The beginings of monasticism in Ireland

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The Beginnings of Monasticism


1.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.


2.Introduction to Ireland : Several possible routes.

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.



3.For Monastic Founders see pages 98-103 or the handout.


4.The Nature of Celtic Monasticism: The virtues of austerity and asceticism seem to have


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