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  • Writer's pictureHugh MacMahon

Saxons from Ireland who Transformed Luxemburg



Interaction between the Celtics of Ireland, Scotland and Wales could be expected but the presence of Saxon monasteries in parts of Ireland as far apart as Mayo Abbey, Clonmelsh (Carlow) Tullylease (Cork), Rigair, Cluain Mucceda, Tech Saxan (Athenry) and Tech Saxan (Kinsale) was a surprise to me.

It began in 668 when Colman, Abbot of Lindisfarne, resigned and returned to Ireland with a large group of Irish and thirty Saxon monks. They were protesting the decisions of the Synod of Whitby that had just ended in Northumbria. The key issue most often mentioned was deciding the date for Easter. It had to be a Sunday, but which Sunday? The Roman party had their way of calculating it and Celtic party with their Saxon disciples had their own tradition.

However Colman and his followers had a deeper concern: did this mean that the future of Western Christianity was to be in a legally-minded, bishop-led Roman Church or the spirituality-based and monastic-led Celtic tradition?

Colman’s group first settled on Innisbofin off the West coast of Ireland. A difficulty arose "because in summer the Irish went off to wander on their own around places they knew instead of assisting at harvest, and then, as winter approached, came back and wanted to share whatever the English monks had gathered."

Maybe there was more to it than that. Colman decided to set up a separate monastery for the Saxons on the mainland at what was to be called Mayo Abbey or ‘Mayo of the Saxons’. He also gave them the relics of the sainted abbot of Lindisfarne, Aiden, and a part of the true cross. These treasured gifts vanished during the Reformation of 1537.

The Mayo monastery grew under the Abbot Gerald and by 700 had more than one hundred monks. It became a famous seat of learning, for several centuries attracting thousands of students from various parts of Britain.

Colman himself died on Innisbofin in 674.

Mayo Abbey was not the only Saxon monastery in Ireland. One I visited recently was at Clonmelsh in Carlow. During the plague of 664, the historian Bede tells us, the monks there were almost all carried off by the disease. One who survived was the twenty-five year old Ecgberht who vowed that, if he recovered, he would be a peregrinus, a ‘wanderer for Christ’. He was to become one of the most famous ‘pilgrims’ of the early Middle Ages, organising the first missions to Frisia.

Missionary work soon became a characteristic of the Saxon monks in Ireland. Maybe it was because they were outsiders in a country already Christian that turned their attention to the still-pagan continent. One of the best known is Willibrord, a graduate of Clonmelsh, recognised as the patron of Luxemburg and First Apostle of the Netherlands. I will have more on Willibrord and my visit to Clonmelsh on my Facebook pages.


Photo: The statue and relic of Willibrord presented by the Archbishop of Luxemburg to Carlow Cathedral in June, 2017.

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