Ireland Before the Arrival of the Vikings

Celtic Monasticism in Pre-Viking Ireland

According to an Irish bishop living in Italy in the 9th century, Ireland in the seventh and eighth century was, “Rich in goods in silver, jewels, cloth and gold”, with “art and men… renowned in war, in peace, in faith”.

Christian for more than three centuries, Ireland had not been invaded since prehistoric times. Ireland was also the last home of a thriving Celtic tradition, begun a thousand years before in central Europe. This period is referred to as the Golden Age of Ireland, and was characterised by an emphasis on scholarship and craftsmanship. This was all about to change at the very end of the 8th century.

Following the Christianisation of Ireland by St. Patrick in the 4th century, the Irish culture of Celtic monasticism took hold, where new monasteries and monastic settlements replaced any older Roman foundations and became vital centres of religion and learning. This tendency was distinguished from Roman Christianity by its organisations around monasteries led by an abbot rather than a diocese under a bishop. Its distinctively Celtic character was further evident in the fact that these settlements appeared to closely resemble settlements in the Nile valley, or the island of Lérins (now known as St Honorat on the French Riviera), where it is believed St Patrick may have spent time and studied.

Christianity in Celtic Ireland also included a distinctive system for determining the dating of Easter, a style of monastic tonsure (cutting or shaving the hair from the scalp), a unique system of penance, and the popularity of going into "exile for Christ", or travelling to the continent or further afield, as many Irish monks did at the time. 

But most of all this period is remembered for its prolific creativity and distinctine artwork, involving beautiful illuminated script decorated with ancient and mythical celtic symbols such as spirals and intricate knots, used to glorify and spread the Holy Scriptures in Ireland and beyond. The most famous of these is the Book of Kells, now on view in Trinity College Dublin.

celtic artwork, monks, illuminated script
Irish monasticism in Ireland

Life in an Irish Monastery

Much is known about life in an Irish monastic settlement. Many such sites can be visited today, such as Glendalough in Co. Wicklow, or Clonmacnoise, Co. Offaly.

The monks lived in individual cells, which were usually made of wood, but in the west of Ireland where wood was scarce, these were made of stone and so remain visible today. The settlement would also have included a church, (wooden with a stone altar), a refectory, a kitchen, a library and scriptorium, a workshop and forge. 

Beyond the ramparts we can imagine the cultivated lands, with the necessary farm buildings, a mill and limekiln. One feature of later monastic settlements that was also unique to Ireland was the round tower, over one hundred of which were built.

Daily life involved the study and reproduction of the sacred scriptures of Latin classical and pagan authors. It is known that many texts of European saints reached Ireland from Germany and Spain, such as St Germanus and St Martin. As well as reading and committing to memory these texts, the Irish monk would also copy them, and hence the monastic scholar was the scribe. This scribal art with its illuminated script became one of the splendours of the Golden Age in Ireland. 

Monastic Expansion in Ireland and Abroad

During this period, St Enda set up the monastery on the Aran Islands, soon to be eclipsed by St Finnians at Clonard in Belfast, where his twelve outstanding disciples became known as ‘the twelve disciples of Ireland’ and became monastic founders themselves, e.g., Columcille in Durrow, Derry and Iona, Ciarán in Clonmacnoise, Brendan in Clonfert, Co. Galway, Molaisse in  Devenish in Co. Fermanagh, Cainneach in Aghaboe, Co. Laois, Mobhi in Glasnevin, Dublin. Other founders were Jarlath in Tuam, Kevin in Glendalough and Finnbar in Cork, all of whose memories continue today. St Brigid and St Itas’ foundations in Kildare and Limerick were no less celebrated. 

Just as influences of distant cultures may have reached the shores of the island of Ireland, we know that many Irish monks travelled abroad, and set up monasteries on the continent. The Hiberno-Scottish mission is said to have begun by St Colmcille (Columba) in 563 on Iona. In this way Celtic Christian influence began to spread throughout continental Europe. We can trace the footsteps of the Irish missionaries in England, thanks in large to the writings of the Venerable Bede, and to the continent, e.g. St Fursey in Péronne in Gaul, St Columbanus at Luxeil in France and Bobbio in Italy, and St Fergil in Salzburg, Austria.