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By Rev. Columba Edmonds, O.S.B.

St. Patrick’s work in Ireland was chiefly concerned with preaching the faith and establishing monasteries which served as centres of education. The great success that attended these efforts earned for Ireland the double title of Island of Saints and a Second Thebaid.

The monastic institutions organized by St. Patrick were characterized from their commencement by an apostolic zeal that knew no bounds. Sufficient scope was not to be found at home, so it was impatient to diffuse itself abroad.

Scotland: Hence in the year 563 St. Columcille, a Donegal native of royal descent, accompanied by twelve companions, crossed the sea in currachs of wickerwork and hides, and sought to land in Caledonia. They reached the desolate Isle of Iona on the day preceding Whitsunday.

Many years before, colonies of Irishmen had settled along the western parts of the present Scotland. The settlement north of the Clyde received the name of the Kingdom of Dalriada. These Dalriadan Irish were Christian at least in name, but their neighbors in the Pictish Highlands were still pagans. Columcille’s apostolate was to be among both these peoples. Adamnan says that Columcille came to Caledonia “for the love of Christ’s name”, and well did his after-life prove the truth of this statement. He had attained his forty-fourth year when King Conall, his kinsman, bestowed Iona upon him and his brethren. The island, situated between the Dalriadans and the Picts of the Highlands, was conveniently placed for missionary work. A numerous community recruited from Ireland, with Columcille as its Abbot, soon caused Iona to become a flourishing centre from which men could go forth to preach Christianity. Monasteries and hermitages rapidly sprang up in the adjacent islands and on the mainland. These, together with the Columban foundations in Ireland, formed one great religious federation, in which the Celtic apostles of the northern races were formed under the influence of the holy founder.

St. Columcille recognized the need of securing permanence for his work by obtaining the conversion of the Pictish rulers, and thus he did not hesitate to approach King Brude in his castle on the banks of the River Ness. St. Comgall and St. Canice were Columcille’s companions on his journey through the great glen, now famous for the Caledonian Canal. The royal convert Brude was baptized, and by degrees the people followed the example set them. Opposition, however, was keen and aggressive, and it came from the official representatives of Pictish paganism the Druids.

Success, too, attended Columcille’s ministrations among the Dalriadans, and on the death of their king, Aidan Gabhran, who succeeded to the throne, sought regal consecration from the hands of Columcille. In 597 the saint died, but not before he had won a whole kingdom to Christ and covered the land with churches and monasteries. Today his name is held in honor not by Irishmen alone, but by the Catholics and non-Catholics of the land of his adoption.

There are other saints who either labored in person with Columcille or perpetuated the work he accomplished in Caledonia; and their names add to the glory of Ireland, their birth-land. Thus St. Moluag (592) converted the people of Lismore, and afterwards died at Rosemarkie; St. Drostan, St. Columcille’s friend and disciple, established the faith in Aberdeenshire and became abbot of Deer; St. Kieran (548) evangelized Kintyre; St. Mun (635) labored in Argyleshire; St. Buite (521) did the same in Pictland; St. Maelrubha (722) preached in Ross-shire; St. Modan and St. Machar benefited the dwellers on the western and eastern coasts respectively; and St. Fergus in the eighth century became apostle of Forfar, Buchan, and Caithness.

Distant islands: But Irish monks were mariners as well as apostles. Their hide-covered currachs were often launched in the hope of discovering solitudes in the ocean. Adamnan records that Baitan set out with others in search of a desert in the sea. St. Cormac sought a similar retreat and arrived at the Orkneys. St. Molaise’s holy isle guards Lamlash Bay, off Arran. The island retreats of the Bass, Inchkeith, May, and Inchcolm, in the Firth of Forth, are associated with the Irish saints Baldred, Adamnan, Adrian, and Columcille. St. Maccaldus, a native of Down, became bishop of the Isle of Man.

Remarkable, too, is the fact that Irish monks sailed by way of the Faroe Islands to distant Iceland. These sailor-clerics, who settled on the southeast of the island, were spoken of by later Norwegians as “papar.” After their departure they were probably driven away by Norwegian pagans these Icelandic apostles “left behind them Irish books, bells, and croziers, wherefrom one could understand they were Irishmen.”

But St. Brendan, the voyager, is the most wonderful of the mariner monks of Ireland. He accomplished apostolic work in both Wales and Scotland, but his seafaring instincts urged him to make missionary voyages to regions hitherto unknown. Some writers, not without reason, have actually maintained that he and his followers traveled as far as the American shore. Be this as it may, the tradition of the discoveries of this Irish monk kept in mind the possibly existing western land, and issued at last in the discovery of the great continent of America by Columbus.

