Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Irish Missionaries

The following is taken from The Irish Moment by Terrence Sheehy, an excellent book with mnay beautiful pictures of Eire and an excellent commentary on the role of the Irish in Catholicism and European history:

The famous German monk Walafridus Strabo wrote: 'Going on pilgrimages to foreign parts has become, for Irish monks, second nature.' It is difficult to make a head count of Irish missionaries to the Continent, but during the earliest days of the 'wanderers'. it is estimated that about twenty-five Irish monks went to Scotland, fifty to England, nearly one-hundred to France, over one-hundred to Germany and twenty to Italy. Each monastic foundation in these countries sent out hundreds more missionaries, so that from the beginning of the fifth century to the end of the tenth their numbers could have been counted in the thousands.

The spiritual invaders of the Europe of the Dark Ages frequently travelled in groups of twelve like the first apostles, and were often led by a learned monk, abbot or bishop. A noisy bunch, they were also an astonishing sight. Dressed in a coarse, white woolen over-tunic and sometimes the semblance of a cowl, they had no possessions except knowledge - no gold, no silver. Some may have appeared to be rough and ready, not to say uncouth. Yet their deep-seated piety was unmistakeable. Such was their obvious delight in voyaging across dangerous and sometimes unchartered waters and tramping across unknown wastelands that many were said to have been born under a wandering star. Their passion for travel was insatiable, but their passion was a genuine vocation to higher things, to the leading of a more ascetic life. They were not all that far distant in time from the days of Christ and the primitive faith set out by St. Paul.


Iona Abbey in Scotland, founded by St. Columba (Columcille) in 563, and from which he converted the Picts and brought Scotland into the fold.

They travelled on foot. Unlike any other men in the religious life - who favored the small tonsure on the crown of the head - the Irish monks wore their hair in a fashion that was peculiar to the Druidic Celts. Continentals were astonished by, and in awe of, these men with their heads shaven right across from ear to ear, leaving unshorn, however, half the crown towards the front of the head. They wore their hair long at the back of the neck, their locks hanging down to their shoulders. Each wore simple, hand-made sandals and carried a crude, wooden staff, a leather gourd for water and a small wallet for food and writing materials. They spoke with passion and eloquence, at first through interpreters until they had mastered the language of the country in which they were preaching and teaching.

Their primary targets were the pagan tribes that had overrun Europe after the Fall of the Roman Empire. Rome finally fell to the German Visigoths, led by Alaric, in 410. After them had come the Huns, led by Attila, together with Gothic infantry - in all a horde of a million or so barbarians without a written language or rule of law between them. And after them had come the Moslems who followed the teachings of Mahomet. Their progress west had only been halted by the Franks in 732 under Charles Martel, at Poitiers. Not all that many years later Charlemagne held back the barbaric hordes from the forests beyond the Rhine , and prevented the Saracens from taking Provence.

The 'counter-invasion' of Irish monks was to lead to the gradual cultivation of the intellectual wasteland that was Europe after the invasions of the Dark Ages. Universities and other centers of learning in Europe established by these men were based on the monasteries at Armagh, Bangor, Clonamacnoise and Durrow from which they came. The 'wanderers' swept through Wales, Scotland and England and on to France, Belgium, Switzerland and Italy, reaching as far as the Danube and even the Volga. Their was no stopping their progress - they travelled as far as Greenland and Iceland in the north and as far to the east as Jerusalem and even Kiev.

In France their main base was established at Luxeuil. Charlemagne, who had witnessed them setting up their stalls in the markets and shouting 'No visible goods, knowledge for sale!', invited them to reform religion and education throughout his empire. Irish monasteries sprang from the famous monastery of Saint Gall in Switzerland. St. Kilian evangelized France and Thuringia. Irish monks founded monasteries at Strasbourg and Friesing, Virgil became the Bishop of Slazburg, St. Colman became the martyr-apostle of southern Austria [martyred and buried at Melk Abbey, where I have personally visited, though at the time I had no idea who the heck St. Colman was] and St. Frindolin became the very first apostle of Alsace. Marianus Scotus founded the monastery at Ratisbon, from which twelve other monasteries were born . All were Irishmen.

