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Where is 'The Plain of Heaven'?

Updated: Dec 9, 2022

A holy man of old was known for his good looks. At least thirty local young ladies admitted admiring him. His solution was to build a monastery for them elsewhere.

He was known as Carthage, or Mochuta, and in 590 he set up a community at Rahan (Offaly) that added to his reputation as principled man. He allowed no oxen to be used so his disciples had to till the fields by hand. They made it known they wanted to get rid of him because there was no way they could live up to his standards.

The King at Tara solved their problem by expelling them all, maybe because Carthage was a noted scholar from Kerry and Rahan was in Leinster. On the other hand, it is more likely because of the conflict over the date of Easter (a major issue for the Irish Church as it tried to preserve its individuality). Carthage moved on to Lismore where he set up an even more prestigious academy.

Actually there were two St Carthages at that time. ‘The Elder’ was the tutor of the younger. He had been a disciple of the famous Kieran of Saighir but for some unknown reason had been dispatched by his master on a seven year penitential journey during which he visited Gaul and Rome.

On his return he founded a community in the Carberry (Kerry) area and composed a monastic rule in Irish verse. It was there ‘on the banks of the Mang river’ the he trained the ‘Younger’ who became famous for his strict adherence to the rule.

In its day Rahan had 370 students, future leaders, from Ireland and abroad. Today what remains is an ancient graveyard within a circular enclosure ditch, indicating that the inner church and cells had fields radiating out from them.

Admiring the peaceful graveyard today with its whitewashed 12th century church, it would be easy to view it as be a good place in which to be buried, now that Carthage with his contentious students had moved elsewhere. A poet wrote,

‘This is what I compare Rahan to, To a meadow of the plain of heaven.’

Looking back on my own visit there I should be astonished that a place so famous for centuries as a centre of studies, as well as its connection with three eminent teachers, is virtually ignored today.

For its forgotten state I would rate Rahan seven out of ten and, for how its reminder of the attention once given to training young people, I would give it another seven.


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