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The Irish Matryoshka: A history of Irish monks in medieval Europe

30 November, 1999

In a series of six monographs, James J. Harkins explores the historical dimensions of the coming of Christianity to Ireland and its subsequent spread to Scotland and the European continent. Using German and French sources he has interesting insights and comments on what the Irish missionaries did well and not so well.

154 pp. Contact the author at [email protected]


Title Page  
Introit: Taproots of a Nation 

  1. Familiae Connections: Monasticism and the Early Church  
  2. Pátraic of Armagh: Apostle of All Ireland 
  3. Columcille of Donegal: The Iona Paruchia
  4. Columbanus and Gregory the Great: Irish Exiles on the Continent  
  5. Roma locuta est, causa finita est: Rome has spoken, the case is closed  
  6. Fergil of Salzburg: Irish monk scholars and diplomats  

Front Cover: Stained glass window of St. Columba, St. Columba’s Church, Long Tower, Derry with permission.

Dedication: Heraldic Bearing of ÓhEarcáin, registered in the Office of the Chief Herald of Ireland, Volume W, folio 25.

Back Cover: Statue of Saint Columbanus, picture taken at Bobbio, Italy, by the author.




A half of pathos is the past we know,
A half the future into which we go:
Or present joy broken with old regret,
Or sorrow saved from hell by one hope yet.
                                      Tomás MacDonagh (l)

I chose the enigmatic Russian Matryoshka (2) as the metaphor for a series of monographs written for independent reading or for reference. This book articulates a series of events that replicates the story of Ireland as an essential part of the European historical scene and not as some backwater island on the periphery of the then-known world. Each monograph is a highly detailed history for separate reading. Thus the reader has the option to start with any monograph, not forgetting that collectively these monographs tell of early Euro-Irish monasticism in the context of those events that shaped western ideals in the Middle Ages.

The first monograph is complex reading because it addresses the modus of familiae connection in the Early Catholic Church, a crucial piece of realpolitik that enabled the church to expand into those areas where powerful Gallic, Germanic, and Irish warlords held sway. The reader must bear in mind that a tradition of great ecclesiastical families were an integral part of the early church before its westward expansion because the papacy needed the assistance of these powerful families to establish monastic foundations; thus evolved a modus vivendi tradition of hereditary church offices to support the concept of a universal church. Naturally, no later than the Treaty of Milan, powerful magnates sought to control the church and its wealth by manipulating the election of bishops and abbots. As the church expanded, this realpolitik compounded itself with kings selecting their bishops and seizing monastic lands of other suzerains; this had nothing to do with evangelizing or church unity and usually resulted in war. In this respect, the Irish dynasts were no different from their continental counterparts.

The second monograph tells of Martin of Tours, the great saint that introduced an Egyptian Catholic (Coptic) eremitical monastic ideal into Gaul, which became the ideal for monasticism in Armorica (Brittany) and, most certainly, Auxerre. It is legitimate to conclude that these ideals were brought to Ireland either by Saint Pátraic or by one of his disciples/ successors, which may answer why the Irish Catholic church evolved as an abbatial church. This eastern ideal would have a profound and lasting effect on the Irish monastic church that became the basis for a unique form of Irish Catholicism promoted by the conservative Iro-Columban-familiae on the island of Iona. When the Iona Paruchia expanded into Angle-Saxon England and Brittany, and finally into Frankish Europe, the Roman Curia viewed it as a parallel Catholic culture that could threaten the unity of the Latin Church. It could certainly jeopardize the realpolitik of papacy with a volatile Merovingian dynasty whose ferocious pagan warriors had overrun West Europe, forcing the Roman bureaucrats to flee to the safety of the Mediterranean periphery. The violence-prone Germans, the new masters of the West, had no clue how to administer the territories and people they had conquered, so they adopted the corporate social order of the Catholic Church to administer their empire.

During this chaos, slave traders abduct a young Romo-Briton aristocrat named Succat and sailed to Ireland. After years of captivity, Succat escaped to Gaul and eventually enters the monastery (3) on Iles de Lérins, in the Mediterranean where, as a part of his novitiate, he “surrenders his name to Christ” and receives the monastic name of Pátraic, alluding to his patrician background. The monk Pátraic then returns to Armorica and is consecrated a deacon, in the service of Duke Germanus: the Bishop of Auxerre. Pátraic’s ability to speak Romo-Brythonic and Irish qualified him to the Germanus-Lupus delegation to England and also the ill-fated Pallidus mission to Southeast Ireland. After the failure of Pallidus, Pátraic became the primary missionary (he was probably not a bishop) to the Irish and, with the help of Brigid and other great saints, converted the heathen Gaels to Catholic Christianity.

The third monograph articulates that in the early 5th century, warlords from the kingdom of Dál Riata, in Ulster, crossed the North Channel to establish a second Dálraidic kingdom at Argyll (an eastern province of the Gael), the Irish proto capital of what would later become the kingdom of Scotland. Until the 12th century the Irish were called “Scots”. ColumCille and his twelve monks sailed as Exiles for Christ (perigrinare pro Christo) to land on the tiny island of Iona (Hy) off the western coast, of contemporary Scotland, to establish a teaching monastery, which became the epicenter for spreading the biblical Good News to the pagan Northern Picts in Alba (Scotland). Later “Iona Exiles” move southward to convert the Germanic tribes that had settled on the island of Britain; while other perigrinare pro Christo sail to Bretagne, in Gaul, to convert the Germanic pagans there bringing the modus of hereditary abbots.

