A common image of the medieval Irish monk is that of a venerable old scribe bent over a lectern with quill in hand, as he carefully copies the text of the gospels onto a vellum parchment. Biographies of saintly academics from Finnian of Clonard and Brendan of Birr to later clerics like Fr Luke Wadding (founder of the Irish college in Rome) and Florence Conry (founder of the Irish College of Louvain) add to the general perception of the enlightenment of our monastic brethren.
Yet there is no shortage of evidence to suggest that monks sometimes succumbed to the temptations of their earthly surroundings, and particularly so in the 8th and 9th centuries.
Before the first towns were ever founded in Ireland, a monastic settlement would have provided a focus for a community. The monks may initially have grown their own food, but the constant influx of novices ensured that lay workers such as stonemasons, carpenters, and blacksmiths were always required, and as more craftsmen and tradesmen (metalworkers, millers, brewers, for example) settled in the vicinity, a small monastery could grow to considerable size, becoming in effect a small town. With the patronage of the local kings, the wealth of the monasteries could swiftly accumulate. Valuable manuscripts, ornaments and vessels of precious metals, relics, hides, textiles, cattle, all would increase significantly in number and value. The monasteries, from being centres of piety and learning, became centres of wealth and power. For this reason they were often subjected to attacks, either by looters such as the Vikings or by politically-motivated raiders from opposing kingdoms. The monks, though, were not always cast in the role of victims.
The importance of the monasteries was reflected in the alliances forged between abbots and the local ruling dynasties. In some cases, the leading clerics were themselves kings. Feidhlimidh mac Crimthainn was a Ceile De, a monk of strict observance, who became king of Munster from 820 to 846. During his reign he plundered and burned the abbeys of Fore, Clonmacnoise, Kildare, Durrow and Tallaght and took the abbacy of Cork and of Clonfert for himself. He died of dysentery, reportedly divine retribution from the sixth-century founder of Clonmacnoise. According to the Annals “King Feidhlimidh was overtaken by a great disease of the flux of the belly. While he was resting in his bed, St Ciaran appeared to him with his habit and Bachall, or pastoral staff, and there gave him a push of his Bachall, in his belly, whereof he took his disease, and occasion of his death “.
Feidhlimidh’s warlike nature was not unusual among his peers. In 760, the monastery of Clonmacnoise waged war on that of Birr; and in 764 on that of Durrow, when over 200 were killed; In 807 Cork went to war with Clonfert, and “there was an innumerable slaughter of the ecclesiastical men and superiors of Cork”. In 817 Taghmon engaged in a battle with the monastery of Ferns in which 400 were killed. Kildare plundered the Ceile De monastery in Tallaght in 824. The monks of Taghmon in Wexford successfully held off a Viking attack in 828, while the monks of Armagh led the battle against the Vikings at Carlingford Lough in 831. The abbot of Terryglass, in Tipperary and the vice-abbot of Kildare died fighting the Vikings at Dunamase.
Nor was violence the only vice of the clerics. It was common for monks and abbots to have concubines, and indeed, as late as 1473 the prior of Clontuskert abbey in Galway, Donatus O’Kelly, was charged with the keeping of such concubines and even accused of murder.
The story of St Colmcille, also known as St Columba (not to be confused with St Columbanus), shows both sides of the monk: the sword and the scripture. Colmcille once borrowed a manuscript of the psalms from his former teacher, Finnian of Moville, and then proceeded to make a copy of it. When Finnian learned of this, he demanded the return of both the original and the copy. Colmcille sought a judgement from the High King, Diarmuid, who ruled in favour of Finnian, saying that “To every cow it’s calf and to every book it’s copy”. Colmcille was furious and this was, for him, the straw that broke the camel’s back. Some time previously, his kinsman Curnan had fatally injured an opponent in a hurling match and had sought holy sanctuary with Colmcille, but Diarmuid’s soldiers had breached that sanctuary and slain Curnan. Now Colmcille, who was a prince of the royal O’Neill clan, raised an army and led them into battle at Cul Dreimhne, at the foot of Ben Bulben in Sligo. Three thousand of the king’s men died in the battle, but Colmcille was so overcome with grief and guilt that he resolved to become an exile as penance. He sailed to Iona, where he founded the famous monastery and became known for his wisdom, his humility and his piety.
For all of the mayhem in which the medieval monks occasionally got involved, it is worth remembering the treasures produced in the Irish monasteries of the time, works such as the incomparable Book of Kells and the earlier Book of Durrow, the magnificent chalices of Ardagh and Derrynaflan. It is worth remembering the role of the monks as hospitallers, as alms-givers, as educators. It is worth remembering too the role played by Irish monks in Europe during the Dark Ages, bringing with them on their travels their manuscripts and establishing centres of learning throughout the continent – St Columbanus in Bobbio, St Gall in Switzerland, St Fiachra, St Goban, St Fursey, and many more. After the collapse of the Roman Empire and the destruction caused by Huns, Goths, etc, it was these holy men who single-handedly saved civilisation in Europe.
Small wonder, though, that in the tumultuous world that was medieval Ireland, some monks chose to live in isolated locations such as Skellig Michael or Oughtmama!