How Irish Missionaries And Scholars Spread Religion And Learning In Foreign Countries

Towards the end of the sixth century the great body of the Irish were

Christians, so that the holy men of Ireland were able to turn their

attention to the conversion of other people. Then arose an extraordinary

zeal for spreading religion and learning in foreign lands; and hundreds of

devoted and determined missionaries left our shores. There was ample field

for their noble ambition. For these were the Dark Ages, when the

/> civilisation and learning bequeathed by old Greece and Rome had been

almost wiped out of existence by the barbarous northern hordes who

overran Europe; and Christianity had not yet time to spread its softening

influence among them. Through the greater part of England and Scotland,

and over vast regions of the Continent, the teeming populations were

fierce and ignorant, and sunk in gross superstition and idolatry, or with

little or no religion at all.

To begin with the Irish missionary work in Great Britain. The people of

Northern and Western Scotland, who were solidly pagan till the sixth

century, were converted by St. Columkille and his monks from Iona, who

were all Irishmen; for Iona was an Irish monastic colony founded by St.

Columkille, a native of Tirconnell, now Donegal.

In the seven kingdoms of England--the Heptarchy--the Anglo-Saxons were the

ruling race, rude and stubborn, and greatly attached to their gloomy

northern pagan gods. We know that the kingdom of Kent was converted by the

Roman missionary St. Augustine; but Christianity made little headway

outside this till St. Aidan began his labours among the Northumbrian

Saxons. Aidan was an Irishman who entered the monastery of Iona, from

which he was sent to preach to the Northumbrians on the invitation of

their good king, Oswald. He founded the monastery of Lindisfarne, which

afterwards became so illustrious. He was its first abbot; and for thirty

years it was governed by him and by two other Irish abbots, Finan and

Colman, in succession. He and his companions were wonderfully successful,

so that the people of the large kingdom of Northumbria became Christians.

Not only in Northumberland but all over England we find at the present day

evidences of the active labours of the Irish missionaries in Great


Whole crowds of ardent and learned Irishmen travelled on the Continent in

the sixth, seventh, and succeeding centuries, spreading Christianity and

secular knowledge everywhere among the people. On this point we have the

decisive testimony of an eminent French writer of the ninth century, Eric

of Auxerre, who himself witnessed what he records. In a letter written by

him to Charles the Bald, king of France, he says:--"What shall I say of

Ireland, who, despising the dangers of the deep, is migrating with almost

her whole train of philosophers to our coasts?" And other foreign

evidences of a like kind might be brought forward.

These men, on their first appearance on the Continent, caused much

surprise, they were so startlingly different from those preachers the

people had been accustomed to. They travelled on foot towards their

destination in small companies, generally of thirteen. They wore a coarse

outer woollen garment, in colour as it came from the fleece, and under

this a white tunic of finer stuff. The long hair behind flowed down on the

back: and the eyelids were painted or stained black. Each had a long stout

walking-stick: and slung from the shoulder a leathern bottle for water,

and a wallet containing his greatest treasure--a book or two and some

relics. They spoke a strange language among themselves, used Latin to

those who understood it, and made use of an interpreter when preaching,

until they had learned the language of the place.

Few people have any idea of the trials and dangers they encountered. Most

of them were persons in good position, who might have lived in plenty and

comfort at home. They knew well, when setting out, that they were leaving

country and friends probably for ever; for of those that went, very few

returned. Once on the Continent, they had to make their way, poor and

friendless, through people whose language they did not understand, and who

were in many places ten times more rude and dangerous in those ages than

the inhabitants of these islands: and we know as a matter of history, that

many were killed on the way. But these stout-hearted pilgrims were

prepared for all this, and looking only to the service of their Master,

never flinched. They were confident, cheerful, and self-helpful, faced

privation with indifference, caring nothing for luxuries; and when other

provisions failed them, they gathered wild fruit, trapped animals, and

fished, with great dexterity and with any sort of next-to-hand rude

appliances. They were somewhat rough in outward appearance: but beneath

all that they had solid sense and much learning. Their simple ways, their

unmistakable piety, and their intense earnestness in the cause of religion

caught the people everywhere, so that they made converts in crowds.