The fourth monograph tells of Columbanus of Leinster, who, also, with twelve monks, sailed to the continent to evangelize the decadent Merovingian Empire. The intrepid Columbanus and his monks were uncompromising in their orthodoxy before princes and prelates, who often accused them of being contumacious as they expanded Irish monasticism to Southern Italy. During the early 7th century, Pope Boniface IV called a synod to reform the monastic church in Southern Italy – this synod agreed that the centralized ideals of the Order of Saint Benedict could be the monastic standard to preserve church unity – this would have a great impact on the Irish church.

The fifth monograph is critical to understanding Irish monasticism and its relation to Rome. The 664 Synod of Whitby held at the double abbey at Streanaeshalch (4) (Whitby), is one of the most important meetings in the history of the Church, it concerned obedience to papal authority, i.e. Roma locuta est; causa finita est – Rome has spoken; the case is closed! It brings into perspective the canonical reforms of the Angle-Saxon Church, a.k.a. the 673 Synod at Hertford, instituted under the auspices of by Archbishop Theodore of Tarsus. Hertford substantiated the Order of Saint Benedict, a,, the monastic standard within the Latin Church. The archconservative Irish monks were out-of-step, with this Benedictine Reformation, thus their ideal became a dead letter. Sadly, Whitby whetted the appetite for Archbishopric of Canterbury to control all ecclesiastics on the islands of Britain and Ireland. Whitby was one of the great events in the history of church unity because it brought the Angles, Britons, Irish (Scots), Jutes, Picts, and Saxons into harmony with the unifying goal of the church. It established the Order of Saint Benedict as the ideal organization to promote Catholicism and centralize the power of the papacy as the ethical sinews of Western civilization. Conversely, the papacy faced a recurring dichotomy: the reality of acquiring great secular power at the correspondent risk of losing its moral sovereignty.

The sixth monograph examines the wandering Irish monk-scholars, who, in spite of the Whitby débâcle, remained a significant and positive force in the cultural development of Europe. They spoke and wrote in an uncorrupted Latin and thus ideal tutors and interpreters for the new dynasts in Europe, who trusted their diplomatic acumen. Fearless in evangelizing pagan tribes, the monks built their abbeys, which served the religious and educational needs of the population. Abbeys became European cultural centers. These monks motivated wandering tribes to settle by teaching them how to cultivate arable lands, plant fruit trees, and vines, to raise domestic animals. Irish monks instituted bee keeping and the brewing of beer. Next, wandering artisans settled in these farming communities, which eventually became proto-towns and a catalyst for the developing trading centers. In other words, the Irish monks were the societal architects of Europe.

One of the enduring problems of the church was the concept of the divine right of princes, (naturally) abetted by nationalistic prelates (5) eager to exploit this issue. Naturally, Rome was not blameless; it allowed itself to become a client of the Carolingians, dutifully serving as the point-of-the-spear for expansionist policies of ruffians, such as Charlemagne. By the 11 th century, the church had immersed itself into politics so thoroughly that, by the 16th century, abuses of power caused a number of disenfranchised nobles to hijack the good intentions of a much-needed Reformation to further their own ambitions. Instead of reforming the obvious ills of the church, they created a parallel non-Roman Catholic Christian Church, not unlike the Eastern Orthodox Church, whose secular ruler was also the titular head of the national church—a revival of Caesaropapism.

The ancients wrote on papyrus, a material that did not grow outside of the Nile Valley. The enterprising Irish perfected a technique of making vellum from hides of calves or sheep, allowing them to replicate church Psalters. In effect, monks became history’s first copying machines. Nevertheless, copying the Bible or a Psalter was a costly endeavor, taking about 400 hides to copy the Old and New Testaments. Irish monk-calligraphers (6) used a writing concept called uncial and later the half-uncial or minuscule – the birth of the lower case alphabet (7). The primary job of a monk-scribe was to keep track of religious dates, especially the paschal fest, and critical events concerning the monastery. An ancillary benefit involved the recording of societal events, the beginning of western historical writing.

One of the benefits in researching, compiling, writing, and editing much competing information for this book is that my pre-conceived prejudices were either reinforced or discredited. The Germanic monk-scribes were ‘non-objective’ in recording events of their secular masters; their conduct is best described as “wessen Brot ich esse, dessen Lied ich singe – whose bread I eat, whose song I sing”. Sifting through often quite innovative histories, e.g., Carolingian Royal Frankish Annals – Annales regni Francorum, I concluded that by the 9th century, medieval “spin-doctors” were already hard at work ‘inventing’ history, more than a millennium before this twentieth-century phrase was invented. At the start of this historical journey, I was unaware that it would provide me a different perspective on the whyfor of other Catholic Christian traditions, such as Anglican, Lutheran, and Calvinist. I hope that the reader will have charity with my turgid ramblings in the spirit of George Eliot (8). That said; I alone am responsible for this narrative.




  1. Inscription of Ireland by Tomas MacDonagh (b. 1878; d. 1916). MacDonagh was an Irish patriot who was executed on 3 May by an English firing squad in Kilmainham Gaol after the failed Easter Monday Uprising of 1916, in Dublin.
  2. A wooden doll containing a series of nesting dolls, one inside the other, alluding that each doll is an entity in itself and still part of the whole. Such dolls are made in Khotkovo and Zagorski, near Moscow. Source: 1984 Russian-English dictionary by Marcus Wheeler.
  3. Monastery, a term derived from the Greek word μοναστηριον.
  4. After the 9h century Viking invasion, it was renamed Whitby.
  5. Their venality is reminiscent of the line from the 1878 HMS Pinafore operetta by Gilbert & Sullivan: “Things are seldom what they seem, skim milk masquerades as cream”.
  6. “Calligraphy” is from the Greek kali and graphic, meaning “beautiful writing”.
  7. From aleph and bet, the first two letters of the ancient Phoenician alphabet.
  8. “An exiguity of cloth that would only allow of miniature capes”


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