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Shortly after the arrival of Christianity — about the 5th century A.D. — monkhood became a popular occupation. In their fervor to serve God, they would have preferred martyrdom. But Christians weren't prosecuted in Ireland, so they had to give up "red martyrdom" for "green martyrdom" — going off into the wilderness. But the Irish were too sociable to tolerate the hermit's life, so dedicated men, women, priests and lay people started clustering in tiny monastic villages.
We visited a few of these places on the Dingle Peninsula. Early monks lived in clochans — stones piled ingeniously into beehive shapes, without using any mortar . I can imagine doing penance in these places, but it's harder to imagine an ergonomic work space for copying manuscripts. But I guess you can pray only so many hours a day before you start looking for something more interesting to do.
The Irish didn't have towns and cities, so these clusters of stone huts, surrounded by a wall became Ireland's first villages. As much as the monks wanted to be hermits, the monasteries quickly became centers of commerce, trade, agriculture, recreation, and education. The photo below shows the remains of a monastery wall, with a double clochan .
It's easy to imagine the hardship part of the monastic life, when the wind is howling cold off the sea. On the other hand, you have to ask: compared to what? Stone huts have survived into the 21st century, but not the mud and thatch homes of the small subsistence farmers who populated the land.
Some days I do feel like I live a monk's existence with Jim — except for the community part... and the hardship part... and the God part. But we do lead a simple life full of contemplation, seeking the divine, whatever that may be, in the arts.
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