The Monastic Settlement of Mayo of the Saxons

From Mayo Abbey Parish Magazine 1994

Northumbrian Origins

The explanation for the foundation of a monastery for a community of Saxon monks in 668 A.D. by St. Colman in the centre of the Plains of Mayo in the West of Ireland, is not to be found locally, but in the ancient Kingdom of Northumbria in the north east of England.

In today's terms, Northumbria's domain stretched from southern Scotland to the southern borders of Yorkshire.

During the sixth century it was over-run by pagan tribes of Saxons and Angles from northern Germany.

At the same time St. Columcille established the Celtic Church in Iona (563 A.D.), which quickly spread it's influence into Scotland.

In the year 635 A.D. the King of Northumbria, Oswald, requested the monks of Iona to send a missionary to convert his subjects to Christianity.

Aiden was chosen for the task. He established a monastery at Lindisfarne, a tidal island in the shadow of the King's castle at Bamburgh. Aiden's mission was very successful and his work was continued by his successor, Finan. In 660 A.D. Colman was appointed as Bishop - Abbot of Lindisfarne.

The Synod of Whitby

While the Ionian "Celtic Church" evangelised Scotland and Northumbria, St. Augustin had converted southern England to the more modern "Roman Church".

His successors moved northwards into Northumbria to preach the Gospel to the pagan Saxons. The two missionary groups were so successful in attracting converts to their respective religious beliefs, that the whole area became known as "The Cradle of Christianity" throughout Britain.

There were differences in structures and practices between the two traditions, but there was no fundamental difference of Faith.

They worked in harmony for a time, but disputes arose between them over several issues, particularly the method of calculating the time for the celebration of Easter.

This dispute reached a head when King Oswy of Northumbria married Queen Eanfled, an Angle who followed the Roman tradition.

The consequence of this was that as the King celebrated Easter, his Queen observed the fast of Palm Sunday on the same day.

A Synod was convened at Whitby in 664 A.D. to settle the dispute, which was presided over by the Abbess, Hilda. Colman pleaded the case for the Celtic tradition, while Wilfrid stated the case for Rome. The outcome was that the Synod decided in favour of the Roman tradition.

Colman would not accept the decision of the Synod. Refusing to abandon the practice of "The Saintly Elders of the Irish Church", he resigned as Bishop of Lindisfarne.

Accompanied by thirty Saxon monks and others of Irish extraction from the island monastery, he retreated to Iona, taking with them half the bones and relics of St. Aiden.

After two years of prayer and reflection, they set sail for Innisboffin, (an island off the West coast of Galway). Here, Colman built a monastery in the townland of Knock.

The Saxon monks were industrious, and during the Spring and Summer they tilled the land and grew the corn necessary for the survival of the community.

Meanwhile, the Irish visited their kinsfolk on the mainland, and returning to the island in Winter, they helped to consume the fruits of the Saxons' labours. This situation inevitably led to unbearable tensions within the community.

Consequently, in 668 A.D. Colman came onto the mainland seeking a site to settle the Saxons. He travelled inland, to an area known in Gaelic as "Mag nEo" (MAYO) - The Plain of the Yew Trees, where he negotiated with the local Chieftain and was granted a site for a monastic settlement.

Colman may have been drawn to Mayo because of the presence of his former pupil, Gerald, in nearby Rosslea. He appointed him Bishop-Abbot of his new foundation, and then returned to Innisboffin, where he died in 674 A.D.

Saint Gerald

The circumstances of Gerald's arrival at Mayo are not very clear. It is thought that he preceded, rather than accompanied or followed Colman to Ireland. He was the son of Prince Cuspirius and Queen Benetia of Northumbria. Gerald, later to become Bishop of Winton, and his three older brothers had been educated by Colman at Lindisfarne.

They were angered at the way he was treated by the authorities at Whitby, and subsequently they too decided to leave Northumbria. They overwintered on The Isle of Skye, and then travelled to the West coast of Ireland. They are reputed to have been accompanied by several thousand Picts, but this is far from certain.

It is thought that Gerald landed at Westport, moved inland, and built a convent for his sister, Segretia, at "Elitheria". This is reputed to be Rosslea (meaning "Pilgrims' Home" in Gaelic), which is situated in the western part of the modern parish of Mayo.

Beside this he built a monastery for his monks, which was the common practice in Northumbria at the time. However, the community was virtually wiped out soon afterwards, when more than one hundred nuns and fifty monks died of the yellow plague which then raged in Ireland and Wales.

Mayo of the Saxons

The monastery at Mag nEo quickly grew under Gerald's direction and soon became known as Mag nEo na Sachsan(Mayo of the Saxons). By the year 700 A.D. more than one hundred monks lived and taught there. It became a famous seat of learning which attracted many thousands of students from various parts of Britain, including many sons of the nobility.

It remained an English establishment for several centuries andit's importance and size is recorded in many a chronical of that time. The most important of these was the Ecclesiastical History of the English People,written by The Venerable Bede of Jarrow.

The Town of Mayo

The monastery's importance was enhanced when it became a diocese after the Synod of Kells in 1152. AD. A Norman town was founded there, and an Augustinian abbey was built c.1400, ruins of which are still visible today.

The town was of such sufficient size and importance at the end of the sixteenth century that it gave it's name to County Mayo, during the composition of Connacht carried out by Sir Henry Sidney in 1595. In 1617 the Abbey was sacked and it's lands were confiscated by the Crown. The Diocese was finally merged into Tuam in 1630.

Mass continued to be celebrated for the people of the area in the ruins of the monastery during the Penal period, chiefly by Franciscan priests from Galway. Some time after The Catholic Emancipation Acts in the early nineteenth century, the people of the parish of Mayo and Rosslea built a church at the site of the Abbey, reusing much of the stone from the ruin.

This was opened in 1845, in the midst of the Great Famine, and was dedicated to St. Colman. It served the community until 1978, when it was replaced by a modern structure in the village.

by Joe Brett