Aran, the MONASTIC SCHOOL OF. —The three islands of Aran stretch across the mouth of Galway Bay, forming a kind of natural breakwater against the Atlantic Ocean. The largest of the three, called Aran Mor, is about nine miles in length, and little more than one in average breadth. The bluish-grey limestone of which it is entirely composed is as hard as marble and takes a fine polish. In many places it is quite bare; in others the sandy soil affords a precarious sustenance for more than three thousand people who dwell upon the island, and largely supplement the produce of their arid fields by the harvest of the stormy seas around their island home, to which they cling in good or bad times with a passionate love. During three hundred years, from about 500 to 800, Aran Mor and its sister islands were a famous center of sanctity and learning, which attracted holy men from all parts of Ireland to study the science of the saints in this remote school of the West. Before the arrival of St. Enda, Aran Mor and the neighboring islands had long been occupied by a remnant of the ancient Firbolg race, who, driven from the mainland, built themselves rude fortresses in the strongest points of the islands, the barbaric ruins of which still excite wonder. Their descendants were still pagans at the close of the fifth century, when St. Enda first dared to land upon their shores, seeking, like so many of the saints of his time, “a desert in the ocean”. The inhabitants of the islands at this time were the remnants of a great prehistoric people, whose works, even in their ruins, will outlive the monuments of later and more civilized peoples. Side by side with these magnificent remains of pagan architecture are now to be seen the remains of the churches and cells of Enda and his followers, making the Isles of Aran the most holy, as they are the most interesting spots, within the wide bounds of Britain’s insular empire.
Tradition tells us that Enda came first across the North Sound from Garomna Island on the coast of Connemara, and landed in the little bay at Aran Mor under the village of Killeany, to which he has given his name, and near which he founded his first monastery. The fame of his austere sanctity soon spread throughout Erin, and attracted religious men from all parts of the country. Amongst the first who came to visit Enda’s island sanctuary was the celebrated St. Brendan—the Navigator, as he is called—who was then revolving in his mind his great project of discovering the promised land beyond the western main. He came to consult Enda, and seek his blessing for the prosperous execution of his daring purpose. Thither, too, came Finnian of Clonard, himself the “Tutor of the Saints of Erin”, to drink in heavenly wisdom from the lips of blessed Enda, for Enda seems to have been the senior of all these saints of the second order, and he was loved and reverenced by them all as a father. Clonard was a great college, but Aran of Enda was the greatest sanctuary and nursery of holiness throughout all the “land of Erin”. Here, also, we find Columcille, who had not yet quite schooled his fiery spirit to the patient endurance of injustice or insult. He came in his currach, with the scholar’s belt and book-satchel, to learn divine wisdom in this remote school of the sea. He took his turn at grinding the corn, and herding the sheep, and fishing in the bay; he studied the Latin version of the Scriptures, and learned from Enda’s lips the virtues of a true monk as practiced by the saints and Fathers of the desert, and he saw it exemplified in the daily life and godly conversation of the blessed Enda himself, and of the holy companions who shared his studies and his labors. Reluctantly did Columcille leave the sacred isle; and we know, from a poem which he has left, how dearly he loved Aran Mor, and how bitterly he sorrowed when the “Son of God” called him away from that beloved island to preach beyond the seas. He calls it “Aran, the Sun of all the West”, another pilgrims’ Rome, under whose pure earth he would as soon be buried as nigh to the graves of Saints Peter and Paul. With Columcille at Aran was also the gentle Ciaran, the “carpenter’s son”, and the best beloved of all the disciples of Enda. And when Ciaran, too, was called away by God to found his own great monastery by the banks of the Shannon, we are told that Enda and his monks came with him down to the beach, whilst their eyes were dim with tears and sorrow filled their hearts. And the young and gentle Ciaran, having got his abbot’s blessing, entered his currach and sailed away for the mainland. There is indeed hardly a single one of the saints of the second order—called the Twelve Apostles of Erin—who did not spend some time in Aran. It was for them the novitiate of their religious life. St. Jarlath of Tuam, nearly as old as Enda himself; St. Carthach the Elder of Lismore; the two Sts. Jervis of Glendalough, two brothers; St. MacCreiche of Corcomore; St. Lonan Kerr, St. Nechan, St. Guigneus, St. Papeus, St. Libeus, brother of St. Enda—all these were there.
Enda divided Aran Mor into two parts; one half to be assigned to his own monastery of Killeany; the other, or western half, to such of his disciples as chose “to erect permanent religious houses on the island”. This, however, seems to have been a later arrangement. At first it is said that he had 150 disciples under his own care, but when the establishment greatly increased in numbers, he divided the whole island into ten parts, each having its own religious house and its own superior, while he himself retained a general superintendence over them all. The existing remains prove conclusively that there must have been several distinct monasteries on the island, for we find separate groups of ruins at Killeany, at Kilronan, at Kilmurvey, and further west at the “Seven Churches”. The islanders still retain many vivid and interesting traditions of the saints and their churches. Fortunately, too, we have in the surviving stones and inscriptions other aids to confirm these traditions, and identify the founders and patrons of the existing ruins. The life of Enda and his monks was very frugal and austere. The day was divided into fixed periods for prayer, labor, and sacred study. Each community had its own church, and its village of stone cells, in which they slept either on the bare ground or on a bundle of straw covered with a rug, but always in the clothes worn by day. They assembled for their daily devotions in the church or oratory of the saint under whose immediate care they were placed; silently they took in a common refectory their frugal meals, which were cooked in a common kitchen, for they had no fires in their doghauns or stone cells, however cold the weather or wild the seas. They invariably carried out the monastic rule of procuring their own food and clothing by the labors of their hands. Some fished around the islands; others cultivated patches of oats or barley in sheltered spots between the rocks. Others ground it or kneaded the meal into bread, and baked it for the use of the brethren. So, in like manner, they spun and wove their own garments from the undyed wool of their own sheep. They could grow no fruit in these storm-swept islands; they drank neither wine nor mead, and they had no flesh meat, except perhaps a little for the sick. Sometimes, on the high festivals, or when guests of distinction came on pilgrimage to the island, one of their tiny sheep was killed, and the brethren were allowed to share—if they chose—in the good things provided for the visitors. Enda himself never tasted flesh meat, and we have reason to believe that many of the monks followed their abbot’s example in this as in other respects. Aran was not a school of secular, but of sacred learning. The study of the Scriptures was the great business of its schools and scholars. They set small store indeed on points of minute criticism, their first object being to make themselves familiar with the language of the sacred volume, to meditate on its meaning, and apply it in the guidance of their daily lives.