On the Trail of Ireland’s Mysterious Early Christian Monks
by Michael Durnan and Beverly De Soto Stevens
The Irish developed a Christian civilization quite separate from Europe or England, mainly through the stunning achievements of her monastic tradition. Ireland’s monks literally sailed from Eire to bring the light of the Faith and learning to Dark Ages Britain, Scotland and France.
In this wide-ranging photo essay, Regina Magazine’s Michael Durnan takes us on a fascinating tour of Ireland’s Early Christian monks and the ruins of their civilization.
Our journey begins at the very earliest recorded times of Ireland, when the Roman legions still dominated England over the Irish Sea. St. Patrick — once a slave forced to work in Irish fields — has returned as a Catholic bishop and brought the light of the Faith with him from continental Europe. He has made early converts, defying Druids and necromancers alike.
But those early Celtic Christian monks who seek to live the Christian life that Patrick taught must live apart in order to nurture the flame of the Faith. And that is why if we peer through the mists of Europe’s Dark Ages, we can discern the dim outlines of Monasterboice in County Louth, north of Dublin.
Today, this is still a lonely spot amidst green fields, with ravens circling overhead — the ancient, austere ruins of the Celtic monastery of Monasterboice, or Mainistir Bhuithe, founded in the late 5th C. by St. Buithe.
At Monasterboice, far from any towns or villages, we find an important centre for Celtic Christian monasticism and learning which functioned for 500 years until the foundation of nearby Mellifont Abbey in 1142. This mysterious site houses two churches built in the 14th C. and an earlier Round Tower, but it is most famous for its 10th C. Celtic High Crosses.
Muirdeach’s High Cross is regarded as the finest High Cross in the whole of Ireland. It dates from the early 10th C. and stands 16 feet tall. The Cross derives its name from an inscription at the base which reads, “A prayer for Muirdeach for whom the Cross was made”.
The Cross is covered in bas relief carvings which include the story of Adam and Eve and The Crucifixion which is on the centre of the cross on its western face.
The slimmer and taller Western Cross, which is located near the round tower, is nearly 20 ft. in height, making it the tallest Celtic High Cross in Ireland.
The Western Cross also dates from the 10th C. but its carvings are more weathered and less clear. It stands near Monasterboice’s round tower, which is over 110 feet tall and was divided into four or more stories inside, connected with ladders.
As with other round towers in Ireland, this was used as a belfry, watch-tower, and a refuge for monks and valuables during times of Viking attack.
Vikings sought out monasteries to rob and plunder because Catholic monks were generally unarmed and isolated, and their church plate — altar chalices, etc — were often valuable items. Records indicate that the interior of the Monasterboice tower went up in flames almost a thousand years ago in 1097 AD, destroying many valuable manuscripts and other treasures.
A few decades after Monasterboice was founded, another Celtic Monastic settlement was founded by St. Kevin in the 6th century at Glendalough (‘Gleaan Da Loch‘ in Gaelic) in County Wicklow, south of Dublin. This was one of the most important early monastic sites of the Celtic Church in Ireland, as from this developed a Monastic City.
The name ‘Glendalough’ means the ‘valley of two lakes’ in Irish and it is a beautiful location with idyllic, peaceful scenery of lakes, mountains and valleys that made it an ideal location for the monastic life.The story of Glendalough begins with St. Kevin, or Coemhghein, a descendant of one of the ruling families of Leinster.
As a boy, Kevin was educated by three holy men, Eoghan, Locan and Eanna and it was during time he first visited Glendalough and was captivated by it. As a man, he would return and become a hermit there. Like St John the Baptist, Kevin wore animal skins, slept on stones or in a cave and ate sparingly.
Kevin was joined by many followers and his fame spread far and wide and soon Glendalough became a place of scholarship, learning and a seminary. St. Kevin presided over the community at Glendalough and lived his life fasting, praying and teaching, until his death in 618 AD.
