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The long read: Ireland must remember that it is truly a land of saints and scholars

Stained glass in Saint Patrick Catholic Church, Junction City, Ohio (Wikimedia)

We need to keep alive a faithful memory of the first Irish rovers

Under a rough, monkish cowl, skulking in the frayed margins of the historical record, Mael Dub feels elusive, barely knowable. An Irish rover of the seventh century, he is the subject of best guesses rather than undisputed fact. His very name compounds the murkiness. It means ‘dark disciple’.

Malmesbury, on the other hand, has not much that is dark or elusive about it. Take the A429 north from the M4 and you are soon there. A beautiful, spick-and-span market town in Wiltshire, perched on a hill overlooking the river Avon.  

Towards the end of a mid-winter day thirty years ago, a horse-borne Roger Scruton, the uncrowned philosopher king of rural England, who lives on a farm nearby, attained a vision of the town that he recorded in On Hunting:

“Before us on the next hill top, shining like the Holy City, is Malmesbury, an unspoilt cluster of lime-stone houses, with a nail-like spire, bluish roof-tops and the abbey lying in ruins at its apex like the ark of Noah on Mount Sinai.  Yellow sunlight pours over the countryside around the town, and the blue-grey clouds in the distance seem to be made of the same substance as the houses: the soft, plastic matter of creation, uncorrupted, pliable, folding and forming in obedience to the will of God.  Below us the Avon meanders through the valley, its banks obscured by copses, finding its way to Malmesbury and onwards to the sea. England appears to us now and then – but in a kind of dream, a floating fragment of the greatness that has gone.”

This is beautiful. Something to stir, gently, the soul of any English patriot. But, and herein lies the rub, there would be no Malmesbury were it not for Mael Dub. For when Ireland’s Dark Disciple inches furthest into the light of history, it is as the man who established the Abbey that Sir Roger compares to the Ark and that he makes the centrepiece of his vision of England’s greatness.  

Posterity, moreover, does not let go easily of connections like this one. By granting Malmesbury the first syllable of its name, Mael Dub hauls himself out of the Dark Ages and onto the brightly lit pages of Google maps.  The river he looked out over when he struck roots in ancient Wessex bears a name he would recognize: Avon comes from a Celtic word meaning river (‘abhainn’ in modern Irish).  And, of course, the sea into which the meandering, copse-obscured Avon eventually pours itself is the Irish Sea.

When I first visited Malmesbury about six or seven years ago, I knew nothing of its Irish roots. They were something I stumbled across later. I shouldn’t really have been so surprised, though. Unexpectedly but continuously stubbing one’s toe on foundations laid by the Irish can be a familiar experience for anyone who travels around Britain and mainland Europe.  

II

Pisa is somewhere I have been going for decades now. My wife is half-Italian and she has relatives there. We spend a lot of time in the Monte Pisano, a small, olive grove-encrusted mountain range that separates the city from its neighbour, Lucca.  

For a long time, I knew nothing of an Irishman who, fourteen centuries before, had preceded me into those same hills.  While I come as an affluent, cosseted, modern day tourist (courtesy of Ryan Air, appositely enough), Saint Fridianus came as a hermit, seeking out the Monte for a life of prayer and meditation following a pilgrimage to Rome.

Fridianus seems to have been one of those archetypal prince-turned-monks of the Dark and Middle Ages, filled moreover with the typically Irish urge to go in peregrinatio pro Christo.  He is also one of those figures who was persuaded (or perhaps commanded) to abandon a hermetic or monastic life and serve the Church more directly. In this case, Pope John II got Fridianus to take the bishopric of Lucca in 556 AD, though he would, apparently, often return to the Pisan hills for prayer and solitude.  

In his time in Lucca, Fridianus rebuilt the cathedral after it had been burned down by marauding Lombards. But the most famous story told about him concerns the river Serchio, which ran close to the city and was prone to bursting its banks. Distressed by the frequent flooding, the people of Lucca sought their Bishop’s help. Fridianus responded by going to the river bank where he successfully commanded the water to follow the new course he was forming with a rake.    

The name of Fridianus still pops up all over Tuscany. In Lucca itself, there is a basilica named after him. In Pisa, the university church is the Chiesa di San Frediano. And in Florence, visitors to the Uffizi can view, on the predella of Fra’ Filippo Lippi’s Barbadori Altarpiece, a panel depicting a tall man in a bishop’s mitre serenely altering the course of the Serchio watched by a group of Lucchesi in various postures of astonishment. Museum-goers can then cross the Arno to say a prayer in yet another church named in honour of the Irish saint, before leaving the centre of Florence by the Porta San Frediano.

