Deep into his long poem ‘Lough Derg’, Patrick Kavanagh ventures the line: “All Ireland that froze for want of Europe”. Like many great lines of modern poetry, it is a compacted puzzle that will never be fully solved, but it resonates all the same. Its taut construction memorably evinces one strand of Irish historical exceptionalism: the country’s cutting off from the European mainstream and the unfortunate consequences of this.
There was a certain inevitability that Ireland – with its island location on the ragged periphery of the continent, which the Roman Empire failed to reach; with a language from outside the Germanic, Slavonic and Romance families; and with its independently developed codes of law – would, in the words of the historian Richard Killeen, be “in Europe, but not always of it”; that a certain amount of cultural peculiarity would prevail.
Then the centuries rolled in, bringing their punishments and curtailments. Christianization took place peacefully and productively, but after came the hugely destructive Viking raids and incursions, the enormous Norman land-grab beginning in the twelfth century, and then, deadliest of all, the Reformation and its aftermath. The Irish paid a heavy price, over and over, for resisting — uniquely in Europe — the cuius regio, eius religio formula: ‘whose realm, his religion’.
While Ireland, in its land-of-saints-and-scholars-days, may well have been, as Ludwig Bieler put it, a harbinger of the Middle Ages, her chair at the ensuing banquets of European civilization went largely empty and unnoticed. No doubt some of Ireland’s trials were self-inflicted, the products of chronic factionalism and disorganization, of a seeming preference for what Seán Ó’Faoláin diagnosed as “dispersion and disconnexion”. This, Ó’Faoláin thought, set the Irish up to be eclipsed by other more “imperially minded peoples” who “fulfilled their genius magnificently through a corporate technique of living”.
Even the lasting establishment in the sixteenth century of an Irish university — the University of Dublin, with its one college of the Holy and Undivided Trinity — did not really improve things. Soon enough Trinity College came to exclude most of the Irish from its precincts, through imposing obligations on students to attend Anglican services and to receive Holy Communion according to the Anglican rite. Fellows of the college had to take an oath against Popery. In the meantime, Irish clergy educated on the European mainland returned not so much to spread the light of knowledge, but to join the grim, attritional tussle for the nation’s soul.
More disasters followed. The Penal Laws — in the words of Edmund Burke, a “machine of wise and deliberate contrivance, as well fitted for the oppression, impoverishment, and degradation of a people, and the debasement in them of human nature itself, as ever proceeded from the perverted ingenuity of man” — imposed all manner of forfeitures, penalties, disabilities and humiliations on the Catholic majority. And then, the nadir: mass starvation and complete social breakdown in the mid-nineteenth century, triggering tidal waves of emigration (though little of it to continental Europe). Irish society was, in the words of the Catholic bishop John MacHale writing to the British Prime Minister, Earl Grey, “completely unhinged”. Alexis de Tocqueville visiting in the 1830s saw misery such as he did not imagine existed in the world:
If you wish to know what the spirit of conquest and religious hatred, combined with all the abuses of aristocracy without any of its advantages, can produce, come to Ireland.
Church and people embraced a form of severe moral perfectionism as the country’s best stay against returning to the abyss. A sun-starved island, Patrick Kavanagh seemed to suggest, had been condemned — inevitably, pitiably — to some kind of cultural, spiritual, and emotional ice age (though, as Kavanagh himself was more than capable of demonstrating, it was always more complicated than that).
Thinking back to my own childhood in Ireland of the 1970s and 80s, it did indeed seem like wider European history and culture had played out several fields away, behind high stone walls, hidden by thick mists. We could hear distant shouts and songs, clamour and sighs, but the history of Ireland’s ancient struggle with England consumed most of our energy and attention. We learned of hedge schools and Mass rocks, where Latin and Greek authors and the Roman liturgy respectively abided; but we came to think of them primarily as weapons in the long resistance rather than bridgeheads with an older, more expansive culture.
