Mystery of the Missing Irish Monasteries

I recently purchased the Folio Society edition of Christopher Brooke’s The Rise and Fall of the Medieval Monastery (it’s a beautiful book, so if you don’t already have it, you’ll want it. But do like me and locate a used copy, although you may have to be patient — they’re hard to come by). My copy arrived today, and in between oohing and aahing at all the lovely illustrations, I noticed something very mysterious indeed. On the inside covers is a hand-drawn map of the “Monastic Sites of Europe.” Presumably, of course, this refers to medieval monasteries, given the scope of the book; most of the foundations seem to be clustered in Italy, France and Britain. What confounds me is that only three monasteries are depicted in Ireland: Bangor, Mellifont, and Durrow.


By any calculation, far, far more than three monasteries flourished in medieval Ireland. Anyone with even a passing knowledge of Irish history or Celtic Christianity will recognize names like Clonmacnoise… Glendalough… Inishmurray… Kells… Kildare… Kilmacduagh… Skellig Michael. Many lesser known foundations existed in the middle ages, as well; one indicator is the prevalence of Irish round towers, which were often built at monasteries (and over 50 of which remain in existence today).

So if Ireland clearly was the home to so many monasteries in centuries past, why does a book on medieval European monasticism only show three foundations on its map?

Well, I haven’t read the book yet, so perhaps the map only depicts monasteries mentioned in the book. But if that’s the case, Brooke is clearly prejudiced against Irish monasticism, since so many English and French foundations are detailed on the map.  Another idea would be that the map only shows major monasteries; but Clonmacnoise and Glendalough in particular are regarded as major Christian centers in Ireland, having left behind impressive ruins you can still visit today.

Beyond this, I’m left with the unpleasant notion that Brooke simply considered Irish monasticism unworthy of inclusion in his study. Perhaps this is because the Celtic approach to monasticism was so different from the continental, Benedictine model. Celtic monasteries really were rather more like what we today would call intentional communities, with celibates of both genders and marrieds living in close proximity and worshipping together — similar to how the ecumenical Community of Jesus in Massachusetts is organized in our day. Perhaps to those who adhere to a strict celibates-of-only-one-gender understanding, the Celtic community of faith just wasn’t “monastic” enough. Of course, I’m only speculating here.

I’ll shut up now and not worry about this until I’ve read the book. But it does bear consideration. Have Irish monasteries historically been marginalized within the larger church? And if so, what light does this shed on how Celtic theology has always been such a marginal dimension within western Christianity? And as we uncover answers to questions like these, how will our understanding empower us to live faithfully into the future — especially when “faithfully” might look increasingly like the old Celtic model of Christian discipleship?

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About Carl McColman

Author of Befriending Silence, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, Answering the Contemplative Call, and other books. Retreat leader. Speaker. Professed Lay Cistercian.

  • Juliansdaughter

    It sounds like a lovely book and I will almost certainly try to get a copy.

    I don’t know Christopher Brooke and I can’t guess who exactly the book is aimed at but, perhaps, he feels that Irish monasticism (Irish things in general) have been done to death. I think because Ireland has the best preserved Celtic heritage and is therefore far easier to research and “mine for nuggets” that a lot of the more popular (less academic) writers have concentrated on it to the point where some people could be forgiven for thinking that only Ireland had anything substantial. I am looking forward to learning more about non-Irish foundations not because I value the Irish tradition less, heaven forbid, but because I know where to find so much about it already. If I am right perhaps it explains the monasteries Mr Brooke has chosen – if he was only paying lip service to Irish monasteries wouldn’t he have chosen bigger and more famous ones? I hope I am right :-)

  • J. Patrick Mahon

    I am glad I came across this site. I too am investigating Irish monasticism after a trip to Ireland last summer. Atop Skellig Michael, I began to sense that more than a 2 degree downturn in climate caused the abandonment of the monastery.
    Enter the reforms of Pope Gregory (reform=consolidating power in the Bishop of Rome) and the influence of Augustine of Canterbury. The Celtic Irish monasteries, based on the Egyptian desert model of monasticism, were made to conform. The monks at Skellig Michael ended up in an Augustinian monastery in Ballinskellig on the mainland. The Rules for various Irish monastic communities were more strict than Benedictine and Augustinian rules and the Celtic practices smacked of Celtic influences.There is a book about this–The Occupation of Celtic Monastic Sites (in the Cistercian Studies series)–but I have not been able to locate even a used copy and it is out of print.