Northumbria: Turn now to Northumbria. Adamnan writes that St. Columcille’s name was honored not only in Gaul, Spain, and Italy, but in Rome itself. England, however, owes to it a special veneration, because of the widespread apostolic work accomplished within her borders by Columcille’s Irish disciples. The facts are as follows: Northumbrian Christianity was well-nigh exterminated through the victory of Penda the pagan over Edwin the Christian, A.D. 633. St. Paulinus, its local Roman apostle, was driven permanently from his newly founded churches. Meanwhile Oswald and his brother Edwith sought refuge among the Irish monks of lona, and received baptism at their hands. Edwith died and Oswald became heir to the throne. A battle was fought. The day before he met the pagan army, between the Tyne and the Solway, Oswald beheld St. Columcille in vision saying to him: “Be strong and of good faith; I will be with thee.” The result of this vision of the abbot of Iona was that a considerable part of England received the true faith. Oswald was victorious; he united the kingdoms of Deira and Bernicia, and became overlord of practically all England, with the exception of Kent. There was evangelization to be done, and St. Oswald turned to Iona. In response to his appeal, the Irish bishop, St. Aidan, was sent with several companions. They were established on the island of Lindisfarne, in sight of the royal residence at Bamborough. These monks labored in union with, and even seemed to exceed in zeal, the Roman missionaries in the south under St. Augustine. However great the enthusiasm they had displayed for conversions in Iona, they displayed still greater on the desolate isle of Lindisfarne. In the first instance St. Aidan and his monks evangelized Northumbria. Want of facility in preaching in the Anglo-Saxon tongue was at first an obstacle, but it was speedily overcome, for king Oswald himself, who knew both Gaelic and English, came forward and acted as interpreter.

When St. Aidan died in 651, Iona sent St. Finan, another Irish bishop, to succeed him. Finan spread the faith beyond the borders of Northumbria and succeeded so well that he himself baptized Penda, king of the Mid-Angles, and Sigebert, king of the East Saxons. Diuma and Cellach, Irish monks, assisted by three Anglo-Saxon disciples of St. Aidan, consolidated the mission to the Mercians.

Anglia: While Christianity was thus being restored in Northumbria, other Irish apostles were teaching it in East Anglia. St. Fursey, accompanied by his brother St. Foillan and St. Ultan and the priests Gobham and Dicuil, landed in England in 633, and began to labor in the eastern portions of Anglia. In his monastery at Burghcastle, in Suffolk, the convert king Sigebert made his monastic profession, and in the same house many heavenly visions were vouchsafed to its founder.

The South Saxons had in Dicuil an apostle who founded the monastery of Bosham in Sussex, whence originated the episcopal see of Chichester. Another Irish monk named Maeldubh settled among the West Saxons and became the founder of Malmesbury Abbey and the instructor of the well-known St. Aldhelm.

Thus did Irish monks contribute to the conversion of Great Britain and its many distant islands. They built up the faith by their holy lives, their preaching, and their enthusiasm, and wisely provided for its perpetuation by educating a native clergy and by the founding of monastic institutions.

They were not yet satisfied, so they turned towards other lands to bring to other peoples the glad tidings of salvation.

Gaul: In 590 St. Columbanus, a monk of Bangor in Ireland, accompanied by twelve brethren, arrived in France, having passed through Britain. After the example of St. Columcille in Caledonia, they traveled to the court of Gontram, king of Burgundy, in order to secure his help and protection. During the course of the journey they preached to the people, and all were impressed with their modesty, patience, and devotion. At that epoch Gaul was sadly in need of such missionaries, for, owing partly to the invasion of barbarians and partly to remissness on the part of the clergy, vice and impiety everywhere prevailed. Columbanus, because of his zeal, sanctity, and learning, was well fitted for the task that lay before him. One of his early works in Burgundy was the founding of the monastery of Luxeuil, which became the parent of many other monasteries founded either by himself or by his disciples. Many holy men came from Ireland to join the community, and so numerous did the monks of Luxeuil become that separate choirs were formed to keep up perpetual praise the “laus perennis”. But Columbanus did not remain at Luxeuil. In his strict uncompromising preaching he spared not even kings, and he preferred to leave his flourishing monastery rather than pass over in silence the vices of the Merovingians. He escaped from the malice of Brunehaut, and, being banished from Burgundy, made his way to Neustria, and thence to Metz. Full of zeal, he resolved to preach the faith to the pagans along the Rhine, and with this purpose set out with a few of his followers. They proceeded as far as the Lake of Zurich, and finally established themselves at Bregentz, on the Lake of Constance.

