Hopkins Lectures 2005

Hopkins's Ireland: Early Christian Monasteries

Sean Bagnall Naas, Ireland

It is important to point out that there were no towns, as such, in Ireland until the Vikings founded our main towns of Dublin, Wexford, Waterford, Limerick and the many other river mouth or river crossing towns - all of which date from after the Viking invasion. While there may have been a fairly dense settlement near the mouth of the Liffey but it did not take on any of the characteristics of a town until the Vikings used the important river crossing point for their settlement.

Early Christian missioners to Ireland found a land very different from Mainland Europe or even from Britain. In Britain the Romans had founded towns and cities as they existed on the continent. This made it difficult to organise a church in Ireland on the same lines as that in Europe with its network of dioceses centered on the main towns. Here in Ireland, people lived in single-family settlements and each of the many ring forts in our landscape represents the settlement of a single family. They housed their animals, also, inside the fort and either farmed or grazed the surrounding land. From the beginning, Christian communities sought to organise larger settlements. These quickly modelled themselves on the monastic communities of the eastern church (e.g Egypt) which had spread to western Europe. (1)

Tallaght was put on the map, as it were, when Maelruan founded his monastery there in 774 AD. We can speculate that Tallaght was already Christian for up to 350 years or even more at this stage. From this time forward, Tallaght was an important centre of monastic life and learning in Ireland. Maelruan was a leader of the Anchorite, or Céile Dé, movement in Ireland. This movement started as a reaction to increased secularisation during the 8th Century and was characterised by asceticism, puritanical idealism, and strict supervision by, and obedience to, spiritual superiors. There were also choral duties, as well as care of the poor and the sick and of travellers. The invasion by the Vikings eventually stopped the development of the movement. (2) However, in its time, the Ceile De movement had wide influence all over Ireland. Its being centred on Tallaght gave Tallaght a special importance in the monastic movement in Ireland before Viking influence curtailed its further development. For several reasons, a monastic church became predominant in Ireland. One reason for this was that it was difficult to establish bishoprics and diocese on the same model as in Britain and Europe because of the absence of towns in Ireland, which would have given an administrative, and population base to such diocese. Others have speculated that the Irish were particularly temperamentally suited to a monastic and ascetic way of life. (3)

In any event, a monastic form of church spread in Ireland. While the rules introduced by Maelruan were in many respects similar to those at Metz under St Crodegang, there are sufficient differences to suggest to scholars that the Tallaght rules are based on the rules at Metz. At this time, the Roman Church had become secularised across Europe and the need was felt at many centres to reform the church and re-dedicate religious life. St Benedict, an early reformer, founded his monastery in 784 AD. It appears that reform in Ireland was ahead of, and independent of that in Europe and it also appears from the numbers and character of laws, which the abbots and bishops sought to have enforced that there were abuses of the church in Ireland during the first half of the Eighth century.(4)So how did Maelruan expect his monks to live, and what was life like among these monks here in Tallaght?'Maelruan came with his relics of martyrs and virgins to Tallaght supposedly on the 10th August 774 A. D. (5) Tallaght is recorded as having a fine reliquary. The coming of the relics to Tallaght is recorded and they are celebrated the feast of the relics. There were supposed to have been relics of Peter and Paul and of the hair of the Blessed Virgin. There were also relics consecrated to St Michael. While nothing remains of a Round Tower at Tallaght, it is now thought that the Round Towers were in fact bell towers and reliquaries where a monastery's collection of relics were kept. Round Towers usually had their main door about 10ft above ground and this door faced the main church or cathedral. The congregation emerged from the service and a monk would stand in this door displaying the relics from a commanding height. In this way relics were used to reinforce the faith of the people (6).

We have very little information about Maelruan until 774 when he founded Tallaght. From early on he was considered the leader of the reform movement and Tallaght was considered the head house of this movement. Many monks came from various other Monasteries to Tallaght to profit from Maelruan's spiritual direction. Apart from Maelruan one of the most famous of the members of the Céile Dé [culdee] movement was Oengus who was also based at Tallaght He composed a Martyrology. This martyrology sets out various methods of martyrdom and deals with a long list of martyrs, extoling them and comparing their heavenly reward with the nothingness in store for those of a more earthly and secular disposition. Oengus is mentioned as being a monk in Clonenagh on the Nore in Laois. He later moved to Tallaght during the lifetime of Maelruan. At Tallaght he worked at kiln drying, grinding corn and cutting wood. He began his martyrology while still in Clonenagh and finished it in Tallaght. He is thought to have died about between 819 and 830 but whatever about the year it was on the Friday March 11th. By this stage he was himself both an abbot and a bishop without a See.

