About early Irish monasteries
Photo from iStockPhoto The first monks in early Ireland were loners seeking isolation and hardship in the wilderness to be closer to God. By the time Christianity reached Ireland in the middle of the first millennium, nobody much wanted to kill them for their beliefs, so instead of the traditional “red martyrdom” gained with spilled blood, Irish monks sought a “green martyrdom” of the wilderness instead. But inevitably they drew attention, attracted followers, and came together into collectives — including groups of men, women, and mixed genders.

These earliest monks led incredibly ascetic and strict lives, living for weeks on nothing but bread and water (if that), praying almost constantly — except when they were engaged in back-breaking work to build stone chapels or oratories and sleeping cells to help ward off the cold Irish rain — and, often, torturing their bodies.

Over time, though, the objectives of monastic life shifted and were influenced by habits observed on the Continent. A spectrum of Irish monastic life developed, with wide variations both in piety and practice. Some monastic communities were little different from villages, the monks having wives, families, and crops or cattle to manage alongside their commitment to God. (It would appear, though, that abbesses and nuns generally remained celibate, or tried to.) Others went into battle against neighboring monasteries to support local political leaders, to demonstrate the power of one saint over another, or to plunder desirable relics and wealth. Regular “reform” movements helped steer a course between extremes.

In the Irish landscape, where people mostly lived off the land and needed space for crops and grazing, towns were slow to develop. The monastic settlements, which eventually became centers of wealth, pilgrimage destinations, and a place to trade goods and services, were the kernel around which many of the earliest Irish villages developed.

(Note: The photo on this page is an Irish abbey, but one built much later than Aidan's. Depending on its location in Ireland, his would have had only a few, much smaller stone buildings, perhaps a few structures of wood or wattle and daub (sticks and mud), small individual stone cells that looked more like a pile of rocks than buildings, one or more stone standing crosses, and an earthen defensive mound ringing the compound for defense.)

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