At the end of the eighth century, before entering on the Norwegian and Danish wars, we cast a backward glance on the Christian ages over which we had passed; and now again we have arrived at the close of an era, when a rapid retrospect of the religious and social condition of the country requires to be taken.
The disorganization of the ancient Celtic constitution has already been sufficiently described. The rise of the great families, and their struggles for supremacy, have also been briefly sketched. The substitution of the clan for the race, of pedigree for patriotism, has been exhibited to the reader. We have now to turn to the inner life of the people, and to ascertain what substitutes they found in their religious and social condition, for the absence of a fixed constitutional system, and the strength and stability which such a system confers.
The followers of Odin, though they made no proselytes to their horrid creed among the children of St. Patrick, succeeded in inflicting many fatal wounds on the Irish Church. The schools, monasteries, and nunneries, situated on harbours or rivers, or within a convenient march of the coast, were their first objects of attack; teachers and pupils were dispersed, or, if taken, put to death, or, escaping, were driven to resort to arms in self-defence. Bishops could no longer reside in their sees, nor anchorites in their cells, unless they invited martyrdom; a fact which may, perhaps, in some degree account for the large number of Irish ecclesiastics, many of them in episcopal orders, who are found, in the ninth century, in Gaul arid Germany, at Rheims, Mentz, Ratisbon, Fulda, Cologne, and other places, already Christian. But it was not in the banishment of masters, the destruction of libraries and school buildings, the worst consequences of the Gentile war were felt. Their ferocity provoked retaliation in kind, and effaced, first among the military class, and gradually from among all others, that growing gentleness of manners and clemency of temper, which we can trace in such princes as Nial of the Showers and Nial of Callan. "A change in the national spirit is the greatest of all revolutions;" and this change the Danish and Norwegian wars had wrought, in two centuries, among the Irish.
The number of Bishops in the early Irish Church was greatly in excess of the number of modern dioceses. From the eighth to the twelfth century we hear frequently of Episcopi Vagantes, or itinerant, and Episcopi Vacantes, or unbeneficed Bishops; the Provincial Synods of England and Gaul frequently had to complain of the influx of such Bishops into their country. At the Synod held near the Hill of Usny, in the year 1111, fifty Bishops attended, and at the Synod of Rath-Brazil, seven years later, according to Keating, but twenty-five were present. To this period, then, when Celsus was Primate and Legate of the Holy See, we may attribute the first attempted reduction of the Episcopal body to something like its modern number; but so far was this salutary restriction from being universally observed that, at the Synod of Kells (A.D. 1152), the hierarchy had again risen to thirty-four, exclusive of the four Archbishops. Three hundred priests, and three thousand ecclesiastics are given as the number present at the first-mentioned Synod.
The religious orders, probably represented by the above proportion of three thousand ecclesiastics to three hundred [secular] priests had also undergone a remarkable revolution. The rule of all the early Irish monasteries and convents was framed upon an original constitution, which St. Patrick had obtained in France from St. Martin of Tours, who in turn had copied after the monachism of Egypt and the East. It is called by ecclesiastical writers the Columban rule, and was more rigid in some particulars than the rule of St. Benedict, by which it was afterwards supplanted. Amongst other restrictions it prohibited the admission of all unprofessed persons within the precincts of the monastery--a law as regards females incorporated in the Benedictine constitution; and it strictly enjoined silence on the professed--a discipline revived by the brethren of La Trappe. The primary difference between the two orders lay perhaps in this, that the Benedictine made study and the cultivation of the intellect subordinate to manual labour and implicit obedience, while the Columban Order attached more importance to the acquisition of knowledge and missionary enterprise. Not that this was their invariable, but only their peculiar characteristic: a deep-seated love of seclusion and meditation often, intermingled with this fearless and experimental zeal. It was not to be expected in a century like the ninth, especially when the Benedictine Order was overspreading the West, that its milder spirit should not act upon the spirit of the Columban rule. It was, in effect, more social, and less scientific, more a wisdom to be acted than to be taught. Armed with the syllogism, the Columbites issued out of their remote island, carrying their strongly marked personality into every controversy and every correspondence. In Germany and Gaul, their system blazed up in Virgilius, in Erigena, and Macarius, and then disappeared in the calmer, slower, but safer march of the Benedictine discipline. By a reform of the same ancient order, its last hold on native soil was loosened when, under the auspices of St. Malachy, the Cistercian rule was introduced into Ireland the very year of his first visit to Clairvaux (A.D. 1139). St. Mary's Abbey, Dublin, was the first to adopt that rule, and the great monastery of Mellifont, placed under the charge of the brother of the Primate, sprung up in Meath, three years later. The Abbeys of Bective, Boyle, Baltinglass, and Monasternenagh, date from the year of Malachy's second journey to Rome, and death at Clairvaux--A.D. 1148. Before the end of the century, the rule was established at Fermoy, Holycross, and Odorney; at Athlone and Knockmoy; at Newry and Assaroe, and in almost every tribe-land of Meath and Leinster. It is usually but erroneously supposed that the Cistercian rule came in with the Normans; for although many houses owed their foundation to that race, the order itself had been naturalized in Ireland a generation before the first landing of the formidable allies of Dermid on the coast of Wexford. The ancient native order had apparently fulfilled its mission, and long rudely lopped and shaken by civil commotions and Pagan war, it was prepared to give place to a new and more vigorous organization of kindred holiness and energy.