By this time his disciple St. Gall had learned the Alemannian dialect, which enabled him to push forward the work of evangelization. But Columbanus felt that he was called to labor in other lands while vigor remained to him, so, bidding his favorite follower farewell, he crossed the Alps and arrived at Milan in northern Italy. King Agilulph and his queen, Theodelinda, gave the Irish abbot a reverent and kind welcome. His zeal was still unspent, and he worked much for the conversion of the Lombard Arians. Here he founded, between Milan and Genoa, the monastery of Bobbio, which as a centre of knowledge and piety was long the light of northern Italy. In this monastery he died in the year 615, but not before the arrival of messengers from King Clothaire, inviting him to return to Luxeuil, as his enemies were now no more. But he could not go; all he asked was protection for his dear monks at Luxeuil.

It has been said most truly that Ireland never sent a greater son to do God’s work in foreign lands than Columbanus. The fruit of his labors remained; and for centuries after his death his influence was widely felt throughout Europe, especially in France and Italy. His zeal for the interests of God was unbounded, and this was the secret of his immense power. Some of his writings have come down to us, and comprise his Rule for Monks, his Penitential, sixteen short sermons, six letters, and several poems, all in Latin. His letters are of much value as evidence of Ireland’s ancient belief in papal supremacy.

Switzerland: Gall, Columbanus’s disciple, remained in Switzerland. In a fertile valley, lying between two rivers and surrounded by hills, he laid the beginnings of the great abbey which afterwards bore his name and became one of the most famous monasteries in Christendom. St. Gall spent thirty years of his life in Helvetia, occupying himself in teaching, preaching, and prayer. He succeeded where others had failed, and that which was denied to Columbanus was reserved for Gall, his disciple, and the latter is entitled the Apostle of Alemannia.

Other districts had their Irish missionaries and apostles. Not far from St. Gall, at Seckingen, near Basle, St. Fridolin was a pioneer in the work of evangelization.

Towards the close of the seventh century St. Kilian, an Irishman, with his companions, Totnan and Colman, arrived in Franconia. He was martyred in Wuertzburg, where he is honored as patron and apostle.

Sigisbert, another Irish follower of St. Columbanus, spread the faith among the half-pagan people of eastern Helvetia, and founded the monastery of Dissentis in Rhaetia.

St. Ursanne, a little town on the boundaries of Switzerland, took its origin from another disciple of St. Columbanus.

Other apostles and founders: Desire for solitary life drew St. Fiacre to a hermitage near Meaux, where he transformed wooded glades into gardens to provide vegetables for poor people. This charity has earned for Fiacre the title of patron saint of gardeners.

St. Fursey, the illustrious apostle of East Anglia, crossed over to France, where he travelled and preached continuously. He built a monastery at Lagny-sur-Marne, and was about to return to East Anglia when he died at Mezerolles, near Doullens. St. Gobham followed his master’s example, and like him evangelized and founded monasteries. St. Etto (Ze) acted in like manner. St. Foillan and St. Ultan, brothers of St. Fursey, became apostles in southern Brabant.

The monastery of Honau, on an island near Strasburg, and that of Altomuenster, in Bavaria, owe their foundation to the Irish monks Tuban and Alto, respectively.

Not far from Luxeuil was the Abbey of Lure, another great Irish foundation, due to Deicolus (Desle, Dichuill), a brother of St. Gall and a disciple of St. Columbanus. So important was this house considered in later times that its abbot was numbered among the princes of the Holy Roman Empire.

Rouen, in Normandy, felt the influence of the Irish monks through the instrumentality of St. Ouen; and the monasteries of Jouarre, Rebais, Jumieges, Leuconaus, and St. Vandrille were due at least indirectly to Columbanus or his disciples.

Turning to Belgium, it is recorded that St. Romold preached the faith in Mechlin, and St. Livinus in Ghent. Both came from Ireland.

St. Virgilius, a voluntary exile from Erin, “for the love of Christ”, established his monastery at Salzburg, in Austria. He became bishop there, and died in 781.

Moreover, the Celtic Rule of Columbanus was carried into Picardy by St. Valery, St. Omer, St. Bertin, St. Mummolin, and St. Valdelenus; but the Irish Caidoc and Fricor had already preceded them, their work resulting in the foundation of the Abbey of St. Riquier.

Italy: Something yet remains to be said of the monks of Ireland in Italy. Anterior to St. Columbanus’s migration, his fellow countryman, St. Frigidian (or Fridian), had taken up his abode in Italy at Monte Pisana, not far from the city of Lucca, where he became famed for sanctity and wisdom. On the death of the bishop of Lucca, Frigidian was compelled to occupy the vacant see. St. Gregory the Great wrote of him that “he was a man of rare virtue”. His teachings and holy life not only influenced the lives of his own flock, but brought to the faith many heretics and pagans. In Lucca this Celtic apostle is still honored under the name of St. Frediano.

