On the Irish seafaring monks

  It is the Irish seafaring monks who 'wrote down' or 'recorded' for the first time their ancestral myths and legends on the parchment; without their efforts, Irish literal treasure would never have handed down. Just as their predecessors called filis or druids, the monks not only showed special interest in 'languages', they had perfect command of them as well. Indeed they were among the foremost intellectuals, because they had no written words before Saint Patrick, and during a few decades they accomplished the basics of (Old) Irish, as well as translated the classics brought by Greek or Roman scholars who fled from their homeland due to trampled by the northern native races.

  Such Irish monks seem not to be satisfied at transcribing their originals, for one hilarious sample of their 'graffiti' in the margins of the valuable parchment; now it is called 'I and Pangur Bán', an eighth - early ninth century Irish poem which might have been written by an Irish monk from the Reichenau Abbey, now preserved in a codex in Stift St. Paul im Lavanttal, Austria :

I and Pangur Bán, my cat
'Tis a like task we are at;
Hunting mice is his delight
Hunting words I sit all night.

Better far than praise of men
'Tis to sit with book and pen;
Pangur bears me no ill will,
He too plies his simple skill.

'Tis a merry thing to see
At our tasks how glad are we,
When at home we sit and find
Entertainment to our mind.

Oftentimes a mouse will stray
In the hero Pangur's way:
Oftentimes my keen thought set
Takes a meaning in its net.

'Gainst the wall he sets his eye
Full and fierce and sharp and sly;
'Gainst the wall of knowledge I
All my little wisdom try.

When a mouse darts from its den,
O how glad is Pangur then!
O what gladness do I prove
When I solve the doubts I love!

So in peace our tasks we ply,
Pangur Bán, my cat, and I;
In our arts we find our bliss,
I have mine and he has his.

Practice every day has made
Pangur perfect in his trade;
I get wisdom day and night
Turning darkness into light.

Translated by Robin Flower, quoted from the Web site created by the owner of a jorry boat Pangur Bán.

  The Celtic monks, however, not only devoted to make their manuscripts, but with the codices they set out to spread sails of their oxhide curraghs, and then bravely hit unknown lands occupied with illiterate heathen barbarians, building their monasteries. One of those heroic active sea-faring monks was named Columba.

  Columba (Colum Cille in Irish ; meaning 'dove of the church', which could have been refered to reading habit of the Scripture in his childfood and became his 'nickname', ca. AD 521 - 597) born among a sept of the Ui Neill * and then studied under Bishop Finnian in his monastery at Clonard. When he became a full-fledged abbot, he began to travel around many places and establish his monasteries. His mentor Saint Finnian's illuminated Psalms, however, caused his disrepute: he was accused of his responsibility with bloodshed conflicts about the possession of this shrine at a synod, so he was sent into exile forever from his native land Ireland. With tewlve disciples, Columba set sail northward, and then their boat drifted down to a small rocky islet called Iona, Scotland. He established his monastery on the hill of Iona, where he and his monks began to convert the chieftains of the Picts, the native tribes scattered all over the Mainland to Christianity, building daughter monasteries. Saint Aidán, succeeded Columba's will to expand his conversion campaign all around the northern England. He establised the Lindisfarne monastery, now called the Holy Island, where later produced the famous illuminated Lindisfarne Gospels.

  Another great seafaring monk and great Irish missionary was Saint Columbanus (ca. AD 543 - 615). More than twenty years younger than Columba, Columbanus was also a spiritual leader of his clan and an amibitious abbot with wide hoard of knowledge of classical authors (he is said to have read Virgil, Pliny, Horace, Ovid and Juvenal). In 575, he embarked with his twelve disciples, set out for the Continental Gaul, and landed on Brittany. Wearing the white garment only, each vessel for drinking water and blessed bread hanging from the neck, bearing a crooked crosier and the Missal in a coated leather bag, Columbanus and his companions began their extraordinary journey, all the way from Ireland to Bobbio, where he died. Their progress of a 'direct distance', all told, was about 1600 kilometers (see the map below).

  The monasteries established by Columbanus himself and his disciples or his companies, all told, were said to be about one hundred, scattered all the way to the region which is now known as Morava. Say, Fontenelle, Chelles, Marmoutier, Fontaine, Saint-Bertin, and Luxeuil, all of those were established by the Saint himself or his disciples ; above all, the Abbey of Saint Gall (Sankt Gallen), now becomes so famous for one of the listed places by The World Heritage Committee. It is also said that the school might have been associated with the establishment of a religious community situated in what we call now Regensburg.

  You might think his peregrini are brave and valiant indeed, but in fact these were a chain of sheer adventures full of frustration, hardships and even threat to his life. First, he commenced to establish three monasteries in the Vosges, where the barbaric Suebi tribes lived. Then, after about 591, he set out to build one Celtic style monastery after another along the Burgundy region. Columbanus, of his inflammable nature, sure felt very frustrated to witness the bishops in the Continent making their sloppy lives, finding himself in contention with them ; meanwhile the young king Theodric II of the Burgandy banished the party out of his territory. So be it, Columbanus and his companions left their own monastery at Luxeuil and then embarked at the port of Nantes, setting off for Ireland. However, their boat was shipwrecked by the heavy weather through which only four of the crew was survived including Columbanus. Then the survivers decided to go back further into the Alps and beyond, in order to convert the Lombard around the northern parts of what we know as Italy. On arrival at Bregenz, an old Celtic hamlet facing Lake Constance (Ger. Bodensee), however, one of his beloved disciples by the name of Gall, their able interpreter of the old Germanic vernaculars, become sick. After a bout of quarrels, he gave up and left him behind there, continuing his long journey. At long last he and his fewer companions arrived at Bobbio of Lombardy region. There, in 612, he established the first Irish religious community, but his fervent longing for going to Rome, to meet the Pope himself, was not fulfilled. In 615, Saint Columbanus died in his own Bobbio monastery( aged 75 ).

from The Religion and Culture of Ireland by Setsuko Mori, 1991.

