A Brief History of Ireland by Paul F. State

By Paul F. State

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530), who built churches at Drogheda and later founded Killeaney, the largest monastery on the Aran Islands where many Irish abbots were in turn trained, and of Saint Finnian of Movilla (Moville) (ca. 495–ca. 589), who established the monastery of Movilla in County Down about 550. Both saints are considered founders of Irish monasticism. Inspired by Welsh reformers Cadoc and Gildas, Saint Finnian of Clonard (ca. 470–ca. 549) brought to his abbey at Clonard in County Meath an innovative emphasis on sacred study, which now joined prayer and manual labor as part of monastic life.

And historians must rely on stories, poems, and legendary accounts handed down orally over the centuries. Storytellers (seanachaidhe, from seanachas, meaning “lore”) could often relate more than 300 tales, learned by memorization, as the custodians of an ancient oral tradition, and oral storytelling survives into modern times. Not until the ninth century—many centuries after the purported happenings—did scribes begin to set down narratives in the Old Irish Sagas. The sagas tell of legendary high kings such as Tuathal, one of the earliest to emerge, who returned from exile with his brother to defeat his enemies in battle at Tara, which he then made his capital, the traditional place of power of all the high kings to come.

Rituals varied and might include, for example, a royal chariot ride in which the candidate would have to prove a worthy passenger and a royal mantle that would have to be the right size to fit the candidate. Another might entail the bull feast or bull sleep (tarbfheis), in which a bull was killed and a chosen man, who had eaten its flesh, would lay down to sleep while four druids chanted an incantation over him, eliciting a dream in which he would identify the next king. Land was shared equally by brothers.

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