A word about the lifestyle in Tallaght in the Ninth Century 'Food should be poor in quality and taken in the evening; not, however to satiety, just as drink should never be taken in such quantity as to produce drunkenness. The purpose of taking food was: to sustain the body without doing it spiritual injury.At Tallaght excessive mortification was strongly discountenanced and total abstinence from food was neither practiced nor commended. The daily allowance was a half loaf of bread and a quarter of something else the name of which has been lost from the manuscript. To this was added a 'selann' [said to be four eggfulls] of butter and a ration of drink. Cabbage was also allowed. A slice of fish, beestings, cheese, dry eggs and apples might also be eaten, when available. Leeks might also be available and Maelruan also allowed curds and whey after cheese making. Special fasting rules were observed during up to three Lents in each year. Maelruan and Dublitter of Finglas differed on the question of ale. Dublitter allowed this. Maelruan did not and pointed this out to Dublitter who responded, "My monks also will enter paradise" (7) It also appears that Maelruan may have disapproved of music. When Cronan wished to play his pipes for Maelruan the latter would have none of it saying his ears were attuned only to the music of Heaven and no earthly music could satisfy them. (8) There were also extensive rules about the matters of prayer, Mass, confession, and gifts. As you can imagine, there were strict rules of chastity and the avoidance of dangerous occasions of sin was expected. Those who felt surges of evil desire were strongly advised to reduce their pittance.

There is a story recounted that a Sister - for there was a convent at Tallaght also - had her ration reduced over a three year period to the stage when she no longer bled when pricked with a needle. This was to reduce her passions. When she had reached that stage, she was deemed safe from the passions of the flesh.

The range of activities included the usual monastic activities of Mass and Prayer. In addition, study was encouraged. Manuscripts were composed and copied in the Scriptorium. Bread was baked. Corn was grown, dried in a kiln and then ground in a mill. Ale was probably brewed in Finglas but not in Tallaght. Sewing was important as was weaving of coarse cloth. Pottery may have been thrown and fired. Wood was cut and shelters built. Butter and cheese were made from the milk of the monastery's cows. Beehives may have been kept as honey was an important part of the diet. Monks who could were expected to study or write. What trades they had were also used to the benefit of the community. Illiterate monks were used for the large amounts of manual work which had to be done in the fields. They looked after the animals, built and maintained the various offices of the monastery. It was also they who looked after cooking and in general, attended to the needs of the more cerebral monks.

The Annals make no mention of any attack on Tallaght by the Vikings. But there are recorded attacks on Tallaght by a High King Aed Oirdnide , who was sanctioned by the monks for violating their monastery in 806 AD. He was forced to compensate the monks for this offence - it seems the monks at Tallaght had sufficient power and influence to extract this compensation. Later, in 824 AD, the monastic community of Kildare plundered Tallaght. This was a pattern in monastic Ireland: other Irish monasteries and, indeed, Irish secular rulers often attacked and plundered monasteries for their riches more often than the Vikings did. We return to the story of Tallaght under MaelruanMaelruan was an outstanding character in monastic Ireland. He ruled firmly and was deferred to and consulted by other abbots. Even Dublittir, Abbot of Finglas consulted him. This is significant because Finglas was an older and by some accounts more settled Community. (9) It is recorded that at this stage in our history many of the other monasteries in Ireland had hereditary succession. It is also known that the Céile Dé monks in Clonmacnoise, in later times, married. (10)

But as you can gather from the above, Maelruan insisted on the celibacy of his monks. As an aside it is worth recording that Patrick himself was the son of Calpornius, a deacon and the grandson of Potitus, a priest (11). As you might imagine, observance of the Sabbath was very strict. Servile work was forbidden from Vespers on Saturday evening until Monday Morning (12). Exemplary monks ate nothing that had been prepared on a Sunday. It was forbidden to lift a single apple from the ground or to make a journey of more than a thousand paces. Sunday was a day of prayer and rest. But, no monk was to abstain totally from food on a Sunday. If he did, he was punished. Punishment often took the form of banishment from the monastery. But this time of asceticism also produced a great body of poetry; devotional and personal and nature poetry. It is claimed by some that the origin of Irish personal lyrical poetry lies in the monastic movement of the sixth and seventh centuries. Others say that the ascetic reform we are talking about provided a suitable background for this literature (13).

