CathBlog - On being Ciarán

St Ciarán of Clonmacnoise: Feast Day 9th September.

‘May I speak to Joe please’, the young chirpy voice inquired confidently.

‘Joe?’ I queried, ‘I’m sorry I think you have the wrong num–‘

‘It’s for me’ hissed my 11 year old, wrenching the phone from my hand.

I retreated bewildered to the kitchen. Joe? My son’s name isn’t Joe. Where did Joe come from?

All was eventually revealed. Joseph, his second name, had been shortened to Joe for the sake of coolness. He had lived with his first name, Ciarán, and several hundred variations of it for long enough. On a recent holiday camp, he had decided that until further notice he would be ‘Joe’. There is a happy ending. On a subsequent visit to Ireland, he discovered that Ciarán was as usual a Christian name as Joe; people even spelt it right and pronounced it properly!  So he metamorphosed back to his original moniker.

St Ciarán (after whom my son was named) was founder and abbot of the seminal monastery of Clonmacnoise, some would argue the precursor of European style universities. Students and scholars from all over Europe were attracted to its schools. Ciarán, the son of a carpenter, had been taught by the revered Finian of Clonard, as had Columcille, a classmate, the son of a king and mighty chieftain. Another friend and mentor was Enda, also of noble birth, a highly successful warrior until he decided to become a monk and scholar.  Both Columcille and Enda would be pivotal figures in the radical pedagogical theories of Patrick Pearse, who called his highly successful ‘alternative’ school after St Enda.  

In his book, ‘How the Irish saved Civilisation’, Thomas Cahill argues that scholarship and learning and all the accoutrements of civilisation survived the European Dark Ages because of the Irish monastic system, (which included nuns as well as monks). They attracted scholars to their foundations and sent scholars out to make foundations. Out of all these activities grew a particular brand of Christianity – a specifically ‘Celtic spirituality’. There is gentleness, a camaraderie, an easy familiarity with the numinous within Celtic spirituality that is sometimes hard to find in more formal, conventional and legalistic forms of Christianity with its emphases on sin, guilt and retributive justice.  No wonder the Anglo–Roman church did its best to uproot the Celtic version of Church at the Synod of Whitby – ‘a clash of custom and sensibility’ – (Cahill 1995). Fortunately, the Roman Christianity of Augustine, not to mention the Vikings and the English, didn’t quite manage to kill it off. Now Celtic spirituality is quietly making a comeback, offering not just a holistic spirituality but maybe even a more holistic version of being a Church community. The Irish saints and scholars would be pleased!

Elizabeth McKenzieElizabeth McKenzie is editor of the Tinteán magazine of the Australian Irish Heritage Network



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