Keith Hunt - Celtic Church in Britain - Page Ten   Restitution of All Things

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The Celtic Church in Britain #10



by Leslie Hardinge (1972)


     Monasticism did not originate in the Celtic west, nor was it
devised fully developed. It evolved through centuries of
experimentation and adaptation. Anthony founded Christian
monachism in the opening decade of the fourth century. He
stressed the semi-eremitical life. The cenobitic community was
launched into the Church by Pachomius (c. 315), who also made
southern Egypt the centre of his work. A house for women was
first established by the sister of Pachomius. Palladius, the
chronicler of monachism, left a vivid picture of Egyptian
monasticism in 390. Some toiled in garden and field, sowing and
tending the vineyards; others worked at building, cutting logs
and shaping stones; still others went quietly about the tasks of
weaving, cooking, and maintaining the machinery of the
settlement. Then at three o'clock each afternoon, Palladius
reported, one might "stand and hear how the strains of psalmody
arise from each habitation, so that one believes that one is high
above the world in Paradise. They occupy the church only on
Saturday and Sunday."

(Interesting to note Saturday was a "church day" also - yes the
7th day was observed as well as the 1st day, the resurrection of
Christ day - Keith Hunt)


     Several factors encouraged the practice of monachism. The
attempt to escape the Decian persecution drove some Christians
into the desert. A desire to live in piety far from a pagan
society led others to seek solitude. While Gnostics regarded the
flesh as intrinsically evil, orthodox Christians considered its
weaknesses to be incitements to sin. Some ardent souls resolved
that its passions should be subjected to the will, and the
distracting images of the mind destroyed.
     Many expedients were used. Some practices had their
inspiration in Brahminism, while others were devised by
quasi-Jewish sects. Across the centuries Christians borrowed
these techniques for selfmastery and modified them. Celibacy was
increasingly regarded as an important attainment. At first
embraced by few, asceticism gradually came to be a way of life
for more and more men and women. When asked why he acted as he
did, Macarius, the desert brother replied, "Tell them, 'For
Christ's sake, I am guarding the walls.'" Severe fasts were
endured by some desert monks. Dorotheus, for instance, ate only a
few ounces of bread and a handful of herbs each day. The motto of
the masochist in subduing his body was epitomized, "It kills me,
I kill it."

(It was all wrong self-flagation - the beating of the physical
body in various ways - it had already been brought in by the
church of Rome, and hence came into the Celtic church - Keith

     The abandonment of all possessions was adopted to break the
hold of the world upon the soul. Some lived as recluses. The
hermit Serapion the Sidonite had only a cloth to cover himself;
others went naked; and a few attempted to rest without bedding.
Occasionally the ascentic went without sleep for days, while he
spent his time in prayer. By curious ways the saints sought to
slay the flesh. Macarius, in penance for having killed a
mosquito, sat nude in the marshes for six months to be stung.
Pachon slept naked in a hyena's lair. Unable to endure their
self-inflicted ordeals a few even went insane. 

(What the mind of man invents to supposedly be "more religious"
or to think it is more Christ like if the physical body is
punished in various ways - so was and is, the false Christian
religions of this world - Keith Hunt)

     John Cassian was the propagandist of the ideas and ideals of
monachism. He wrote his "Institutes" for those who would war
against the passions of the flesh, and his "Conferences" to
encourage a life of contemplation. His writings had a wide and
profound influence. But in spite of all this even by the fifth
century there were no orders of monks; standards of cenobitism
and asceticism were not fixed, as witness Sulpicius Severus'
remark, "Overeating in Greece is gluttony; in Gaul it is a matter
of course." Each monastery was autonomous. The abbot regulated
the affairs of his colony as he and the brethren agreed. Even the
monk within the settlement might act as he wished regarding his
personal property and the form of austerity he practised. As late
as 420 Palladius remarked that he considered it was indeed better
to live freely as a monk than to have to submit to the constraint
of a vow.


     About 350 Martin is believed to have founded the first
monastery in the west, near Tours. Caesarius established his
community at Arles. Fifty years later Honorius and his friends
chose to live at Lerins. It was here that Eucherius built a hut
for himself and his wife. No rules have survived to depict life
in these settlements. Each community in Gaul was independent.
Martin lived in a wooden hut by himself, while some eighty of his
followers chose caves in the hill near by. Each pursued his own
road to holiness.

     Athanasius (+ 373), writing to a monk named Draconitius to
persuade him to accept a bishopric, left a description of the
stage to which the philosophy of monasticism had developed in his
part of Christendom:

     You may still, after you are made a bishop, hunger and
     thirst with Paul, and abstain from wine with Timothy, and
     fast frequently, as St Paul was wont to do. Let not
     therefore your counsellors throw such objections in your
     way. For we know bishops that drink no wine, and monks that
     do; we know bishops that work miracles, and monks that work
     none. Many bishops are not married; and on the other hand
     many monks are fathers of children, and monks that are not
     so; clergy that eat and drink, and monks that fast. For
     these things are at liberty, and no prohibition laid upon
     them. Every one exercises himself as he pleases; for it is
     not men's stations, but their actions, for which they shall
     be crowned.

