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History Of The Scottish Nation
Vol 2, Chapter 18 - The Schools of early Ireland

Patrick stamped his image upon Ireland as Knox did at a later day on Scotland. Simply by the power of Christian truth he summoned into being an Ireland wholly unlike any that previous ages had seen, and if possible still more unlike the Ireland which we find in existence at this day. At the voice of Patrick the land shook off its hoary superstitions and its immemorial oppressions, as the mountains do the fogs of night when touched by the breath of morning. It stood forth an enlightened, a religious, and a prosperous country. The man who had wrought this wondrous transformation on it was now in his grave, but his spirit still lived in it, and the tide of renovated life which he had set flowing in the nation continued for some centuries in full flood. There came no foreign invader to put his yoke upon the neck of its sons, or to rob them of their scriptural faith. Left in peace they addicted themselves to the labours of the plough, and the yet nobler labours of the study. The first made their country a land of plenty, the second made them renowned throughout Europe as a nation of wise and learned men. The glory with which Ireland at this period shone was all the brighter from the darkness which had overwhelmed the rest of the world. Asia and Africa were passing into the eclipse of Islam. The rising cloud of superstition was darkening Europe. The nations seemed to be descending into the tomb, when lo! at that moment when knowledge appeared to be leaving the earth, there was lit in the far West a lamp of golden light, which was seen shining over the portals of the darkness, as if to keep alive the hope that the night which had settled upon the world would not be eternal.

We must now bestow a glance at the times that succeeded the death of the country's great reformer. They deserve our attention, for they were astir with noble and beneficent activities. To walk in the steps of Patrick was the ambition of the men who came after him. The labours of that most fruitful period may be arranged under the five following heads: there was the building of churches; there was the erecting of schools and colleges; there was the preaching of the Word of Life; the teaching of the Scriptures; and the training and sending forth of missionaries to foreign lands. The Gospel had given the Scots of Ireland peace among themselves. The sea parted them from the irruptions and revolutions that were at that hour scourging continental Europe. They were not blind to this golden opportunity. For what end had they been provided with a quiet retreat from which they might look out upon the storm without feeling its ravages, if not that they might be ready, when the calm returned, to go forth and scatter the seeds of order and virtue on the ploughed fields of Europe. Accordingly they kept trimming their lamp in their quiet isle, knowing how dark the world's sky was becoming, and how pressingly it would yet need light-bearers. If sept strove with sept it was in the generous rivalry of multiplying those literary and religious institutions which were fitted to build up their country and reform their age. The national bent, the perfervidum ingentium, turned with characteristic force in this direction, and hence the sudden and prodigious outburst of intellectual power and religious life which was witnessed in Ireland, in this age—that is, in the sixth and succeeding centuries, and which drew the eyes of all the continental nations upon it as soon as their own troubles left them free to observe what was passing around them.

Leaving the missions for after narration, we shall here offer a brief sketch of the schools of Ireland. We have already said that wherever Patrick founded a church there he planted a school. From this good custom Patrick's successors took care not to depart. The church and the school rose together, and religion and learning kept equal pace in their journey through Ireland. The author of the ancient catalogue of saints, speaking of the period immediately succeeding Patrick, says, "It was the age of the highest order of Irish saints, who were, for the most part, persons of royal or noble birth, and were all founders of churches," and by consequence planters of schools. [1] The historian O'Halloran writes, "Every religious foundation in Ireland in those days included a school, or, indeed, rather academy." "The abbeys and monasteries," he continues, "founded in this (sixth) century, are astonishingly numerous." And again, "The abbeys and other munificent foundations of this (seventh) age, seem to have exceeded the former ones."[2]

