Saint Máel Ruain and The Céli Dé
July 7 is the Commemoration of Saint Máel Ruain.
“Saint Máel Ruain died 792) was founder and abbot-bishop of the monastery of Tallaght (Co. Dublin, Ireland). He is often considered to be a leading figure of the monastic ‘movement’ that has become known to scholarship as the Céli Dé. He is not to be confused with the later namesake Máel Ruain, bishop of Lusca (Co. Dublin).
Little is known of his life. Máel Ruain is not his personal name bestowed at birth or baptism, but his monastic name, composed of Old Irish máel (“one who is tonsured”) and Ruain (“of Rúadán”), which may mean that he was a monk of St. Rúadán’s monastery in Lothra (north Co. Tipperary). Though his background and early career remain obscure, he is commonly credited with the foundation of the monastery of Tallaght, sometimes called “Máel Ruain’s Tallaght”, in the latter half of the 8th century. This may be supported by an entry for 10 August in the Martyrology of Tallaght, which notes that Máel Ruain came to Tallaght carrying with him “relics of the holy martyrs and virgins” (cum suis reliquiis sanctorum martirum et uirginum), apparently with an eye to founding his house. There is at any rate no evidence for a religious establishment at Tallaght prior to Máel Ruain’s arrival and although Tamlachtae, the Old Irish name for Tallaght, refers to a burial ground, it was not yet the rule for cemeteries to be located adjacent to a church. Precise details of the circumstances are unknown. A line in the Book of Leinster has been read as saying that in 774 the monk obtained the land at Tallaght from the Leinster king Cellach mac Dúnchada (d. 776), who came from the Uí Dúnchada sept of the Uí Dúnlainge branch of the Laigin, but there is no contemporary authority from the annals to support the statement. In the Martyrology of Tallaght and the entries for his death in the Irish annals (see below), he is styled a bishop.
The best known disciple of Máel Ruain’s community was Óengus the Culdee, the author of the Félire Óengusso, a versified martyrology or calendar commemorating the feasts of Irish and non-Irish saints, and possibly also of the earlier prose version, the Martyrology of Tallaght. In his epilogue to the Félire Óengusso, written sometime after Máel Ruain’s death, Óengus shows himself much indebted to his “tutor” (aite), whom he remembers elsewhere as “the great sun on Meath’s south plain” (grían már desmaig Midi). In the early ninth century, Tallaght also seems to have produced the so-called Old Irish Penitential.
Although liturgical concerns are evident in the two martyrologies, there is no strictly contemporary evidence for Máel Ruain’s own monastic principles and practices. Evidence for his teachings and their influence comes chiefly by way of a number of 9th-century writings associated with the Tallaght community known collectively as the ‘Tallaght memoir’. One of the principal texts is The Monastery of Tallaght (9th century), which claims to list the precepts and habits of Máel Ruain and some of his associates, apparently as remembered by his follower Máel Díthruib of Terryglass. Much of the text survives in a 15th-century manuscript, RIA MS 1227 (olim MS 3 B 23), and in the 17th century, an Early Modern Irish paraphrase was produced now referred to as The Teaching of Máel Ruain. Of less certain origin is the text known as the Rule of Céli Dé, which is preserved in the Leabhar Breac (15th century) and contains various instructions for the regulation and observance of monastic life, notably in liturgical matters. It is ascribed to both Óengus and Máel Ruain, but the text in its present form is a prose rendering from the original verse, possibly written in the 9th century by one of his community. These works of guidance appear to have been modelled on the sayings of the Desert Fathers of Egypt, in particular the Conferences of John Cassian. Typical concerns in them include the importance of daily recitation of the Psalter, of self-restraint and forbearance from indulgences in bodily desires and of separation from worldly concerns. Against the practices of earlier Irish monastic movements, Máel Ruain is cited as forbidding his monks to go on an overseas pilgrimage, preferring instead to foster communal life in the monastery.
Along with his disciple Aengus, Maelruain is regarded as joint author of The Rule of the Céilí Dé.