     This picture of the family life of "monks" and "bishops"
suggests that celibacy for either was optional in the East before
373. Augustine (+ 430), disturbed by the attitude of a group
calling themselves "Apostolics," charged that "they arrogantly
assumed to themselves that name, because they rejected all from
their communion, who had either wives or estates, of which sort
the Catholic Church had many, both monks and clergy". In the West
also, during the fifth century, there were "monks" who still
exercised their liberty to enjoy family life with their wives and
children, and who continued to hold possessions and property.
These married monks and clerics were members of the universal
Church, but were seeking to live in greater discipline in their
own homes. Augustine vindicated their orthodoxy.

(There is nothing in the NT that teaches we are to punish the
physical body or to be single and never marry - Keith Hunt)

     Now this sort of monk lived side by side with those who had
renounced everything. Some ascetics remained with their families
while others fled into solitude. Still others banded together in
colonies for mutual comfort. In Gaul there are no records that
monks endured the hardships practised in Egypt. Martin was
probably the inspiration for Celtic monasticism. The bee-hive
huts of Ireland have their counterpart in southern Gaul. Out of
this background the monachism of the British Isles probably

     The earliest reference to "monks and nuns" in Ireland is
found in the writings of Patrick. Vindicating his mission he
noted: "Wherefore then in Ireland they who never had the
knowledge of God, but until now only worshipped idols and
abominations - how has there been lately prepared a people of the
Lord, and they are called children of God? Sons and daughters of
Scottic chieftains are seen to become monks and virgins of
Christ." Patrick wrote this some time during the middle of the
fifth century. If he held ideas of monastic practice then
prevalent in the West, he probably meant that many young persons
had accepted the Christian challenge of virtuous living. He left
no word of monasteries in which renunciation or asceticism was


     When the first actual monastic foundation was laid in Celtic
Britain is not known. Ardmore started by Declan and Arran settled
by Enda might have preceded the traditional establishment of
Armagh by Patrick in 445, but the sources are vague. The first
community for which any definite evidence is available was that
which Finnian began at Clonard about 530. During the next fifty
years his disciples, the "Twelve Apostles of Ireland", set up
centres, but the dates are approximate. In 541 Ciaran founded
Clonmacnoise; in 546 Columba established Derry; in 552 Brendan
settled Clonfert in Longford; in 554 or 558 Comgell started
Bangor in Ulster; in 560 Columba began Durrow, and in 563 sailed
away to Iona.


     Finnian was believed by the hagiographers to have been the
first to have devised some sort of monastic rule, but this has
not survived. Before his time monasteries apparently resembled
Christian missionary village compounds, walled off from the
hostile populace, in which a cross-section of Christian society

     Western Christian ecclesiastical government, moulded by
Roman civil organization, gradually grew to be metropolitan and
imperial - a central leader with authority over the affairs of
the Churches in his area. Its logical end was the papacy. Celtic
monasticism, on the other hand, was uninfluenced by Roman civil
organization. The Celts lived in a society in which there were no
cities. The Christians were part of innumerable splintered
agrarian tribes. Some consisted of a few dozen persons, while
others were large. Each tribe was ruled by a chief, whose status
depended upon the wealth and size of his clan. In Ireland there
were generally seven grades of chiefs. Occasionally a tribal
leader became a high chief and dominated several septs.
     Into this tribal social structure Christianity penetrated,
and its organization developed along tribal patterns. Eastern
desert monasticism was modified in Gaul, from where it was
probably adapted to the temperament and environment of the far
western Celts, and blended with their tribal form of life.
     The dependence of the Celtic Christians upon Old Testament
legislation has already been noted. From the background of Mosaic
laws they drew their philosophy of community arrangement,
regarding themselves as a tribal theocracy similar to Israel. The
glossator remarked: "Confirm us to thyself, O Lord; we shall say
that we are thy folk, the nation, of God and the people of God."


