Summary: St Maelruain was the leader of the Céilí Dé, a reform movement aimed at restoring purity and austerity to Irish monasticism which had become somewhat undisciplined by the 8th century.He founded a monastery at Tallaght, South West Co Dublin.
The image to the right >> is of the Martyrology of Tallaght (Ms A3), a list of the names of saints and their feasts attributed to St Maelruain and his disciple St Aengus and read at their community Mass. Patrick Duffy explains the context in which Maelruain and the Céilí Dé lived.
A monastery at Tallaght
Little is know of the early life of Maelruain. Probably he was born in the Lorrha neighbourhood of north Tipperary in 720. In 755 he founded a monastery at Tallaght in southwest Co Dublin on land given by Cellach mac Dunchada, King of Leinster. (now a Dominican Priory)He is associated with the monastic reform movement begun in the eighth century known as the Céilí Dé or Culdees. In both the Annals of Ulster and the Annals of the Four Masters, Maelruain is referred to as a “bishop”, but this terminology may reflect the Church structure of the later time of writing.
Céilí Dé probably means the ‘companions’ or ‘intimates’ of God – by analogy, for example, with bean chéile (‘wife’) or fear céile (‘husband’).
Why a reform movement?
Irish monasteries had become lax by the eighth century, possibly as a result of too much going abroad and an overemphasis on the peregrinatio pro Christo (or ‘pilgrimage for Christ’) movement to the continent begun by Saints Colmcille and Columban in the late sixth century. The fact that many monks felt called to go into wandering exile on the continent may have caused the internal discipline of the monasteries to break down somewhat.
A strong ascetical component
Maelruain’s reform at Tallaght was severe. It put more emphasis on preserving the enclosure and keeping the monks from sin than on the missionary dimension. There was a strong ascetical component, strong spiritual direction, frequent confession, as well as long fasts and harsh penances, such as standing in cold water for long periods to control the flesh.
The Rule of the Céilí Dé
Along with his disciple Aengus, Maelruain is regarded as joint author of The Rule of the Céilí Dé. A copy is preserved in the library of the Royal Irish Academy. The 19th century Celtic scholar Eoghan O’Curry says of this: “It contains a minute series of rules for the regulation of the lives of the Céilí Dé, their prayers, their preachings, their conversations, their confessions, their communions, their ablutions, their fastings, their abstinences, their relaxations, their sleep, their celebrations of the Mass, and so forth”.
Liturgy and manual work
The monks came together for a liturgical cycle of prayer, chanting psalms. There was also devotion to Our Lady and Michael the archangel. Mass was celebrated on Sundays, Thursdays and on great feasts. The monks received the consecrated bread, but not the consecrated wine. A litany of the names of the saints (The Martyrology of Tallaght) was read at every Mass. Intellectual and manual work were also valued as part of the monastery routine.
Spread of the movement
Besides Aengus, another disciple of Maelruain called Moling made a foundation similar to the Céilí Dé on the river Barrow at St Mullins in Co Carlow. Moling also became a figure of influence in the Ferns area. Other monasteries of the Céilí Dé movement were founded at Finglas, Clonenagh, Terryglass and Dairinis near Lismore. The Culdees also spread to Wales and Scotland where they survived into medieval times.
P.S. Tallaght in modern times
A Church of Ireland (Anglican) church was built on the site at Tallaght in 1829 partly from the medieval remains of Maelruain’s monastery. In 1855 the Irish Dominicans founded St Mary’s Priory, which then became a parish. The celebration of the saint’s “pattern” (= patron saint’s feast) had survived till this time, but the processions, dancing and drinking at night had got so out of hand that in 1856 it was decided to suppress them. This may account for the fact that no Catholic church is dedicated to St Maelruain, but there are schools, a Protestant church and graveyard, a local GAA club, and a parish centre called after him!