III

Virgil of Salzburg stands comparison with Fridianus as one of the most intriguing of Ireland’s Dark Ages missionaries.  The scholarly Fearghal (to give him his un-Latinized name) was part of a circle of monks around Pepin the Great, father of Charlemagne.  It is assumed that it was through this group that the influential Collectio canonum Hibernensis reached the Franks.  

Virgil was more than once embroiled in disputes with the great English missionary, saint and martyr, Boniface. On the first such occasion, Boniface, the ‘Apostle of the Germans’, claimed that baptisms carried out by Virgil’s priests were invalid because some of them had used faulty Latin. Pope Zachary backed the Irishman over the Devonian on this occasion.

Later, Boniface seems to have taken great umbrage with Virgil for attesting his belief in the existence of the Antipodes. At that time, it was widely accepted that the equatorial zone was so fiercely hot that no-one could survive an attempt to traverse it.   How then could there be anyone below it who was descended from Adam? According to John Carey of University College Cork, “in the eight centuries which separate the patristic apologists and the rise of Scholasticism, Virgil was virtually unique in his advocacy of an inhabited southern hemisphere”.   

This explains why, on the other side of the world, in the chapel of St John’s College at the University of Sydney, there is a stained glass depiction of ‘Saint Virgilius contemplating the possible existence of the Antipodes’; and why, in Hobart, Tasmania, there is a Catholic boys’ college called St Virgil’s, founded in 1911.  

Virgil’s association with Salzburg began shortly after his clash with Boniface about the geography of the earth, which suggests that he somehow survived the controversy unsanctioned and unscathed. In 774, he consecrated the cathedral of Salzburg, dedicating it to his predecessor Saint Rupert. Since 1660, an imposing statue of Virgil has stood at the entrance.

As a bishop on one of the frontiers of Latin Christendom, Virgil assumed a role akin to a mission controller at NASA, launching a succession of priests, bishops and holy men eastwards.  Among them was yet another Irishman, Modestus, whose successes earned him the title ‘Apostle of Carantania’, a principality composed of parts of modern-day southern Austria and north-eastern Slovenia.  The Carantanians became the first Slavic people to accept Christianity from the West.

I should add, by the way, that, unlike Malmesbury and Lucca, I have never been to Salzburg. However, I have seen the statue of Saint Virgil outside the Cathedral many times. For this, I have to thank Blake Edwards’ 1965 movie The Great Race. In it, a handsome, dashing adventurer named Leslie, played by Tony Curtis, and the evil Professor Fate, played by Jack Lemmon, take part in an automobile race from New York to Paris during the golden years of the first motor cars. The best segment of the film is when the race reaches the fictional kingdom of Carpania where Prince Friedrich Hapnick (a hilarious, bravura performance also by Lemmon) is about to inherit the crown. Salzburg gets to double as Potsdorf, the capital of Carpania, with some of the action taking place in and around the Cathedral.  Whenever I watch The Great Race (which is often, as I love it), there is Saint Virgil, gazing down on the madcap shenanigans that sixties Hollywood brought to town.   

IV

On they go, these wanderings, planned or accidental, in the tracks of my ancient countrymen.  

I remember, for instance, spending time on Île d’Yeu, a small island off the Vendéen coast where Irish monks once founded a monastery, later destroyed by – who else? – Vikings.  This monastery provides a good example of how the legacy of Irish activity became enmeshed in the wider fabric of a burgeoning Christian civilization. Amand, Apostle of Belgium and Bishop of Maastricht (and patron saint of brewers, innkeepers and bartenders), was trained on Île d’Yeu.  The Italian monk Jonas wrote his immensely popular life of Saint Columbanus, the most famous Irish continental missionary of them all, at Amand’s own monastic foundation in Flanders. This also happens to be where Arn, Virgil’s successor at Salzburg, was trained.

Not many years ago, I recall driving from England to Italy with my family, passing Lake Zurich in Switzerland, and then inadvertently heading north towards St Gallen, rather than south towards Chur. We realized our mistake soon enough and turned back, never reaching the famous abbey and city built around the hermitage of Gallus, a companion of Columbanus. Later generations of monks who made the pilgrimage from Gallus’s homeland to his tomb stayed on in the abbey, and the library became home to one of the largest collections of Irish scripts on the continent.