     Most of the founders of Celtic monasteries chose the sites
for their settlements purposefully. Some were placed in wide and
fertile plains, as was the monastery of Brigit at Kildare, by the
river Liffey. Here flocks and herds grazed and agriculture was
practised. So, too, were situated the settlements of Clonard and
Bangor. The story is told of the concern of Cronan for the
position of his house. On one occasion a royal visitor had been
unable to find him in Sean Ross. Cronan, therefore, moved his
whole establishment to Roscrea, saying, "I shall not remain in a
desert place where strangers and poor folk are unable to find me
readily. But here, by the public highway, I shall live, where
they are able to reach me easily."
     This urge to dispense hospitality to the wayfarer and the
indigent led to the founding of Christian settlements along the
main roads of Ireland. Derry, Kells, Fore in Westmeath,
Clonmacnoise, and Durrow, for instance, were all easily
accessible. This facilitated travelling from one monastic house
to another, and provided shelter and food for pilgrims. Celtic
monastic communities were placed along the main roads of south
Wales also, and in later centuries, all over the Continent.
     Sometimes the monastery was built within the walls of an old
fort. Aedh, the chief of a section of Donegal, gave his cousin
Columba such a location for his church in Derry, and Columbanus
was granted the site of Annergray. But some Celtic religious had
a predilection for islands. Arran early had a Christian
community, probably started in the early sixth century by Enda.
Inisboffin, Inismurray, and Lindisfarne, and many other islands
were so occupied. Illtyd, some time at the close of the fifth
century, was believed to have been the first to settle on Caldy
Island, off the Welsh Pembroke coast. This house enjoyed a wide
reputation because David had been a scholar there.
     Skellig Michael was at once "the most westerly of Christ's
fortresses in the western world", and perhaps the most
dangerously situated. Twelve miles off the south-western tip of
the Kerry coast, perched almost at the top of perpendicular
cliffs some eight hundred feet high, the settlement was located
on a forty-five degree slope about one hundred and eighty feet
long by a hundred wide. The path led up about one hundred feet,
and then six hundred and twenty hand-cut steps, "the way of the
cross", led to the top. The community consisted of the church of
St Michael, oratories, and dwelling huts. There were two wells
and burial grounds in five different places. Margaret Stokes long
ago wrote this moving description of the place:

     The scene is one so solemn and so sad that none should enter
     here but the pilgrim and the penitent. The sense of
     solitude, the vast heaven above and the sublime monotonous
     motions of the sea beneath, would but oppress the spirit,
     were not that spirit brought into harmony with all that is
     most sacred and most grand in nature, by experience.

     The six dwellings of stone, bee-hive shaped, are still
water-proof. The two smaller oratories of corbelled stone are
rectangular inside, but with the outsides rounded. They each have
an east window, and the entry necessitated that the worshipper
stooped to enter. The wall which protected the settlement on the
cliff-side stands on the edge of a sheer precipice. The courage
and skill of its builders fill the beholder with amazement. Some
nine thousand pairs of gannets have nested on the island from
antiquity, so the monks very probably used the eggs and meat they
had to hand. These island locations reveal the Celtic Christian's
love of isolation and his great hardihood and courage.
     The picture of the Celtic monk fleeing from the world to
some secluded place where he might join battle with the devil has
given rise to the idea that monastic settlements were always
placed in desolate and uninhabited places. But, while there were
such locations, this kind of site was in the minority. Dangerous
and inaccessible regions like Ardillaun or the Skelligs, or
country districts like Glendalough, were chosen, but most of the
settlements were in friendlier, rural places, with trees and
fields and birds' songs for company, as the Celtic Christians
loved the things of nature, and through them gained a sense of
the nearness of God.

     Sometimes, as at Glendalough, the huts were built along the
side of a valley. Here Kevan lived in a cave overhanging the
upper lake of Glendalough. His but could be approached only by a
boat. At other times the huts were ranged around a central green,
while in forested areas the trees were cleared and farm land
cultivated. The Norsemen found these settlements, but no cities,
and attacked and burned them continually. A ninth-century poem
catches the joyous desire of the Celtic Christians for peace and

     I wish, O Son of the living God, O ancient, eternal King,
     For a hidden but in the wilderness that it may be my
     dwelling. An all-grey lithe little lark to be by its side,
     A clear pool to wash away sins through the grace of the Holy
     Quite near, a beautiful wood around it on every side, ... To
     nurse many-voiced birds, hiding it with its shelter.
     A southern aspect for warmth, a little brook across its
     A choice land with many gracious gifts such as be good for
     every plant.
     A few men of sense - we will tell their number
     Humble and obedient, to pray to the King:Four times three,
     three times four, fit for every need, Twice six in the
     church, both north and south
     Six pairs besides myself,
     Praying for ever the King who makes the sunshine.
     A pleasant church and with the linen altar cloth a dwelling
     for God from heaven;
     Then, shining candles above the pure white Scriptures. A
     house for all to go to care for the body,
     Without ribaldry, without boasting, without thought of evil.
     This is the husbandry I would take, I would choose, and will
     not hide it,
     Fragrant leek, hens, salmon, trout, bees.
     Raiment and food enough for me from the King of fair fame,
     And I to be sitting for a while praying God in every place 