The Irish tide soon swept over the Alps. In the middle of the sixth century, St. Ursus was at work in Val d'Aosta and St. Freidan was Bishop of Lucca. In the seventh century, mighty St. Columbanus founded the famous monastery at Bobbio. St. Cataladus of Lismore, County Waterford, was cast up by the sea on the coast of Taranto in a violent storm, ultimately to become the Bishop of Taranto. In the ninth century, St. Donatus was made Bishop of Fiesole.

The great monasteries brought about a cultural revolution in Europe, and the Continent was once again drawn into the production of classical and liturgical manuscripts and studies of all kinds in the spiritual life. During the Irish Golden Age, students at monastic universities sometimes numbered up to three thousand. From these misson stations they carried Christianity to every corner of pagan Europe, being in the full flower of missionary activity until the year 1000 or so. To them is owed the rebirth of Christianity in Western Europe. It is held by some that one of the secretaries of the great St. Thomas Aquinas was an Irish monk from Cork. It is certain that a man known as Peter the Irishman was an early professor of St. Thomas at Naples. He taught the 'Dumb Ox of Sicily, whose lowing would soon be heard all over the world', to read Aristotle in the original Greek, setting the Angelic Doctor on his special path to becoming one of the greatest doctors in the history of the Church, renowned for his Summa Theologica.

The wandering monks were a disturbing lot sometimes. Many were abbots or bishops and local episcopal authority did not always welcome their using their episcopal powers in the course of their wanderings. Then also, the Irish monks celebrated Easter at a different time from everyone else. They followed the old Paschal cycle, the same one St. Patrick followed when he lit the first Pachal fire in Ireland on the Hill of Slane in County Meath, causing the High King of Tara to send for him for breaking the sacred annual black-out of the pagan Druids. And the strange tonsure of the Irish monks was ever a problem. For sure, the world did not always always appreciate the work of these men at the time, but with hindsight, European civilization has learned to understand their major contribution to restoring Christianity to the Continent of the Dark Ages.

The Irish monks turned the spiritual world upside down for, unlike the monks of other nations who lived and died in their monasteries, Irish monks figuratively took their monasteries with them on their spiritual wanderings. The record of the Celts in receiving the message of Christ from St. Patrick was also unique, inasmuch as the pagan Irish never martyred a missionary sent among them. As natural orators who loved truth, Irish missionaries were unusually good preachers and teachers, fortunate too in preaching the Gospel from th soundly united Christian base. Unlike their kind today, they were not obliged to suffer either a divided Christendom in Europe, or the horror of a native land where men and women destroy each other in the name of religious bigotry based on hate.

The last sentence, of course, is a reference to the tragic state of North Ireland today, where for decades Catholics have been savagely repressed by the Protestant English people of Ulster. I will have something in a few days about the modern crisis in Ireland between the Unionists, IRA, Sinn Fein, the Republicans, Orange Order, the Ascendancy and all of these other bizarre groups who are fighting in Ulster, perhaps the only place on earth where the passions and violence of the Reformation area are still a reality for thousands.

3 comments:

Anselm said...

Looks like a good book, you should feature it on the sidebar. Have you ever read, and if so what is your opinion of, the book called "How the Irish Saved Civilization"?

BONIFACE said...

Well, I have read that book, by James Cahill. It gives a very flattering picture of the Irish contribution, but it does it at the expense of the Roman contribution. He extols the Irish and St. Patrick but trashes St. Augustine for being too dogmatic and intolerant. The book is a veiled attack against the "Romanization" of Christianity, which the author sees as regrettable. In fact, the final sentence of the book reads something like, "That's how the Irish saved civilization...and if naybody comes to save civilization this time, we can be sure of one thing: it won't be the Romans."

Cahill is a liberal Catholic along the lines of ex-priest James Carrol ("Constantine's Sword") and ex-seminarian John Cornwell ("Hitler's Pope"). While the praise he gives to the Irish is well founded and very informative, his dissing of the Roman establishment and the Latin fathers ruins the book.

BONIFACE said...

Ha...I just did a Google search for this book, The Irish Moment, by Terrence Sheehy, and the only link to it was on this blog. I should have known...the book was published in 1988 nd is probably long gone.