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  • Writer's pictureHugh MacMahon

Who were the 'Cell People'?

After visiting some fifty historical sites in Ireland over the past year, it is time to list what I found most interesting.

What kind of people inhabited those places, whether it was the lonely Skellig Rock or busy Glendalough?

Most of the locations I visited were in Irish towns and villages with the word ‘Kil-‘ preceding the name of an individual.

Since the word ‘Kil’ comes from the Latin word for cell it suggests the person in question was one of those committed Christian who followed an accepted method of learning to better understand themselves and help others.

Because they lived apart or in small communities, and did not followed the normal routine of society, today many regard them as anti-social, weird or irrelevant. However that was not the impression I got.

Places like Clonard, Chonmacnoise, Seir, Terryglass and Bangor are reminders of their schools that had thousands of pupils and were famous across Europe.

There they taught literacy, philosophy and scriptures. They produced beautifully illustrated books that preserved not only the bible but valuable copies of classical Western philosophy and ancient Irish sources such as ‘The Book of Leinster’ and ‘The Cattle Raid of Cooley’.

Brigid’s Kildare was famous for its embroidery and Daigh’s community in Inniskillen for its ironwork. Moling of St Mullins introduced rye to Ireland.

Their influence can be found beyond Ireland, in the western areas of Scotland and Wales, in France, Austria, Switzerland, Germany and Italy. They explored the western seas and even if they never got as far as America they were not far from it.

I became more aware that the period they dominated, from 500 to 1000, was not a peaceful one. Kings and aspiring kings fought vicious and destructive wars with their rivals. The non-violent and simple life of the ‘cell’ men and women must have appealed to the ordinary people of that time.

In 697 the monk Adoman was behind the ‘Law of the Innocents’ passed at the Synod of Birr by kings and bishops to protect non-combatants.

Not all of those pioneers followed the same path. Some were solitaries, some chose the quiet life of the scribe. Others were scholars, founders of new communities, courageous travellers and advisors to royalty. There were probably a good number of failures among them too.

Thanks to my travels I got the impression that a great cultural movement was taking place. Now I want to know more about the age in which they lived and what motivated them in the first place. What was the accepted way-of-life they were following and where did it come from?

I look forward to what I will learn in the next fifty places I visit.

(For more on my visits see the Facebook pages of Hugh MacMahon)


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