     Just as in biblical times the cities were allocated to the
priests and Levites scattered throughout the territories of the
twelve tribes of Israel, so Celtic monastic founders followed the
teaching of the Liber ex Lege Moisi. Wherever they chose to
settle, the Celtic missionaries obtained grants of lands from the
people. This was true not only in Ireland but also in Celtic
communities in Wales, Scotland, north England, and on the
Continent. Many stories furnish evidence for this. Soon after
Patrick came to Ireland, his disciple Lomman converted Feidlimid,
the grandson of Niall. How Lomman obtained a grant of land for
his community was thus chronicled:

     In the morning Fortchern son of Feidlimid went and found
     Lomman with his gospel before him. A marvel to him
     [Fortchern] was the doctrine which he heard. He believed,
     and was baptized by Lomman, ... Feidlimid himself came to
     have speech of Lomman, and he believed, and offered Ath
     Triumm to God, and to Patrick, and to Lomman, and to

     The founding of Armagh was on a site donated by Dare. These
lands remained in the hands of the successors of the original
patrons for centuries. The English inquisitors reported at
Lymmavadon in 1609, upon oath, that these lands were handed down
from generation to generation to the successors of these original
     This plan was also used by Columba in Scotland, for Brude
"granted Iona to Columba"." Iona, in turn, later responded to the
invitation of King Oswald of Northumbria to send a missioner to
evangelize his subjects. On Aidan's arrival, "the king appointed
the island of Lindisfarne to be his see as he asked". Columbanus
sought and found locations in this way on the Continent.

     Following the Norse invasions and the later re-establishment
of the monastic domains, the new generation of clerics apparently
was hard put to to gain its rights. Tales were invented to
provide angelic authorization for these ancient claims 
Donations of animals and furnishings were also presented to
Celtic settlements. The law tract "Heptads" mentions "a cow which
is given to God". A kitchen utensil or cauldron was donated by
Dare to Patrick, who also bestowed "on him the stead wherein
Armagh stands today". The same tract further notes "land which is
given to a church for one's soul", because of services which the
clerics might render to the people. Should the Church prove
remiss the gift was forfeit. And so by these various means the
wealth of a Celtic religious house increased from generation to 


     Tithing was carried out in early times by the Hebrews. The
practice passed to the Celtic Christians from the Liber ex Lege
Moisi. Giraldus Cambrensis noted a current tradition of the
twelfth century that tithing had been introduced into Britain by
Germanus and Lupus about 445, as well as first-fruits and other
Hebrew offerings: "They give the first piece broken off from
every loaf of bread to the poor ... They give a tenth of all
their property, animals, cattle, and sheep, either when they
marry, or go on a pilgrimage, or, by the counsel of the Church,
are persuaded to amend their lives. This partition of their
effects they call tithe." Cadoc, abbot of Llancarvan, directed
how the tithes should be distributed: "Whoever shall decimate,
ought to divide the property into three parts, and give the first
to the confessor, the second to the altar, and the third to those
who pray for him." Eadbert, the successor of Cuthbert on
Lindisfarne, was "a man who was well known for his knowledge of
the Scriptures, [and] his obedience to God's Commandments ...
Each year, in accordance with the Law, he used to give a tenth of
all beasts, grain, fruit, and clothing to the poor." The Brehon
regulations appear to be an application of Malachi's message of a
blessing on those who were faithful in tithing. Celtic
legislators noted the antidote to "the three periods at which the
world is worthless: the time of a plague; the time of a general
war; the dissolution of express contracts"; and then pointed out
that "there are three things which remedy them: tithes, and
first-fruits, and alms; they prevent the occurrence of plague;
... war; and they confirm all in their good contracts." These
tithes and first-fruits and alms were carefully defined in the
laws: "Tithes, i.e. with limitations [the amount is limited or
specified]. Firstfruits, i.e. the first of the gathering of each
new fruit, i.e. every first calf, and every first lamb, and
everything that is first born to a man. Alms, i.e. without
limitation, or charity." These regulations of the law tracts,
which applied the teaching of the Liber ex Lege Moisi, were
reinforced by the penitential books. The Irish Canons present a
picture of the Celtic methods of payment: the tithes should be
presented annually from the fruits of the ground, "since they
spring up each year". This applied also to "animals and humans,
since we have the benefits of the same every year". Nothing was
exempt from tithing: the produce of flock and herd and garden and
field. Even the children in the family were tithed. When a father
had ten sons, he was required to present one to the Church. The
method used to determine which son should be given as tithe was a
curious Celtic one. After the presentation of his firstborn as
the first-fruits, nothing [is] due from him [the father]
afterwards until he has ten sons; and when he has, lots are to be
cast between the seven best sons of them, and the three worst are
to be set aside [exempted] from the lot-casting; and the reason
they are set aside is in order that the worst may not fall to the
church. And the son who is selected has become the tenth, or as
the firstborn to the church; he obtains as much of the legacy of
his father after the death of his father as every lawful son
which the mother has, and he is to be on his own land outside,
and he renders the service of a saer stock [free user of the
land] tenant to the church, and let the church teach him
learning, for he shall obtain more of a divine legacy than of a
legacy not divine. 