In Italy, I have once or twice passed tantalizingly close to Bobbio, Columbanus’s southernmost foundation, which he established at the age of seventy.  Bobbio, along with Pavia, was also home to Dungal the Astronomer, best remembered for his remarkable letter to the Emperor Charlemagne on the nature of eclipses and his rebuttal of the iconoclasm advocated by Bishop Claudius of Turin.

And, here in England, when I last visited Durham, I sought out the memorials in the Cathedral to Saint Aidan. Aidan came south from the great monastery of Iona in Scotland, the principal bridgehead for Irish monastic influence in Britain. He had an enormous Impact on the conversion of huge swathes of England, not just the north-east. I was reminded of this by a recent diary piece for the Catholic Herald, in which Charlie Hart, evoking the “embers of Catholic England safely hidden in the countryside”, mentioned the evangelisation by Saint Cedd of the Essex valley where he lives. Cedd was a loyal disciple of Aidan, brought up at Lindisfarne. As the Venerable Bede records, he returned from Essex to consult with Aidan’s successor, Finan. It was Finan the Irishman who consecrated Cedd as Bishop of the East Saxons.

V

But what use, one wonders, does progressive, liberal, modern Ireland have for all of these monks of old, who preached an ascetic, penitential, Trinitarian faith? First and foremost, this period of history remains a potent marketing tool. Tourists flock to see the Book of Kells, Clonmacnoise, Glendalough, and all the other undoubted marvels of what is nowadays called Ireland’s Ancient East, a marketing construct mingling the Christian and the pagan to sell ‘Sacred Ireland’.   

Here is one route by which the ancient exiles might return to the minds of their descendants back home.  However, this would be primarily as raw material for antiquarian reveries about the drama of history, the riches of folklore, the greatness of craftsmen, and the passage of time, and not for thoughts about the destiny of souls or the claims of the Catholic faith, the things that so preoccupied the monks themselves.  

This emphasis on Early Christianity in promoting the national heritage also seems to be a means of erecting a convenient firewall against everything that came afterwards. It means Ireland will carry on borrowing Saint Patrick’s name for a national day that has become a remarkable global brand, just as it will retain as its national emblem and worldwide calling card the shamrock, said to have been used by Patrick himself for explaining to the pagan Irish the doctrine of the Most Holy Trinity.   

On the other hand, the now mind-bendingly incongruous Preamble to Bunreacht na hÉireann, the Irish Constitution, stating that all authority comes from the Most Holy Trinity, and that it is to the Trinity, “as our final end”, that “all actions both of men and States must be referred”, is surely nearing its demise as a legislative monument to the faith that legions of Irish saints, male and female, treasured and defended.

So Ireland will continue to shed its Catholic skin. As this process continues and gathers ever greater pace, my guess is that most people will not want to dwell more than is necessary on their ancestors’ labours in the cause of a religion now removed to the sidelines of national life, where it continues to stagger under the weight of shame it has drawn upon itself.    

On the other hand, it might be possible for the likes of Mael Dub and Aidan, Fridianus and Virgil, Modestus and Dungal, to cling on to a place in the popular mind if they are “re-imagined” in some may that fits them for contemporary uses. After all, Robert Schumann, one of the architects of what has become the EU, thought of Columbanus, whose journeys took him from Bangor to Cornwall, from Luxeuil to Nantes, from Koblenz to Milan, as “the patron saint of all those who are attempting to build a united Europe”.  

However, Schumann, a devout Catholic, would no doubt have resisted any attempt to put to one side the intense faith of a man like Columbanus. Indeed, it seems unthinkable any one of this whole company of saints and scholars would approve the diminishment of what was most important to them in order to keep a foothold in posterity. Their destiny may simply be to fade from sight and hearing in a vociferously post-Christian nation.

VI

Given where Ireland now finds itself, it seems fitting enough that one of the most passionate remaining public champions of ‘The Land of Saints and Scholars’ is not Irish, but Italian. Enzo Farinella, native of Sicily and long-time resident of Dublin, has written and published several evocatively titled books, such as On the Summits of the Highest Love and Through Mountains and Valleys, honouring the achievements and heroism of ancient Irish monks in Germany, Italy, Switzerland, and Austria. A volume about France is on its way.

Farinella’s books are a treasure trove. With them to hand, one can carry on drawing up a map of Europe that pulsates with places Irish exiles helped to found, build up, or save: Maria Saal in Austria, for example, where Modestus, as sent by Virgil, established the church from which he Christianized the surrounding region (the modern Austrian ‘Land’ of Carinthia); or another Austrian city, Bregenz, where Columbanus and Gallus worked as missionaries; or Regensburg in Germany where Erhard was a prolific monastery-founding Irish Bishop of the seventh-century. (One is reminded that, while these men were indeed saints and scholars, many were also examples of another Irish vocation par excellence: builders.)  

