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reference to Kells connects it at once with the Diocese
of Meath, and renders it the more probable that it
was composed there, and that the flight took place,
as has been conjectured above, from thence.

The immediate result of this flight and of the
conflicts that followed was that Columkill was forced

6 For the original and a literal translation, see the Miscellany of the Irish
AvchcBological Society, vol. i., p. I.


to leave the country, and this in turn led to his settle-
ment in lona, and the consequent evangelization of
Scotland and, at a later date, of England. Thus the
great missionary enterprise, the pride and glory of the
ancient Irish Church, is directly connected with Meath,
and may be said to have taken its rise in our midst.

In later years the connection between Kells and
lona was again renewed ; for when the Norsemen, in
one of their first expeditions, devastated the islands
on the west coast of Scotland, and, among other places,
attacked lona, the brethren gathered all their posses-
sions together and, headed by their abbot, Cellach,
fled to Kells, and founded there what they called a
" new lona." They carried with them the bones of
their founder, and erected, possibly for the reception
of these relics, the building which at present exists,
and is known as Saint ColumknTs House. This was
in the year 804, according to the Annals of Clonmac-
noise, or 806, according to the Annals of Ulster. Cellach
did not remain long, but returned to lona shortly
afterwards, where he died in 815. Some of his followers,
however, remained, and Kells rose to the highest
importance among the Columban establishments. It
continued to be one of the leading churches in Ireland
up to the time of the Anglo-Norman invasion.

Both Kells and Burrow are famous for their remains
of ancient Irish art. The Book of Kells is perhaps the
greatest treasure in the library of our University, and
the Book of Durrow nearly approaches it in value and
beauty. The latter has an inscription in Latin on the
back of the twelfth folio, which may be translated :
" I pray thy blessedness, O holy presbyter, Patrick,
that whosoever shall take this book into his hand
may remember the writer, Columba, who have myself
written this Gospel in the space of twelve days by the


grace of Our Lord.' ^ This has led some to think that
the manuscript was actually written by the great
saint himself, and the supposition seemed to gain some
credibility from an old tradition which told that
Columba gave a copy of the New Testament in his
own handwriting to each of the churches which he
founded in Ireland. 8 The fact, however, that the book
consists of Saint Jerome's version of the Gospels,
renders it doubtful, though, of course, not impossible,
that the manuscript can be of such great age. There
can be no doubt, however, that both it and the Book
of Kells belong to very early times, and are monuments
of the devotion and skill of the ancient Irish Church.

It is probably the Book of Durrow that is referred to
by Giraldus Cambrensis, in his account of what he calls
"a book miraculously written," though he connects
the book with Kildare and not with Durrow. At all
events no better description of that wonderful manu-
script could be given. He says :

Among the miracles in Kildare, none appears to me more
wonderful than that marvellous book which they say was
written at the time of the Virgin Brigit at the dictation of an
angel. It contains the Four Gospels according to Saint Jerome,
and almost every page is illustrated by drawings, illuminated
with a variety of brilliant colours. In one page you see the
countenance of the Divine Majesty supernaturally pictured ;
in another the mystic forms of the evangelists, with either six,
four, or two wings ; here are depicted the eagle, there the calf ;
here the face of a man, there of a lion ; with other figures in
almost endless variety. If you observe them superficially, and
in the usual careless manner, you would imagine them to be
daubs rather than careful compositions, expecting to find
nothing exquisite, where in truth there is nothing which is not
exquisite. But if you apply yourself to a more close examina-
tion, and are able to penetrate the secrets of the art displayed

7 Miss Stokes, Early Christian Art in Ireland, p. 18.

8 Gilbert, Account of Facsimiles of National Manuscripts of Ireland, p. n.


in these pictures, you will find them so delicate and exquisite,
so finely drawn and the work of interlacing so elaborate, while
the colours with which they are illuminated are so blended,
and still so fresh, that you will be ready to assert that all this
is the work of angelic and not human skill. The more often
and closely I scrutinize them, the more I am surprised, and
always find them new, discovering fresh cause for increased