Curio, an Italian, in his work on Chronology, also bears testimony to the number and excellence of the schools in Ireland. "Hitherto," he exclaims, " it would seem that the studies of wisdom would have quite perished had not God reserved to us a seed in some corner of the world. Among the Scots and Irish something still remained of the doctrine of the knowledge of God, and of civilization, because there was no terror of arms in those utmost ends of the earth. And we may there behold and adore the great goodness of God, that among the Scots, and in those places where no man could have thought it, so great companies had gathered themselves together under a most strict discipline.''[3] We do not wonder that this learned Italian should have been filled with astonishment when the cloud lifted, and he saw, rising out of the western ocean, an island of wise men and scholars where he had looked only for barbarous septs tyrannized over by brutal chieftains. We at this day are just as astonished, on looking back, to find Ireland in that age what these writers have pictured it. And yet there comes witness after witness attesting the fact. "The disciples of St. Patrick," says our own Camden, "profited so notably in Christianity, that in the succeeding age nothing was accounted more holy, more learned, than the Scottish monks, insomuch that they sent out swarms of most holy men into every part of Europe." After enumerating some of the abbeys they founded abroad, Camden goes on to say, "In that age our Anglo-Saxons flocked from every quarter into Ireland as to the emporium of sound literature, and hence it is that in our accounts of holy men we frequently read, 'he was sent for education to Ireland."[4]

Not less explicit is the testimony of the historian Mosheim. "If we except," says he, speaking of the eighth century," some poor remains, of learning which were yet to be found at Rome and in certain cities of Italy, the sciences seem to have abandoned the Continent, and fixed their residence in Ireland and Britain." And again, "That the Hibernians were lovers of learning, and distinguished themselves in these times of ignorance by the culture of the sciences beyond all other European nations, travelling into the most distant lands, both with a view to improve and communicate their knowledge, is a fact with which I have been long acquainted; as we have seen them, in the most authentic records of antiquity, discharging with the highest reputation and applause the functions of doctors in France, Germany, and Italy, both during this (8th) and the following century."And speaking of the teachers of theology among the Greeks and Latins in the ninth century, Mosheim says, "With them authority became the test of truth, and supplied in arrogance what it lacked in argument . . . The Irish doctors alone, and particularly Johannes Scotus, had the courage to spurn the ignominious fetters of authority."[5]

It is hard for us at this day to realise the Ireland of those ages as these witnesses describe it, the picture has since been so completely reversed. And yet, if it be possible to prove anything by evidence, the conspicuous eminence of Ireland during those centuries must be held as perfectly established. Like Greece, it was once a lamp of light to the nations; and, like Egypt, it was a school of wisdom for the world—a lamp of purer light than ever burned in Athens, and a school of diviner knowledge than Heliopolis ever could boast.

We have called these institutions schools. The chroniclers of the middle ages, who wrote in Latin, term them monasteries.[6] We prefer to speak of them as schools. It is the word that rightly describes them. The term monastery conveys to the modern mind a wholly false idea of the character and design of these establishments. They rose alongside the church, and had mostly as their founders the same royal or noble persons. They were richly endowed with lands, the gift of kings and chieftains, and they were yet more richly endowed with studious youth. They were just such monasteries as were Oxford and Cambridge, as were Paris and Padua and Bologna in succeeding centuries. They trained men for the service of church and state; they reared pastors for the church; and they sent forth men of yet more varied accomplishments to carry on the great missions movement in Northern Europe, which was the glory of the age, and which saved both divine and human learning from the extinction with which they were threatened by the descent of the northern nations, and the growing corruption of the Roman Church. Even Bede [7] speaks of then as colleges, and so, too, does Archbishop Usher. The latter says, "They were the seminaries of the ministers; being, as it were, so many colleges of learned men whereunto the people did usually resort for instruction, and from whence the church was wont to be continually supplied with able ministers.

