetry, they displayed a taste for the mystic and the obscure. This is partly to be attributed to the influence of the Toulouse academicians, with whom the Irish scholars eagerly fraternised. They seem to have found something unspeakably attractive in the bizarre language of the twelve Latinities and the novelties of the Toulouse prosody. The strange jargon in which some of their professors were accustomed to indulge occasionally steals into the Hibernian hymns and antiphons; and the Anglo-Saxons who flocked in such multitudes to the Irish seminaries, were not slow in catching the infection. They soon learnt to disfigure their pages with a jumble of Greek, Latin, and Anglo-Saxon syllables, and to expend their patience and ingenuity over compositions in which the great achievement was to produce fifteen consecutive words beginning with a P.

If Ireland gave hospitality in these remote ages to men of all tongues and races, she in her turn sent forth her swarms of saints who have left their traces in countless churches founded by them in Gaul, Germany, Switzerland, and Italy. The children of St. Columbanus reformed the Austrasian clergy, and were the first apostles of the Rhetian wildernesses. At Fiesole, in Tuscany, we find the Irish St. Donatus, compelled by the people to accept the office of bishop, and restoring, at one and the same time, sacred studies and ecclesiastical discipline. The myrtle bowers of Ausonia, however, did not make him forget his native land, for in some Latin verses which Moore has thought worthy of translation, he dwells like a true patriot on the praises of that remote western island, so rich in gems and precious metals, where the fields flow with milk and honey, and the lowing herds and golden harvests supply all the wants of man. At Lucca the English traveller is still startled to find the relics of his own Anglo-Saxon countrymen, St. Richard and St. Winibald, preserved and venerated in a church dedicated to the Irish bishop, St. Frigidian. And whilst the southern shores of Italy were welcoming the coming of St. Cataldus, Iceland and the distant Orcades were receiving missionaries of the same Celtic race.

Hereafter we shall see the scholars of Ireland taking part in the Carlovingian revival of learning, and making it their boast that the two first universities of Europe, those of Paris and Pavia, owed their foundation in no small degree to Hibernian professors. But before that era dawned, they had found rivals, both in their literary and apostolic labours, in the Anglo-Saxon race. The “sea-dragons of Germany,” who had extinguished faith and civilisation in the British provinces which they had overrun and conquered, had received anew those precious gifts from the hands of a great pope, whose instinctive genius led him to transfer to this remote corner of the world the sciences which were fast dying out of the Italian and Gallican schools. The story has been often told, but the course of our history obliges us to tell it over again in the following chapter.

Source:  Augusta Theodosia Drane, Christian Schools and Scholars (1910) .

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