Once upon a time the appearance of “Spanish students” on the streets of Dublin was regarded as one of the chief signs that the summer had truly arrived in Ireland. Every year flocks of young people from the Iberian peninsula, and from elsewhere in the Spanish-speaking world, would descend upon the country for several weeks at a time in the hope of improving their English language skills (or at least that was the theory). While not the cultural or social phenomenon that it was during the 1980s and ‘90s, largely due to the emergence of “language schools” and all the shady associations they carry in the public mind, the attraction of Ireland as a place of education for people living overseas is still important. However this attraction actually has a long history on our island, one reaching all the way back to the very earliest centuries of recorded Irish history. Here is Colin Ireland’s introduction to his 1999 study of the subject:
“As a modern-day International Educator you might easily believe that you are involved in a pioneering endeavour. Would it surprise you to learn that you had predecessors in Ireland thirteen hundred years ago? Did you know that the Emerald Isle attracted swarms of eager foreign students, principally from England, to its monastic schools as early as the seventh century? Monastic schools were the universities of medieval Europe. In this article I will portray — from the scanty records that survive — scenes from the life of these “study abroad students” in Ireland’s early medieval centres of learning.
In order to reconstruct the life of “study abroad students” in seventh-century Ireland I rely primarily on three sources. The first two sources are the English churchmen Aldhelm and Bede. Aldhelm (d.709), abbot of Malmesbury and later bishop of Sherborne, was the first Anglo-Saxon man of letters. Fortunately, at least two letters by him to Anglo-Saxon students who studied in Ireland survive. Bede (d.735), a priest at Wearmouth-Jarrow, was the greatest of the Anglo-Saxon men of letters. He wrote a history of the Anglo-Saxon Church (Historia Ecclesiastica [HE]), cited frequently in this article, which often notes the relationships between the English and the Irish in the seventh century. As English clerical scholars, Aldhelm and Bede are eager to promote the Church of Rome and Anglo-Saxon England’s role in its growth.
Nevertheless, they frequently acknowledge the Irish contribution to English Church history and Anglo-Saxon learned culture. Bede tells us, for example, that Irish schools provided English students with free books and free instruction. My third major source is the Hisperica Famina “Western Sayings,” a cryptic Latin text written in Ireland by, or about, foreign students sometime probably between c.650 and c.665. The Hisperica Famina are secular in tone and give us our most intimate glimpse into the life of “study abroad students” in early Ireland.
Nowadays many students find Ireland an attractive study abroad destination because it is an English-speaking country. We admire Anglo-Irish literature and such Irish writers as Yeats, Joyce, Beckett, and Shaw, all of whom wrote in English. Yet Ireland’s equally rich Gaelic heritage is often as obscure as the Latin Middle Ages. Many of Ireland’s literary treasures remain hidden because they were written either in Irish (Gaelic) or in Latin. The current worldwide importance of English has made it accepted as the language of higher education, just as Latin was during the Middle Ages. Because we live and work in an English-speaking world, a secondary purpose of mine has been to highlight, where appropriate, Irish influence on Early English (Anglo-Saxon) learned culture, even where that learning has been conveyed through Latin.
Ireland is the first Western European country to create an extensive literature using its own vernacular, Irish, in addition to using Latin. Literature in Irish placed as much emphasis on secular as on religious topics. Nevertheless, Latin, as the language of the Church, was the primary intellectual language of the Middle Ages. During this period, Irish scholars studied and, in turn, taught those Christian Latin authors deemed most important by the Church, while they also created an extensive Hiberno-Latin literature of their own. In other words, learned culture in medieval Ireland was, effectively, bilingual.
Throughout the medieval period the Church was the one institution which was both international in character and cross-cultural in scope. Missionaries brought to the peoples they evangelized both a new religion and a new literate, learned culture in Latin. The medieval Church, therefore, filled roles played by present-day international, educational and cultural organizations. The Church’s monastic schools were Europe’s universities.
They taught religious subjects such as Biblical exegesis and Holy Scripture, as well as secular subjects such as grammar, rhetoric, geometry and physics.
Later in this article I will survey some Irish clerics and scholars who worked outside of Ireland. But most importantly for present purposes, it is through the medieval Church that we can trace the interest of non-Irish “study abroad students” in Ireland’s medieval universities, its monastic schools.”
I recommend that you read the whole article, which for some might cast a new light on Irish and English relations. Would it surprise you to learn that the descendants of the last native king of England may well be living unknowingly here in Ireland, part of a line of English refugees who fled before the Norman-French invaders to their Irish allies in the 1000s? Or that the Irish tried to take England back for the English, an act of military and political support which partly contributed to the reasons behind the later Norman-British of our nation?
History loves its little ironies.