Now, we travel forward in time several hundred years — through the Dark Ages to the 1100s — before we come to a monastic settlement built on the European plan. Mellifont Abbey, or Mhainistir Mhor (‘The Big Abbey’), is a ruined 12th-century Cistercian monastery near Monasterboice in County Louth.
It is of considerable historical significance, for it was the Cistercians’s first and most important abbey in Ireland, and a site of conflict between the Irish and the Anglo-Normans. Most of what remains of the great Mellifont Abbey is only foundations, but there is a fine lavabo that is mostly intact, along with the chapter house and a section of the cloister. There are also evocative ruins of a great gateway and a small church nearby.
By the mid-12th century, Irish monastic life (as in many other places) had become significantly less austere and more corrupt than in earlier days. So in 1140, Malachy, Bishop of Down, invited a group of severe Cistercian monks from Clairvaux to set up a monastery in Ireland and act as a reforming influence. Malachy had stopped by Clairvaux in France during a pilgrimage to Rome and had been so impressed by St. Bernard (founder of the Cistercian order) and his monks that he converted to the monastic life himself. Malachy was canonized a saint after his death.
A group of Irish and French monks settled in this remote site in 1142 and began construction in the traditional Cistercian style. This marked the first time that a monastery was built in Ireland with the formal layout used in the Continent.
They were amazingly successful. Within a couple decades, before Mellifont’s church was even consecrated, nine more Cistercian monasteries were established in Ireland. At its height, Mellifont was the mother house of 21 monasteries and as many as 400 monks made Mellifont Abbey their home. In 1152, the abbey hosted the Synod of Drogheda. By this time, all the monks of Mellifont were Irish, for an early dispute between the native Irish monks and the imported French monks led to the departure of the latter.
Why is there so little left of this once-mighty abbey? Sadly, after the Dissolution of the Monasteries under King Henry VIII, Mellifont Abbey was demolished and sold. In a pattern widely seen in British history, a fortified Tudor manor house was built on the site in 1556 by Edward Moore, using materials scavenged from the monastic buildings.
The final leg of our time-travel through the glories of Ireland’s monastic past begins on the shores of Clew Bay in the shadow of Ireland’s most holy mountain Croagh Patrick. Murrisk Abbey was founded in the 15th century by the Augustinian Friars. The abbey was endowed by Lady Maeve Ní Chonchubhair, wife of Lord Dermott O’Malley and mother of Tadhg O’Malley.
Tadyg O’Malley (who is believed to be the grandfather of Grace O’Malley, Clew Bay’s famous “Pirate Queen”) was a chieftain of that area, and he gave the Abbey to Father Hugh O’Malley of Corpus Christi. O’Malley had got permission from Pope Callistus III in 1457 to build a church and friary at Murrisk, near the foot of Croagh Patrick.
It‘s believed that the Augustinian Friars in Murrisk changed the pilgrimage path to St. Patrick’s Mountain from its original route because they regularly used this route to go up the mountain to pray. The monks established a great friendship with the people of the surrounding area and helped them with food and shelter when needed.
Murrisk Abbey was just over 100 years in existence when in 1578 the lands belonging to it were leased to James Garvey, a brother of the Church of Ireland (Anglican) Archbishop of Armagh. From that point on, very little is known about the circumstances of the friars from 1570 to the early 1800’s when Murrisk Abbey finally ceased to function.
For centuries, Ireland’s Christianity was centered on monasteries like these. In this time of crisis of the Faith, unprecedented in the country’s long history, one can only wonder what role tomorrow’s monks may play in saving the Faith in Ireland.
AUTHOR MICHAEL DURNAN, here pictured flanked by writer/photographer Harry Stevens and Regina Magazine Editor Beverly De Soto Stevens in an Irish pub, is the grandson of Irish emigrants to the Liverpool area. He has been a Catholic school teacher for almost 30 years.