A great French writer, Montalembert, speaks of the Irish of those days as

having a "Passion for pilgrimage and preaching," and as feeling "under a

stern necessity of spreading themselves abroad to combat paganism, and

carry knowledge and faith afar." They were to be found everywhere through

Europe, even as far as Iceland and the Faroe and Shetland Islands. Europe

was too small for their missionary enterprise. Many were to be found in

Egypt; and as early as the seventh century, three learned Irish monks

found their way to Carthage, where they laboured for a long time and with

great success.

Wherever they went they made pilgrimages to holy places--places sanctified

by memories of early saints--and whenever they found it practicable they

were sure to make their way to Rome, to visit the shrines of the apostles,

and obtain the blessing of the Pope.

The Irish "passion for pilgrimage and preaching" never died out: it is a

characteristic of the race. This great missionary emigration to foreign

lands has continued in a measure down to our own day: for it may be safely

asserted that no other missionaries are playing so general and successful

a part in the conversion of the pagan people all over the world, and in

keeping alight the lamp of religion among Christians, as those of Ireland.

Irishmen were equally active in spreading secular knowledge. Indeed the

two functions were generally combined; for it was quite common to find a

man a successful missionary, while at the same time acting as professor in

a college, or as head of some great seminary for general education. Irish

professors and teachers were in those times held in such estimation that

they were employed in most of the schools and colleges of Great Britain,

France, Germany, and Italy. The revival of learning on the Continent was

indeed due in no small degree to those Irish missionaries. It was enough

that the candidate for an appointment came from Ireland: he needed no

other recommendation.

When learning had declined in England in the ninth and tenth centuries,

owing to the devastations of the Danes, it was chiefly by Irish teachers

it was kept alive and restored. In Glastonbury especially, they taught

with great success. We are told by English writers that "they were skilled

in every department of learning sacred and profane"; and that under them

were educated many young English nobles, sent to Glastonbury with that

object. Among these students the most distinguished was St. Dunstan, who,

according to all his biographers, received his education, both Scriptural

and secular, from Irish masters there.

As for the numerous Continental schools and colleges in which Irishmen

figured either as principals or professors, it would be impossible, with

our limited space, to notice them here. A few have been glanced at in the

last chapter; and I will finish this short narrative by relating the odd

manner in which two distinguished Irishmen, brothers, named Clement and

Albinus,[4] began their career on the Continent.

One of the historians of the reign of Charlemagne, who wrote in the ninth

century, has left us the following account of these two scholars:--When

the illustrious Charles began to reign alone in the western parts of the

world, and literature was almost forgotten, it happened that two Scots

from Ireland came over with some British merchants to the shores of

France, men incomparably skilled in human learning and in the Holy

Scriptures. Observing how the merchants exhibited and drew attention to

their wares, they acted in a similar fashion to force themselves into

notice like the others. They went through the market-place among the

crowds, and cried out to them:--"If there be any who want wisdom (i.e.,

learning), let them come to us, for we have it to sell." This they

repeated as they went from place to place, so that the people wondered

very much; and some thought them to be nothing more than persons half


Strange rumours regarding them went round, and at length came to the ears

of King Charles; on which he sent for the brothers, and had them brought

to his presence. He questioned them closely, using the Latin language, and

asked them whether it was really the case that they had learning; and they

replied--in the same language--that they had, and were ready, in the name

of God, to communicate it to those who sought it with worthy intentions.

Then the king asked what payment they would expect, and they replied:--"We

require proper houses and accommodation, pupils with ingenious minds and

really anxious to learn; and, as we are in a foreign country where we

cannot conveniently work for our bread, we shall require food and raiment:

we want nothing more."

Now at this very time King Charles was using his best efforts to restore

learning, by opening schools throughout his dominions, but found it hard

to procure a sufficient supply of qualified teachers. And as he perceived

that these brothers were evidently men of real learning, and of a superior

cast in every way, he joyfully accepted their proposals. Having kept them

for some time on a visit in his palace, he finally opened a great school

in some part of France--probably Paris--for the education of boys of all

ranks of society, not only for the sons of the highest nobles, but also

for those of the middle and low classes, at the head of which he placed

Clement. He also directed that all the scholars should be provided with

food and suitable habitations: it was in fact a great free

boarding-school, founded and maintained at the expense of the king. As for

Albinus, he sent him to Italy, with directions that he should be placed at

the head of the important school of the monastery of St. Augustine at

Pavia. And these schools are now remembered in history as two great and

successful centres of learning belonging to those ages.