The following text is from the pages 176 to 180, get the book “Celtic Church in Britain”
by Hardinge. Bibliography included.
THE HEREDITARY LEADERS
The founder or holy man to whom the original grant of land had
been made was called the patron saint of the monastery or Christian
community. The importance of his position can hardly be
exaggerated. A gloss of the law tract Succession thus eulogized this
person and office. He is one(24)
who is the noblest; who is the highest;
who is the wealthiest; the shrewdest; the wisest; who is popular as
to compurgation; who is most powerful to sue; the most firm to sue
for profits and losses. And: every body defends its members, if a
goodly body, well-deeded, well-moralled, affluent, capable. The body
of each is his tribe. There is no body without a head.
That this description applies with equal force to the leader
of "the tribe of the church" is corroborated by the Cain
The leader of the Christian settlement originally possessed
the land, buildings, and the right of succession, which depended
upon him and the tribe to which he belonged. Not only in Ireland
but also in Wales abbatal tenancy was hereditary.(26) This tribal and
hereditary occupancy was not solely of Celtic origin among Celtic
Christians, it also had its authorization in the Liber ex Lege
Moisi. Priests were chosen only from the tribe of Levi, and
especially from the family of Aaron, and succeeded their fathers
to holy office, and also to the possession of the sacred cities
with their suburbs. This certainly looks like the authority for
the Celtic Christians to continue the hereditary succession of
druid and Brehon in their own Christian communities. But while
hereditary laws applied, this did not preclude the aspiring
Brehon's fitting himself for his task through study. The
Christianized laws provided for almost every eventuality to
ensure that a suitable successor be selected for the leadership
of each community.
The simplest application of this regulation of hereditary
succession was to a suitable son of the original founder-abbot,
as is evidenced by this couplet from the law tracts:
The successor should be
The son of the abbot in the pleasant church
A fact established by sense.(27)
This successor was called a "coarb". Later hagiographers
went to great lengths to establish him as the "heir" of the
This enabled all the wealth and prestige of the monastery to
remain in the property of the heir. After the Viking period he
was called the "erenach" or airchinnech. Giraldus Cambrensis
noted that "the sons, after the deaths of their fathers,
succeeded to the ecclesiastical benefice, not by election, but by
Should the abbot have no son, or be a "virgin abbot", a
suitable person was to be chosen from "the tribe of the patron
saint who shall succeed to the church as long as there shall be a
person fit to be an abbot of the said tribe of the patron saint;
even though there should be but a psalm-singer of them, it is he
that will obtain the abbacy".(29) Coemgen "ordained that the erenagh
in his church should be habitually of the children and posterity
of Dimma".(30) But should neither the son of the abbot nor a suitable
person from the tribe of the saint be forthcoming, the law
provided for a third source:
Whenever there is not one of that tribe fit to be an abbot,
it [the abbacy] is to be given to the tribe to whom the land
belongs, until a person fit to be an abbot of the tribe of
the patron saint, shall be qualified; and when he is, it
[the abbacy] is to be given to him, if he be better than the
abbot of the tribe to whom the land belongs, and who has
taken it. If he [the former] is not better, it is only in
his turn he shall succeed.(31)
It occasionally happened that junior members of "the tribe
of the church" obtained grants of land on their own behalf in the
neighbourhood, and set up subsidiary communities of Christian
believers. These were regarded as extensions of the original
church or monastery. On some occasions a foster-son of the Church
settled with a few companions at a little distance, or perhaps
even across the sea. All these ancillary houses were regarded as
being legally bound to the original settlement of the patron
saint and were under the jurisdiction of his "heirs". The law
If a person fit to be an abbot has not come of the tribe of
the patron saint, or of the tribe to whom the land belongs,
the abbacy is to be given to one of the fine-manach class
until a person fit to be an abbot, of the tribe of the
patron saint, or of the tribe to whom the land belongs,
should be qualified; and when there is such a person, the
abbacy is to be given to him in case he is better.(32)
The term fine-manach grade described an inferior member of
the "tribe of the church" who was a tenant on the ecclesiastical
lands; or it might also indicate members of the Church who had
established places for themselves, or it might even include the
"people who give the church valuable goods".(33) The law took care of
all eventualities thus:
If a person fit to be an abbot has not come of the tribe of
the patron saint, or of the tribe of the grantor of the
land, or of the manach class, the "anoint" church shall
receive it, in the fourth place; a dalta church shall
receive it in the fifth place; a compairche church shall
obtain it in the sixth place; a neighbouring till church
shall obtain it in the seventh place.(34)
The "anoint" church was the one in which the patron saint
had been educated, or in which he had been buried. The dalta
church was one established by a foster-son or pupil in the
monastic settlement. A compairche church was one under the
jurisdiction of the patron saint, but situated at some distance.
A neighbouring church was one which, though not under the
authority of the patron saint, was simply located at a not too
great distance from it.
Should all these sources prove unavailing, the monks were to
select a suitable person from among the "pilgrims"(35) who had
sought sanctuary or hospitality among them, or even a responsible
layman might temporarily rule until he found some one more
suitable.(36) This practice gave rise to many anomalies through the
centuries. The coarbs were not always bishops nor even priests.
