How Ireland Became The Most Learned Country In Europe

In old pagan times, long before the arrival of St. Patrick, there were

schools in Ireland taught by druids. And when at last Christianity came,

and was spreading rapidly over the land, those old schools were still held

on; but they were no longer taught by druids, and they were no longer

pagan, for teachers and scholars were now all Christians.

But as soon as St. Patrick came, a new class of schools began to spring
up; for he and the other early missionaries founded monasteries everywhere

through the country, and in connexion with almost every monastery there

was a school. These were what are called monastic or ecclesiastical

schools, for they were mostly taught by monks; while the older schools,

being taught by laymen, were called lay schools.

In lay schools was taught what might be called the native learning--the

learning that had grown up in the country in the course of ages. It

consisted mainly of the following subjects:--To read and write the Irish

language; Irish grammar, and rules of poetical composition--a very

extensive and complicated subject; geography and history, especially the

topography and history of Ireland; and a knowledge of the poetry, and of

the historical and romantic tales of the country: while a great many of

the schools were for professions--special schools of law, of medicine, of

poetry, of history and antiquities, and so forth. In these last the

professional men were educated.

These lay schools, being now within the Christian communion, were not

abolished or discouraged in any way by St. Patrick or his successors. They

were simply let alone, to teach their own secular learning just as they

pleased. They continued on, and were to be found in every part of Ireland

for fourteen centuries after St. Patrick's arrival, down to a period

within our own memory; but of course greatly changed as time went on. In

later times they were much more numerous in Munster than in the other

provinces; and they taught--and taught well--classics and mathematics; and

often both combined in the same school. I was myself educated in some of

those lay schools; and I remember with pleasure several of my old

teachers: rough and unpolished men most of them, but excellent, solid

scholars, and full of enthusiasm for learning--enthusiasm which they

communicated to their pupils. In some respects indeed they resembled the

rugged, earnest, scholarly Irishmen of old times, who travelled through

Europe to spread religion and learning, as described at pp. 54, 55,

farther on. But the famine of 1847 broke up those schools, and in a very

few years they nearly all disappeared.

But our business here is mainly with the early monastic schools, which

became so celebrated all over Europe. Before going farther it is well to

remark that these schools also continued, and increased and multiplied as

time went on. They held their ground successfully--as the lay schools

did--during the evil days of later ages, when determined attempts were

made, under the penal laws, to suppress them; and at the present day they

are working all over the country quite as vigorously as in days of yore.

To notice all the monastic schools of old that attained eminence would

demand more space than can be afforded here. So we must content ourselves

with mentioning the following, all of which were very illustrious in their

time:--Bangor (Co. Down), Lismore (Co. Waterford), Clonmacnoise, Armagh,

Kildare, Clonard (Meath), Clonfert (Galway), Durrow (King's Co.),

Monasterboice (near Drogheda), Rosscarbery (Co. Cork), and Derry. Besides

these, at least twenty-five others, all eminent, are specially mentioned

in our old books. Most of these colleges were working, not in succession,

but all at the same time, from the sixth century downwards. When we bear

in mind that there were also, during the whole period, the lay schools,

which, though smaller, were far more numerous--scattered all over the

country--we shall have some idea of the universal love of learning that

existed in Ireland in those days, and of the general spread of education.

No other nation in Europe could boast of so many schools and colleges in

proportion to size and population.

Many of the monastic colleges had very large numbers of students. In

Clonard there were 3,000, all residing in and around the college; and

Bangor founded by St. Comgall, and Clonfert founded by St. Brendan the

Navigator, had each as many. And there were various smaller

numbers--2,000, 1,500, 1,000, 500--down to fifty.

The students were of all classes--rich and poor--from the sons of kings

and chiefs down to the sons of farmers, tradesmen, and labourers; young

laymen for general education, as well as ecclesiastical students for the

priesthood. All those who had the means paid their way in everything. But

there were some who were so poor that they could pay little or nothing:

and these 'poor scholars' (as they afterwards came to be called) received

teaching, books, and often food, all free. But most of even the poorest

did their best to pay something; and in this respect it is interesting to

compare the usages of those long past times with some features of the

college life of our own days. In some of the present American universities

there is an excellent custom which enables very poor students to support

themselves and pay their college fees. They wait on their richer comrades,

bring up the dishes, etc., from the kitchen for meals, and lay the tables:

and when the meal is over, they remove everything, wash up dishes and

plates, and put them all by in their proper places. In fact, they perform

most of the work expected from ordinary servants. For this they receive

food and some small payment, which renders them independent of charity.

And the pleasing feature of this arrangement is, that it is not attended

with any sense of humiliation or loss of self-respect. During study and

lecture hours these same young men, having put by aprons and napkins, and

donned their ordinary dress, are received and treated on terms of perfect

equality by those they have served, who take on no airs, and do not pose

as superiors, but mix with them in free and kindly intercourse as

fellow-students and comrades.

All this was anticipated in Ireland more than a thousand years ago; for a

similar custom existed in some of the old Irish colleges. The very poor

students often lived with some of their richer brethren, and acted as

their servants, for which they received food and other kinds of payment.

Many of these youths who served in this humble capacity subsequently

became great and learned men, as indeed we might expect, for boys of this

stamp are made of the best stuff; and some of them are now famed in our

records as eminent fathers of the ancient Irish Church.