     Should the family grow very large the father was also
required to pay "every tenth birth afterwards, with a lot between
every two sevens". This rule greatly increased the wealth of the
monastic settlements.


     The dependence of the Celtic Church on the Liber ex Lege
Moisi is further illustrated by the way in which the first-fruits
were paid. "First-fruits are whatever is born of the flocks
before others are born" in a given year. All "these things ought
to be presented at the beginning of harvest, and they were
offered once in the year to the priests at Jerusalem", the
penitential, the Irish Canons, continued. "Nowadays, however,
each person [pays] to the monastery of which he is a monk." It
should be noted that it was to the custom of the Hebrews, and not
to the church traditions, that this appeal to authority was made.
The laws required that a man's property be divided carefully, and
"one-third of every legacy" be presented to the Church at his
death." Besides these regular contributions to those who
ministered, later practices enlarged the offering made by the
"tribe of the people" to the "tribe of the church":

     Any church in which there is no service to manach tenants
     for baptism and communion and the singing of the
     intercession; it is not entitled to tithes or to the heriot
     cow or to a third of each bequest.

     But even more than all this was required of the people for
the support of those who ministered to them in the Church:

     Any church in which there is an ordained man of the small
     churches of the tribe apart from the great churches, he is
     entitled to the wage of his order, that is, house, and
     enclosure and bed and clothing, and his ration that is
     sufficient for him, without exemption, without neglect of
     all that is in the power of the church, that is, a sack with
     its  "kitchen", and a milch cow each quarter, and the food
     for festivals.

     While the tribe was responsible for these items, each member
was required to make his personal contribution: "These are his"
reciprocal duties to the ordained man: a proper day's ploughing
each year, and with its seed and its arable land, and half of
clothes for mantle or for shirt or for tunic. Dinner for four at
Christmas and Easter and Pentecost." This comparatively late
"rule" fathered on Patrick some practices which evidently had
grown up following the Norse raids.
     Celtic laws, especially Irish laws, were half secular, half
ecclesiastical. Occasionally a monastic leader would formulate 2
code which would prove beneficial to the people. Irish writers
frequently allude to what they designate "the four laws of
Ireland": "These are the four cana of Ireland: Patrick's law not
to kill the clergy; and Adamnan's law, not to kill women; Daire's
law not to kill or steal cattle; and the law of Sunday, not to
transgress thereon." 

(We notice here how Sunday had become a holy day. They did not
teach that the 4th commandment was "done away" but that it was
changed from Saturday to Sunday - Keith Hunt)  

     Besides these there are records of several other laws.
     Evidently the populace showed their appreciation for the
results of these enactments by giving offerings to those who
framed them. The monastic settlement which inherited the rights
of the founder and legislator soon discovered that its revenues
might be augmented by reminding the people of these benefits.
There are many references in the Annals of tours made by the
heirs of saints to promulgate these "laws" again and again.
     Occasionally the "relics" of the saints would then be taken
along if he had not framed a law, and these would be used for
raising revenue. The great fairs were special occasions on which
the people were persuaded to pay their dues. In fact the Irish
word "cain" made the double meaning of "law" as well as "tax" or
"tribute". By this means the wealth of the monastery was still
further augmented. The cemetery of a saint was considered a
privileged spot, and one who was buried in such a place would not
go to hell. The greater the reputation of the saint, the greater
wealth would thus accrue to his settlement through burial dues.
     But these customs grew up after the times of the Norse


     The Celtic ecclesiastics had rigid views regarding those
from whom they might accept alms. These "shall not be accepted
from any Christian who has been excommunicated." It was further
stipulated that "it is not permitted to the Church to accept alms
from pagans". But these strict regulations were later modified
"Be content with thy clothing and food; reject other things that
are the gifts of the wicked since the lamp takes nothing but that
by which it is fed." Later legislators went farther. The gifts
which Nebuchadnezzar presented to Daniel were cited as precedent
for taking whatever a pagan might offer. J. Kenney observed that
this was the decision of the Roman party in the Celtic Church,
and paralleled Theodore's attempts to reverse the rulings of the
strictly Celtic penitential requirements.
     The Old-Irish glossator left comments suggesting opposition
to mendicancy. On St Paul's words, "Do your own business", he re-
marked "that ye be not a-begging", adding: "These are other
things now which he blames here, namely, unsteadiness and
indolence and mendicancy; he beseeches them, then, that these
sins may not be with them", continuing, "we have not been
restless in begging from you". Commenting on the Apostle's phrase
"slow bellies", the Irishman deprecated clerics who were sluggish
at service, and who were constantly begging for dinners. The
penitential of Finnian went as far as to stipulate that monks who
baptized should not receive alms for their services.