Historic truth, moreover, requires that we should distinguish between these two very different sets of institutions, which are often made to pass under the same name, that is, between the schools of the sixth and seventh centuries, and the Benedictine monasteries, which were obtruded upon and supplanted than in the twelfth and thirteenth. Till times long posterior to Patrick no monk had been seen in Ireland, and no monastery had risen on its soil. On this head the evidence of Malachy O'Morgain is decisive. Malachy, Archbishop of Armagh, was one of the earliest perverts to popery among the Irish clergy, and he was one of the main agents in the enslavement of his native land. His life was written by his contemporary and friend, the well-known St. Bernard of Clairvaux in France. This memoir lifts the veil and shows us the first monks and monasteries stealing into Ireland. "St Malachy, on his return to Ireland from Rome," says St. Bernard, "called again at Clairvaux . . . and left four of his companions in that monastery for the purpose of learning its rules and regulations, and of their being in due time qualified to introduce them into Ireland." In all countries monks have formed the vanguard of the papal army. "He, (Malachy) said on this occasion," continues St. Bernard, "They will serve us for seed, and in this seed nations will be blessed, even those nations which from old time heard of the name of monk, but have never seen a monk."[8] If the words of the Abbot of Clairvaux have any meaning, they imply that up till this time, that is, the year 1140, though Ireland was covered with institutions which the Latin writers call monasteries, the Irish were ignorant of monks and monkery. And this is confirmed by what we find Bernard afterwards writing to Malachy:—"And since," says he, " you have need of great vigilance, as in a new place, and in a new land that has been hitherto unused to, yea, that has never yet had any trial of monastic religion, withhold not your hand, I beseech you, but go on to perfect that which you have so well begun."[9] This evidence is decisive of two things: first, that monasteries, in the modern sense of the term, were unknown in Ireland till the middle of the twelfth century, when Malachy is seen sowing their seeds; and second, that the ancient foundations were not monasteries, but schools.[10]

The primary and paramount study in these colleges were the SCRIPTURES. They were instituted to be well-springs of evangelical light. But they were not restricted to the one branch of theological and sacred learning, however important it was deemed. Whatever was known to the age of science, or art, or general knowledge was taught in the schools of Ireland. The youth flocked to them, of course, but not the youth only; patriarchs of sixty or of threescore years, in whom age had awakened a love of knowledge, were enrolled among their pupils. As every age so all ranks were permitted to participate in their advantages. Their doors stood open to the son of the serf as well as to the son of the prince. No nation but was welcome. From across the sea came youth in hundreds to be taught in them and carry back their fame to foreign lands. Thus they continued to grow in numbers and renown. Kings and noble families took a pride in fostering what then saw was a source of strength at home and glory abroad. In the centuries that followed the death of Patrick these schools continued to multiply, and the number of their pupils greatly to increase. In some instances the number of students in attendance almost exceeds belief: although the cases are well authenticated. We give few examples. At Benchor (White Choir) there was at one time, it is said, three thousand enrolled students. At Lismore, where the famous Finnian taught, there were three thousand. At Clonard, nearly as many. One quarter of Armagh was allotted to and occupied by foreign youth, attracted by the fame of its educational establishments. At Muinghard, near Limerick, fifteen hundred scholars received instruction. These foundations came in time to be possessed of great wealth. They shared, doubtless, in the revenues of the ancient priesthood on the downfall of Druidism. Moreover the waste lands with which they were gifted, and which the pupils cultivated in their leisure hours, were yearly growing in fertility and value, and yearly adding in the same ratio to the resources of the establishment. No fee was exacted at their threshold. They dispensed their blessings with a royal munificence. So Bede informs us. Speaking of the times of Aidan and Colman (A.D. 630-664) he says, "There were at that time in Ireland many both of the nobility and of the middle classes of the English nation, who, having left their native island, had retired thither for the sake of reading God's word, or leading a more holy life.... All of whom the Irish receiving most warmly, supplied, not only with daily food, free of charge, but even with books to read, and masters to teach gratuitously."[11]