On the map too would be Laon in northern France, dominated by its magnificent cathedral. Here, John Scotus Eriugena served in the court of Charles the Bald. According to Dr Ian Leask of Dublin City University, Eriugena was “probably Christianity’s greatest systematic thinker between the times of Augustine and Aquinas”. His image used to adorn the Irish five-pound note in the days before the Euro.

Further south, the Église Notre-Dame-des-Ardents et Saint-Pierre in Lagny, in the eastern suburbs of Paris, catches the eye.  St Peter’s Abbey was originally founded in around 644 by Saint Fursey, a monk from Connaught, famous for his visions, and one of the so-called Four Comely Saints of the early Irish church. Clovis II made gifts to Fursey’s church, as did his saintly English wife, Bathild. Joan of Arc visited Lagny twice, and, on the second occasion, in 1430, she is said to have raised from the dead a child who had died three days earlier.  

Further east, one comes to Lure in the Haute-Sâone, where Saint Deicolus, another companion of Columbanus, founded an abbey with bequests from Clothar the Great, King of the Franks. The two men first met when Clothar was out hunting. A panic-stricken boar is reputed to have taken refuge in Deicolus’s chapel in the woods. The Irish monk calmed and protected the foaming beast, while also managing not to anger the king. Instead, Clothar made him grants of land and fisheries. There is a tremendous drawing of the whole incident by the eighteenth-century German artist, Johann Wolfgang Baumgartner.

Indeed, the Irish seemed to have a special way with the wild animals of the European forests. Gallus was said to have once tamed a rampaging bear, who, originally intent on savaging him, sloped off instead to gather wood for the monk’s fire and then stayed by his side for the rest of his days. The saint is often depicted with this companionable bear at his feet.

And so the map continues to fill up. It would glow all the greener if one were to begin plotting the traces of English monks who trained in Ireland before embarking for the continent. Utrecht in the Netherlands, for example, is where Saint Willibrord of Northumbria, Apostle to the Frisians, made his mark, after having first spent twelve years, between the ages of twenty and thirty-two, at the Irish monastery of Rathmelsigi among a host of other Englishmen. As Bede tells us, during the episcopates at Lindisfarne of Finan and Colmán, “many English nobles and lesser folk” left their own land to go and live in Ireland “either to pursue religious studies or to lead a life of stricter discipline. Some of these soon devoted themselves to the monastic life, while others preferred to travel, studying under various teachers in turn. The (Irish) welcomed them all kindly, and, without asking for any payment, provided them with daily food, books and instruction.”  There is a copy of the Gospels at the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris which is an Irish codex brought to the continent by Willibrord.

And when our map-making eye finally returns to England itself, we find that Mael Dub and Aidan (and his small army of disciples) are not by any means the whole story. The great Anglo-Saxonist Sir Frank Stenton argued that Saint Fursey (the same man who founded the abbey at Lagny in France) ‘should be remembered in any account of the conversion of the East Angles’. Bede devotes a whole chapter to Fursey, calling him ‘of noble Irish blood and even more noble in mind than in birth’. And as for Kent, the centre of all Roman influence on the conversion of England, Stenton cautioned that it would not be wise to ignore the Irish bishop Dagán.

VII

Sometimes, when you fly into Ireland on a clear day, you get the chance to appreciate just how emeraldy the Emerald Isle really is, and just how close to forty shades of green there really are. The clichés come to life from ten thousand feet.

If you happen to be Irish, and of a certain age and frame of mind, contemplating a map of Europe speckled with Irish religious foundations can produce a similar kind of epiphany: the realization that all of the talk that we used to puff ourselves up with not that long ago, all those casual boasts that tripped thoughtlessly off the tongue about the land of saints and scholars, about sending forth our finest from the far, ragged periphery of the continent, “the inhabitants of the world’s edge” (Columbanus), to help sustain the civilization of Europe with charity and books, with churches and prayers – that all of these things were not, as some might have been tempted to suspect, just a matter of history’s losers scrabbling around for a moral victory. They were true.

Where the public mind is concerned, the temptation, now that Ireland is morphing into something very new and different, might be to allow these men to drift off into oblivion. This would be a great shame. It won’t be easy, but somehow we need to keep alive a faithful memory of the ancient saints and scholars, the first of the Irish rovers.