As the horrors of war disturbed continually the clergy from their sacred calling, and led many of them, even Abbots and Bishops, to take up arms, so the yoke of religion gradually loosened and dropped from the necks of the people. The awe of the eighth century for a Priest or Bishop had already disappeared in the tenth, when Christian hands were found to decapitate Cormac of Cashel, and offer his head as a trophy to the Ard-Righ. In the twelfth century the Archbishop and Bishops of Connaught, bound to the Synod of Trim, were fallen upon by the Kern of Carbre the Swift, before they could cross the Shannon, their people beaten and dispersed and two of them killed. In the time of Thorlogh More O'Conor, a similar outrage was offered by Tiernan O'Ruarc to the Archbishop of Armagh, and one of his ecclesiastics was killed in the assault. Not only for the persons of ministers of religion had the ancient awe and reverence disappeared, but even for the sacred precincts of the Sanctuary. In the second century of the war with the Northmen we begin to hear of churches and cloisters plundered by native chiefs, who yet called themselves Christians, though in every such instance our annalists are careful to record the vengeance of Heaven following swift on sacrilege. Clonmacnoise, Kildare, and Lismore, were more than once rifled of their wealth by impious hands, and given over to desolation and burning by so-called Christian nobles and soldiers! It is some mitigation of the dreadful record thus presented to be informed--as we often are--especially in the annals of the twelfth century, that the treasures so pillaged were not the shrines of saints nor the sacred ornaments of the altar, but the temporal wealth of temporal proprietors, laid up in churches as places of greatest security.
The estates of the Church were, in most instances, farmed by laymen, called Erenachs, who, in the relaxation of all discipline, seem to have gradually appropriated the lands to themselves, leaving to the Clergy and Bishops only periodical dues and the actual enclosure of the Church. This office of Erenach was hereditary, and must have presented many strong temptations to its occupants. It is indeed certain that the Irish Church was originally founded on the broadest voluntaryism, and that such was the spirit of all its most illustrious fathers. "Content with food and raiment," says an ancient Canon attributed to St. Patrick, "reject the gifts of the wicked beside, seeing that the lamb takes only that with which it is fed." Such, to the letter, was the maxim which guided the conduct of Colman and his brethren, of whom Bede makes such honourable mention, in the third century after the preaching of St. Patrick. But the munificence of tribes and Princes was not to be restrained, and to obviate any violation of the revered canons of the apostle, laymen, as treasurers and stewards over the endowments of the Church, were early appointed. As those possessions increased, the desire of family aggrandizement proved too much for the Erenachs not only of Armagh, but of most other sees, and left the clergy as practically dependent on free-will offerings, as if their Cathedrals or Convents had never been endowed with an acre, a mill, a ferry, or a fishery. The free offerings were, however, always generous, and sometimes munificent. When Celsus, on his elevation to the Primacy, made a tour of the southern half-kingdom, he received "seven cows and seven sheep, and half an ounce of silver from every cantred [hundred] in Munster." The bequests were also a fruitful source of revenue to the principal foundations; of the munificence of the monarchs we may form some opinion by what has been already recorded of the gifts left to churches by Thorlogh More O'Conor.
The power of the clerical order, in these ages of Pagan warfare, had very far declined from what it was, when Adamnan caused the law to be enacted to prevent women going to battle, when Moling obtained the abolition of the Leinster tribute, and Columbkill the recognition of Scottish independence. Truces made in the presence of the highest dignitaries, and sworn to on the most sacred relics, were frequently violated, and often with impunity. Neither excommunication nor public penance were latterly inflicted as an atonement for such perjury: a fine or offering to the Church was the easy and only mulct on the offender. When we see the safeguard of the Bishop of Cork so flagrantly disregarded by the assassins of Mahon, son of Kennedy, and the solemn peace of the year 1094 so readily broken by two such men as the Princes of the North and the South, we need no other proofs of the decadence of the spiritual authority in that age of Irish history.