In our own time, we saw priests, brothers and nuns go back and forth continuously to Rome, and all around the world, but I’m not sure we ever appreciated all that this meant. Our pre-Euro five pound notes bore an image of John Scotus Eriugena, generally recognized, according to the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, as “the most outstanding philosopher (in terms of originality) of the whole period of Latin philosophy stretching from Boethius to Anselm”; but I cannot remember ever hearing this much commented on. And, paradoxically enough, when our ancestral imagination was not dwelling on old wounds, much of our attention was given over to the trickle-cum-river-cum-flood of new culture washing in from modern Britain and America.
In my childhood and youth, I did have at least one enormous, regular and unmissable intimation of what might have been for Ireland. This came when travelling with my family to County Roscommon for our holidays, as we did every summer. Not quite midway through the journey, on the main Cork to Dublin road as it wound its way through the rolling pastureland of the Golden Vale, up surged a staggering sight: The Rock of Cashel. This 200-foot limestone outcrop in County Tipperary is crowned by a complex of mainly twelfth and thirteenth-century buildings, prickling the skyline with gables and turrets, and made up of a cathedral, a round tower, King Cormac’s Chapel, and the Hall of the Vicars Choral.
While it did seem as if a sort of historical frost had settled over the Rock, nevertheless, this was our own Mont St Michel. Landlocked, ruined, roofless, sacked and despoiled, yes. But still magnificent. The English artist and engraver, Andrew Anderson, who in 1960 completed a striking lino-cut of the Rock, edged with verses from the Book of Psalms, described it to a friend as “the nearest thing to the Heavenly Jerusalem I’ve seen yet.”
The golden age suggested by Cashel had left behind commemorative flourishes not just on the plains of Ireland, but right across the face of European religion and culture; small but spectacular demonstrations of Ireland’s powerhouse role in early medieval internationalism. Think of Saint Virgil the Geometer in statue form outside Salzburg Cathedral (which he founded), standing shoulder to shoulder with Saint Peter, Saint Paul and Saint Rupert; or of Saint Aidan, the Apostle of Northumbria, high up in the stained glass windows of Durham Cathedral; or of the Ulsterman Frediano, once the bishop of Lucca and now the titular saint of both the university church in Pisa and a fashionable district of Florence; or of Saint Coloman of Stockerau, martyris, bundled up in his gold and marble sarcophagus in what Jan Morris called “that archetypal masterpiece of the European idea”, the Abbey of Melk, situated on its own rocky outcrop overlooking the Danube.
Meanwhile, buried in history books of the Holy Roman Empire are characters like Francis Taaffe, a Catholic nobleman from Sligo, who studied at the University of Olomuc in Moravia, fought and led troops at the Siege of Vienna, and died in Nancy as Chancellor and chief minister to the Duke of Lorraine. The English adventurer, soldier and travel writer, Patrick Leigh Fermor, liked to claim descent from the Austro-Hibernian Taaffe dynasty.
One of those with eyes to see this heritage and make an attempt to unfreeze it for the Irish people, was the novelist Francis MacManus (1909-1965), an almost exact contemporary of Patrick Kavanagh and a native of Kilkenny, possibly the nearest thing Ireland has to an extant medieval city.
MacManus is not usually afforded a place near the head of Ireland’s parade of writer geniuses. His novels lack any kind of swagger that might draw the eye of the international literary classes. A close friend, Benedict Kiely, once observed that MacManus “in his hard, compressed English (…) wrote mostly about hard, compressed men.” In several significant ways, MacManus accepted Ireland as he found it; and there was, according to Kiely, “less softness of feeling” in MacManus’s form of acceptance than in “the rejection made classical by James Joyce.”
However, while hard in certain respects, MacManus was not hard-hearted. Kiely, an accomplished and much-loved man of letters himself, wrote that MacManus’s The Greatest of These, which concerns a bishop’s attempts to rehabilitate a renegade priest (who had taught him Latin as a boy), was “one of the best of modern Irish novels”. Indeed, he felt that it was “certainly the best novel ever inspired or provoked by the Irish hierarchy in their relations with the Irish clergy and the Irish people”; and presented “a vision of the virtue of charity blossoming in the soul of an old man as ‘the long border of tulips, yellow, lemon, crimson and wine-coloured, blossomed in the sheltered, episcopal garden’.”