St. Pellegrinus is another Irish saint who sought solitude at Garfanana in the Apennines; and Cathaldus, a Waterford saint, in 680, became Bishop of Taranto, which he governed for many years with zeal and great wisdom. His co-worker was Donatus, his brother, who founded the church at Lecce in the Kingdom of Naples.

Of the two learned Irishmen, Clemens and Albinus, who resided in France in the eighth century, Albinus was sent into Italy, where at Pavia he was placed at the head of the school attached to St. Augustine’s monastery. Dungal, his compatriot, was a famous teacher in the same city. Lothair thus ordained concerning him: “We desire that at Pavia, and under the superintendence of Dungal, all students should assemble from Milan, Brescia, Lodi, Bergamo, Novara, Vercelli, Tortona, Acqui, Genoa, Asti, Como.”

It was this same Dungal who presented the Bangor psalter to Bobbio; therefore it may be reasonably conjectured that he came from the very monastery that produced Columbanus, Gall, and Comgall.

Fiesole, in Tuscany, venerates two Irish eighth-century saints, Donatus and Andrew. The former was educated at Iniscaltra, and Andrew was his friend and disciple. After visiting Rome, they lingered at Fiesole. Donatus was received with great honor by clergy and people and was requested to fill their vacant bishopric. With much hesitation he took upon himself ihe burden, which he bore for many years. His biographer says of him that “he was liberal in almsgiving, sedulous in watching, devout in prayer, excellent in doctrine, ready in speech, holy in life.” Andrew, who was his deacon, founded the church and monastery of St. Martin in Mensola, and is known in Fiesole as St. Andrew of Ireland, or St. Andrew the Scot, that is, the Irishman.

Hospitalia: Thus Irish monks were to be found in France, Belgium, Switzerland, Germany, and Italy, and even in Bulgaria. So numerous were they and so frequent their travels through the different countries of Europe that hospices were founded to befriend them. These institutions were known as “Hospitalia Scottorum” ("Hospices for the Irish"), and their benefactors were not only pious laymen but the highest ecclesiastical authorities. Sometimes the hospices were diverted to purposes other than those originally intended, and then Church Councils would intervene in favor of the lawful inheritors. Thus in 845 we read that the Council of Meaux ordered the hospices in France to be restored to the dispossessed Irishmen. In the twelfth century Ireland still continued to send forth a constant succession of monk-pilgrims, renowned for faith, austerity, and piety.

Ratisbon: Special monasteries were erected to be peopled by the Irish. The most renowned of these dates from 1067, when Marianus Scotus ("Marianus the Irishman"), with his companions, John and Candidus, left his native land and arrived in Bavaria. These holy men were welcomed at Ratisbon by the Bishop Otto; and on the advice of Murcherat, an Irish recluse, took up their residence near St. Peter’s church at the outskirts of the city. Novices flocked from Ireland to join them and a monastery was erected to receive the community. In a short time this had to be replaced by a still larger one, which was known to future ages as the Abbey of St. James’s of the Scots (that is, Irish) at Ratisbon. How prolific was this parent foundation is evidenced from its many offshoots, the only surviving monasteries on the continent for many centuries intended for Irish brethren. These, besides St. James’s at Erfurt and St. Peter’s at Ratisbon, comprised St. James’s at Wuertzburg, St. Giles’s at Nuremberg, St. Mary’s at Vienna, St. James’s at Constance, St. Nicholas’s at Memmingen, Holy Cross at Eichstatt, a Priory at Kelheim and another at Oels in Silesia, all of which were founded during the twelfth or thirteenth century, and formed a Benedictine congregation approved of by Pope Innocent III., and presided over by the Abbot of Ratisbon. These Irish houses, with their long lines of Celtic abbots, in the days of their prosperity did much work that was excellent and civilizing, and rightly deserve a remembrance in the achievements of Ireland’s ancient missionaries.

Ratisbon and its dependent abbeys, as is set forth in the papal briefs of 1218, possessed priories in Ireland, and, from these, novices were usually obtained.

But evil days came for the Congregation of St. James, and now it is extinct. The subjugation of Ireland to England, says Wattenbach, contributed no doubt to the rapid decline of the Scotic (that is, Irish) monasteries. For from Ireland they had up till then been continually receiving fresh supplies of strength. In this their fatherland the root of their vitality was to be found. Loss of independence involved loss of enterprise.