     It is not difficult to see that from all these sources of
income some settlements might grow enormously wealthy. Here is a
picture of the status of one saint which gives an idea of the
position of a church leader in his locality:

     In the days of Lent, Saint Cadoc was accustomed to reside in
     two islands, Barreu and Echni. On Palm Sunday, he came to
     Nantcarvan, and there remained, performing Paschal service,
     feeding daily one hundred clergymen, and one hundred
     soldiers, and one hundred workmen, and one hundred poor
     persons, with the same number of widows. This was the number
     of his family, besides serving attendants and esquires and
     well-dressed guests, the number of which was uncertain, a
     multitude of whom frequently came to him. Nor is it to be
     wondered at, for being rich he was able to feed so many,
     being an Abbot and a Prince over the territory of his
     progenitor; from Fynnon Hen, that is, from the Old Fountain,
     as far as the river Rhymny; and he possessed all the
     territory from the river Gulich to the river Nadauan, from
     Pentyrch direct to the valley of Nantcarvan; and from that
     valley to the Gurimi, that is the Lesser Rhymny, toward the

     He certainly was wealthy and generous, a prince of people
and Church. The impression left by the records is that during the
early centuries Celtic clerics kept aloof from pagans, not even
accepting their alms. Only after pagans became believers would
they receive gifts of land or produce from them. In later
centuries, however, they not only solicited alms, but often even
"cursed" any who refused. The pious, hard working missionary
finally gave way to the wandering mendicant, who, repudiating the
earlier philosophy of his Church, begged in place of toiling for
food and lodging.

(And so today we have "ministries" that have become physically
wealthy, and whose ministers often live the physical life that we
think only millionaires can live - Keith Hunt)


     No monastic settlement had all the buildings which are here
to be described. The larger colonies probably had most, while in
the smaller ones the buildings were greatly limited. Celtic
monasteries had no communal dormitories. Each person, or perhaps
each family on occasion, had an individual cell, which was made
of wattles and plastered. The shape of the cell was round, and of
the simplest form. The monk lived, worked, wrote, and studied in
his hut. Sometimes caves were chosen in place of buildings. The
Christian hung up his bag containing his books. His bed was the
most rudimentary, the more ascetic preferring to sleep on the
ground with a stone pillow, in imitation of Jacob. Skins helped
to keep him warm on a floor carpeted with straw.
     In larger monasteries there was a separate refectory in
which the family of religious ate communal meals. These were also
built of wattles and poles or planks. Stone was used when the
more easily worked materials were not at hand. Hospitality was
shared generously, Ciaran's case being typical of the larger

     Full fifty and a hundred Ciaran's Dun used to feed, Both
     guests, and weaklings, And folk of the refectory and upper

     W. Stokes suggested that the word translated "upper room" is
derived from the Irish term for sun, and might indicate a
solarium. He could not find this word used elsewhere, and felt
that it probably indicated a flat roof on which meals might be
taken during good weather. The older brethren dined below, and
hence two categories were mentioned in the poem. During
mealtimes, at least on more solemn occasions, some member of the
society might read a sermon or a portion oś the Scriptures to
those who "eat when preached unto".

     Near the refectory was a kitchen, where a fire was kept
burning constantly. This had been blessed and was held to be
sacred, and was never to be extinguished. One of Ciaran's
disciples failed in his duty and allowed the fire to go out. The
Devil was believed to have instigated this lapse. "Ciaran of
Saigir said that he would not partake of food until guests should
come and bring him fire." Presently fire was brought down from
heaven, and all was well! Close to the kitchen was generally a
supply of water, a spring or stream, or even a well. On occasion
there might also be a pool in which the monks might refresh
themselves by washing their hands and feet after toiling in the
fields. Once King Lugaid demanded taxes from Senan, who had
refused. The king, wishing to get even with the recalcitrant holy
man, ordered his horse to be maintained by the saint in lieu of
the levy: "'Take ye my racehorse to the cleric, and let it be fed
on corn with him.' Thereafter the horse was brought to Senan and
he was put into the pool of the refectory to be washed, and the
horse was immediately drowned in the pool." Cattle evidently were
permitted to refresh themselves at such pools.

     As the size of the monastic community increased, the need
for a guest-house became imperative. The Rule of Ailbe
recommended "a clean house for the guests and big fire, washing
and bathing for them, and a couch without sorrow". What a
charming picture of simple hospitality. At the end of a long
journey, foot-sore, cold, and dirty, what more would the simple
pilgrim need? Hospitality was an inflexible rule of all Celtic
settlements. Dire penalties were to be inflicted on those who
failed to supply the wants of the needy.


