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  • Writer's pictureHugh MacMahon

Ireland’s Golden Dark Ages



When visiting the forgotten places of Irish history, I wonder about the people who once lived there. What led them to set up those counter-culture communities that were to profoundly affect Irish society?

The only clues available are the remains on the site, an occasional information board and extracts from the Irish Annals.

Recently I took a closer look at those Annals.

The years between 476 and 1000 are regularly called the Dark Ages, not because they were particularly unenlightened or unprogressive but we are ‘in the dark’ about them because records were either destroyed or not written.

However that does not apply to Ireland. In fact it was our ‘Golden Era’ and we do have documents and records to help us understand it. Inevitably they were not written with the modern reader in mind and may frustrate searchers because their concerns were not necessarily ours.

One of the Annals starts with the Deluge and goes on to until 1616. It provides dates, names and events. If there are limitations it is because they do not give us enough of the background.

One set of annals does give more detail but with mixed results. They are the ‘Lives of the Saints’.

Most of the Lives were written between 700-800 and since the majority of the Saints lived between 400 and 700 the annals were not contemporary. However in a society where memory power was stronger than it is today they have their value. They were intended to inspire rather than provide Wikipedia-like information.

The most famous of the ‘Lives’ was compiled by Oengus of Tallaght in 805. He was a Culdee, one of those seeking to return the Irish Church to its original inspiration, the teachings of the Desert Fathers.

As the Norman cultural invasion made inroads the ‘old Irish’ monks responded with efforts to renew pride in native Irish saints and spirituality. In the 14th and 15th centuries these biographies became more devotional and shorter as they moved from Latin to vernacular Irish.

The ‘Lives’ followed a formula that listed family (dynastic) ties, early tutors, places visited (visits to Rome and Tours were highly rated), foundations made and a striking miracle or two to prove spiritual power. The places of death and burial were also important. All of those elements provided a connection between the living and the dead and a reason to trust them.

The above is a very simple summary of a field that has been meticulously studied by eminent scholars whose detailed studies are available for further research. The Annals don’t provide all the answers we are looking for today when we visit forgotten places but they are another voice from our past ready to brighten our day.

(For more on our Forgotten Heritage see the post of Hugh MacMahon on Facebook.)


Photo: Terryglass Monastery where the Book of Leinster was compiled in 1160.


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