Giraldus goes on to relate the legend which ac-
counted for the writing of the book, and the story
is interesting as showing that in his time the art of
illuminating after the old Celtic method had been
completely lost, though appreciation for the skill dis-
played remained. He tells us :

Early in the night, before the morning on which the scribe
was to begin the book, an angel stood before him in a dream,
and showing him a picture drawn on a tablet which he had in
his hand, said to him " Do you think that you can draw this
picture on the first page of the volume which you propose to
copy ? " The scribe, who doubted his skill in such exquisite
art, in which he was uninstructed and had no practice, replied
that he could not. Upon this the angel said " On the morrow
entreat your Lady to offer prayers for you to the Lord, that He
would vouchsafe to open your bodily eyes, and give you
spiritual vision, which may enable you to see more clearly, and
understand with more intelligence, and employ your hands in
drawing with accuracy. The scribe having done as he was
commanded, the night following the angel came to him again
and presented to him the same picture, with a number of
others. All these, aided by divine grace, the scribe made
himself master of, and faithfully committing them to his
memory, exactly copied in his book in their proper places. In
this manner the book was composed, an angel furnishing
the designs, Saint Brigit praying, and the scribe copying.9

Art of another kind is displayed in the High
Crosses, on which are sculptured various Biblical

* Topography of Ireland.


scenes, as well as a wonderful variety of ornament.
Here again Durrow and Kells vie with one another.
The cross of Durrow is one of the finest still existing.
Kells has portions of no less than five crosses, which
are equally famous. Some of these crosses have
beautiful interlaced ornament. Others have figures
executed in bas relief. These latter have a special
interest, for the subjects and the mode of treatment
seem to point to Byzantine influence, and would lead
us to believe that when, under the influence of the
iconoclastic controversy, many artists were banished
from the East, some of them must have found their
way as far as Ireland. Anyone who compares the
Byzantine ivories of the sixth, seventh, and eighth
centuries, with the sculptures on crosses such as those
of Kells, must come at once to the conclusion that
both owed their inspiration to the same source. 10 A
curious peculiarity, well exemplified in the great cross
of Kells, which points in the same direction, may here
be noted. It is that when the Crucifixion is repre-
sented, the figure of Our Lord is clothed, and that
the attitude is that of prayer and not of suffering. All
this is in marked contrast to the modern crucifix. It
may be noted, too, that no figure is ever depicted
with a nimbus. Both of these points are manifest
tokens of antiquity, and quite dispose of the con-
tention recently urged by some English antiquaries
that the Irish crosses are of later date than some
which are to be found in the northern parts of the
sister kingdom.

A word may here be said about the purpose for
which these crosses were erected. There can be little
doubt that their use was to mark a sanctuary. At a

10 See an article by the author on The Baptism of our Lord, in the Journal
of the Royal Society of Irish Antiquaries, 1893.


time when laws were without an effective sanction,
the institution of something like the ancient cities of
refuge was the only way in which a man could be pro-
tected from private vengeance. An old Irish canon
enacts that the boundary of a sacred place should
have the sign of the cross ; and another lays down the
rule : " Wherever you find the sign of the Cross of
Christ do not do any injury." The cross which at
present stands in the market-place of Kells marks the
spot which was formerly the entrance to the enclosure
of the ecclesiastical city. The fugitive who had once
passed that point was under the protection of the
Church. A still more instructive example is furnished
at Tristelkieran, in the parish of Loughan. There the
churchyard stands by the side of the Blackwater, and
has three crosses in position, marking the bounds of
the sanctuary. There are the remains of a fourth cross
in the bed of the river, so that one coming from the
opposite bank might be in a place of safety while still
endeavouring to ford the stream.

About the same age as the crosses, or perhaps a little
later, are the round towers, of which an excellent
example perfect, except that the conical roof is
missing may be seen at Kells. These were manifestly
watch towers, erected at a time when the Church was
no longer at peace ; and in this connection the Kells
tower is particularly instructive. Ordinarily there are
four windows at the top of these towers, which
command the four cardinal points, but in Kells there
are five such apertures, corresponding to the five roads
by which the place was formerly approached. The
other round towers that Meath possesses are situated
at Donaghmore, near Navan, and at Clonmacnoise.