Estimating it at the lowest, the change which Patrick wrought on Ireland was great. Compared with the reformation of Luther, it may be readily admitted, that of Patrick was feeble and imperfect. It did not so thoroughly penetrate to the roots of either individual or social life as the German reformation. The fifth century was poor in those mighty instrumentalities in which the sixteenth century was so rich. It lacked the scholarship, the intellectual vigour, the social energy, and the brilliant examples of personal piety which shed so great a splendour on the first age of the reformation. The fifth century had no printing press. It had no Frederic the wise; it had no theological treatise like the "Institutes," and no compend of the Christian revelation like the "Augsburg Confession." Moreover, the light did not reach Ireland till the day was going away in other lands. It was the beams of a rising sun that burst on the world in the sixteenth century: it was the rays of a setting one that fell on Ireland in the fifth. As Christian Ireland went forward, displacing slowly and laboriously pagan Ireland, it had to leave in its rear many a superstitious belief, and many a pagan custom. In numerous instances, doubtless, the oak groves of the Druid were given to the axe, and the dolmen and stone pillar lay overturned and broken by the hammer of the iconoclast. But not in all cases. In some localities these objects of idolatrous reverence were spared, and became snares and causes of stumbling to the converts. But with all these drawbacks, the change accomplished in Ireland was immense. The grand idea of a God who is a Spirit—a Father who has given his Son to be the Saviour of men—had been made known to it; and who can estimate what a power there is in this idea to humanise and to elevate—to awaken love and hope in the human breast, and to teach justice and righteousness to nations.

That the Gospel should flourish in Ireland during his own lifetime did not content Patrick; he took every means, as we have seen, to give it permanent occupancy of the land. The provision he made for bringing the whole nation under religious instruction, and drawing the people to the observance of Divine ordinances, was wonderfully complete considering the age in which it was made, and the difficulties to be overcome in a country newly rescued from paganism. A church, a school, and an academy in every tribe, was anticipation of the plan of Knox, which, as the author of the latter plan found, came too early to the birth even in the Scotland of the sixteenth century. Nor did the idea of Patrick's remain a mere programme on paper. He succeeded in realizing it. The ministers whom he planted in Ireland were of his own training, and, moreover, they were men of his own spirit: and preaching the faith he had taught them with zeal and diligence, they raised Ireland from paganism to Christianity, while earlier churches, losing faith in the Gospel, and turning back to symbol and rite, lost their Christianity, and sank again into heathenism. These schools of Divine knowledge continued in vigour for about three centuries after their founder had gone to his grave, and furnished an able but inexhaustible supply of evangelists and missionaries. Many of these men, finding their labours not needed in a land so plentiful supplied with evangelists as Ireland now was, turned their steps to foreign countries. From Ireland and Iona there went forth one missionary band after another to scatter the pagan darkness where it still lingered, or to stem the incoming tide of papal arrogance and usurpation. Rome was compelled to pause in her advance before their intrepid ranks. In Gaul, in Germany and other countries, these devoted preachers revived many a dying light, refreshed many a fainting spirit, and strengthened hands that had began to hang down, and they long delayed, though they could not ultimately prevent, the approach of a superstition destined to embrace all Christendom in its somber folds, and darken its sky for ages. We shall again meet these missionaries.

No less happy were the social changes that passed on the country as the immediate fruit of its submission to the Gospel. From that hour the yoke of the feudal lord pressed less heavily, and the obedience of his tribe was more spontaneous and cheerful. All the relations of life were sweetened. Gentleness and tenderness came in the room of those fierce, vindictive, and selfish passions with which paganism fills the breast and indurates the human heart. The ghostly domination of the Druid was shattered, the terror of his incantations dissolved, and no more was seen the dark smoke of his sacrifice rising luridly above the grove, or heard the piteous wail of victim, as he was being dragged to the altar. Nature seemed to feel that to her, too, the hour of redemption had come. As if in sympathy with man she threw off her primeval savageness, and attired herself in a grace and beauty she had not till then known. Her brown moorlands burst into verdure; her shaggy woods, yielding to the axe, made room for the plough; her hills, set free by the mattock from furze and prickly brier, spread out their grassy slopes to the herdsman and his flock; and plain and valley, cured of inhospitable bog and stagnant marsh, and converted into arable land, received into their bosom the precious seed, and returned with bounteous increase in the mellow autumn what had been cast upon their open furrows in the molient spring.