In Kildare they were always females. There is also a record
of a female coarb of St Patrick at Armagh. The one who inherited
the rights of the patron saint was a chieftain of considerable
power in the ecclesiastical community. The Annals contain a
nearly complete list of the abbots or coarbs, but do not indicate
successive bishops, who were more often than not in subjection to
the coarb-abbot, and who did not succeed one another. The names
in the Annals of the successors of Patrick are often called
abbots, while some are called bishops as well as abbots, and
others are styled simply bishops, and still others merely coarbs
of St Patrick. Nothing in this last title shows whether he was a
bishop or not. It is therefore well nigh impossible to trace
episcopal succession in Armagh. The coarbs of Patrick might be
bishop, priest, layman, or even a woman.(37) In the eleventh century
this anomalous situation still existed in Ireland. Bernard wrote
There had been introduced by the diabolical ambition of
certain people of rank a scandalous usage whereby the Holy
See [Armagh] came to be obtained by heritary succession. For
they would allow no person to be promoted to the bishoprick
except such as were of their own tribe and family. Nor was
it for any short period that this succession had continued,
nearly fifteen generations having been already exhausted in
this course of iniquity.(38)
Before the time of Celsus eight of these coarbs had been
married men. After Malachy had been elected to office by the
Roman party, he strove to bring Armagh and its succession into
line with canonical practice.
MEN, WOMEN, FAMILIES
The composition of the early Celtic monastic household may
be discovered from the sources. The Catalogue of the Saints of
Ireland recorded that the original Christians, who were drawn to
the faith by Patrick and his successors, were "all bishops, ...
founders of churches ... They rejected not the services and
society of women, because, founded on the rock Christ, they
feared not the blast of temptation. This order of saints
continued for four reigns,(39) that is, to 5. T. Olden long ago
strove to establish that this introduction of women into monastic
households was as consorts or spiritual wives.(40) It would seem
less far-fetched to suggest that at the initial stage celibacy
was not enforced. Communities of men and women living together as
families were more likely in vogue. S. H. Sayce pointed this out
when he wrote: "As in Egypt so in the Celtic Church the
monasterium or collegium was an assemblage of huts in which the
monks, both cleric and lay, lived with their wives and families."(41)
In the Irish laws provisions covering the various members of
the monastic family are found. They recognized "virgin" and
married clerics of all grades, even lay recluses:
There is a virgin bishop ... the virgin priest ... a bishop
of one wife(42) ... a virgin clerical student ... a clerical
student of one wife(43) ... a lay recluse ... of virginity ...
lay recluses who are without virginity, if they be beloved
of God, and their works great, if their miracles are as
numerous, or if they are more numerous, in the same way that
Peter and Paul were to John, and in the same way Anthony and
So there were evidently in Irish ecclesiastical
"virgin bishops", "virgin priests", "virgin abbots", and "virgin
clerical students", besides "virgin lay recluses". There were
also apparently married bishops, priests, abbots, clerical
students, and lay recluses. A comparison of the status enjoyed by
the "virgin" and married persons shows that virginity was held to
be superior. But being the "husband of one wife" did not debar a
man from any clerical office, not even that of recluse. In fact
the law goes out of its way to protect from censure or contempt
"lay recluses who are without virginity if they be beloved of
God". And so the writers of the "Lives" noted that the steward of
Cadoc had a daughter,(45) while Cadoc himself had a "son-in-law",(46)
and his father a "monastery".(47) The laws deplored "the son of a
religious without an hour for his order".(48)
24. ALI IV, 375.
25. ALI II, 279-381.
26. Life of Samson, xvi.
27. ALI IV, 383.
28. Giraldus Cambrensis, Gemma Ecclesiastica, Disert. II, 22; cf. H.C. Lea, History of Sacerdotal Celibacy I, 347, 360-4.
29. ALI III, 73.
30. LSBL, 11. 815-18.
31. ALI III, 73-9.
32. ALI III, 73.
33. ALI II, 345.
34. ALI III, 75.
35. AFM, 437, 441.
36. TLP I, 69.
37. For a discussion of this topic see W.H. Todd, St Patrick, 171-2, and W. Reeves, Ecclesiastical Antiquities, 136.
38. Life of Malachy, 45.
39. Skene, Scotland II, 12, 13.
40. T. Olden, “On the sonsortia of the first order of Irish saints”, PRIA, 3rd Series, II, no. 3 (1894), 415-20.
41. A.H. Sayce, “The Indebtedness of Celtic Christianity to Egypt”, Scottish Ecclesiological Society Transactions III (1912), 257; cf. H.C. Lea, History of Sacerdotal Celibacy I, 96; II, 316.
42. ALI IV, 363-5.
43. ALI IV, 369.
44. ALI IV, 367.
45. LCBS, 343.
46. LCBS, 348.
47. LCBS, 356.
48. ALI III, 63.
Relevant abbreviations: ALI (Ancient Laws of Ireland, ed. Hancock), LSBL (Lives of the Saints from the Book of Lismore, see WS), AFM (Annals of the Four Masters, ed. O’Donovan), TLP (The Tripartite life of Patrick, ed. WS), WS (Whiteley Stokes), LCBS (Lives of the Cambro British Saints, Rees).