Monasteries: Where It’s At

One of the most notable features of medieval Ireland was its absence of cities. The Irish lived in the countryside, farming little plots of land and grazing their cattle, and they never settled down in large groups. On the Continent, cities served as gathering places for educated people and as nuclei for cultural exchange; bishops had their headquarters in cities and spent their time preaching to their local, relatively wealthy, urban flocks. In Ireland, monasteries began to serve this purpose, with predictably different results.

Emerging Communities

The earliest Irish monks went off to live by themselves as solitary hermits. But they didn't stay alone for very long. Word got out about their wonderful isolation and ascetism, and people with their own aspirations toward monasticism would come and ask to become their students.

Before long, a solitary ascetic would become the head of a small community. These groups built themselves little enclosures containing huts for the monks, a church for believers to hear Mass, and often a library. Many monasteries also included a guesthouse, where visitors could stay to learn about Christianity and pray with the monks or nuns. The hospitality of Irish monasteries was famous; visitors were always welcome, and monks and abbotts were always willing to baptize new believers.

Monasteries actually looked like small towns. Many of them contained a number of small buildings surrounded by a wall. The most distinctive type of architecture from this period was a kind of hut shaped a little like a beehive, constructed of stones held together without mortar. The skill involved in building one of these was extraordinary, because the technique required balancing all the rocks perfectly; the monks grew so good at this job that some of their beehive huts remain standing today.

A beehive hut

The Daily Services

Medieval monastics' primary purpose was to worship, and worship they did — several times a day! The following is an outline of the traditional monastic services, or “offices”:

  • Matins, sung before daybreak (in the middle of the night)

  • Lauds, sung at sunrise

  • Prime, sung at about 6 A.M.

  • Terce, sung at 9 A.M.

  • Sext, sung at noon • Nones, sung at 3 P.M.

  • Vespers, sung at sunset

  • Compline, sung right after Vespers

  • Skellig Michael, or Great Skellig, is a tiny island in the Atlantic off the tip of the Kerry Peninsula. A particularly ascetic group of monks lived there from the sixth through the twelfth centuries. The island still contains the remnants of the monastery; their sturdy beehive huts provide a haunting memory of solitude. Many seabirds live there now.

    Monks had to get up twice in the night to walk over to the chapel and sing their offices. They complained about it, but that was the point — monastic life was supposed to include some suffering and misery. But there would have been some reward even for people dragged out of their beds at midnight in midwinter — their prayer services were often done musically. The monastic offices are the origin of the famous Gregorian chants, beautiful a capella musical arrangements of psalms and other pieces of Scripture.

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