The monastic schools at Old Leighlin and Rath Melsigi on
the River Barrow are fine examples of schools, secular and lay, that
arose during the Golden Age to give Ireland its name as the island of
saints and scholars. These
were boarding schools in ancient times, the prototype
of our universities.
a rare semblance of an urban environment, with communities that specialised in education as well as art, metalworking, calligraphy, manuscript
illumination and such like. I’m unsure how elite they were but if you were a part of the elite, a king or a
chief, you’d probably be keen for your
little boy to go and learn a bit of theology and divinity and maybe some
practical subjects too – commerce,
agriculture, Greek, Latin, science. (And yes, I say boy because I don’t see much evidence of the girls
getting much of a look in those times. Maybe I am looking in the wrong
of these schools were located close to rivers and lakes. It made sense to build them on a waterway. Accessibility
and education often go hand in hand. A few grassy hillocks and a sycamore tree just south of the River Nore by Mountrath, County Laois, are all that remains of Saint Fintan's monastic school at Clonenagh, where 4,000 foreign students once apparently studied. Clonard on the River Boyne in County Meath was another distinguished seat of learning in medieval times. Founded by St Finian, it boasted 3,000 students at its peak, some coming from as far away as Germany and France.
Bangor Abbey on Belfast Lough was founded by Comgall, who had set off to convert the heathen Picts of Scotland to Christianity as a young fellow. Bangor was hugely important in its glory days as a centre of learning and Christian zeal that rivalled the island of Iona. It had a celebrated scriptorium where monks would sit and transcribe and ancient works. (They invented plenty of ancient works too, but that's another story!) The students at Bangor also learned how to write and amazingly some of the words they wrote and the doodles they doodled can be seen in surviving manuscripts from the 7th and 8th century. In the margins of one such work, somebody wrote "Let no reader blame this writing for my arm is cramped from too much work." In another, a student laments: "alas my hand… It is time for dinner!" It's always very refreshing to find such glimpses of humanity and humour in ages past.
Bangor, like several Irish monasteries, was renowned for sending its pupils into voluntary exile in far-off lands. Among them was Saint Columbanus, a personal favourite of mine, who was patron saint of motorbikers among other things. Columbanus was a key player in Europe in the 7th century, preaching to people like the Merovingian king Guntram of Burgundy and founding monasteries in France, Switzerland and Italy. He also composed a poem for his disciples to sing as they heaved upon the oars and rowed his boat up the majestic River Rhine in about 600 AD, which is deemed one of the earliest recorded boat songs. Here is a stanza in English:
Lo, cut in forests, the driven keel, passes on the stream Of the twin-horned Rhine and glides as if annointed by the flood. Heave, my men! Let resounding echo sound our Heave!
the River Shannon is arguably Ireland's most famous medieval monastery –
or a tie for first place with Glendalough perhaps? Established by St.
Ciaran in 548 A.D, Clonmacnoise was built on the wet, boggy eastern
banks of the Shannon, which doesn't sound like a very promising to build
anything. And yet somehow, it flourished to become another celebrated
seat of learning, a quasi-university, with umpteen hundreds of students
flooding in from all over Europe between the 7th and 12th centuries.
Today, Clonmacnoise holds what is apparently the largest
collection of Early Christian grave slabs in Western Europe.
On top of
that, there are the ruins of a cathedral, seven churches, three high
crosses, two round towers and … a partridge in a pear tree? Pope John
Paul II turned up at Clonmacnoise back in 1979. It was supposed to be a
secret, but someone whispered to someone else and by the time Il Papa
rocked up, there were 30,000 people waiting to catch a glimpse.
The monastic settlements of Clonmacnoise and Durrow are also symbolised by four 25-foot tall steel figurines on the N52 bypass outside Tullamore. Created by artist Maurice Harron, three of the figurines holds something up – a book, a chalice, a staff – while the fourth appears to be throwing a flock of birds or souls.
The medieval cathedral of Clonfert stands across the River Shannon in the east of County Galway. Brendan the Navigator is credited with founding a major ecclesiastical school here which, again, had 3000 plus students at its peak. Brendan, famed for taking his curragh north to what sure sounds like Iceland, is reputedly buried here. He arranged for his body to be taken here secretly, and buried under an unremarkable rock, so that his grave didn't stand out from the crowd. This was partly because he didn't want his remains to be disinterred by relic hunters. Bear in mind that almost every other medieval saint seems to have had their body dissected into multiple parts, a bone here, a bone there, to be worshipped by the goodly pilgrims.
Among the other monastic schools and missionary training centres on Irish waterway were those on the island of Inchcleraun in the north end of Lough Ree, founded by Dermot the Just, and Holy Island, or Inis Cealtra, in Lough Derg, founded by St Caimin. Away from the water, another monastic school evolved on the site of Sr Brigid's monastic foundation at Kildare on the western edge of the Curragh.
Researched and written by Irish historian Turtle Bunbury,
the history of Irish Waterways and their environs is the result of
extensive original scholarship through the National Archives and
contemporary newspapers, as well as the expertise of local historians
and academic historians.