c. 560 – c. 1000

The fall of the Roman Empire brought to the Irish people new dangers and new opportunities. Goths and Vandals, Burgundians and Franks, poured west over Europe to the Atlantic shore, and south across the Mediterranean to Africa; while the English were pressing northward over Great Britain, driving back the Celts and creating a pagan and Teutonic England. Once more Ireland lay the last unconquered land of the West.

The peoples that lay in a circle round the shores of the German Ocean were in the thick of human affairs, nations to right and left of them, all Europe to expand in. From the time when their warriors fell on the Roman Empire they rejoiced in a thousand years of uninterrupted war and conquest; and for the thousand years that followed traders, now from this shore of the German sea and now from that, have fought and trafficked over the whole earth.

In Ireland, on the other hand, we see a race of the bravest warriors that ever fought, who had pushed on over the Gaulish sea to the very marge and limit of the world. Close at their back now lay the German invaders of Britain—a new wave of the human tide always flowing westward. Before them stretched the Atlantic, darkness and chaos; no boundary known to that sea. Even now as we stand to the far westward on the gloomy heights of Donegal, where the very grass and trees have a blacker hue, we seem to have entered into a vast antiquity, where it would be little wonder to see in the sombre solitude some strange shape of the primeval world, some huge form of primitive man’s imagination. So closely did Infinity compass these people round that when the Irish sailor—St. Brendan or another—launched his coracle on the illimitable waves, in face of the everlasting storm, he might seem to pass over the edge of the earth into the vast Eternity where space and time were not. We see the awful fascination of the immeasurable flood in the story of the three Irishmen that were washed on the shores of Cornwall and carried to King Ælfred. “They came,” Ælfred tells us in his chronicle, “in a boat without oars from Hibernia, whence they had stolen away because for the love of God they would be on pilgrimage—they recked not where. The boat in which they fared was wrought of three hides and a half, and they took with them enough meat for seven nights.”

Ultimately withdrawn from the material business of the continent nothing again drew back the Irish to any share in the affairs of Europe save a spiritual call—a call of religion, of learning, or of liberty. The story of the Irish mission shows how they answered to such a call.

The Teutonic invaders stopped at the Irish Sea. At the fall of the Empire, therefore, Ireland did not share in the ruin of its civilisation. And while all continental roads were interrupted, traffic from Irish ports still passed safely to Gaul over the ocean routes. Ireland therefore not only preserved her culture unharmed, but the way lay open for her missionaries to carry back to Europe the knowledge which she had received from it. In that mission we may see the strength and the spirit of the tribal civilisation.

Two great leaders of the Irish mission were Columcille in Great Britain and Columbanus in Europe. In all Irish history there is no greater figure than St. Columcille—statesman and patriot, poet, scholar, and saint. After founding thirty-seven monasteries in Ireland, from Derry on the northern coast to Durrow near the Munster border, he crossed the sea in 563 to set up on the bare island of Hii or Iona a group of reed-thatched huts peopled with Irish monks. In that wild debatable land, swept by heathen raids, amid the ruins of Christian settlements, began a work equally astonishing from the religious and the political point of view. The heathen Picts had marched westward to the sea, destroying the Celtic churches. The pagan English had set up in 547 a monarchy in Northumbria and the Lowlands, threatening alike the Picts, the Irish or “Scot” settlements along the coast, and the Celts of Strathclyde. Against this world of war Columcille opposed the idea of a peaceful federation of peoples in the bond of Christian piety. He converted the king of the Picts at Inverness in 565, and spread Irish monasteries from Strathspey to the Dee, and from the Dee to the Tay. On the western shores about Cantyre he restored the Scot settlement from Ireland which was later to give its name to Scotland, and consecrated as king the Irish Aidan, ancestor of the kings of Scotland and England. He established friendship with the Britons of Strathclyde. From his cell at Iona he dominated the new federation of Picts and Britons and Irish on both sides of the sea—the greatest missionary that Ireland ever sent out to proclaim the gathering of peoples in free association through the power of human brotherhood, learning, and religion.

For thirty-four years Columcille ruled as abbot in Iona, the high leader of the Celtic world. He watched the wooden ships with great sails that crossed from shore to shore; he talked with mariners sailing south from the Orkneys, and others coming north from the Loire with their tuns of wine, who told him European tidings, and how a town in Istria had been wrecked by earthquake. His large statesmanship, his lofty genius, the passionate and poetic temperament that filled men with awe and reverence, the splendid voice and stately figure that seemed almost miraculous gifts, the power of inspiring love that brought dying men to see his face once more before they fell at his feet in death, give a surpassing dignity and beauty to his life. “He could never spend the space of even one hour without study or prayer or writing, or some other holy occupation … and still in all these he was beloved by all.” “Seasons and storms he perceived, he harmonised the moon’s race with the branching sun, he was skilful in the course of the sea, he would count the stars of heaven.” He desired, one of his poems tells us, “to search all the books that would be good for any soul”; and with his own hand he copied, it is said, three hundred books, sitting with open cell door, where the brethren, one with his butcher’s knife, one with his milk pail, stopped to ask a blessing as they passed.

