The following text is from the pages 176 to 180, get the book “Celtic Church in Britain”

by Hardinge. Bibliography included.




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

hereditary right".(28)

     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

provided that:


     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.




     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

     Martin were.(44)


     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).