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  • Writer's pictureHugh MacMahon

A Famous University in Ireland in 553 AD?

Updated: Dec 9, 2022

There are two Durrows in Leinster but the one called ‘the University of the West’ by the 8th century British historian, Bede, is in Offaly and not easy to find.

From there came the Book of Durrow , ‘one of the earliest surviving decorated gospel books in Western Europe’, now on display in Trinity College.

It also has a fine 6th century stone High Cross, highly decorated with biblical images, and presently locked away in the empty COI church on the site.

The monastery grew in the middle of an oak forest (Durrow means ‘Plain of the Oaks’) and some fine trees still stand. By being adventurous I came across nearby ‘Columcille’s well’, dated 550, hidden in a clump of shrubs. As often in such locations, it is the only visible survivor from the earliest days.

It was Columba (Columcille) who established Durrow, one of the 25 or so monastic settlements associated with his name. Others include Derry, Kells and Swords though probably the best known is Iona in Scotland.

Durrow soon had the reputation as a centre of education. The Venerable Bede called it ‘a noble monastery’ but at a later period, like many others, it was frequently ravaged by the Vikings though not completely destroyed until the Norman invasion.

When reading up on the history of Durrow I was reminded that, peaceful as Durrow is today, life in monasteries was not always calm and civilised. In 764, just two hundred years after Columba, there was a fight at nearby Argamen between Durrow and Clonmacnoise in which 200 men from Durrow were killed.

As monasteries became prosperous they stirred up notice among the local ruling families and disputes were not uncommon. They were usually over the ownership of land.

Originally monasteries were regarded as a places of sanctuary for those seeking to escape pursuers – vengeful enemies or authorities. The gates at Glendalough were one such entry point to asylum. However monks could be drawn into local disputes and early church penitentials placed severe penalties on clerics who got involved in armed clashes.

The reality was that from the 5th to the 11th centuries when the monastic system was most influential the entire country was not completely devoted to prayer, studies and good deeds. Indeed up to the early 7th century the majority of the people were not even nominally Christian. Traditional Irish society also had a traditional pastime of raiding and fighting with neighbours over cattle or land. The story of many Irish saints begins with their being soldiers who turned to the Christian message in a search for a deeper purpose in life. It seems Columba himself in his early days caused a battle that he regretted for the rest of his life.

Life then, as now, was a mixture of the best and the worst in human nature. But could it be said that in monastic times the number who set a heroic example of human restraint out-influenced those whose damaging behaviour would otherwise have gone unchecked?

I would give Durrow an eight for the indifference with which it is treated today and a seven for the insight it gives into early monastic lifes.


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