Isle of saints

Isle of saints

In Brief

In Proteus Stephen thinks, "Isle of Saints," and in Cyclops the Citizen exclaims, "Island of saints and sages!" They are voicing a common Irish expression that recalls the early medieval times when Irish monks like Columbanus brought Christian spirituality and learning to Europe after the collapse of the Roman empire. The phrase also evokes the title of a lecture, "Ireland, Island of Saints and Sages," that James Joyce delivered in 1907 at the Università Popolare in Trieste, introducing to Italians the notion that his island once housed a great civilization.

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In the talk, Joyce observed that Irish people cling to the phrase because "Nations have their ego, just like individuals." The spiritual character of Ireland was established long before the arrival of Christianity: "The Druid priests had their temples in the open, and worshipped the sun and moon in groves of oak trees. In the crude state of knowledge of those times, the Irish priests were considered very learned, and when Plutarch mentions Ireland, he says that it was the dwelling place of holy men. Festus Avienus in the fourth century was the first to give Ireland the title of Insula Sacra; and later, after having undergone the invasions of the Spanish and Gaelic tribes, it was converted to Christianity by St. Patrick and his followers, and again earned the title of 'Holy Isle'."

In the Christian era, the druids' highly learned priesthood gave way to monastic scholarship that kept the intellectual traditions of the West alive through the Dark Ages: "It seems undeniable that Ireland at that time was an immense seminary, where scholars gathered from the different countries of Europe, so great was its renown for mastery of spiritual matters." Joyce stresses that he is not speaking of Christianity for its own sake, but because in those days it sheltered and fostered learning, art, and spirituality: "in the centuries in which they occurred and in all the succeeding Middle Ages, not only history itself, but the sciences and the various arts were all completely religious in character, under the guardianship of a more than maternal church."

The relentless Viking invasions of the 9th and 10th centuries weakened this civilization, and the Anglo-Norman invasions of the 12th century sealed its fate: "Ireland ceased to be an intellectual force in Europe. The decorative arts, at which the ancient Irish excelled, were abandoned, and the sacred and profane culture fell into disuse." Eight centuries of colonial capitulation and degradation followed, with the result that "the present race in Ireland is backward and inferior." "Ancient Ireland is dead just as ancient Egypt is dead."

But the Irish genius has remained alive throughout that time, Irish industry and ingenuity have flourished in foreign countries, and Irish valor has won Britain's wars. "Is this country destined to resume its ancient position as the Hellas of the north some day? Is the Celtic mind, like the Slavic mind which it resembles in many ways, destined to enrich the civil conscience with new discoveries and new insights in the future? Or must the Celtic world, the five Celtic nations, driven by stronger nations to the edge of the continent, to the outermost islands of Europe, finally be cast into the ocean after a struggle of centuries?"

Joyce acknowledges that he cannot answer these questions. But "even a superficial consideration will show us that the Irish nation's insistence on developing its own culture by itself is not so much the demand of a young nation that wants to make good in the European concert as the demand of a very old nation to renew under new forms the glories of a past civilization."

JH 2015
Map of pre-Norman Ireland, frontispiece to the Rev. John Healy's Insula Sanctorum et Doctorum, or Ireland's Ancient Schools and Scholars (Dublin and London, 1912). Red underlinings show centers of monastic learning. Source:
Folio 29r, the Incipit to the Gospel of Matthew, in the Book of Kells held in the library of Trinity College, Dublin. Source: Wikimedia Commons.