The greatest number of the students lived in houses built by themselves,

or by hired workmen--some, mere huts, each for a single person; some,

large houses, for several: and all around the central college buildings

there were whole streets of these houses, often forming a good-sized town.

Where there were large numbers great care was taken that there should be

no confusion or disorder. The whole school was commonly divided into

sections, over each of which was placed a leader or master, whose orders

should be obeyed: and over the whole college there was one head-master or

principal, usually called a Fer-leginn, i.e., 'Man of learning': while

the abbot presided over all--monastery and college. The Fer-leginn was

always some distinguished man--of course a great scholar. He was generally

a monk, but sometimes a layman; for those good monks selected the best man

they could find, whether priest or layman.

I suppose those who are accustomed to the grand universities and colleges

of the present day, with their palatial buildings, would feel inclined to

laugh at the simple, rough-and-ready methods and appliances of the old

Irish colleges. There were no comfortable study rooms, well furnished with

desks, seats, and rostrums: no spacious lecture halls. The greater part of

the work, indeed, was carried on in the open air when the weather at all

permitted. At study time the students went just where they pleased, and

accommodated themselves as best they could. All round the college you

would see every flowery bank, every scented hedgerow, every green glade

and sunny hillock occupied with students, sitting or lying down, or pacing

thoughtfully, each with his precious manuscript book open before him, all

poring over the lesson assigned for next lecture, silent, attentive, and


Then the little handbell tinkled for some particular lecture, and the

special students for this hurried to their places, and seated themselves

as best they could--on chair, stool, form, stone, or bank, and opened

their books. These same books, too, were a motley collection--some large,

some small, some fresh from the scribe, some tattered and brown with age:

but all most carefully covered and preserved; for they were very

expensive. You now buy a good school copy of some classical author for,

say, half-a-crown: at that time it would probably cost what was equivalent

to L2 of our present money.

Then the master went over the text, translating and explaining it, and

whenever he thought it necessary questioned his pupils, to draw them out.

After this he had to stand the cross-fire of the students' questions, who

asked him to explain all sorts of difficulties: for this was one of the

college regulations. There were no grammars, no dictionaries, no simple

introductory lesson books, such as we have now. The students had to go

straight at the Latin or Greek text, and where they failed to make sense,

the master stepped in with his help. And in this rugged and difficult

fashion they mastered the language.

Yet it was in rude institutions of this kind that were educated those men

whose names became renowned all over Europe, and who--for the period when

they lived--are now honoured as among the greatest scholars and

missionaries that the world ever saw.

The great Irish colleges were, in fact, universities in the full sense of

the word, that is to say, schools which taught the whole circle of

knowledge: they were, indeed, in a great measure the models on which our

present universities were formed. The Latin and Greek languages and

literatures were studied and taught with success. In science the Irish

scholars were famous for their knowledge of Geometry, Arithmetic,

Astronomy, Music, Geography, and so forth. And they were equally eminent

in sacred learning--Theology, Divinity, and the Holy Scriptures.

The schools proved their mettle by the scholars they educated and sent

forth: scholars who astonished all Europe in their day. Sedulius of the

fifth century (whose name is still represented by the family name Shiel),

an eminent divine, orator, and poet, travelled into France, Italy, Greece,

and Asia, and composed some beautiful Latin hymns, which are still used in

the services of the Church. 'Fergil the Geometer' went in 745 from his

monastery of Aghaboe in Queen's County to France, where he became famous

for his deep scientific learning, and where he taught publicly--and

probably for the first time--that the earth is round, having people living

on the other side. John Scotus Erigena ('John the Irish-born Scot') of the

ninth century taught in Paris; he was the greatest Greek scholar of his

time, and was equally eminent in Theology. St. Columbanus of Bobbio (in

Italy), a Leinsterman, a pupil of the college of Bangor, proved himself,

while in France and Italy, a master of many kinds of learning, and was one

of the greatest, most fearless, and most successful of the Irish

missionaries on the Continent.

These men, and scores of others that we cannot find space for here, spread

the fame of their native country everywhere. It was no wonder that the

people of Great Britain and the Continent, when they met such scholars,

all from Ireland, came to the conclusion that the schools which educated

them were the best to be found anywhere. Accordingly, students came from

all parts of the known world, to place themselves under the masters of

these schools. From Germany, France, Italy, Egypt, came priests and

laymen, princes, chiefs, and peasant students--all eagerly seeking to

drink from the fountain of Irish learning. And let us bear in mind that in

those days it was a far more difficult, dangerous, and tedious undertaking

to travel to Ireland from the interior of the European Continent, than it

is now to go to Australia or China. But even in much greater numbers than

these came students from Great Britain. An English writer of that period,

who was jealous of the Irish schools and in very bad humour with his

countrymen for coming to them, is nevertheless forced to admit that

Englishmen came to Ireland "in fleetloads." In our Histories of Ireland we

have read of the real Irish welcome they received--as recorded by the

Venerable Bede and by others--and how the Irish, not only taught them, but

gave them books and food for nothing at all! It was quite a common thing

that young Englishmen, after they had learned all that their own schools

were able to teach them, came to Ireland to finish their education.

The more the students crowded to the Irish schools, whether from Ireland

itself or from abroad, the more eagerly did the masters strive to meet the

demand, by studying more and more deeply the various branches of learning,

so as to equal or excel the scholars of other countries. Then Ireland

became the most learned country in Europe, so that it came at last to be

known everywhere as 'The Island of Saints and Scholars.'