Early Christian Monasteries

Christianity came to Ireland in the fifth, if not, indeed, already in the fourth century, with St. Patrick having probably (though not certainly) been preceded by a bishop, Palladius, who had been sent in 431 by Pope Celestine to serve those Irish who already believed in Christ. A diocesan system appears to have been instituted using episcopal bases modelled on those in the towns of Late Roman Britain, but it failed because of a lack of any urban centres in Ireland (where towns were only established four centuries later by the Vikings). Instead, the void was filled in the sixth century by the development of a series of monasteries which recognised the Roman pontiff as head of the church, but were otherwise largely independent both of him and of one another, though some of them did band together into 'family' groupings. Spreading rapidly across the green fields of Ireland, they soon became religious hubs which presumably fulfilled the sacramental needs of the rural population. In time, too, they became centres of biblical studies, producers of manuscripts in Latin (a foreign language the monks seem to have acquired with ease), and recorders of history and lore, as well as being fosterers of craftsmanship in metal and stone.

In a country where round raths were the domestic norm, it is not surprising that the circle was the usual shape chosen for the monastic lay-out. Following lay example, the monks constructed their circle in either earth or stone, depending on local geological conditions. The single circle was usually deemed sufficient, but the monastery at Nendrum, Co. Down, had separate enclosures within a series of three roughly concentric walls. The innermost one would have been reserved for the church and religious ceremonies, the middle enclosure for industrial and commercial activities (for some of these monasteries resembled the large corporations of today), and the outermost one harbouring the monastery's crops and cattle, the latter forming the basis for currency at the time.

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