Missionary Outreach in Britain

The Beginnings of Monasticism

Origins of Monasticism

Introduction to Ireland

Monastic Founders

The Nature of Celtic Monasticism

 Features of Celtic Monasticism: (Three main vows-poverty, chastity, obedience)


Roles within the Monastery


Monastic Sites

 Importance of the Monasteries:



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Origins of Monasticism

  • Monasticism is derived from the teachings of Jesus on renunciation, suffering and charity (The Rich Young Man).  St. Paul also emphasises the importance of self-denial or asceticism in order to purify the soul by purifying the body.
  • Early monastic ideals are outlined in the Acts of the apostles and were developed by Church Fathers like Ignatius, Clement and Origen. The main Characteristics were poverty, fasting, prayer, compassion and charity.
  • Desert Fathers-the Egyptian Model: Monasticism as was practised in Ireland owes its origin to the ascetic practices of hermits like St. Anthony who retired from normal life to lead a life of solitude in the Egyptian desert. This eremitical life of solitude was replaced a community lifestyle (cenobitical) in which monks came together and lived and worshipped under a common rule. Pachomius is credited with first introducing this system. This practice seems to have spread gradually across the continent and into Gaul and Britain from where it ultimately reached Ireland.


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Introduction to Ireland

  • Patrick himself speaks of converting “monks and virgins” for Christ though Hanson doubts if he actually founded monastic houses as such. In Tirechan’s 7th century “Brief Account” of Patrick’s life three supposed “sayings” of Patrick are preserved, one of which suggests he spent time in southern Gaul.  Ryan argues that he spent time at the Monastery of Lerins under Honoratus.  Bieler accepts that Muirchu is accurate in saying Patrick trained under Germanus in Gaul and so would have been familiar with monastic practice there.
  • Nora Chadwick, Stokes and others argue that Ireland was directly influenced by the writings and teachings of the Desert Fathers hence place names with the word “desert” eg Desertmartin.  Francois Henry points to Eastern influences on Celtic art as furter evidence of direct contact.
  • British sources: There is no doubting the influence British monasteries had on the development of monasticism in Ireland.  Two main centres dominate, one in Scotland seeding northern Irish monasticism and the other in Wales seeding the south.
  • Candida Casa was St. Ninnian’s foundation in Galloway in Scotland and was a training ground for monks from Ireland like Enda , Eoghan and Finnian who would establish important monastic centres in Ireland itself.
  • In Wales Illtud’s monastery at Caldey Island was important. There monks like Cadoc were trained. Cadoc is said to have visited Ireland and had close associations with Finnian of Clonard. Cadoc was supposedly “soul-friend” to Gildas. Ryan argues that Gildas’ teaching was highly influential in Ireland. In particular his highly critical view of the lifestyle led by British and continental bishops may have commended the monastic life as the more acceptable form of devotion.
  • St David, too, may have had such disciples as Aedan, Finbarr and Brendan. 
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Monastic Founders

Enda of Arran


One of the great founding fathers of Celtic monasticism

Probably born in the 5th century in Meath

He made his way to Ninnian’s foundation, Candida Casa in Galway before returning to his brother, King Aengus of Cashel

He then asked Aengus to grant him the land of Arran island, refusing more fertile, vaster lands

He made his foundation at Arran in 480, which was noted for his severity (he forbade use of tools)

John Ryan – it was with Enda that that Monasticism in a strict sense began in Ireland.

Brigit of Kildare

Most Info on Brigit comes from Cogituos 

She refused to get married, claiming that she wanted to be a 'virgin for christ'

She took her views before Bishop Mel and along with 7 other girls established a foundation in Kildare

She was renowned for her genorosity to the poor

Brigit died around AD525

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The Nature of Celtic Monasticism

The virtues of austerity and asceticism seem to have been practised to varying degrees of severity and emphasis depending on the monastic founder.  Evidence comes from the hagriographies, rules and penitentials of the day but it appears that with the receding possibility of “red martyrdom” that is actually dying for the faith, “green martyrdom” or the ascetic lifestyle was the next best thing and Irish monasteries became famed for the unique combination of a hard life with a profound pursuit of learning and devotion as well as physical labour.


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Features of Celtic Monasticism: (Three main vows-p


Poverty: all property was owned in common. The Rule of Columbanus forbids any personal possessions and clothing was of the most simple (tunica, casuala and capa).

vigour both in thought as well as action.


Chastity: Possibly in reaction to pagan ****** practices, chastity was pursued with vigour both in thought as well as action.


Obedience: In reference to Christ’s obedience to the Father (Gethsemane) monks would pledge obedience to their abbot as a further sign of the submerging and submission of self.  Their lives would be directed by the abbot or father.


Community: the monastic community became the monk’s new family. Ideally the monk would leave his own territory (“lesser exile”) and move to a distant monastic house. Leaving Ireland itself was known as “greater exile”).  Both Columba and Columbanus emphasised the importance of love within the community.


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 The embrace of the ascetic ideal was evidenced in several ways.


Food and fasting: normally only one meal a day in early afternoon. Most food was meagre and poor in quality. Beer was allowed though penalties for over-indulgence were severe. Fasting was a daily practise and was increased during Lent and advent.

