Exploring medieval Ireland

Colmán Ó Clabaigh, O.S.B., a Benedictine monk of Glenstal Abbey, Co. Limerick, is spending the spring semester at Boston College as the Burns Library Visiting Scholar in Irish Studies. A specialist in the history of monasticism and religion in late medieval Ireland, Brother Colmán has written, edited and co-authored numerous publications, and his monograph, The Friars in Ireland, 1224-1500 (Dublin, 2012), was awarded the 2013 National University of Ireland Prize for Irish Historical Research. In addition to conducting research at Burns Library, Brother Colmán is teaching Religion and Society in Ireland, c. 1215 to c. 1526, in the History Department. 

What appealed to you about coming to Boston College as the Burns Visiting Scholar?
Boston College was not an unknown quantity for me. I was certainly aware of its reputation, and I’d met faculty members like [Center for Irish Programs Director] Oliver Rafferty, S.J., [Seelig Professor of Philosophy] Richard Kearney and [Joseph Professor of Catholic Systematic Theology] Richard Gaillardetz, so this gave me a better sense of the place.

The biggest attraction for me was having the time and space to devote to my research. I thought this would be a wonderful opportunity to work on a project that’s been bubbling in my mind for a long time, and that’s what it has been. The resources at Burns Library are phenomenal.

Colmán Ó Clabaigh, OSB
Burns Library Visiting Scholar in Irish Studies Colmán Ó Clabaigh, O.S.B. (Lee Pellegrini)

Talk about this project a little. What materials at Burns have been helpful to your research?
I’m doing a study of how religion influenced the everyday lives of people in medieval Ireland. This includes life events like birth, baptism and churching and attitudes on sexuality, marriage, the eucharist and the priesthood. I’m also looking at the Church in the everyday landscape, like the cult of the saints – who people prayed to – and pilgrimages, holy wells and church architecture. The project also will consider religion in death and dying, and the notions of afterlife, during that period.

I’ve found lots of materials at Burns, or through its inter-library loan arrangements, that help in illuminating the details of medieval life where religion is concerned. For example, archeological studies give you an indication of burial practices, such as the use of shrouds, or coffins. Another source is people’s wills – to whom or what they left money, and how much.

Yet another interesting source are the lists of relics preserved in medieval churches. For instance, there is the relic of Our Lady’s Girdle, exemplars of which are found all over Europe. The story behind it was that when the Virgin Mary ascended to Heaven, the belt she was wearing fell to earth. The relic was given out to pregnant women about to deliver, so the Virgin Mary would intercede to alleviate the pain of childbirth. Christ Church Cathedral in Dublin had one such relic.

This approach seems to dovetail with the trend toward the more personal, more mundane aspects of history – less about wars, generals and rulers.
Right. For the most part, religious history has been seen in largely institutional terms, so this is a different approach that is gaining in influence among historians.

Along the same lines, you have done a lot of research on monastic life in medieval Ireland, some of which you presented at the Burns Lecture earlier this month. The common perception of monasteries is that they were quiet, austere places, but you note that ethnic rivalry, madness, alcohol abuse and personal ambition were common in these religious communities.
When I first came across this material almost 20 years ago, I was a little taken aback, because as you can imagine this was not a side of the religious life that one had heard much about, at least not in Church circles.

But the point in writing and talking about it is that all of human life is present in the monastery. St. Benedict said the monastery was supposed to be a “household of God,” and of course those who chose the monastic life were engaged in serious contemplation and study. The tensions, conflicts, crimes and misbehavior are realities of human nature that assert themselves in any situation where humans are involved. The same, sadly, is just as true today.

Ultimately, we have to consider the fact that monasteries have been around for centuries, and an overwhelming number of those who chose the religious life have gone on to serve the Church and its people with love and devotion.

Has this research on monastic life caused you to reflect on your own experiences?
I certainly have thought about the parallels between then and now, whether it’s in the terminology used or the various events and activities that characterize monastic life. While there are differences, it’s a matter of basics: What is it like to live with 35 other people in one place, all pursuing a common objective? How do monks and nuns envisage their space and surroundings? What is it that animates their lives?

These are questions that really haven’t been explored much before, and for the answers to be valid, it’s important for those of us who are interested in and familiar with monastic life to use a critical eye and not censor ourselves or our material.

Were you always interested in history?
Yes, I’ve always been fascinated by the past – the farther in the past, the better. If you ask me about World War I or the 1916 Easter Rising, I’d be a bit hard-pressed. But ask me about the Black Death? No problem. As a medievalist friend of mine once put it, where history is concerned, after 1500, it’s all journalism.

Did you ever imagine yourself as being a historian, in the context of a religious life?
If I think about formative experiences that pointed the way, I recall a primary school teacher, Peadar Ó Conaire, I had when I was 10 years old, maybe a little older. He took my class on a field trip to the site of an ancient monastery – magnificent ruins, impressive towers. Hearing him tell the story about the monastery sparked something within me: the idea of living in a special community, and the intimate link with scholarship.

When people ask me why I became a monk or historian the analogy I use is, “How did you know you were going to marry this person?” I had an idea in mind when I was in my teens about being a monk and an historian, but nothing fully formed.
After school, I did in fact join the Franciscan order, but I left at age 20 because I was simply too young for a commitment like that. Eventually, though, the impulse just wouldn’t go and I entered the Benedictine community at Glenstal Abbey at 26. The community there has also been hugely supportive of my work as a historian, for which I’m very grateful.

After being at BC, and in Boston, for two months now, what impressions have you formed?
This university is a very friendly community. The people in Burns Library have been exceptionally helpful, and others in the History Department and Irish Studies Program have reached out to me as well so I feel very much at home.

The biggest attraction for me was having the time and space to devote to my research. I thought this would be a wonderful opportunity to work on a project that’s been bubbling in my mind for a long time, and that’s what it has been. The resources at Burns Library are phenomenal.

Your Burns Lecture presentation, “Fifty Ways to Cleave Your Brother: Mayhem, Mischief & Misfits in Medieval Irish Monasteries,” certainly deserves consideration for “Best Lecture Title.”
Thank you. Unfortunately, my students didn’t get the Paul Simon reference at all. It’s another reminder of the aging process.

By Sean Smith | News and Public Affairs