MacManus could write about the Catholic faith in a way that was tender but committed, welcoming “the winds and rains of grace which blow from eternity through the gates of the sacraments upon the human creatures of this narrow world”. While his books often peered long and hard into the battered Irish soul, he was by no means parochial or insular in his general outlook.
On the back cover of one of his novels, his publishers painted a picture of a genial man who liked to “travel, especially in Italy, read new books, help young writers and listen to good talk”. MacManus’s divertissement, ‘Mr Chesterton Entertains the Immortals’, illustrates these very tendencies. A cosmopolitan host of literary and philosophical giants – Dante, Goethe, Pascal, Augustine, Yeats, Confucius, Cervantes, Chaucer, Dr Johnson and many others, including the 16th-century Irish clan leader and poet Magnus O’Domhnaill – are crammed into the parlour of a celestial inn, debating the merits of a newly arrived and understandably nervous surrealist poet.
MacManus also wrote a short, admiring essay about a poem by Rainaldo d’Aquino, brother of Saint Thomas, squeezing in both a brief paean to Frederick II — Holy Roman Emperor, stupor mundi, “wonder of the world” — and a glancing reference to Thomas’s teacher at Naples, Peter the Irishman. Another essay weaves together poems by Petrarch, Ronsard and Yeats.
MacManus was someone, therefore, whose thoughts routinely ran from peripheral Ireland to the heart of the continent. Early on in The Greatest of These, there is a moment when the bishop protagonist, somewhat tormented by the functional clangour of the church bells sounding out across the town of Dunmore, allows his mind to go out “through the night to Europe” and into a daydream of his early days as a priest:
The Flemish bells, sweet and civil in his mind, sweeter than any birds in the morning, called up, as over an horizon, all the bells and cities and towns in which he had set foot and said Mass: Rome, Milan, Paris, Lourdes, Jerusalem, London, Chartres, places of pilgrimage, miracles, deserted quietness, bitter debates between rebels and authority, and proud, immemorial beauty. Europe stretched out before his eyes, crowding the sky with towers and spires and high walls (…)
Published two years before Brideshead Revisited, this passage carries an improbable flavour of Waugh’s great novel in which the bells of Oxford “rang out high and clear over her gables and cupolas” and the city “exhaled the soft airs of centuries of youth”.
The bishop’s reverie deepens, falters momentarily, and then resumes, now following the awe-inducing track of his predecessors in the apostolic succession, reaching back through Cromwellian martyrs to the city’s patron, a “scourging, fasting eremite” who slept on stone and lived with a pet badger and a pet boar, both tamed by his sanctity; all the way to Saint Patrick himself, and then outward again, “back to Europe and Rome and the throne of Peter”.
Here, another litany begins. As a student priest, MacManus’s bishop had been able to recite all of the successors of the first Peter and he repeats it here: Linus, Cletus, Clement… On he goes as far as Pius I, until the real bells outside his window, the Irish bells (“Wham! Bam! Dang-dang! Bim-bim!”), beat him down, and he must return to the thorny problems contained in the papers on his desk. (Church bells do not always come off well in modern Irish literature. In Seamus Heaney’s Sweeney Astray, they “whinge” in contrast to “the notes of the cuckoo on the banks of the Bann”.)
This tendency to hover, mentally, over Europe recurs with MacManus. In his book on Boccaccio, for instance, he surveys the Italian peninsula devastated by war:
Much that was sacramental of Europe and of old Christendom was blasted out of existence. Cities, towns and villages that Boccaccio had known, some in their grim mediaeval origins and some in their mediaeval glory, and stretches of the country that he had travelled either as an ambassador for his free, purseproud Florence or in the profound restlessness of his soul, were pounded and tossed to the high heavens. Churches and humble houses, pictures, statues, frescos, mosaics and monuments, all those things that were sacramental of human faith in the divine and of visions of beauty, that had brought grace of mind even to barbarians on tour and that might again have brought the West to consciousness of its origin and great heritage, were pulverised….
