The Irish in Europe

A generation later, St Columbanus, inspired by St Colm Cille’s example, travelled across Europe, founding monasteries as he went. The last of these was erected in Bobbio, northern Italy, in AD 613.

Thus, even as the pagan tribes of northern Europe were still rampaging across the continent, the Christianity, learning and Latin-based literacy that had been nurtured in the relative peace and tranquility of Ireland was replanted among the ruins of the Roman Empire.

Not only did the Irish import books and copy them in their monasteries, but they took them with them wherever they went. An important library was established at Bobbio soon after the monastery was founded by Columbanus and, because of this two-way traffic in manuscripts, some very important early Irish texts and historical documents, which would probably have been lost had they remained in Ireland, have survived in continental libraries.

Columbanus was the founder of several European monasteries. He had left Ireland, at the invitation of King Childebert of Burgundy, to establish a monastery at Annegray. He also founded monasteries at Luxovium (Luxeuil) and at Fountaines. He left Burgundy to preach to the Allemani of Switzerland.

His monasteries were known for the strictness of their rules (which the Benedictines later ameliorated) and their emphasis on corporal punishment. In addition to his rule for monks, Columbanus wrote a penitence and poems.

The network of Irish-founded monasteries in mainland Europe meant that Ireland could no longer be regarded as an isolated and uncivilised island on the edge of the known world, as it had appeared to the Romans. The European dimension would remain significant for the next 1,000 years and would become particularly important again in the sixteenth centuries, when Irish society and civilisation faced its greatest challenges.

Image: Book of Kells, Madonna and Child miniature folio 7 verso is the oldest image of the Madonna in Western manuscript art.

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