Matthew 5:14-16 | John 1:4-5
Did Irish monks save modern civilization?
Erin go bragh means “Ireland to eternity” or “Ireland forever.” In éirinn go brách–the original Irish phrase, eirinn sounds a lot more like “Ireland” than in the Anglicanized version from our title.
Either way, it sounds like something you would hear fans scream at a rowdy soccer match. But a look at the influence of certain Irish monks on European history during the Dark Ages of 500-700 AD might have any of us shouting, “Erin go bragh!”
As Joél and Kaitlin explained, the fall of the Roman Empire left Europe in shambles. The new Gothic occupiers of the fallen territories hated classical Roman and Greek culture and sought to destroy it. As they destroyed the architecture, languages, and customs, they also wiped out the philosophy and technology of those previous empires.
It makes sense–when you burn a library, you lose a lot of books. The result was a loss of centuries’ worth of wisdom, including Christianity. Western Europe became a dark place in so many ways.
That’s where the Irish monks come in. They were in remote locations much farther west than any invaders cared to visit. They were devoted to prayer and meeting God through scripture. They were well-educated and copied (by hand!) the classic literature they acquired. And they heeded God’s call to share their light with the rest of the world.
“You are the light of the world—like a city on a hilltop that cannot be hidden. No one lights a lamp and then puts it under a basket. Instead, a lamp is placed on a stand, where it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your good deeds shine out for all to see, so that everyone will praise your heavenly Father.”Matthew 5:14-16 NLT
In 590 AD, an Irish monk named Columbanus sailed to what is now France with a team of twelve followers. He founded multiple monasteries which became places of learning and prayer and scripture. One of his followers, Gallus, went off on his own and founded a monastery in Switzerland that grew into a whole city.
What was the main thing these Irish monks brought to the Dark Ages of Western Europe? The light of the Word of God.
The Word gave life to everything that was created, and his life brought light to everyone. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness can never extinguish it.John 1:4-5 NLT
Maybe you are so far removed from mainstream society that you feel you have absolutely zero significance. Perhaps you feel that someone with your background or economic status could never do anything meaningful. It may seem that your entire life has been spent on the sidelines and you have no possibility of ever being a player.
If any of those statements hit home for you, please think about what an amazing thing God did with these Irish monks. The fact that they were so far removed from anywhere that counted meant their libraries were spared destruction. Their humble status kept them safe in their travel when they decided to follow the Lord’s call to mainland Europe. Their time on the sidelines put them in the perfect position for God to make them his Most Valuable Players for the Enlightenment of the western world.
Could He not use you in the same way?
Questions for Group Discussion
- Do you think these Irish monks really did save western civilization? Is that an overstatement? If so, why?
- How do you think the Irish monks mentioned were viewed by the rest of society? Were they popular? How do you think they might be received today?
- Do you ever feel sidelined or insignificant? Does this disqualify you for serving God?
Challenge: Go Bragh or Go Home
Okay, you don’t actually have to ‘go home’ if you decide not to take this challenge. But it sure makes for a catchy title. Doesn’t it?
Here’s your challenge: Learn more about this story of Irish monks saving western civilization.
Here are some questions you might want to answer in your research:
- Who were the most prominent Irish monks in this scenario? We mentioned Columbanus and Gallus. Were there more? If so, what was their part?
- What was the situation in western Europe during the time of these monks? Who were the Goths, and how did they set about destroying Greek & Roman culture? How much progress did they make toward that end?
- What motivated these monks to head west and found monasteries? Were they strictly obeying God’s calling, or were there other factors involved?
As you research the topic, pay attention to the sources of your information. If an article seems embellished or romanticised, it probably is.
Have fun digging deeper into this ‘enlightening’ story!
O’Sullivan, Domhnall. “Gallus and the Irish Monks: Grandfathers of European Culture?” SWI Swissinfo.ch, 26 Jan. 2021, https://www.swissinfo.ch/eng/business/religious-odyssey_gallus-and-the-irish-monks-grandfathers-of-european-culture-/43813106
“Columbanus.” Monastic Ireland, 26 Jan. 2021, http://www.monasticireland.com/storiesofsaints/columbanus.htm
“St. Columbanus.” Catholic Online, 26 Jan. 2021, https://www.catholic.org/saints/saint.pho?saint_id=883