In Naples, Giovanni Boccaccio had grown in the sweetness and bitterness of love to manhood, and Naples was shelled, bombed and skilfully sabotaged: in the Church of Santa Chiara, roofs and walls toppled on the monuments of the Angevin kings, and King Robert’s Gothic tomb, designed by the two Bertinis of Florence, was buried under great depths of rubble, as though even the dead kings of the old civilisation could not be buried deep enough for the new; the University library was burned and the Angevin archives destroyed.
Elsewhere, from the very first sentence of his essay on the death of Archbishop Dermot O’Hurley, executed for treason under Elizabeth I, MacManus turns away from the gallows to cast backwards glances at the martyr’s high-flying career as a student and professor, in arts, law and philosophy, at the Universities of Paris, Leuven and Reims. The prose swells with pride that a boy from the Limerick farmlands could gain an education in local schools that would fit him for the high table of scholarly Europe.
In Francis MacManus’s mind’s eye, therefore, there always remained some kind of aerial bridge between Ireland and the continent, fragile but enduring, rickety but crossable; or, in Kavanagh’s terms, frozen but not yet impassable. He was keen to guide his compatriots back and forth where he could. One reviewer of Boccaccio, Aodh de Blacam, under the headline ‘Call Back Old Europe!’, was inspired both to deplore how insulated Ireland had become in letters and art (despite being “an ancient province of one Catholic commonwealth”); and to shower praise on MacManus for striving to remedy the matter.
One July in the late 1930s, this bridge (or, more likely, a train-and-ferry version) deposited MacManus himself on the sunlit banks of the Loire near Orléans. Waking from a heavy, dreamless sleep after a meal of bread, good Vouvray and a piece of cheese, and reclining gracefully into the role of cultured, wine-bibbing European (while not falling too hard for the excesses of bohemia), this modern Irishman observed a group on the water. They triggered a vision of other boatmen, on this same river course, 1300 or so years before: Irish men, dressed in rough habits of untreated wool, slipping downstream towards Nantes. It was a vision of Saint Columban and his companion monks.
We learn about this incident from MacManus’s Foreword to his biography of the saint. The Foreword ends with the author wandering the narrow streets of Susa at the foot of the Cottian Alps near Turin. He is inspecting the imposing triumphal arch erected at the end of the first century BC by a local chieftain and dedicated to the Emperor Augustus. Susa was the hometown of a monk named Jonas, Columban’s original seventh-century biographer. MacManus imagines Jonas walking past the arch on his way southwards to the monastery at Bobbio, to be received and blessed by the abbot from the “remote western island on the edge of the known world”.
Saint Columban and its Foreword shows Francis MacManus hunched over the fabric of Ireland’s ancient relationship with Europe, patiently rethreading Irish culture and achievements, and his own inner life, into the wider civilization. He can’t afford to be too dainty about his task though. Throughout the book, MacManus notices, and is clearly drawn to, his subject’s obstinacy and zeal; his strength and valour, even in old age; his hardiness, his fierce intelligence, his steely core; his volatility, his severity, his troublemaking; as well as to his humility and gentleness.
According to the historian Tom Holland, writing about the Dark Ages, “nowhere in the Christian West were saints quite as tough, quite as manifestly holy, as they were in Ireland”; and Columban was perhaps the ultimate embodiment of this truism. He and his band were men who could work “from dark to dark”, felling trees and digging roots on meagre rations. From Bangor Abbey in County Down, they brought with them uncompromising asceticism, rustic building habits, and a troublesome way of computing the Easter calendar, all bred in and from Irish difference, indifference and remoteness.
And yet, as MacManus reminds us repeatedly, Columban had a more genteel side — secular interests to accompany the study of Sacred Scriptures, which was the chief intellectual occupation of monks. He displayed an “almost voluptuous love of language”, extending to the classical authors — Virgil, Horace, Ovid and others — from whom wisdom could be drawn “like honey from the comb”. (Irish monks of this era were great beekeepers.) Columban echoed and quoted these authors in his own writings. The dour, headstrong rebel priest in The Greatest of These had Cicero, Caesar and Livy, as well as Virgil and Horace, on his shelves; one wonders whether the author was thereby signalling a man in Columban’s distant image.
