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By Clifton Johnson
WITH ILLUSTRATIONS BY THE AUTHOR
N one of the lower ridges
of the Knockmealldown Mountains in southern Ireland, overlooking the valley of the Blackwater, dwells a mediaval community of Irish monks. They have separated themselves from the world with all its turmoil and jealousies and follies, and on the quiet of their lonely mountain-top they spend their allotted days in prayer and in peaceful pastoral employment, no longer laboring selfishly, but for the good of the whole brotherhood. I often heard of them in my Irish touring, and at length I decided to make a pilgrimage to their abode.
I reached Cappoquin, the railroad station nearest the monastery, in the middle of a warm May forenoon. Mount Melleray, the home of the monks, was three miles back among the hills, and I walked thither, at
first following a foot-path across COMING IN FROM THE FIELDS
the fields, and then a narrow
lane that was bordered much of the way by high banks and walls overgrown with furze full of yellow flower-clusters. Along the horizon, on ahead, loomed the blue, ser rated ridge of the Knockmealldown Mountains. The monastery, on one of their lesser northern heights, consists of a good-sized group of substantial stone buildings with a slender-spired church in the midst.
The quiet of the hamlet when I entered it savored almost of desertion, and I, half fancying there was something uncanny about the place, was tempted to turn back. But the wide door of the main building stood open, and I went in. One of the monks— “the Brother Porter” was his official title-greeted me pleasantly, and was my guide in a leisurely ramble through the buildings, and my instructor as to the ways of the community. He was a gray, elderly man, in a coarse black, hooded gown. About his waist he wore a leather girdle, and on his feet white stockings and rude, low shoes. All the other monks were dressed in the same general style, except that certain of them wore white gowns with black scapulas. These white-garbed monks were the elders, or, as they were called among themselves, the “fathers,” of the order.
The institution in its origin dates back to 1833, when a group of Irish monks was expelled for political reasons from the Cistercian monastery at Mount Melleray in France. They returned penniless to their native country, and a nobleman living in the valley of the Blackwater took pity on them and gave them a tract of wild land here among the hills. They at once set to work with their own hands to reclaim it. For many years the community was so poverty-stricken that it had a hard struggle for existence, but in time it grew pros- save when it is absolutely necessary, and perous and independent. The land as even then the ordinary members must do the monks found it was a barren heath so by medium or by permission of one of full of stones. They laboriously dug out the three superiors—the abbot, the prior, the stones, carted them off to be used on or the sub-prior. The only two members the roads or for building purposes, and not bound by the rules of silence are the made the land productive by subsoiling. brother porter, who communicates with
The task of reclaiming still goes on, and visitors, and the “procurator" or houseI saw one of the fields where the monks keeper, who is privileged to speak to any had been recently at work. They had
They had one when there is occasion. The usual brought the stones to the surface in such method of communication is by signs, and quantities that the earth was hidden by words are employed only as a last resort. them, and the field looked like the dump- The monks pay no attention to visitors. ing place of refuse from a quarry. It The weakness of the flesh may result in seemed impossible that such a field could a sidelong glance or two; but, in theory, be of any use for agriculture. Certainly, the world is naught to them, and so long if the monks place any value on their time, as you do not actually interfere they go the labor involved must far exceed in cost their appointed ways unconcerned whatthe worth of the land when the process is ever you may do. completed. But I suppɔse they rejoice Most members join the order between in difficulties to overcome, and the hard- the ages of twenty and forty. Candidates ship brings heaven nearer.
beyond twoscore seldom meet with favor, About seventy members at present make because it is believed that a man is by up the Mount Melleray brotherhood. It then too old and fixed in his habits and is not often there are so few, but the mon- ideas to learn the ways of the brotherhood. astery has been depopulated by a recent They accept no one rashly or in haste. exodus to establisli a new colony. Sev- To begin with, the applicant stays for three eral branches own this for their parent days at the monastery as a guest. If community, including one in the United satisfied with what he sees and learns in States at Dubuque, Iowa.
these three days, he becomes a " postulant" The Cistercians were a very powerful for three months, and his partial adoption is order during the Middle Ages, and in the symbolized by a cloak which he wears over thirteenth century they had nearly two his ordinary worldly garments. After three thousand abbeys in the various countries months' experience, if he continues desirof Europe Among those in Britain were ous of going on, he dons a special habit Tintern, Furness, and Melrose, familiar more monkly than he has worn hitherto, to tourists now as beautiful ruins. Pros- and for two years is a “novice,” sharing perity proved fatal, for as the monks much of the community life, but not yet waxed rich they became indolent and taking part in all the exercises. At the deteriorated morally, and the result was end of that interval the man who still that the order speedily decayed and waned yearns for complete monkhood takes until only remnants were left.
