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May 11 Irish Monasticism

Updated: May 18, 2021

Today we mark the death of Comgall in the 7th Century and the birth of Irish Monasticism which developed some important distinctive traditions on the edge of the Church. Some of those traditions died out but others such as individual confessional practice were slowly absorbed into the main life-stream of the universal church.


The Irish Church had developed in a distinct way in the 6th and 7th century. Roman Rule had never reached Ireland, but a missionary bishop sent by Pope Celestine called Palladius had arrived in 431. Although it wasn’t until an escaped slave called Patrick had started to preach that Christianity took root. He established a church in Armagh, in the north, in conjunction with communities that were copied across Ireland and developed into a distinctive form of monasticism. Small enclosures in which groups of Christians, often of both sexes and including the married, lived together, served in various roles and ministered to the local population. Patrick set up diocesan structures with a hierarchy of bishops, priests, and deacons. The monasteries became important centres. Comgall, belonged to what is known as the Second Order of Irish Saints, for the most part educated in Britain who would develop this tradition. The Antiphonary of Bangor of the seventh century claimed that Comgall was 'strict, holy and constant' and perhaps his legacy is greatest through the work of one of his disciples Columbanus, who would famously travel to Francia. Comgall is mentioned in the "Life of Columbanus" by Jonas, as the superior of Bangor, under whom Columbanus had studied.

Four specific traditions emerged in this climate. Easter was originally dated according to Hebrew calendar, Slowly Christians in Ireland and Britain became aware of the divergence in dating between them and those in Europe and in the 664 synod in Whitby the Gregorian Roman mission won out. Secondly the Roman tonsure, in the shape of a crown, was to shave a circle at the top of the head, leaving a halo of hair or corona; this was eventually associated with the imagery of Christ's crown of thorns. This differed from the Irish tradition, which is unclear but involved shaving the hair from ear to ear in some fashion which emphasized its distinctiveness from the Roman alternative and invariably connects its use to the Celtic dating of Easter.

Of most lasting interest was the distinctive form of penance developed, where confession was made privately to a priest, under the seal of secrecy, and where penance was given privately and ordinarily performed privately as well. Certain handbooks were made, called "penitentials", designed as a guide for confessors and as a means of regularising the penance given for each particular sin. In the wider church, penance had been a public ritual. Penitents were divided into a separate part of the church during liturgical worship, and they came to Mass wearing sackcloth and ashes. The Irish penitential practice spread throughout the continent, where the form of public penance had fallen into disuse and by 1215 the practice had become established as the norm, with the Fourth Lateran Council establishing a canonical statute requiring confession at a minimum of once per year.

A final distinctive tradition common across Britain and Ireland was the popularity of peregrinatio pro Christo ("exile for Christ"). Individuals permanently left their homes and put themselves entirely in God's hands. In the Irish tradition there were two types, the "lesser" peregrinatio, involving leaving one's home area but not the island, and the "superior" peregrinatio, which meant leaving Ireland for good. This voluntary exile to spend one's life in a foreign land far from friends and family came to be termed the "white martyrdom". The Irishmen Columba and Columbanus similarly founded highly important religious communities after leaving their homes. Irish monks also founded monasteries across the continent, exerting influence greater than many more ancient continental centres. The first issuance of a papal privilege granting a monastery freedom from episcopal oversight was that of Pope Honorius I to Bobbio Abbey, one of Columbanus's institutions

Illuminated manuscripts like the Book of Kells, high crosses, and metalwork like the Ardagh Chalice remain very well known, and in the case of manuscript decoration had a profound influence on Western medieval art.


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