Máel Ruain’s reputation as a teacher whose influence on the monastic world extended beyond the confines of the cloister walls is further suggested by the later tract Lucht Óentad Máele Ruain (“Folk of the Unity of Máel Ruain”), which enumerates the twelve most prominent associates who embraced his teachings. They are said to include Óengus, Máel Díthruib of Terryglass, Fedelmid mac Crimthainn, king of Cashel, Diarmait ua hÁedo Róin of Castledermot (Co. Kildare) and Dímmán of Araid.
The Annals of Ulster report under the year 792 that Máel Ruain died a peaceful death, calling him a bishop (episcopus) and soldier of Christ (miles Christi). In the Annals of the Four Masters, however, in which he is also styled “bishop”, his death is assigned, probably incorrectly, to the year 787. His feast in the Martyrology of Tallaght and Félire Óengusso is on July 7. He was succeeded as abbot of Tallaght by Airerán.
“St Maelruain was the leader of the Céilí Dé, a reform movement aimed at restoring purity and austerity to Irish monasticism which had become somewhat undisciplined by the 8th century. Maelruain founded a monastery at Tallaght, in south Co Dublin. The image is of the Martyrology of Tallaght (Ms A3), a list of the names of saints and their feasts attributed to St Maelruain and his disciple St Aengus and read at their community Mass. Patrick Duffy explains the context in which Maelruain and the Céilí Dé lived.
A monastery at Tallaght
Little is know of the early life of Maelruain. Probably he was born in the Lorrha neighbourhood of north Tipperary in 720. In 755 he founded a monastery at Tallaght in south Co Dublin on land given by Cellach mac Dunchada, King of Leinster. He is associated with the monastic reform movement begun in the eighth century known as the Céilí Dé or Culdees. In both the Annals of Ulster and the Annals of the Four Masters, Maelruain is referred to as a “bishop”, but this terminology may reflect the Church structure of the later time of writing.
Céilí Dé probably means the ‘companions’ or ‘intimates’ of God – by analogy, for example, with bean chéile (‘wife’) or fear céile (‘husband’).
Why a reform movement?
Irish monasteries had become lax by the eighth century, possibly as a result of too much going abroad and an overemphasis on the peregrinatio pro Christo (or ‘pilgrimage for Christ’) movement to the continent begun by Saints Colmcille and Columban in the late sixth century. The fact that many monks felt called to go into wandering exile on the continent may have caused the internal discipline of the monasteries to break down somewhat.
A strong ascetical component
Maelruain’s reform at Tallaght was severe. It put more emphasis on preserving the enclosure and keeping the monks from sin than on the missionary dimension. There was a strong ascetical component, strong spiritual direction, frequent confession, as well as long fasts and harsh penances, such as standing in cold water for long periods to control the flesh.
The Rule of the Céilí Dé
Along with his disciple Aengus, Maelruain is regarded as joint author of The Rule of the Céilí Dé. A copy is preserved in the library of the Royal Irish Academy. The 19th century Celtic scholar Eoghan O’Curry says of this: “It contains a minute series of rules for the regulation of the lives of the Céilí Dé, their prayers, their preachings, their conversations, their confessions, their communions, their ablutions, their fastings, their abstinences, their relaxations, their sleep, their celebrations of the Mass, and so forth”.
Liturgy and manual work
The monks came together for a liturgical cycle of prayer, chanting psalms. There was also devotion to Our Lady and Michael the archangel. Mass was celebrated on Sundays, Thursdays and on great feasts. The monks received the consecrated bread, but not the consecrated wine. A litany of the names of the saints (The Martyrology of Tallaght) was read at every Mass. Intellectual and manual work were also valued as part of the monastery routine.
Spread of the movement
Besides Aengus, another disciple of Maelruain called Moling made a foundation similar to the Céilí Dé on the river Barrow at St Mullins in Co Carlow. Moling also became a figure of influence in the Ferns area. Other monasteries of the Céilí Dé movement were founded at Finglas, Clonenagh, Terryglass and Dairinis near Lismore. The Culdees also spread to Wales and Scotland where they survived into medieval times.”