Photo © Jim Fair

FEATURE: Irish Light Shone in Dark Times

Not Everything was Dark in the Dark Ages

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There are many reasons to call the Middle Ages the Dark Ages.

For much of humanity, it was a difficult time to live and life tended to be a short struggle, assuming you survived infancy. But let’s begin with a definition of the time we are discussing.

The Dark Ages lasted roughly 1000 years. They began with the fall of the Roman Empire, which occurred in 476, according to famed historian Edward Gibbon.  He picked that date because it is when the last of the rulers of the western part of the Roman Empire, Romulus Augustulus, was deposed by Germanic invaders.

In reality, Rome had been slouching toward collapse, with historians placing blame on its decadence, an over-stretched army, invading barbarian, the rise of Christianity, and bad economic conditions. The point is, Rome didn’t collapse overnight but declined over many decades.

The Dark Ages ended, historians tend to agree, with the start of the Renaissance in the late 1400s. And it has been argued that the Renaissance began because some of the darkest things of the Dark Ages came to an end.

For one, the Crusades ended after 350 years of futility and no clear winner – but many losers.

For another, the Black Death – a plague that killed a third of the population of Europe and huge numbers in Asia and North Africa – petered out in the 1350s.

Also, growing trade, agricultural improvements, and movements for more freedom brought about the gradual breakdown of the feudal system in which peasants working the land – serfs – were virtual slaves of the landed gentry.

Still, the picture that remains of the Middle/Dark Ages is one of poverty, ignorance, invading hoards, failed Crusades, dread disease, and an average life expectancy of just over 31 years.

Ireland, like the rest of the European World, faced challenges during the Dark Ages. The biggest challenges were the back-and-forth wars of conquests between Irish, Vikings, Scotts, English, and Normans. The final control of Ireland by the Irish wasn’t settled until the 20th Century.

But the conversion of the Irish to Christianity had a profound impact on the island nation. There grew an almost mythical reputation of Ireland, with this description provided by Saint Bede the Venerable in Ecclesiastical History of the English People:

Ireland is broader than Britain, is healthier and has a much milder climate, so that snow rarely lasts for more than three days. Hay is never cut in summer for winter use nor are stables built for their beasts. No reptile is found there nor could a serpent survive; for although serpents have often been brought from Britain, as soon as the ship approaches land they are affected by the scent of the air and quickly perish. In fact, almost everything that the island produces is efficacious against poison. For instance, we have seen how, in the case of people suffering from snake-bite, the leaves of manuscripts from Ireland were scraped, and the scrapings put in water and given to the sufferer to drink. These scrapings at once absorbed the whole violence of the spreading poison and assuaged the swelling. The island abounds in milk and honey, nor does it lack vines, fish, and birds. It is also noted for the hunting of stags and roe-deer.

While the stories of St. Patrick driving the snakes out of Ireland may be exaggerated, it is a fact that Ireland has no snakes. However, despite the claims of some locals, there most certainly are mosquitoes in Ireland.

While many were fighting over the political control of Ireland and much of the world was in dark times, the monastic villages of Ireland were remarkable places of faith and learning.

The Rock of Cashel in County Tipperary also is known as St. Patrick’s Rock. It is traditionally regarded as the site of the conversion of Aenghus the King of Munster by St. Patrick in the 5th century.

Clonmacnoise in County, Offaly is a sixth-century monastic site, on the banks of the River Shannon. The site is home to three high crosses, a cathedral, seven churches, and two round towers. Its strategic location of the monastery at a crossroads between the major east-west land route through the bogs of central Ireland and the River Shannon helped it become a major center of religion, learning, craftsmanship, and trade by the 9th century.

Clonmacnoise was a center of learning excellence, and many manuscripts, including the Annals of Tighernach (11th century) and the Book of the Dun Cow (12th century), were written here. The monastery flourished for 600 years as a center of learning and religious instruction as well as providing much of Ireland’s finest Celtic art and illuminated manuscripts.

Perhaps Ireland’s most popular monastic site resides at Glendalough in County Wicklow. Its popularity is assured by its proximity to a breathtaking national park, a fascinating visitor center, free admission – and is an easy drive from Dublin.

Glendalough’s website offers a concise and rightly proud description:

This early Christian monastic settlement was founded by St. Kevin in the 6th century and from this developed the ‘Monastic City’.

The ‘City’ consists of a number of monastic remains, and the most impressive being the Round Tower which stands 30m high. The main group of monastic buildings lies downstream near the Round Tower. The grounds were entered through the Gateway, which has two round-headed granite arches.

Beyond St. Mary’s Church is the Priest’s House, a 12th Century building in Romanesque style, with an interesting carving of a much earlier date on the lintel of the doorway.

Just beyond the Priest’s House is a large granite cross (sixth or seventh century) and the “Cathedral”, the largest church on the site, with a nave, chancel, and sacristy (11th and 12th C), and St Kevin’s Church.

St Kevin’s Church is commonly known as St Kevin’s Kitchen. This is a barrel-vaulted oratory of hard mica schist with a steeply pitched roof and a round tower belfry (12th C).

Approx 200m east of the Church of the Rock is a cavity in the cliff which is known as St Kevin’s Bed or Hermitage.

At the Glendalough site on the road to Laragh, to the right, stands Trinity Church (11th-12th C). Beyond the river about 1.5km to the east of the Cathedral is St. Saviour’s Priory a church with fine Romanesque carvings on the chancel arch and windows.

The remains of an old stone fort and three stone crosses can be found between the Upper and Lower Lake, and beside the Lower Lake, another cross; all four are stations on the pilgrimage route at Glendalough. Near a small bridge by St Kevin’s Bed stands Reefert Church (11th C.) with a nave and chancel.

While a visitor to Glendalough has to use a wee bit of imagination to see the former grandeur of the site, it isn’t hard to appreciate the hard work and dedication required to live the faith and create beautiful art in what was a raw countryside in the Middle Ages. In a site like this, those ages were more light than dark.

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Jim Fair

Jim Fair is a husband, father, grandfather, writer, and communications consultant. He also likes playing the piano and fishing. He writes from the Chicago area.

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