What a change in the destiny of the country since the day that Patrick had first set foot upon it! He had found its sons groping their way through the darkness of an immemorial night: one generation coming into being after another, only to inherit the same bitter portion of slavery. Now the springs of liberty had been opened in the land; barbarity and oppression had begun to recede before the silent influences of arts and letters. Above all, the Gospel enlightened its sky, and with every Sabbath sun came rest and holy worship. The psalm pealed forth in sanctuary rose loud and sweet in the stillness; and on week-day the same strains, "the melody of health," might be heard ascending from humble cot, where Labour sanctified its daily toils by daily prayer and praise.

We here drop the curtain on the story of the Scots on the hither side of the Irish Channel. After the days of Patrick the land had rest seven centuries. In the middle of the twelfth century there arose a new church in Ireland, which knew not Patrick nor the faith he had propagated. Breakspeare (Hadrian IV.), the one Englishman who ever sat in the papal chair, claimed Ireland as part of Peter's patrimony by a bull dated 1155. He next sold it to Henry II. for a penny a year on each house in the kingdom. The infamous bargain betwixt the pope and the English king was completed in the subjugation of the country by the soldiers of the latter. The laws of history forbid us entering farther on this transaction, but the two short extracts given below [12] will disclose to the intelligent reader the whole melancholy drama. The revolution in Ireland has been followed by seven centuries of calamities.


1. See Usher, Antiquities, c. 17

2. General History of Ireland, vol. ii. pp. 85-96.

3. Rerum Chronology, lib. ii.; Usher, Citante.

4. "Amandatus est ad disciplinam in Hiberniam."—Camden's Britannia, vol. iii.  O'Halloran says this was, a proverb abroad when any one was missing.

5. Mosheim. Century ix. part ii c.3, sec 10.

6. Their name in the Latin documents is Cnobia.

7. Bede says of Iona, "ex eo collegeo."

8. Apud Lanigan, vol. iv. p. 112.

9. " Terra jam insueta, immo et inexperta monastics religionis."

10. We doubt whether Malachy was in the secret, or knew what a yoke he was imposing on his countrymen. He appears to have been a good man in the main, of a warm, generous disposition, an enthusiastic admirer of the Romish system, and the tool of more cunning men. He did not live to see the work he had helped to begin completed. He died at Clairvaux, 1148, in the arms of his friend St. Bernard, while on a second visit to Rome to beg the pallium for the metropolitan See of St. Patrick. Malachy heads the roll of Irish saintship, being the first of his nation to receive the honours of canonization at the hands of the Pontiff. Romanist writers speak of him as the great church reformer of the twelfth century.

11. Bede, Eccl. History., lib. 3 c. 27.

12. At a meeting of the Catholic Association in Dublin, Daniel O'Connel, speaking of the landing of Henry II to take possession of his new territories, gives us both a history and a picture:—"It was on the evening of the 23rd of August " (October), "1172 " (1171), "that the first hostile English footstep pressed the soil of Ireland. It is said to have been a sweet and mild evening when the invading party entered the noble estuary formed by the conflux of the Suir, the Nore, and Barrow at the city of Waterford. Accursed be that day in the memory of all future generations of Irishmen when the invaders first touched our shores. They came to a nation famous for its love of learning, its piety, and its heroism; they came when internal dissension separated her sons and wasted their energies. Internal traitors led on the invaders—her sons fell in no fight, her liberties were crushed in no battle; but domestic treason and foreign invaders doomed Ireland to seven centuries of oppression."1

"The independence of Ireland," says Dr. William Phelan, "was not crushed in battle, but quietly sold in the Synods of the prelates, those internal traitors, to whom the orator alluded, but whom he was much too prudent to name." 2

1Dublin Evening Mail.

2 History of the Policy of the Church of Rome in Ireland, p. 3, Lond. 1827.



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