* ... According to this article, he was great-great-grandson of 'Niall of the Nine Hostages', the high king of the 5th century on his father's side.

Why were they wandering about?

  Then, why were they wandering about? For what, and why were they called 'wandering monks'?

  Their supreme goal was to wander or go on pilgrimage for Christ. So, in their heyday, they were referred to as 'peregrini pro Christi'.

  They were not, however, any 'missionaries' as we tend to think of them ; Usually, they led their journeys in small companies, say twelve at the very most, after Christ himself. And Jonas (AD 600 - 659), the successor to the Bobbio community founded by Saint Columbanus, quoted in his Vita Columbani, which explains so aptly their peregrenatio : 'He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me (Matt., 10 : 37).'* In other words, they 'expelled themselves' from their homeland of Ireland, and that was their ' mission '.

  Also Saint Columbanus advised his disciples to 'be martyred in voluntary asceticism'. As many documents made by those Celtic seafaring monks suggest, their most concern was the concept rendered in the passage at 12 : 1 in Genesis, of 'The Lord had said unto Abraham, Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father's house, unto a land that I will show thee'.

  Columbanus himself commended in his Opera, the value of martyrdom in his spontaneous mortification. As you can see in some writings left by the hand of other Irish seafaring monks, their most heeded thing was to follow this : 'Now the Lord had said unto Abraham, Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father's house, unto a land that I will show thee:'. Ireland is the only successful example in the way of their Christian conversion without any kind of martyrdom. In Cambrai Homily, the oldest extant Irish / Latin mixed text composed in seventh - eighth centuries, appeared the word 'green (or blue) martyrdom'. The peregrinatios of those Celtic seafaring monks can be boiled down to the conception of this green martyrdom. In other words, Irish church did produce no martyrs, so they needed to create some other methods of being martyred pro Christo.

  Also it is thought that the Irish Christanity was conveyed through Tours in Gaul, not via Rome, so it could have directly traced back to the Levantine or Egyptian Christianity, so it can be said that the preaching of Desert Fathers would have been transplanted in Irish geography. Essentially the Irish men were all great seafarers such as, say, Niall Noigiallach or the famous Niall of the Nine Hostages. Now then, they landed back again as the curragh-riders in habits, not as pirates, to the Continent continually. It was in the natural course of events that Such seagoing guys were seeking their 'deserts' beyond the waters surrounding their homeland ; they wrote down the happily-coined word of 'to seek a desert in the ocean'. And perhaps due to the upsetting state of the Continent, some copies of Etymologiae written by Saint Isidorus Hispalensis had been brought to Ireland, whence the Irish scribe-monks came back ashore again, with their newly manuscripts. It also relates to us that the lively interaction between the Irish church and the Spanish one would have florished during the period, so it can be safely said that it was the Irish seafaring monks who saved one of the most valuable intellectual heritages in the Middle Ages.

  There is, however, another important factor : the social background of the Irish culture then.

  In mediæval Ireland, the feudal lords claimed their territorial rights against each other ; there were no such things as cities or unified sovereignty in Ireland. On arrival of Saint Patrick, it is said Ireland was divided into the five main realms or túatha. In their social lives, they regarded 'being exiled' as the biggest punishment next to the death penalty : to be expelled ourside the clans, as it were, was the synonym with death. Now then, the Christian Irish elevated this old retributive notion to 'self-imposed exile', namely peregrinatio pro Christo, which was spread like a brush fire.

  During the seventh - eighth centuries, their ferventness to be cast adrift, sometimes without any oar, was so fierce that there occurred movements to ban such excessive austerities by the Irish monks (Some say this trend would have been reflected in the description of Paul the Hermit in chap. 26 of Latin Navigatio). Out of them appeared some extremists who sought across the North Atlantic a deserted island filled with God's blessing. About the ninth century, an Irish monk by the name of Dicuil, who was employed in the Frankish court of Charlemagne as a teacher of geography, mentioned in his compiled book De mensura Orbis terrae (825) that some of the Irish seafaring monks reached all the way to the Faroes and then Iceland by 795. So, it is quite easily imagined that Latin Navigatio would have been a collective narrative or record of such activities by the Irish seafaring monks which were passed on them as voyage-tales for the generations to come. In Navigatio, vividly depicted places such as The Sheep Island, Isle of Smiths, for example, are easily applied in the present locations of the Feroes (famous for its abundance of sheep) and volcanoes off the south coast of Iceland.

The Irish seafaring monks rowing their curragh

The Irish seafaring monks rowing their curragh.

* ... Quotes above based on those found in K J V.

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