     The Celtic house of worship was a very small structure. The
dying Ciaran was carried to his "little church". Its shape was
generally round, although some oratories were rectangular. There
was at least one church to each Christian settlement, but there
might be two or even seven. Like the huts of the people, churches
were constructed of stakes driven into the ground. Between these
were fixed woven wattle screens. The interstices were plastered,
and with Celtic artistry were probably decorated. No traces of
these buildings survive. Where large trees were available,
churches were made of planks. Finian sent his monks "into the
wood to cut trees for the church". At Iona "oak timbers" were
hauled in for this purpose. The oratory which the brethren from
Iona built on Lindisfarne was of "hewn oak thatched with reeds
after the Scots' manner". Straw might also be used for roofs, or
where unavailable, sods were substituted. Very rarely is a
"church built of stone" mentioned in the sources. One such was on
an island reached by Brendan. The wattle rods were "peeled" to
prevent termites lodging under the bark. Windows and doors must
have been of the most rudimentary sort.

     Architects and craftsmen were employed whenever they were at
hand. When Cadoc was erecting a church, those who were felling
the trees for timber were joined by "a certain Irishman, named
Linguri, a stranger, but a skilful architect, being forced by
poverty, [he) came to him with his children, that by the practice
of his skill, he might procure food for himself and family, and
he was gladly received by the man of God, and engaging in the
work. . ." His assistance was appreciated by all.


     Penitential cells also appear to have been provided in
certain monasteries. Those under conviction of sin might retire
to these either voluntarily or under the advice of a soul-friend.
The OldIrish Penitential declared that the habitually
ill-tempered reviler should be "expelled from the church to a
place of penance". While this does not specify a special cell,
this is probable. The penitential cell would in all likelihood be
situated in a secluded spot. The mention of "dark houses" might
also refer to them. De Arreis connects "hard penance" with a
"dark house or in some other place where no hindrance comes".
     This retreat might also be called a "stone prison" for


     The floors of churches appear to have been covered with
straw, hence great care was to be exercised not to drop any holy
thing, such as Communion bread, or any valuable thing into it.
The larger communities would also contain cells for anchorites,
infirmaries for the sick, and homes for the foster children who
were cared for by the monastery. There would also be a separate
school house in which pupils were taught in bad weather. At
Tallaght there was a "lecture room".


     Before the church or settlement was occupied, it was always
piously and ceremoniously dedicated to the service of God. The
story illustrating one such ceremony of consecration has been
preserved: "Now after that Senan and the angels went
righthandwise round the island till they came again to the Height
of the Angels, after they had consecrated the island." Innis
Cathaigh was the monastic settlement of Senan. The survival of
this pagan practice in Celtic Christian ritual is evidence of the
pervasive and persistent influence of heathenism. This, however,
was not the usual method. A fast of forty days, with earnest
prayer for divine blessings, was the more common way. Bede
described how Lastingham was dedicated to God by just such a
ceremony. Another way was for a high ecclesiastical official to
come and carry out the solemnity. An early penitential, that
attributed to Patrick, ruled that "if anyone of the presbyters
builds a church, he shall not offer [the sacrifice in it] before
he brings his bishop that he may consecrate it; for this is
proper". At the time of its dedication the place of worship was
probably given a name. This, in the early Celtic period, was the
name of its founder, and not that of some honoured personage. J.
Haly pointed out that, with a great deal of probability,

     it is at present easy to tell by the name whether a church
     has been founded before or after the Anglo-Norman invasion.
     If it be a church of Patrick, Columba, Kevin, or any Irish
     saint, it is almost certainly pre-Norman, and it is so
     called because the saint named founded, or is supposed to
     have founded, a church on that spot. But if it bear the name
     of St Mary, or St Peter, or any saint not associated with
     Ireland itself, there need be no hesitation in deciding that
     its origin is to be overlooked for in that period when the
     combined influence of Rome and England was changing the old
     Of course there would be exceptions to this distinction in
modern times, but it seems to have been true for the Celtic


     These Christian walled settlements were called "cities".
Brigit's Kildare was called "the city of Brigit", and
Clonmacnoise was known as "the city of Ciaran". This procedure
recalls an Old Testament custom: Jerusalem was known as the "city
of David". These settlements had no cloistered court and no
common refectory or sleeping room. Each monk, as has been noted,
had his separate cell or cottage, where he might live with his
family if he chose. The whole group of separate buildings was
surrounded by a wall or cashel. It was this which imparted a kind
of coenobitic touch to the encampment. The absence of one large
church is another notable feature. The foundation was in the
nature of a laura or separate huts in which each provided for
himself, rather than a coenobium in which the familia had all
things in common, sleeping, eating accommodations, and with joint
ownership of property.
     The limits of these "cities" or estates which had been given
for ecclesiastical purposes were carefully and clearly marked.
This Celtic practice, with its ramifications, may be traced to
the Liber ex Lege Moisi. The Old Testament legislation which had
to do with the cities of the priests and Levites, contained this

     Command the children of Israel, that they give unto the
     Levites of the inheritance of their possession cities to
     dwell in; and ye shall give also unto the Levites suburbs
     for the cities round about them ... from the wall of the
     city and outward a thousand cubits round about ... (Num.