After his death the Irish monks carried his work over the whole of England. A heathen land lay before them, for the Roman missionaries established in 597 by Augustine in Canterbury, speaking no English and hating “barbarism,” made little progress, and after some reverses were practically confined to Kent. The first cross of the English borderland was set up in 635 by men from Iona on a heather moorland called the Heaven-field, by the ramparts of the Roman Wall. Columban monks made a second Iona at Lindisfarne, with its church of hewn oak thatched with reeds after Irish tradition in sign of poverty and lowliness, and with its famous school of art and learning. They taught the English writing, and gave them the letters which were used among them till the Norman Conquest. Labour and learning went hand in hand. From the king’s court nobles came, rejoicing to change the brutalities of war for the plough, the forge-hammer, the winnowing fan: waste places were reclaimed, the ports were crowded with boats, and monasteries gave shelter to travellers. For a hundred years wherever the monks of Iona passed men ran to be signed by their hand and blessed by their voice. Their missionaries wandered on foot over middle England and along the eastern coast and even touched the Channel in Sussex. In 662 there was only one bishop in the whole of England who was not of Irish consecration, and this bishop, Agilberct of Wessex, was a Frenchman who had been trained for years in Ireland. The great school of Malmesbury in Wessex was founded by an Irishman, as that of Lindisfarne had been in the north.

For the first time also Ireland became known to Englishmen. Fleets of ships bore students and pilgrims, who forsook their native land for the sake of divine studies. The Irish most willingly received them all, supplying to them without charge food and books and teaching, welcoming them in every school from Derry to Lismore, making for them a “Saxon Quarter” in the old university of Armagh. Under the influence of the Irish teachers the spirit of racial bitterness was checked, and a new intercourse sprang up between English, Picts, Britons, and Irish. For a moment it seemed as though the British islands were to be drawn into one peaceful confederation and communion and a common worship bounded only by the ocean. The peace of Columcille, the fellowship of learning and of piety, rested on the peoples.

Columcille had been some dozen years in Iona when Columbanus (c. 575) left Bangor on the Belfast Lough, leading twelve Irish monks clad in white homespun, with long hair falling on their shoulders, and books hanging from their waists in leathern satchels. They probably sailed in one of the merchant ships trading from the Loire. Crossing Gaul to the Vosges Columbanus founded his monastery of Luxeuil among the ruined heaps of a Roman city, once the meeting-place of great highways from Italy and France, now left by the barbarians a wilderness for wild beasts. Other houses branched out into France and Switzerland. Finally he founded his monastery of Bobio in the Apennines, where he died in 615.

A stern ascetic, aflame with religious passion, a finished scholar bringing from Ireland a knowledge of Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, of rhetoric, geometry, and poetry, and a fine taste, Columbanus battled for twenty years with the vice and ignorance of a half-pagan Burgundy. Scornful of ease, indifferent to danger, astonished at the apathy of Italy as compared with the zeal of Ireland in teaching, he argued and denounced with “the freedom of speech which accords with the custom of my country.” The passion of his piety so awed the peoples, that for a time it seemed as if the rule of Columbanus might outdo that of St. Benedict. It was told that in Rome Gregory the Great received him, and as Columbanus lay prostrate in the church the Pope praised God in his heart for having given such great power to so small a man. Instantly the fiery saint, detecting the secret thought, rose from his prayer to repudiate the slight: “Brother, he who depreciates the work depreciates the Author.”

For a hundred years before Columbanus there had been Irish pilgrims and bishops in Gaul and Italy. But it was his mission that first brought the national patriotism of Ireland into conflict with the organisation of Rome in Europe. Christianity had come to Ireland from the East—tradition said from St. John, who was then, and is still, held in special veneration by the Irish; his flower, St. John’s wort, had for them peculiar virtues, and from it came, it was said, the saffron hue as the national colour for their dress. It was a national pride that their date for celebrating Easter, and their Eastern tonsure from ear to ear, had come to them from St. John. Peter loved Jesus, they said, but it was John that Jesus loved—”the youth John, the foster-son of his own bosom”—”John of the Breast.” It was with a very passion of loyalty that they clung to a national church which linked them to the beloved apostle, and which was the close bond of their whole race, dear to them as the supreme expression of their temporal and spiritual freedom, now illustrious beyond all others in Europe for the roll of its saints and of its scholars, and ennobled by the company of its patriots and the glory of Columcille. The tonsure and the Easter of Columbanus, however, shocked foreign ecclesiastics as contrary to the discipline of Rome, and he was required to renounce them. He vehemently protested his loyalty to St. John, to St. Columcille, and to the church of his fathers. It was an unequal argument. Ireland, he was answered, was a small island in a far corner of the earth: what was its people that they should fight against the whole world. The Europe of imperial tradition had lost comprehension of the passion of national loyalty: all that lay outside that tradition was “barbarous,” the Irish like the Saxons or the Huns.