Both Kells and Durrow are also celebrated for
their metal work. The shrine in which was enclosed


the Psalter of Saint Columba was made in Kells in the
eleventh century, and is still in existence, with an
inscription indicating the place of its manufacture.
For a long time it had been used as one of the insignia
of battle by the tribe of the O'Neills, and was carried
round the host on the breast of a " sinless cleric,"
before they went out to fight. When the book came
to be used in this way, it ceased to be employed for
reading, and, indeed, was hermetically sealed up in
its casket. Then a superstition arose that great
disasters would happen to the O'Donnell family (a
branch of the O'Neills) if the shrine was opened. It is
one of the curiosities of litigation that, in consequence
of this superstition, proceedings in Chancery were
commenced in 1814, by Mary O'Donnell, widow of Sir
Neal O'Donnell of Newport, against Sir William
Betham, Ulster King at Arms, for having, as she
alleged, opened the casket without permission. 11

There are also extant two croziers, one belonging
to Durrow and the other to Kells. The former is the
oldest, and the latter the most beautiful of these relics
in existence. The crozier of Durrow is at present in
the Museum of the Royal Irish Academy in Dublin,
and that of Kells in the British Museum. This last
was found accidentally some years ago in London,
when some alterations were being made in a house
there. A cupboard had been built into one of the walls,
and on this being removed, the crozier was found behind
it. How it came there, or how long it had remained
thus hidden, has never been found out ; but that it
formerly belonged to Kells was shown by an Irish
inscription, which told that it had been made by one
Maelfinnen of that town. It passed at first into the
possession of Cardinal Wiseman, and at the death of

11 Gilbert's National Manuscripts of Ireland.


that prelate was acquired by the trustees of the
British Museum.

All these works, in different departments of art,
bear abundant testimony to the civilization and culture
that must have existed in ancient Ireland, and show
that in that civilization Meath took a most prominent


THE history of the Church of Ireland naturally divides
itself into three periods ; the first may be called the
Celtic period, extending from the introduction of
Christianity down to the time of the Anglo-Norman
invasion. During all this time the Church was
developed in a way peculiar to itself. It was indepen-
dent of Western Christendom, and was beyond the
jurisdiction of the Pope of Rome, though it was not
without a party of increasing strength which aimed at
bringing it into conformity to the rest of the Western
Church. The second period is from the Invasion to
the Reformation, during which time Romanism was
firmly established. The third period is from the Refor-
mation to the present day. The first period may be
again divided into two parts ; the first extending to the
time of the Danish invasions, at the beginning of the
ninth century, and the other from that time to the
days of Henry II.

We have already dealt with the founding of
Christianity, and with the Schools and Missions that
formed such a feature of early Irish Church history.
We have now only to add that the building of churches
proceeded apace, and that in a short time Meath was
as well furnished with places dedicated to the worship
of God as it is at the present day. In many cases the
names of the founders of these sanctuaries have been
handed down. To enumerate them, however, would


be tedious, and not altogether instructive. A brief
notice of some of the most important must suffice.

Ardbraccan owes its foundation, it is said, to Saint
Breccan, a kinsman of Saint Patrick, whose name is
also associated with the church of Templebraccan, in
the island of Aran, off the coast of Galway. He re-
mained but a short time in Meath, and resigned his
place to his much more famous successor, Saint Ultan.
Ultan belonged to the third order of saints, who lived
the life of hermits. He is credited with the authorship
of a Life of Saint Patrick, and of two hymns in praise
of Saint Brigid, both ot which are preserved in the
Irish Liber Hymnorum. He was succeeded by Tirechan,
whose Annotations on the Life of St. Patrick are
to be found in the Book of Armagh, and are a most
important historical document. This work begins
with the statement that " Tirechan the Bishop wrote
these things either from word of mouth or from the
book of Ultan the Bishop, of whom he was himself
the scholar or disciple."