MacManus misses no opportunity to show the Irish religious pioneers entwining themselves in the history and culture of the continent, right down to building the most famous of Columban’s foundations at Luxeuil on the toppled masonry of an old Roman settlement destroyed by Attila in 451 AD.
(Of course, the monks themselves could be utterly indifferent to such things. Their desire was to go “beyond the perturbations of time”, caring only about what they should do for the sake of their Lord. Christi simus non nostri, wrote Columban. Let us be Christ’s, not our own.)
We read also the poignant story of the wandering monks’ encounter with a Syrian family in Nevers in which both parties, from the opposite ends of Christendom, show great charity to one another. Moreover, MacManus saw Columban as having “a native sympathy with the outlanders that Romans called barbarians”, these new peoples “who would become the very stuff of the world of the Middle Ages”. After all, the “texture of their culture” was similar to that of the Irish.
The delight MacManus finds in the Columban story is many-sided, therefore. He reflects on the demands of routine and discipline, on religion crossing with politics, and on the romance of adventure and arrival as well. When the monk and his companions disembarked in Gaul in 585 AD, “All Europe stretched before them”. Here the author is summoning that sense of unlimited possibilities that opened up for all islanders coming ashore on the outspreading continent: from Dermot O’Hurley to the fictional Bishop of Dunmore, from MacManus himself to the aforementioned Patrick Leigh Fermor, who, at the outset of his epic 1930s trek on foot to Constantinople, the sole passenger on a late night, deep winter train from the Hook of Holland, felt himself “slipping into Rotterdam, and into Europe, through a secret door”.
Nor does MacManus forget the sacrifice made by Irish monks of the Dark Ages when they went on peregrinatio pro Christo: the loss of their homeland. In this respect, the first paragraph of Saint Columban does something Irish writers generally dare not do. It makes a virtue of the Irish weather. In a passage that never fails to touch me, MacManus imagines Donatus, a native of Galway, a bishop in ninth-century Italy and a poet. (He can be seen, head bowed, hand on heart, flanking the Blessed Virgin and the Christ Child in the company of Saint John the Baptist, in a Verrochio painting in Pistoia Cathedral). Donatus is being baked by a continental sun and dreaming of Irish rain:
From the western Irish headlands, men could look out only on the endless ocean where the sun was daily engulfed and watch the clouds that the tempering winds herded eastwards season after the season. The clouds brought the abundant rains and the rains were life. Although they periodically flooded river and lake, waterlogged the rolling midland plains and soaked into the brown desolation of the boglands, they were the mother of the thick succulent grasses on which the cattle grazed and grew fat nearly the whole year round. Really harsh weather was brief in duration. Then the wild geese honked in the grey sky and cold caught the wing of the birds. It was, as many writers were to repeat, a land flowing with milk and honey, genial in air and fruitful soil. Melle fluit pulchris et lacte Scottia campis, an Irishman was to write who became bishop of Fiesole where in the bleaching sun he may have gratefully recalled the cool curtain of rain drawing and wavering across his native landscape.
MacManus excels too in his depictions of Gaul of the Franks, both its wildness and the “creative religious energy” that crackled through it. There the bells that would beguile the memory and imagination of the Bishop of Dunmore many centuries later in provincial modern Ireland were already sounding. They “rang serenely above the hurly-burly of the wars and above the sound of the Merovingian hunting horns fading away along the rides of the vast forests”.
MacManus closely tracks Columban on his wanderings around these same territories, following his expulsion from Luxeuil by the King of Burgundy. Wherever he goes around the Seine and Marne, his sanctity impresses and inspires new vocations: “It was,” MacManus drily observes, “as if an army had passed over this corner of Gaul and conquered it, unknown to its inhabitants.”
Later, on the shores of Lake Constance, when Columban’s companion Gall addressed the local pagans, two worlds met and spoke to one another: on the one hand, “the world of Christ and the apostles, Rome and the martyrs, of the monks in Syria and Egypt and Ireland”; and, on the other, the world of “people who had come with the wrath of war out of the continental forests”. It was, MacManus writes, “the Word-Made-Flesh answering the dark riddles and the violent gropings of the mythologies”.
