Early Irish Monastics: Myths, Monasteries, and Pilgrimage

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: The Celtic World

By Jennifer Paxton, Ph.D., The Catholic University of America

To confront the question of how distinctive Celtic Christianity really is, it would be instructive to discuss the life and works of some of the early Irish monastic figures, and the stories that their biographers told about them.

Saint Brigid, an early Irish saint, is shown being carried by two angels over the waters, as seagulls follow.
Early Irish monastics, like Saint Brigid, were often associated with natural forces.
Here, Saint Brigid is shown to be transported to heaven by angels. (Image: John Duncan/Public domain)

Saint Brigid: Human or Goddess?

Saint Brigid is one of the most famous monastic figures in early Irish history. Two of her biographies include information that makes her look a little bit pre-Christian.

In these texts, Brigid could control the waters of Ireland’s rivers. As one scholar of Saint Brigid puts it: “Dark and impenetrable woods gave up easy paths to those under her protection, while thieves lost their way in broad daylight.” Brigid is starting to look a bit more like a nature goddess than a Christian saint.

Was Brigid a goddess who was later made into a saint? Or did people make her look more like a goddess to make the real person seem more impressive? The main point to take away from the story of Saint Brigid is the fact that early Irish Christianity had more than a small share of pagan elements blended into it. But the most important aspect of Saint Brigid’s career was certainly her work as a monastic leader.

Learn more about Celtic religious beliefs on divination, reincarnation, and human sacrifice.

Irish Monasticism: Asceticism and Pilgrimage

Monasticism in Ireland was very ascetic; that is, it emphasized the mortification of the flesh to purge the monk of worldly desires. Monks ate very sparse diets, and most monks initially lived in quite simple huts. There was also great stress on pilgrimage, on the willing sacrifice of the comforts of home and family to get closer to God, almost a martyrdom.

There were three kinds of martyrdom for the early Irish. ‘Red martyrdom’ meant literally dying for Christ. ‘Green martyrdom’ meant living an ascetic life right where they were. Finally, there was the ‘white martyrdom’ of perpetual exile.

There were three main areas where Irish monastic pilgrims went. They might go as far as continental Europe. They might also go to other locations closer to home, such as various parts of the British Isles. Or they might simply abandon themselves to the open sea.

This is a transcript from the video series The Celtic World. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Saint Columbanus and His Travels in Europe

One of the Irish monks who traveled abroad was Saint Columbanus, who was born in about 543 A.D. and died in 615. Saint Columbanus set out for Gaul with 12 followers. Columbanus was genuinely holy and ascetic, but he was also a difficult man because he insisted on speaking the truth to those in power. Saint Columbanus criticized King Theudebert II, the king of the Franks, for his lax sexual morals.

A landscape view of Bobbia, Italy.
Saint Columbanus founded monasteries all over Europe, like this one at Bobbio in Italy. (Image: leoks/Shutterstock)

The real deal-breaker, though, was that Columbanus followed a different method for calculating the date of Easter. The Frankish clerics would not tolerate this difference of opinion, and he was exiled from the Frankish court. So, he went on to found important houses all over France and northern Italy that helped preserve the learning of antiquity.

Irish Monasteries in Europe

Like Columbanus, other Irish priests founded churches in Europe, in what are now Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. It is known that they maintained ties with Ireland for hundreds of years because some of these houses have manuscripts written in the 9th, 10th, 11th, and even 12th centuries that were clearly written in Irish handwriting.

These monasteries were still attracting Irish-born clerics many centuries after they were founded. In fact, these Irish-oriented monasteries were referred to as Schottenklöster, or ‘Scottish cloisters’, with the ‘Scottish’ here actually referring to the Scotti, or the Irish.

These houses lasted in Germany in the Protestant territories down to the Reformation and in the Catholic territories all the way to the dissolution of the monasteries in the 18th century. So, the impact of those Irish pilgrims on the continent endured for more than a thousand years.

Learn more about medieval Irish literature.

Saint Columba: Monasteries and a Monster

A picture of the Irish monastic Saint Columba preaching to a crowd.
Saint Columba traveled in Ireland and Scotland, preaching Christianity and establishing monasteries. (Image: J. R. Skelton/Public domain)

At about the same time as Saint Columbanus was at work on the continent, a man with a very similar name, Saint Columba, was also founding many monasteries.

Saint Columba founded a very important confederation of monasteries all over the northern half of Ireland and in southwestern Scotland, including Derry, Durrow, and Kells.

But the most famous was Iona, which was situated on an island in southwestern Scotland. Iona ultimately provided the missionaries who converted the northern half of Britain, so it had a huge influence throughout the British Isles.

Incidentally, a biography of Saint Columba records the first mention of the Loch Ness monster. Saint Columba is said to have forced the beast to flee when it attempted to eat a monk swimming in the water.

Wandering the Seas: Saint Brendan’s Voyage

But the perils of water for monks were by no means confined to inland waterways. As mentioned before, some monks set out to sea with the deliberate aim of letting the wind take them wherever it would. Some returned to tell marvelous stories about what they had seen.

A picture of Saint Brendan of Clonfert at sea in a boat with a group of monks.
The sea voyage of Saint Brendan can be read as an allegory for the journey of the soul toward Christ. (Image: Unknown mediaeval scribe/Public domain)

The most famous such tale is the Voyage of Saint Brendan. Saint Brendan was a monk who supposedly set out with his companions to find the ‘Isles of the Saints’, and after many adventures, he reached his goal. Many people have read this story as a description of a trans-Atlantic voyage to Newfoundland. But did he and other monks really do it?

There are two possible reasons to suspect this. One is of course that the voyages might be allegorical: the voyage of the soul toward God. The other reason is that they resemble secular Irish tales about journeys to the Otherworld across the sea.  But it is known that some monks really went out to sea without any idea of where they were going. 

To sum up, the way in which secular and pagan myths are intertwined with the myths of the early Irish saints, and the unique aspects of monasticism—especially that of seafaring—make early Irish Christianity quite distinctive.

Common Questions about Early Irish Monastics

Q. How do biographies of Saint Brigid represent her?

Biographies of Saint Brigid represent her as having had powers like a nature goddess: she is said to have been able to control the waters and to have had the power to help travelers and hinder thieves.

Q. What were the three kinds of martyrdom for the early Irish monastics?

For the early Irish monastics, the three kinds of martyrdom were: red martyrdom, which meant dying for Christ; green martyrdom, which meant living as an ascetic right where they were; and white martyrdom, which meant perpetual exile.

Q. Why was Saint Columbanus expelled from the Frankish court?

Saint Columbanus not only criticized the lax morals of the Frankish King, Theudebert II, but also refused to agree to the Easter date calculated by the Franks. So, he was expelled from the Frankish court.

Q. Why is Iona so well known?

Iona was the most important monastery established by Saint Columba, primarily because Iona sent out the most missionaries to spread Christianity in Britain.

Q. What is important about the Voyage of Saint Brendan?

The Voyage of Saint Brendan describes a voyage apparently across the Atlantic in which Saint Brendan reaches the Isles of the Saints, after facing much trouble along the way.

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