     The old law tract Precincts reads almost like a paraphrase
of this Old Testament statement, the cubit giving place to the
pace: "One thousand paces is the extent of the precinct of a
saint, or a bishop, or a hermit, or a pilgrim, if it be in the
plain, and two thousand paces from the precinct of every noble
cathedral." While the general principle holds good in the cases
for which records exist, the exact extent of land which belonged
to a church varied from place to place. For instance: "Then did
Conall measure out a church for God and for Patrick with sixty
feet of his feet. And Patrick said: 'Whosoever of thy offspring
shall take from this church, his reign will not be long and will
not be firm.' Then he measured Rath Airthir with (?) his crozier.
Instead of the cubit the Celtic ecclesiastic here used his pace.
Patrick was also believed to have measured Ferta with his feet:

     The way in which Patrick measured the rath was this-the
     angel before him and Patrick behind the angel; with his
     household and with Ireland's elders, and Jesu's staff in
     Patrick's hand; and he said that great would be the crime of
     him who should sin therein, even as great would be the
     guerdon of him who should do God's will therein.
     In this wise, then, Patrick measured the Ferta, namely seven
     score feet in the enclosure, and seven and twenty feet in
     the greathouse, and seventeen feet in the kitchen, seven
     feet in the oratory; and in that wise it was that he used to
     found the cloisters always.

     But these comminatory stories probably sought to establish a
custom which had grown up later and needed Patrician
authorization. Only one dimension is given for each edifice,
probably because the buildings and their enclosure were circular.
While Patrick was said to have measured his settlements in this
way, neither archaeological nor written records corroborate this
fact. However, at Ardoilean, an island off the Galway coast, the
area within the walls was roughly rectangular, approximately 115
feet by 70 feet. Other monastic ruins have been found enclosed
within irregularly shaped walls.


     The nature of these walls varied with the purpose for the
barriers. The simplest was a hedge or fence to keep the cattle
belonging to the tribe of the church from straying, and to
prevent the animals of the tribe of the people trespassing. There
were many variants. At Lindisfarne the rampart was of stones held
together by sods. Becan also built a stone wall around his
settlement. At Neendrum the palisades are very considerable,
consisting of three concentric walls, roughly circular. They
apparently date from pre-Christian times, and were used by later
Christian occupants of the site. The walls of Tara present a
similar view. The bounds of a Christian steading at Dundesert,
County Antrim, consisted of a trench around the walls that used
to be about 

     the breadth of a moderate road; and the earth which had been
     cleared out of it was banked up inside as a ditch, carrying
     up the slope to about the height of sixteen or twenty feet
     from the bottom. The whole face of the slope was covered
     with large stones, embedded in the earth. Concentric with
     this enclosure, and at about the interval of seven yards,
     was another fosse, having a rampart on the inner side,
     similarly constructed, and on the area enclosed by this
     stood the church, east and west, 90 feet long and 30 wide.
     The ruined walls were about six feet high and five thick.
     The burial ground was principally at the east end of the
     building, and the whole space outside the walls was covered
     with loose stones. The two entrances were of about the same
     breadth as the fosse, and were paved with large flat stones,
     but they had no remains of a gateway.

     This structure was obviously built for defence. Ditches,
walls, and palisades, all speak of purposes other than worship.
When need arose, the enclosure was used as a place of sanctuary
for the fugitive and for the safety of its regular inhabitants.
The walls were sometimes built by the saints themselves. On one
occasion when visitors "arrived, thus they found Becan, building
a stone wall, with a wet sheet around him, and praying at the
same time".


     Within the walls the property was sacrosanct. Originally
granted as the home of the patron saint the law stipulated that
the refuge was to extend "on every side, that is their inviolable
precinct", that is, there was not to be unauthorized "entry into
a church over its mound". The number of gateways varied. Into the
monastery court of Ardoilean there were no fewer than four
entries. Frequently crosses were placed directly at the entrances
as reminders that the area was sacred. At the west gate of
Monasterboice stood a magnificant cross; in fact three Celtic
crosses survive there to this day. Often, however, only a stone
pillar, marked with a rude carving of a cross, indicated the way
into the holy place, as on Skellig Michael. It was an Old
Testament custom to set up a pillar to mark a boundary between
two parties, and to indicate a holy place. The monastic "cities"
were evidently regarded as fulfilments of the Hebrew "cities of
refuge" through which God's will might be carried out for all




Keith Hunt

To be continued with "Monasteries"

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