The elderly, the sick and guests might be exempt.


Prayer: Both private and communal. Louis Gougaud has identified the practice of praying “crossfigell” and frequent signs of the cross, genuflections and prostrations were common. Generally five periods of prayer each day including nightime.


Silence: Casual talk was forbidden and punished severely.


Sleep: Interrupted often by prayer.  Monks beds were deliberately uncomfortable.


Work: Monasteries produced their own foodstuffs and other materials. Every monk was expected to do some form of manual work, often without tools. Every activity was seen as a form of devotion.


Discipline: Increased fasting and prayer were common but most common was physical punishment-generally beatings with a strap (see Penitentials)

Learning and Study: Not for nothing did Ireland become known as the Land of Saints and Scholars. The love of learning and the creation and illumination of books were an integral part of daily life and yet another important feature of devotion. Each monastery had its own library/scriptorium. Aspects of learning were:

Study and copying of scripture, Latin and Greek, writings of the Church Fathers. Poetry, grammar, oratory, writings from classical literature (Virgil, Horace etc.),

Art and metalwork, writing of rules, penitentials and annals. Columba was particularly keen to preserve ancient Irish folklore in his monasteries.


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Roles Within the Monastery

The monastery was governed by the Abbot or Father who had absolute authority and could select his own successor, normally from within his own tribe or immediate family. He was assisted by a “minister” or private secretary.

Seniores were elders and advisors.

Guest-master was a feature of larger monasteries as was the “Vice-Abbot” who acted as a land manager.

The Cellarer presided over the kitchen.

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Monastic Sites

Monastic sites were chosen usually far from the founder’s home and in some ways reflected their primary purpose and importance. Bangor, for instance, by the sea meant ease of communication and Glendalough and Clonmacnois were at important junctions.

Isolated sites like Skellig Michael, Aran and Innishmurray were favoured for obvious reasons. Some like Mt. Brandon were on Mountain tops.

Many were located near pagan shrines such as Armagh, Moville or Kildare or at royal forts like Derry and Clogher.

Monastic Buildings

Monasteries in general followed the architectural pattern of the ancient rath. An enclosure protected by a ditch and rampart within which were the main dwellings comprising the church, refectory, library/scriptorium, guesthouse, kitchen and individual cells.


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Importance of the monasteries

Spiritual Perfection- monastic life was seen as the ultimate form of devotion. Abbots were frequently designated as saints in their own lifetime. Spiritual perfection was encouraged through penitential practices and not only monks but lay people could avail of the monasteries to fulfil penances.


Facilitating learning- apart from the studies of the monks themselves children could also be sent to monastic centres for their education. The nobility frequently availed as an alternative or addition to fosterage and Columba himself is a notable example.  Bede commends Irish monasteries for the quality of learning which is given freely.


Preserving and transmitting culture- Such works of art as the Book of Kells and the Ardagh Chalice are products of the Irish monasteries but they also preserved ancient writings and produced historical texts of their own time like the Annals of Armagh.


Sanctuary- Under Brehon Law monasteries were protected from violence.  Criminals could seek sanctuary and undergo reform and monasteries could also hold valuables for safe-keeping.


Hospitality- This was a key feature of all Irish monasteries and on the continent Irish monasteries entertained pilgrims to the holy shrines while at home treatment of guests was a symbol of status.


Towns and Villages- in a land which was devoid of central conurbations the monasteries became the nucleus of settlements of people who would use them or support them in various ways and populate the area around them for their own convenience either of worship, schooling, trade or employment which is highlighted by scholars like Kathleen Hughes and Hamlin.

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Unique features of Celtic Monasticism

Although monasticism was not an invention of the Celtic Church and most features were borrowed from Eastern or European practices it is nevertheless true to say that the way in which these features were developed and combined in Ireland gave Irish monasteries a very distinctive and unique flavour.


Asceticism: Irish practices were much harsher than elsewhere.  As well as crossfigell Gougaud highlights the practice of plunging or standing in cold streams.  Ploughing was often done without animals. Diet and dress were most basic.  Columbanus introduced his rule to the continent but it was gradually replaced by the less severe Rule of St. Benedict.

John Ryan points out that what was particularly unique was the combination of such a lifestyle with the pursuit of learning which saw the monks take the place of the druids and filid or poets in Irish life.


Apostle and Anchorite: what was also unique was that the monk had somehow to seek solitude whilst being mindful of the pastoral needs of his community.


Peregrination: As Liam de Paor points out Celtic monasticism was “from its beginnings a missionary movement” which meant that monks had almost duty to go on pilgrimage among strangers and foreigners which many did to Britain and the Continent.


Organisation and Government: Gradually monasteries began to dominate the ecclesiastical scene in Ireland and Abbots would ultimately eclipse the power of the diocesan bishop.  They were supported by kings and nobility and confederations of monasteries or “paruchiae” would extend the influence of individual abbots even after their death.


Women: Celtic monasticism was highly inclusive and women could hold very influential positions within the Irish church as for example Brigid who apparently presided over a double monastery of men and women in Kildare.  There is even a legend that she was appointed bishop.

The prominence of women in distributing communion would lead to problems on the continent as Louis Gougaud identifies from complaints by bishops in the French province of Tours.

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