And the morals of private life tell the same sad tale. The facility with which the marriage tie was contracted and dissolved is the strongest evidence of this degeneracy. The worst examples were set in the highest stations, for it is no uncommon incident, from the ninth century downwards, to find our Princes with more than one wife living, and the repudiated wife married again to a person of equal or superior rank. We have the authority of Saint Anselm and Saint Bernard, for the existence of grave scandal and irregularities of life among the clergy, and we can well believe that it needed a generation of Bishops, with all the authority and all the courage of Saint Celsus, Saint Malachy, and Saint Lawrence, to rescue from ruin a Priesthood and a people, so far fallen from the bright example of their ancestors. That the reaction towards a better life had strongly set in, under their guidance, we may infer from the horror with which, in the third quarter of the twelfth century, the elopement of Dermid and Dervorgoil was regarded by both Princes and People. A hundred years earlier, that event would have been hardly noticed in the general disregard of the marriage tie, but the frequent Synods, and the holy lives of the reforming Bishops, had already revived the zeal that precedes and ensures reformation.
Primate Malachy died at Clairvaulx, in the arms of Saint Bernard, in the year 1148, after having been fourteen years Archbishop of Armagh and ten years Bishop of Down and Conor. His episcopal life, therefore, embraced the history of that remarkable second quarter of the century, in which the religious reaction fought its first battles against the worst abuses. The attention of Saint Bernard, whose eyes nothing escaped, from Jerusalem to the farthest west, was drawn ten years before to the Isle of Saints, now, in truth, become an Isle of Sinners. The death of his friend, the Irish Primate, under his own roof, gave him a fitting occasion for raising his accusing voice--a voice that thrilled the Alps and filled the Vatican--against the fearful degeneracy of that once fruitful mother of holy men and women. The attention of Rome was thoroughly aroused, and immediately after the appearance of the Life of Saint Malachy, Pope Eugenius III.--himself a monk of Clairvaulx--despatched Cardinal Papiron, with legantine powers, to correct abuses, and establish a stricter discipline. After a tour of great part of the Island, the Legate, with whom was associated Gilla-Criost, or Christianus, Bishop of Lismore, called the great Synod of Kells, early in the year after his arrival (March, 1152), at which simony, usury, concubinage, and other abuses, were formally condemned, and tithes were first decreed to be paid to the secular clergy. Two new Archbishoprics, Dublin and Tuam, were added to Armagh and Cashel, though not without decided opposition from the Primates both of Leath Mogha and Leath Conn, backed by those stern conservatives of every national usage, the Abbots of the Columban Order. The pallium, or Roman cape, was, by this Legate, presented to each of the Archbishops, and a closer conformity with the Roman ritual was enacted. The four ecclesiastical Provinces thus created were in outline nearly identical with the four modern Provinces. Armagh was declared the metropolitan over all; Dublin, which had been a mere Danish borough-see, gained most in rank and influence by the new arrangement, as Glendalough, Ferns, Ossory, Kildare and Leighlin, were declared subject to its presidency.
We must always bear in mind the picture drawn of the Irish Church by the inspired orator of Clairvaulx, when judging of the conduct of Pope Adrian IV., who, in the year 1155--the second of his Pontificate--granted to King Henry II. of England, then newly crowned, his Bull authorising the invasion of Ireland. The authenticity of that Bull is now universally admitted; and both its preamble and conditions show how strictly it was framed in accordance with St. Bernard's accusation. It sets forth that for the eradication of vice, the implanting of virtue, and the spread of the true faith, the Holy Father solemnly sanctions the projected invasion; and it attaches as a condition, the payment of Peter's pence, for every house in Ireland. The bearer of the Bull, John of Salisbury, carried back from Rome a gold ring, set with an emerald stone, as a token of Adrian's friendship, or it may be, his subinfeudation of Henry. As a title, however powerless in modern times such a Bull might prove, it was a formidable weapon of invasion with a Catholic people, in the twelfth century. We have mainly referred to it here, however, as an illustration of how entirely St. Bernard's impeachment of the Irish Church and nation was believed at Rome, even after the salutary decrees of the Synod of Kells had been promulgated.
The restoration of religion, which was making such rapid progress previous to the Norman invasion, was accompanied by a relative revival of learning. The dark ages of Ireland are not those of the rest of Europe--they extend from the middle of the ninth century to the age of Brian and Malachy II. This darkness came from the North, and cleared away rapidly after the eventful day of Clontarf. The first and most natural direction which the revival took was historical investigation, and the composition of Annals. Of these invaluable records, the two of highest reputation are those of Tigernach (Tiernan) O'Broin, brought down to the year of his own death, A.D. 1088, and the chronicle of Marianus Scotus, who died at Mentz,