Saint Fechin of Fore is another of the third order,
and his name appears first on the list. He chose for
his retreat that picturesque valley in Westmeath, in
which at the present day remains dating from the
Celtic period stand side by side with the ruins of the
Norman monastery of later date. It is said that he
had three hundred disciples, of whom he became the
" leader and father."

At the extreme end of the diocese is the parish
of Drumcullen, now dismembered, and the portion on
which the ruined church stands transferred to the
diocese of Killaloe. The founder of this church was one
Barrind, who was famous in his day as a traveller, and
who, if legends are to be trusted, discovered America
long before the time of Columbus.


In the same district is the ancient church of Rahan,
small, like all the old buildings, but perhaps the most
beautiful of all that have come down to us from pre-
Norman times. It marks the site where, in the sixth
century, Saint Carthage Mochuda set up his first
establishment. For some reason or another he in-
curred the enmity of his neighbours, and was so per-
secuted by them that in the end he had to fly and seek
for some other location where he and his followers
might dwell in peace. After much wandering he
settled in Lismore, the See of which he is said to have
founded. There is a composition extant which pro-
fesses to be the Rule drawn up by him for the direction
of his disciples. It is a rather long poem, written in
Irish, and deals with the duties appertaining to the
various offices in the Church. In after years it is said
that a king of the Britons named Constantine was
abbot of the establishment at Rahan a notable
example of how the sanctuaries of Ireland attracted
to them pilgrims from beyond the seas.

Mention may also be made of the church of Lynally,
which was founded by Saint Colman at the end of
the sixth or beginning of the seventh century. Colman
was a Meath man by birth, and was one of the followers
of Columkill, by whose influence a site was obtained
from King Aidus, on which the church of Lynally
was afterwards built. This Colman is referred to by
Adamnan, who relates that once, while on his way
to lona, the saint was in great danger of shipwreck
off the coast of Rathlin Island. Columkill, by pro-
phetic instinct, became aware of the danger in which
his friend was placed, but told his followers that " the
Lord is thus frightening him, not that he is to be over-
whelmed in the waves by the wreck of the ship in
which he is sitting, but rather that he may be roused


to pray more earnestly that, God being propitious,
he may pass over to us after the danger is over. " T
Before settling at Lynally, he spent some time in
Connor, and for many years afterwards there seems
to have been some connection between the northern
bishopric and the establishment in the King's County,
for several of the abbots whose deaths are recorded
by the Four Masters are said to have been abbots of
Connor and Lynally.

The church of Trevet (in the Union of Dunshaugh-
lin) is one of the few which are not called after the
name of the founder. It is said to have been so called
because " three sods (tri-foid) were dug there in honour
of the Trinity when the grave of Art was being dug
there." Art was king of Ireland at the end of the
second century. The Book of the Dun Cow relates
that this Art, though living in heathen times, was to
some extent a believer in Christianity ; and in " the
Prophecy and Christian Belief of Art the Lonely,"
it tells how he foretold the coming of Saint Patrick; the
great changes which his mission would bring about
in the condition of Erin ; the subsequent importance,
as a religious establishment, of Trevet, the place in
which he then happened to be, and where, by his own
direction, his body was carried from the battlefield
and buried, in anticipation of the future sanctity of
the place. 2

Balrathboyne is said to have been founded by
Saint Baithen, who succeeded Columkill in the abbacy
of lona, and is another of the links which bind Meath
to the island sanctuary. It is he who is referred to in
the affecting story which Adamnan tells of the last
days of Columba. He relates that the latter, on the

1 Adamnan. Lije of Columba, L, 5.

2 O'Curry, MS. Materials, p. 391.


evening before his death, " sat in his hut transcribing
the Psalter ; and coming to that verse of the thirty-
third Psalm where it is written * But they that seek the
Lord shall not want any good thing.' ' Here/ he says,
1 1 must stop at the foot of this page, and what follows
let Baithen write.' The last verse which he had written
is very applicable to the dying saint, to whom the
good things of eternity shall never be lacking ; and
the verse which follows is indeed very suitable to the
father who succeeded him, and was the teacher of his
spiritual sons, namely, ( Come ye children, hearken unto
me ; I will teach you the fear of the Lord.' And he,
Baithen, as his predecessor recommended, succeeded
him not only as teacher, but also as a writer. "3