Scholarship and influence: Irish monks were not only apostles of souls, but also masters of intellectual life. Thus in the seventh century the Celtic monastery of Luxeuil became the most celebrated school in Christendom. Monks from other houses and sons of the nobility crowded to it. The latter were clearly not intended for the cloister, but destined for callings in the world.

There were outstanding men among these missionaries from Ireland. St. Virgilius of Salzburg in the eighth century taught the sphericity of the earth and the existence of the Antipodes. It was this same teaching that Copernicus and later astronomers formulated into the system now in vogue.

St. Columcille himself was a composer of Latin hymns and a penman of no mean order, as the Book of Kells, if written by him, sufficiently proves. In all the monasteries which he founded, provision was made for the pursuit of sacred learning and the multiplication of books by transcription. The students of his schools were taught classics, mechanical arts, law, history, and physics. They improved the methods of husbandry and gardening; supplied the people, whom they helped to civilize, with implements of labor; and taught them the use of the forge, an accomplishment belonging to almost every Irish monk.

The writings of Adamnan, who spent most of his life outside his native land, show that he was familiar with the best Latin authors, and had a knowledge of Greek as well. His “Vita S. Columbae” ("Life of St. Columcille”) has made his name immortal as a Latin writer. His book “De Locis Sanctis” ("On the Holy Places”) contains information he received from the pilgrim bishop Arculfus, who had been driven by a tempest to take refuge with the monks of Iona. On account of the importance of the writings of Adamnan and because of his influence in secular and ecclesiastical affairs of importance, few will question his right to a distinguished place among the saintly scholars of the West.

Irish monks, abroad as well as at home, were pre-eminently students and exponents of Holy Scripture. Sedulius wrote a commentary on the Epistles of St. Paul; John Scotus Erigena composed a work, “De Praedestinatione” ("Concerning Predestination"); Dungal was not only an astronomer, but also an excellent theologian, as is clear from his defence of Catholic teaching on the invocation of saints and the veneration of their relics. His knowledge of Sacred Scripture and of the Fathers is exceedingly remarkable.

St. Columbanus, besides other works, is said to have composed an exposition of the Psalms, which is mentioned in the catalogue of St. Gall’s library, but which cannot now be identified with certainty. The writings of this abbot are said to have brought about a more frequent use of confession both in the world and in monasteries; and his legislation regarding the Blessed Sacrament fostered eucharistic devotion.

Marianus Scotus is the author of a commentary on the Psalms, so precious that rarely was it allowed to pass beyond the walls of the monastic library. His commentary on St. Paul’s Epistles is regarded as his most famous production. Herein he shows acquaintance with Saints Jerome, Augustine, Gregory, and Leo, with Cassiodorus, Origen, Alcuin, Cassian, and Peter the Deacon. He completed the work on the 17th May, 1079, and ends the volume by asking the reader to pray for the salvation of his soul.

Transcription: In all the monasteries a vast number of scribes were continually employed in multiplying copies of the Sacred Scriptures. These masterpieces of calligraphy, written by Irish hands, have been scattered throughout the libraries of Europe, and many fragments remain to the present day. The beauty of these manuscripts is praised by all, and the names of the best transcribers often find mention in monastic annals. The work was irksome, but it was looked upon as a privilege and meritorious.

It remains to speak of that glorious monument of the Irish monks, the abbey of St. Gall, in Switzerland. It was here that Celtic influence was most felt and endured the longest. Within its walls for centuries the sacred sciences were taught and classic authors studied. Many of its monks excelled as musicians and poets, while others were noted for their skill in calligraphy and the fine arts. The library was only in its infancy in the eighth century, but gradually it grew, and eventually became one of the largest and richest in the world. The brethren were in correspondence with all the learned houses of France and Italy, and there was constant mutual interchange of books, sacred and scientific, between them.

They manufactured their own parchment from the hides of the wild beasts that roamed in the forests around them, and bound their books in boards of wood clamped with iron or ivory.

Such was the monastery of St. Gall, which owes its inception to the journey through Europe of the great Columbanus and his monk-companions men whose lives, according to Bede, procured for the religious habit great veneration, so that wherever they appeared they were received with joy, as God’s own servants. “And what will be the reward,” asks the biographer of Marianus Scotus, “of these pilgrim-monks who left the sweet soil of their native land, its mountains and hills, its valleys and its groves, its rivers and pure fountains, and went like the children of Abraham without hesitation into the land which God had pointed out to them?” He answers thus: “They will dwell in the house of the Lord with the angels and archangels of God forever; they will behold the God of gods in Sion, to whom be honor and glory for ever and ever.”