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The Beginninng

Heritage > History & Archaeology


Mayo Abbey (Mayo of the Saxons) was the result of a dispute that developed within the Catholic Church, between the Celtic Irish church and the Roman Church during the latter part of the seventh century. The Roman Catholic Church of mainland European differed in many ways from the Irish Celtic Church. The most notable of these was the dating of Easter.
Other differences included;
1) The Tonsure; The Roman church shaved the top of the head signifying the crown of thorns. The Celtic church shaved the front of the head back to the ears signifying that they were servants of their master.
2) The Irish clergy saw themselves as servants of God and his people, while the Roman clergy saw themselves as the leaders of society because they were the educated.

The Celtic Columban Church established by Colmcille (Columba), founder of Iona, came into conflict with the Roman Church founded by Augustine when both reached Northumbria. The issue had got to the stage in Northumbria that King Oswiu whose wife Queen Eanfled was of the Roman church that while one royal faction was celebrating Easter, the other would still be fasting during Lent.

To settle the differences King Oswiu of Northumbria called the Synod of Whitby (664).
Bishop Colman spoke for the Scots (i.e. Irish) and said: The Easter which I keep I received from my elders, who sent me hither as bishop; all our forefathers, men beloved of God, are known to have kept it ……., it is the same which St. John the Evangelist, the disciple beloved of our Lord, with all the churches he presided, is recorded to have observed." . . .
Bishop Wilfrid spoke for the Roman practice: " The Easter which we observe we saw, celebrated by all at Rome, where Peter, and Paul, lived, taught, suffered, and were buried ……- I travelled through countries …found Easter celebrated the same time in Africa, Asia, Egypt, Greece,….. except only among these Picts and the Britons, who foolishly, in these two remote islands of the world, and only in part of them, oppose all the rest of the universe……Our Lord said, 'Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give to thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven'?" Then the king asked, "Is it true, Colman, that these words were spoken to Peter by our Lord?" He answered, "It is true, O king!" Then said he, "Can you show any such power given to your Columba?" Colman answered, "None." Then added the king, "Do both of you agree that these words were principally directed to Peter, and that the keys of heaven were given to him by our Lord?' They both answered, We do.", Then the king concluded "And I also say unto you, that he who is the doorkeeper I will not contradict ……lest when I come to the gate of heaven there should be none to open them. All present, both great and small agreed and, resolved to conform to the ruling.

Refusing to accept the ruling Colman returned to Iona and later to the West of Ireland and founded a monastery on Inisboffin. Following a dispute between the Irish and Saxon monks, Colman took the Saxons inland where he came upon a small tract of land which he bought from the nobleman who owned it, who made it a condition of sale that the monks who settled there should pray for him.
This place he called Magh Eo (Plain of the Yew Trees) (c668-70).

The problems on Innisboffin related to the Irish monks travelling inland during the summer months while the Saxons tilled the land on the island. In the autumn the Irish returned having played no part in the harvesting of the crops.
Before returning to Inisboffin, Colman appointed the Garailt (Gerald) son of a Saxon prince as first Abbot of the new monastery. The monastery flourished under Gerald and became known throughout Christian Europe as 'Mayo of the Saxons'. Colman died on Boffin aged 80 on February 18, 675.
('Muigheo Na Sacsan' was conceived as an exclusively Anglo-Saxon monastery.
Although there are other Anglo-Saxon monasteries in the country none are so well documented as 'Muigheo na Sacsan'. )

It is by no means certain what the foundation at Mayo looked like or what area of ground was encompassed within is vallum (enclosure). At the moment it appears that a D-shaped area of 11.44 hectares, enclosed within a discontinuous wall, represents the extent of a monastic enclosure.

* In 786 Ealdwulf of Mayo consecrated bishop by the archbishop of York, was mentioned by the Papal Legate as attending at the legatine synod in Northumbria.
* The Book of Ballymote, states that at the start of the eighth century, at least one hundred Saxon monks were present.
* 773, Death of Aedhan, named Bishop of Mayo.
* c780, Alcuin of York, chief advisor to Emperor Charlemagne wrote at least two letters of support and praise to monks of Mayo of the Saxons (ca. AD 780)
* 79? Aldfrith, King of Northumbria a close friend of Adamnan visits after the untimely death of his son who was a student here.
*1110, The Annals of Ulster report the building of a stone church, a 'damhliag', the place was still inhabited by Saxons , and the church was built for the use of pilgrims.

The building of the stone basilica could be seen as the end of an era heralding the change from timber to stone constructions.

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