Some of this poetry originated in Tallaght in the eighth century. Manuscripts Originating in Tallaght - comparisons with Hopkins's Poetry This leads me to some manuscripts which originated in Tallaght and I will outline just a sample of these in the time remaining. I will also attempt to draw comparisons with some of Hopkins's nature poetry. The Martyrology of Tallaght is believed to be the work of Maelruan. Much of it has survived, or been found quoted among other manuscripts both here and on the Continent. Many of these sources are imperfect and our knowledge is still incomplete. The last edition published was in 1931 by the Henry Bradshaw Society (I think) and as late as last year some further fragment was found quoted in another manuscript on the continent. The second manuscript originating in Tallaght is the Martyrology of Oengus and it also dates from the time of Maelruan. Again it has been compiled from various manuscripts and from quotations in other later manuscripts, many of them on the continent. It sings the praises of martyrs and martyrdom and I will quote just a few lines to illustrate: 29. They have hewed out roads which fools deem not easy: before going to the Kingdom they have suffered tribulation33. They have been impaled before hosts, and they with their virtues: They have been crushed in assemblies; they have been slain before kings. 37. They have been torn with spearpoints: they have been racked in pieces: they have been burnt over fires, on white hot gridirons(14) . 49. Joyous at every violent death, whose horror is excessive; many tortures before this they used to endure (with) splendid valour. Oengus concentrates the mind on the horrors of martyrdom. A third manuscript, which it is thought originated in Tallaght, is the Document known as the Stowe Missal. Other sources attribute this document to Terryglass. Commentaries on the new testament in Irish are to be found today in Turin, in manuscript form, and these commentaries originated in the circle around Maelruan - possibly in Tallaght(15). Maelruan was mentioned in the Kalender of Drummond in Scotland (16).

I recently found out that St Silio, on Anglesea Island, also came under the influence of the Céile Dé Movement and moved onto St Silio Island (or Puffin Island) to live by the rule of the Céile Dé Movement. This island is just off the north east coast of Anglesea. We have had a sample of the close focus of the Martyrology of Oengus on the suffering and purpose of martyrdom. There was not much poetry in that. But the Martyrology of Tallaght is a different matter. In the manuscripts of this document are verses and scraps of poetry composed by the author monk or monks which are typical mainstream of the personal poetry written by Irish monks of the Early Church here. These poems describe the reaction of the monks to the beauties of nature in a very real, sensuous and joyous way. I will quote from a ninth century manuscript which is thought to have originated in Bangor.

Over my head the woodland wall
Rises; the ousel sings to me;
Above my booklet lined for words
The woodland birds shake out their glee.

There's the blithe cuckoo chanting clear
In mantle grey from bough to bough!
God keep me still!

For here I write
A scripture bright in great woods now.

In this case the verse and its effect has survived translation. But I want to set before you now, some of the verse which is found in the Martyrology of Tallaght. We can get some idea of the ascetic of these people and the imagery used conveys their cultural and even personal milieu. Remember that the Céile Dé Movement is credited by some with providing a suitable background for this literature.

The birds of the world, power without ill,
Tis to welcome the Sun,
On January's nones, whatever hour it be,
The cry of the host from the dark wood.

On the festival of Ciaran, Son of the wright,
Wild Geese come over the cold sea,
On the festival of Cyprian, a great counsel,
The brown stag bells from the ruddy field.

Three score hundred fair years,
The worlds age without sorrow,
The ocean will burst over every place
At the end of the night, at the call of the birds.

Melodious music the birds perform
To the king of the heaven of clouds,
Praising the radient king,
Hark from afar to the choir of the birds. (17)

How the sounds mattered. We have the bellow of the brown stag. Mention is made of the dawn chorus. And also mention of the melodious music of he birds. It has been commented that in a monotheistic religion monks came to consider all of nature as God's handiwork (18) . A further short verse in the Martyrology of Tallaght describes the work and prayer of Becan as he builds a wall:

Building a wall, [and] cross vigil,
Prostration, pure prayer,
Tears from him without avail,
The virtue of Becan, without aught of sin.

Hand on a stone, hand upraised,
Knee bent against a rock,
Eye ever shedding tears,
And lips praying.(19)

While the verse has lost something in translation the ecstasy of the monks is not lost in their delight at the marrying of work and prayer. One further verse found in the Martyrology of Tallaght refers to Saint Indrath at Glastonbury and sets out some guidelines for monks thus;

If he be a cleric, let him not be wrathful.
Let him not his voice be raised. Let him not swear falsely.
Let him not be greedy. Let him not be treasure loving.
Let him not be niggardly, lying. Let him not be fault-finding at meals.
Do not slander thy fellow.
Thy side half bare, thy bed half cold
From Christ, God's Son, mayest thou have thy reward.

Absence from thy bodily family
Until the day of thy death.
Grassless earth over thee
At the end of thy journeying.

Knowledge, steadfastness, patience,
Silence without muteness.
Humility, purity, patience,
Take not the world,
O cleric.

