Keepers of the Light
Perspectives on Irish Monasticism
Spectacular coastal locations along Ireland’s wild Atlantic were once home to anchorites and monastic communities. “Oileán an Easpaig Gortaigh” the Island of the Starving Bishop, is a sea stack rises 250 feet high atop a sheer overhanging cliff off the coast of Co. Clare. Skellig Michael in Co. Kerry is a famous UNESCO world heritage site, where the beehive huts of a monastery still remain much as they were 1,300 years ago. Inisboffin off the coast of Co. Mayo is another monastic settlement of note. On the settlement of Tory Island off the north coast of Donegal we can see an Irish tau cross, the symbol of monastic authority.
St Enda of the Aran islands in Co. Galway is regarded as the patriarch of Irish monasticism. The old saying was ‘if you cannot go to Rome or Jerusalem, go to Aran’. Aran was called ‘Ára na Naoimh’ or ‘Aran of
the Saints’. The three Aran islands of Inis Maan, Inis Mór and Iniseer have beehive huts and monastic sites all over them. It is clear that Aran, was an important centre of spirituality in Ireland. It also seems the form of Christianity once practiced in Ireland differ from that of today. Monastic life developed in the near East in late antiquity and was inspired by God’s command to Abraham in Genesis 12:1: ”Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you”. In Ireland, there were no rules for the monastery written in the way that the Franciscans or other European religious orders had rules. Every Irish monastery was different and followed the spirit of the founder. Irish monasticism was thus a unique expression of Christianity found in the Celtic regions. At the time, it did not sit well with mainstream Christianity within the rest of Europe and was considered heretical (Pelagian) and a thorn in the side by the episcopacy and papacy of those centuries. In Ireland, it was only finally overcome through Norman invasion in the 12th century. Until Ireland became Roman Catholic in the 12th century, Christianity was uniquely celebrated in its Celtic form on this island.
Daily life in the monasteries was concerned with the control of the self and spiritual rather than material concerns. While the clergy and episcopate in Europe at that time were known to have often led opulant lives, poverty or frugality was certainly important to the Irish monks.
Before the three vows of Poverty, Chastity and Obedience came into existence in the 12th century, celibacy was not uniformly practiced. There is plenty of evidence of Irish monks having offspring. At this time, most of the monks would have lived as ‘cenobites’, i.e. in a community of hermits. Anchorites lived a distance away from the monastic community but were looked after by them. Ireland’s monastic settlements had a role in preserving the learning and wisdom of European civilization. These sanctuaries of purity and devotion sent forth monks of courage and character who became the leaders and teachers to bring Europe out of the Dark Ages.
With thanks to Dara Molloy, Celtic Priest of the Aaran Islands (www.daramolloy.com) who shared his deep knowledge of life and belief in early Christian Ireland.
For full listings of Early Christian Sites in Ireland visit www.earlychristianireland.net