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The Story of Ireland By Emily Lawless Characters: 3671

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05

At home during the same period the chief events were the founding of monasteries, and the settling down of monastic communities, every such monastery becoming the protector and teacher of the little Christian community in its vicinity, educating its own sons, and sending them out as a bee sends its swarms, to settle upon new ground, and to fertilize the flowers of distant harvest fields.

At one time, "The Tribes of the Saints" seem to have increased to such an extent that they threatened to absorb all others. In West Ireland especially, little hermitages sprung up in companies of dozens and hundreds, all over the rock-strewn wastes, and along the sad shores of the Atlantic, dotting themselves like sea gulls upon barren points of rock, or upon sandy wastes which would barely have sufficed, one might think, to feed a goat. We see their remains still--so tiny, yet so enduring--in the Isles of Arran; upon a dozen rocky points all round the bleak edges of Connemara; in the wild mountain glens of the Burren--set often with an admirable selection of site, in some sloping dell with, perhaps,


From a drawing by M. Stokes (after Sir F.W. Burton).

a stream slipping lightly by and hurrying to lose itself in the ground, always with a well or spring brimming freshly over--an object still of reverence to the neighbouring peasants. Thanks to the innate stability of their material, thanks, too, to the super-abundance of stone in these regions, which makes them no temptation to the despoiler, they remain, roofless but otherwise pretty much as they were. We can look back across a dozen centuries with hardly the change of a detail.

In these little western monasteries each cell stood as a rule by itself, containing--one would say very tightly containing--a single inmate. In o

ther places, large buildings, however, were erected, and great numbers of monks lived together. Some of these larger communities are stated to have actually contained several thousand brethren, and though this sounds like an exaggeration, there can be no doubt that they were enormously populous. The native mode of existence lent itself, in fact, very readily to the arrangement. It was merely the clan or sept re-organized upon a religious footing. "Les premières grands monastères de l'Irelande," says M. de Montalembert in his "Moines d'Occident," "ne furent done autre chose à vrai dire qui des clans, reorganisés sous une forme religieuse." New clans, that is to say, cut out of the old ones, their fealty simply transferred from a chief to an abbot, who was almost invariably in the first instance of chieftain blood. "Le prince, en se faisant moine, devenait naturellement abbé, et restait ainsi dans la vie monastique, ce qu'il avait èté dans la vie sèculière le chef de sa race et de son clan."

There was thus nothing to jar with that sense of continuity, that inborn love of the past, of old ways, old habits, old modes of thought which made and still makes an Irishman--be he never so pronounced a republican--the deepest at heart of Conservatives. Whereas every later change of faith which has been endeavoured to be forced upon the country has met with a steady and undeviating resistance, Christianity, the greatest change of all, seems to have brought with it from the first no sense of dislocation. It assimilated itself quietly, and as it were naturally, with what it found. Under the prudent guidance of its first propagators, it simply gathered to itself all the earlier objects of belief, and with merely the change of a name, sanctified and turned them to its own uses.


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