There you have an eighth century exhortation for the ideal monastic life. And a short look at Hopkins is enough to show that he took the same delight in Nature. His poem "Spring" is a praise of nature. As are poems such as "God's Grandeur" the Starlight Night" , "The Sea and The Skylark" and many more. For me some of his fragments are particularly beautiful and most in keeping with the ageless tradition of personal and nature poetry. His poem to the woodlark is an unabashed praise of nature. and a fragmant such as ; "When cuckoo calls and I may hear,
And thrice and four times and again." (20) Echos the same love of nature as the lines from the Martyrology of Tallaght:"On the seventeenth of the calends of May
The cuckoo calls from the pleasant wood." (21) It is only a fragment chosen to show an identity of imagery. Another fragment from Hopkins :

The wind that passes by so fleet,
Runs his fingers through the wheat,
And leaves the blades, where'er he will veer,
Tingling between dusk and silver. Or else their cooings came from bays of trees,
Like a contented wind, or gentle shocks
Of falling water. This and all of these
We tuned to one key and made their harmonies. (22)

Similarities between Hopkins's Imagery magery used by Early Irish MonksIn my short dip into both Hopkins and the early monk poets at Tallaght, I was struck by how often the imagery was similar. The poems were written over eleven hundred years apart. If you think of the imagery in literature or poetry as indicating the background against which they were written then it is no surprise that there is no mention of machinery or transport or other modern paraphernalia in the personal poetry of our 8th century monks. But what is lovely to find is how often Hopkins's poetry is timeless in this way. He didn't date his poetry nor give it a contemporary feel by grounding it on current images of nineteenth century technology or life. These things were transitory and his poems would now sound dated because of such references. In their way they are as timeless as the verse written by those 8th century monks at Tallaght.


1. Frank Mitchell & Michael Ryan. Reading the Irish Landscape. (Town house. Dublin. 1986)
pp. 251 - 257.

2. Shell Guide to Ireland. p. 15.

3. Peter O'Dwyer. Céile Dé- Spiritual Reform in Ireland 750 - 900. (Dublin 1981 - Editions Tailliura) p.1.

4. Peter O'Dwyer. Céile Dé- Spiritual Reform in Ireland 750 - 900. (Dublin 1981 - Editions Tailliura) p. 8 & 9.

5. Martyrology of Tallaght as quoted in Céile Dé; Spiritual reform in Ireland 750 to 900.
Peter O'Dwyer.

6. Tadhg O'Keeffe. Irelands Round Towers. (Tempus Publishing. Stroud. 2004) Ch 3 & 4. Michael Richter. Medieval Ireland - The enduring tradition. (Gill & McMillan. Dublin 1988. p. 102.

7. Peter O'Dwyer. Céile Dé- Spiritual Reform in Ireland 750 - 900. (Dublin 1981 - Editions Tailliura) p. 118.

8 . Peter O'Dwyer. Celi De - Spiritual Reform in Ireland 750 - 900. (Dublin 1981 - Editions Tailliura) p. 31.

9. All of the above from Spiritual Reform in Ireland 750 to 900 esp. see p. 27.

10. T.M. Charles-Edwards. Early Christian Ireland. ( Cambridge University Press 2000.) p. 216.

11. Peter O'Dwyer. Céile Dé- Spiritual Reform in Ireland 750 - 900. (Dublin 1981 - Editions Tailliura) p. 116.

12. Peter O'Dwyer. Céile Dé- Spiritual Reform in Ireland 750 - 900. (Dublin 1981 - Editions Tailliura) p. 184 & 185.

13. Whitley Stokes DCL. The Martyrology of Oengus the Culdee . (Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies) 1984. p. 18.

14. Michael Richter. Medieval Ireland - The enduring tradition. (Gill & McMillan. Dublin 1988. p.103.

15. Peter O'Dwyer. Céile Dé - Spiritual Reform in Ireland 750 - 900. (Dublin 1981 - Editions Tailliura) p. 31.

16. Best and Lawlor (Eds) The Martyrology of Tallaght. (Henry Bradshaw Society. London 1931.) p. 97.

17. Peter O'Dwyer. Céile Dé- Spiritual Reform in Ireland 750 - 900. (Dublin 1981 - Editions Tailliura) p. 184.

18. Best and Lawlor (Eds) The Martyrology of Tallaght. (Henry Bradshaw Society. London 1931.) p. 105.

19. Gardner & MacKenzie. The Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins. (Oxford University Press. Fourth Edition) 20. Best and Lawlor (Eds) The Martyrology of Tallaght. (Henry Bradshaw Society. London 1931.) p. 95.

21. Gardner & MacKenzie. The Poems of Gerald Manley/Hopkins. (Oxford University Press. Fourth Edition) p. 134.

Links to Hopkins Literary Festival 2005

Monastic Ireland and Saint Patrick || Influence of Hopkins on American Poets || John Henry Newman Influence on Hopkins || Ursula Bethell and Gerard Manley Hopkins ||