Thus, by force of his faith-fuelled will, the Irish monk imprinted himself on Europe. We see him in Mainz and Bregenz, on the Moselle and the Rhine, heading up into the Alps and down onto the plains of Lombardy. MacManus notes the blending over time of Columban’s rule into the Benedictine: Monte Cassino and Bangor are thus “inscribed on the same spiritual map”.
Columban’s legacy allows the author to send more litanies of European place names tumbling across his pages.
He lists, for example, the French cities where, within three quarters of a century of the original landing in Gaul, monks and disciples of the saint were installed as bishops: Rouen, Thérouanne, Vermandois, Noyon, Laon, Meaux, and Verdun. Later, he intones the names of scholars, poets, teachers, builders and musicians from the abbey of St Gallen and its famous library, a procession of “supremely able and illustrious men” emerging from a foundation that had begun with Gall snapping off a hazel tree branch, fashioning it into a cross, suspending a satchel of relics from it, and declaring the surrounding wilderness to be his habitation.
MacManus was not alone in finding Columban an irresistible stimulus to this kind of mesmeric list-making. In her classic study, The Wandering Scholars, first published in 1927, Helen Waddell reels off a selection of the one hundred or more monasteries founded by the saint and his disciples — Luxeuil, Bobbio, St Gall, St Bertin, Jumièges, St Riquier, Remiremont — “some of them the greatest strongholds of education in the Middle Ages”. As MacManus put it, in ringing Hiberno-English, the “wheat that had been stored in the barns of Luxeuil would be given a fine scattering in the springtime of a new Europe”. (It’s quite hard not to read that without a “shcatter-ing” and a “shrping-time”.)
In Italy, in his final years, Columban wrote an extraordinary letter to Pope Boniface, at the urging of King Agilulf of the Lombards, about the settling of religious controversies (MacManus, obviously fascinated, treats us to a lengthy digression on the great debates surrounding the early heresies of the Christian church); and founded his final abbey at Bobbio, near Piacenza, which would in later years adopt the Benedictine Rule and be the site of another famous library. He was now around 340 miles from Rome, the closest he would ever get. He died in Bobbio in the autumn of 615 AD. Viae enim finis nostrae patria nostra est, Columban wrote. For the end of our road is our home.
Some road! As the Austrian historian Walter Pohl has written, Columban, by the time he died, “had met many gentes: Irish, Britons, Franks, Alamanni, Lombards and others. He had come (…) from the ends of the earth, from the transmundialis limes, and he possibly crossed more boundaries than many of his contemporaries. Still, he wanted all the people accommodated within a single Roman, Western, “European” Church, which was as pure in belief as that of his native Ireland.”
The centrepiece of Francis MacManus’s book is where he proclaims the “millennial and perhaps greatest gift” Columban and his monks gave to Europe. This was their “positive, realist and therapeutic approach to sinners and sins”. The Irish brought a system of private confession and repentance to a world in which severe, conspicuous, ostracizing public penance was still carefully maintained. While “a grim anatomy of sins” was their starting point — MacManus acknowledges the fear that Columban began to see in matter “nothing but defilement” — the monks offered “an escape into mansuetude, a paternal feeling for human weakness, and a merciful promptitude and secrecy”. The Columbanian way was “punitive (..) but also medicinal, reformative as well as reparatory”.
In the end, MacManus reaches for a Gaelic term to describe this model of confessor: “anam-chara”, meaning soul’s friend: “the repentant sinner’s companion and advocate before God”, their spiritual doctor, the means by which they could renovate and restore the dignity of being fashioned in God’s image. Through his penitential code, Columban became “anam-chara to a whole long civilization”.
This conclusion leaves the Irish of the first millennium as the initiators of a practice that would shape the European and Catholic soul for centuries to come. Afterwards, though, came retreat, withdrawal, disappearance, and the onset of the “want of Europe” that troubled Patrick Kavanagh and that inspired Francis MacManus to set out on the long road to recovery.
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