Summary: St Ceallach was born in 1080, became Abbot of Armagh and priest in 1105 and presided at the Synod of Rathbreaail in 1111. In 1129 he died and is buried n Lismore by his own request.
Ceallach, also called Celsus (11-12th century), was responsible for the change from lay control of the Church in Armagh to a clerical-episcopal model. Himself a hereditary lay administrator (coarb), he decided to seek priestly ordination and be celibate so that the reform introduced by Pope St Gregory VIII on the continent could take effect also in Ireland.
Patrick Duffy tells St Ceallach’s story.
A Hereditary Lay Abbacy controlling the Church in Armagh
Ceallach (Celsus) was born in 1080. He belonged to a powerful local family, the Clann Sínaigh, which controlled what was then the hereditary lay abbacy of Armagh. In this system the lay coarb (that is, “successor” of some saint, in this case of St Patrick), was also erenagh (or, administrator), in this case of Armagh. That was the ecclesiastical structure in Ireland at that time. Bishops and priests seem to have had little influence and were probably under the control of these lay abbots. In 1091 Ceallach inherited the title of coarb and was then the effective erenagh of Armagh.
Lay Control in Europe Being Overturned
Lay control of bishoprics had also been operative in Europe, but with the reform of Pope Gregory VII (1073-85) it was gradually replaced by a diocesan structure with bishops. This reform spread to England, especially when strong Norman archbishops like Lanfranc and St Anselm came to the see of Canterbury. In response to requests from the Norse community in Dublin, Lanfranc had consecrated Donngus and Anselm had consecrated Samuel Ó h-Ainglí as bishops for Dublin and Anselm had consecrated Malchus as the first bishop of Waterford in 1096.
Reform Beginning in Munster
Both Lanfranc and Anselm had written to the O’Brien kings of Munster, Turlough and Muircheartach, urging a change to the lay dominance of the coarb and erenagh system. The First Synod of Cashel (1101) presided over by King Muircheartach Ó Briain introduced this reform to Ireland. From the clergy side the reform was led by Maol Muire Ó Dunáin, bishop of Meath, who probably visited Rome and was appointed papal legate to Ireland by Pope Paschal II (1099-1117). This synod enacted decrees against lay investiture and against simony: it also laid down that no layman could be an erenagh and that no erenagh could have a wife.
In line with this reform Ceallach of Armagh, a man of learning and piety, not yet married, made the courageous decision to become a priest. In 1106 Maol Muire Ó Dunáin ordained him bishop, probably somewhere in Munster. At the Synod of Rathbreasail (probably in the parish of Drom & Inch – north Tipperary) in 1111, at which Ceallach was present, the reforms of Cashel were made nationwide and the whole country was divided into formal dioceses with Cashel and Armagh as the two archbishoprics.
Archbishop of Armagh
In the face of stern opposition, probably most of all from within his own family, Ceallach administered Armagh, whose diocesan boundaries were laid down at this time. As a metropolitan province, Armagh was given twelve suffragan dioceses. Dublin at this stage had a strong Norse population and was more linked with Canterbury. But in 1121, after Bishop Samuel Ó h-Ainglí died, Ceallach went to Dublin as the new bishop Gréne, or Gregory, was being installed.
Ceallach Appoints Malachy as vicar.
In his absence Ceallach appointed the young monk Malachy, who later succeeded him, to act as his vicar in Armagh. Possibly his lengthy absence in Dublin was connected to a dispute there between the Norse and Irish factions or to his desire to assert Irish influence in that city.
Ceallach, when he returned to Armagh in 1122, saw that Malachy had sterling qualities suitable in a bishop. He sent him first to Lismore where he could have contact with Benedictine influences from England and the continent. Ceallach continued to administer Armagh. When Malachy returned, Ceallach gave him the task of restoring Bangor as a monastic community and in 1124 he consecrated him as bishop of Connor.
His Death and Influence
Knowing that his own family would try to regain control of Armagh when he died, Ceallach named Malachy as his successor as bishop there, sending him his crozier (bacall) in token. In 1129 while visiting Munster, Ceallach died at Ardpatrick and was buried in Lismore at his own request. Malachy did indeed have difficulties establishing control as bishop. But he was able to have Giolla Mac Liag, abbot of Derry, installed and accepted as effective bishop and administrator of Armagh, while he himself returned to the monastery of Bangor. Malachy then consecrated a bishop for Connor diocese, keeping Down for himself.
Ceallach Effected a Crucial Change
Ceallach’s personal decision to become a priest and a bishop effected a crucial change in the organisation and reform of the Church in Ireland in the 12th century. He deserves to be better known and acknowledged.