Another church connected with lona was Skryne,
which derives its name from the fact that in 875 the
remains of Saint Columkill, in their shrine, were con-
veyed thither, on account of the attacks of the Danes
on the northern island. This was not the first time
that the bones of the saint had been brought to Meath,
for, at the beginning of the same century, they had
found a resting-place for a short time at Kells. From
Kells they were conveyed back to lona, and from lona
they were again brought to Skryne. Two hundred
and fifty years later they were in danger again from
the same foes, for we are told that in 1127 " the shrine
of Columkill was carried off into captivity by the Danes
of Dublin." The " captivity," however, was not of
long duration, for the shrine was restored to its house
at the end of a month.

It remains to notice that Meath furnishes us with
several examples of that peculiar institution of the
Irish Church, in which a community, consisting of both
sexes, was presided over not by an abbot, but by an

3 Adamnan, iii., 12.


abbess. Thus we have Clonguf&n, in the parish of
Rathcore, which was founded by Saint Fintina ;
Kilskyre, founded by Saint Schiria, and Kilbixy,
founded by Saint Bigseach. All these were, doubtless,
formed on the model of the establishment founded by
Saint Brigid at Kildare. Her influence, we are told,
" like a fruitful vine, spreading all round with growing
branches," extended itself through the whole country.
Unfortunately we have few details about the manner
of life in these strange communities. Bede has, how-
ever, described for us very fully the organization of
the establishment at Whitby, which was presided
over by the Abbess Hilda ; and, as we know that this
was founded by Irish missionaries, we may not perhaps
be far wrong in supposing that the less famous es-
tablishments in Ireland were something of the same
kind. Under her sway there was strict discipline, and
a community of goods, " so that, after the example of
the primitive church, no person was there rich, and
none poor, all being common to all, and none having
any property." She insisted on strict attention to the
reading of Holy Scripture, and obliged those who were
under her direction " to exercise themselves so much
in works of righteousness, that many might be found
there fit for ecclesiastical duties, and to serve at the
altar. "4 Such, though perhaps on a smaller scale, were
these establishments in Ireland, of which now nothing
remains to us but the name.

The materials that are available for the history of
these centuries do not lend themselves easily to the
compiling of a continuous narrative. The deaths of
abbots and bishops and scribes are duly recorded, but
the names we thus meet with are otherwise unknown,
and are therefore of little interest to us. This

4 Bede, Ecclesiastical History, iv., 23.


much, at all events, we may infer, that church life
continued, and that in every place a regular suc-
cession of ministers kept up the services of the
Church. It is specially interesting to note the number
of scribes that are mentioned, especially in the eighth
century. This tells us that the production of books,
and in particular of copies of the Scriptures, was
carried on without intermission. The few manuscripts
that remain show with what loving care the work was

It was a new and unpleasant experience for these
quiet workers and students when the Norsemen began
to settle in the island. At first they only visited the
coasts, and Meath, as an inland province, was com-
paratively secure. As we have seen in the last chapter,
the brethren of lona found, amongst us a safe refuge,
when their island home was devastated by the piratical
invaders. In 875 they again turned to Meath in the
hour of their distress, carrying with them once more
the bones of their founder. This time they were
deposited at Skryne, and the name, which signifies
" shrine," is a remembrance of the event. After a
time settlements were made by the foreigners in the
maritime towns, and Danish kingdoms were established
in Dublin, Waterford, and Limerick. Soon they began
to make their way into the interior of the country, and
there were few places that did not surfer more or less
from their marauding expeditions. The proximity of
Meath to Dublin laid it open to attack, and so we
have the story again and again repeated of her churches
having been devastated, and the treasures of her
sanctuaries carried away. The Danes were all pagans,
and had no respect for church property ; and it is sad

Online LibraryJohn HealyHistory of the diocese of Meath (Volume 1) → online text (page 4 of 26)