The battle that was thus opened was the beginning of a new epoch in Irish history. St. Augustine, first archbishop of Canterbury (597), was ordered (603) to demand obedience to himself from the Celtic churches and the setting aside of their customs. The Welsh and the Irish refused to submit. Augustine had come to them from among the English, who were still pagan, and still fighting for the extermination of the Celts, and on his lips were threats of slaughter by their armies to the disobedient. The demand was renewed sixty years later, in a synod at Whitby in 664. By that time Christianity had been carried over England by the Irish mission; on the other hand, the English were filled with imperial dreams of conquest and supremacy. English kings settled on the Roman province began to imitate the glories of Rome, to have the Roman banner of purple and gold carried before them, to hear the name of “Emperor of the whole of Britain,” and to project the final subjugation to that “empire” of the Celt and Pictish peoples. The Roman organisation fell in with their habits of government and their ambitions. In the synod the tone of imperial contempt made itself heard against those marked out for conquest—Celts “rude and barbarous”—”Picts and Britons, accomplices in obstinacy in those two remote islands of the world.” “Your father Columba,” “of rustic simplicity” said the English leader, had “that Columba of yours,” like Peter, the keeping of the keys of heaven? With these first bitter words, with the condemnation of the Irish customs, and the sailing away of the Irish monks from Lindisfarne, discord began to enter in. Slowly and with sorrow the Irish in the course of sixty years abandoned their traditional customs and adopted the Roman Easter. But the work of Columcille was undone, and the spiritual bond by which the peoples had been united was for ever loosened. English armies marched ravaging over the north, one of them into Ireland (684), “wasting that harmless nation which had always been most friendly to the English, not sparing even churches or monasteries.” The gracious peace which had bound the races for a hundred and twenty years was broken, and constant wars again divided Picts, Scots, Britons, and Angles.

Ireland, however, for four hundred years to come still poured out missionaries to Europe. They passed through England to northern France and the Netherlands; across the Gaulish sea and by the Loire to middle France; by the Rhine and the way of Luxeuil they entered Switzerland; and westward they reached out to the Elbe and the Danube, sending missionaries to Old Saxony, Thuringia, Bavaria, Salzburg and Carinthia; southwards they crossed the Alps into Italy, to Lucca, Fiesole, Rome, the hills of Naples, and Tarentum. Their monasteries formed rest-houses for travellers through France and Germany. Europe itself was too narrow for their ardour, and they journeyed to Jerusalem, settled in Carthage, and sailed to the discovery of Iceland. No church of any land has so noble a record in the astonishing work of its teachers, as they wandered over the ruined provinces of the empire among the pagan tribes of the invaders. In the Highlands they taught the Picts to compose hymns in their own tongue; in a monastery founded by them in Yorkshire was trained the first English poet in the new England; at St. Gall they drew up a Latin-German dictionary for the Germans of the Upper Rhine and Switzerland, and even devised new German words to express the new ideas of Christian civilisation; near Florence one of their saints taught the natives how to turn the course of a river. Probably in the seventh and eighth centuries no one in western Europe spoke Greek who was not Irish or taught by an Irishman. No land ever sent out such impassioned teachers of learning, and Charles the Great and his successors set them at the head of the chief schools throughout Europe.

We can only measure the originality of the Irish mission by comparing with it the work of other races. Roman civilisation had not inured its people to hardship, nor given them any interest in barbarians. When Augustine in 595 was sent on the English mission he turned back with loathing, and finally took a year for his journey. In 664 no one could be found in Rome to send to Canterbury, till in 668 Theodore was fetched from Syria; he also took a year on his way. But the Irish missionaries feared nothing, neither hunger nor weariness nor the outlaws of the woods. Their succession never ceased. The death of one apostle was but the coming of another. The English missions again could not compare with the Irish. Every English missionary from the seventh to the ninth century had been trained under Irish teachers or had been for years in Ireland, enveloped by the ardour of their fiery enthusiasm; when this powerful influence was set aside English mission work died down for a thousand years or so. The Irish missionaries continued without a break for over six hundred years. Instead of the Irish zeal for the welfare of all peoples whatsoever, the English felt a special call to preach among those “from whom the English race had its origin,” and their chief mission was to their own stock in Frisia. Finally, among Teutonic peoples politics went hand in hand with Christianity. The Teutons were out to conquer, and in the lust of dominion a conqueror might make religion the sign of obedience, and enforce it by fire and water, viper and sword. But the Irish had no theory of dominion to push. A score of generations of missionaries were bred up in the tribal communities of Ireland, where men believed in voluntary union of men in a high tradition. Their method was one of persuasion for spiritual ends alone. The conception of human life that lay behind the tribal government and the tribal church of Ireland gave to the Irish mission in Europe a singular and lofty character. In the broad humanity that was the great distinction of their people persecution had no part. No war of religion stained their faith, and no barbarities to man.