"simple vows,” and enters on a final proThese Irish monks, with their stony land bationary period of three years. This to subdue and with the memory of their completed, provided the monks are satearlier poverty and struggle for existence isfied with the novitiate's character and still fresh, seem to be trying to realize are convinced of his sincerity, he may the order's original simplicity. The main take solemn vows and enter on the full tenets of the religion as exemplified by duties and joys of the order. them are separation from the world, long- So far as possible, the monks supply houred daily devotions, and strict habits their own bodily needs-raise their own of silence and humility. All personal food, erect their own buildings, and do wealth at the time of joining and all the their own farin work and housework, products of the industry of individual even to making bread and washing clothes. members are turned into the community The last-named task is done by steam coffers. They work for the common good, power, and is not as arduous an underand their thoughts dwell on things eternal, taking as it might be. The wash is hung or are supposed to. They never speak out to dry on lines in a grassy area near
the church. In one corner of this area Two large buildings are reserved for is the monks' burying-ground, where are guests, one for men and one for women, several high stone crosses commemorating and in the summer there are frequently deceased abbots, and numerous low iron lodgers in the boarding houses, to the crosses marking the resting-places of the number of fifty or more. The few days humbler members of the brotherhood. or weeks spent at the monastery, with
The monks make their own clothing the accompanying confessions and sacraand shoes, and they grow on their own ments, the quiet, and the simple, wholesheep all the wool used in their garments. some living, bring genuine spiritual reThe only process consigned to outsiders freshment to the devout Catholic, and in the transformation of the wool into many persons come year after year. There clothing is the weaving. This is done in are Protestant visitors, too, but these usua neighboring mill, but the monks hope ally are impelled by curiosity, though even soon to run a loom on their own premises. among them are certain ones who have Their greatest lack is skilled mechanics, no other motive than the desire to retire and they are always glad to have such from the world for a season. The monks join their number.
make no charge for their services, and They have a large garden where they when guests go they pay for their board raise vegetables and small fruits, and in whatever they choose, be it little or much. the fields they grow potatoes, oats, tur- Two in the morning is the monks' time nips, and mangels; and they have a herd for rising, save on Sundays and holy of cows, a flock of sheep, and a number days, when it is an hour earlier. As soon of horses. They are not able to do all as they are up and dressed the monks file the work of the place unaided, and they down from their dormitory to the church keep constantly employed about forty for matins. Religious exercises are held laborers, whom they pay from nine to in the church at frequent intervals all day. twelve shillings a week. Half a century Shortly after matins comes “ lords," at ago wages in the region were only a six- sunrise" prime,” at eight o'clock“ thirdat," pence a day, but conditions have much at eleven “sext," at two in the afternoon improved since, and the peasantry are “none,” at five “vespers,” at eight “comdecidedly better fed, better clothed, and pren," and then they retire. Not all can better housed.
attend this whole list of eight services, for Practically everything raised is con- the monks are workers as well as prayers, sumed on the place. For income they and other duties keep some of them away depend on chance sums donated to them, from the church much of the day; but on summer lodgers, and on their school, every one is present at the first three and which rarely numbers less than one hun. the last. dred, and which stands in high repute Following the religious exercises in the among such of the Catholic gentry as small hours of the morning the monks desire an ecclesiastical education for their pray privately and read and meditate sons. Besides these aristocratic pupils until “prime.” After “prime” they listen the monks teach the ragged, barefooted to a chapter from the Bible and to an children of the mountain, but this is for exhortation from the superior. At about charity, not gain.
seven o'clock they assemble for a “collaA considerable amount comes to the tion." It seemed to me they must by brotherhood from pious persons, residing then have sharp appetites, after being up both near and far, who send ten shillings since one or two in the morning. The or a pound when a relative dies, with the dining-room, like all the monks' apartrequest that the holy men of the monastery ments, is immaculately clean, and substanmay say high mass for the repose of the lost tial in all its appointments, yet at the one's soul. Another source of income is re- same time is severely plain. It is a high, forming drunkards. The unfortunates are pillared room, appropriately dim, with a received into the monastery, and the salu- crucifix on the wall at the far end. On tary effect of the seclusion and the religious one side a lofty pulpit, overhung by a surroundings, together with the fact that sounding-board, rises well toward the their liquor is taken from them gradually, ceiling, and around the borders of the works a cure, at least for the time being. apartment are lines of long, bare tables.
When the monks have taken their places The morning collation consists of milk in the refectory” with the abbot superior and six ounces of bread, brown or white at the head of the table, they in unison as is preferred. Those who choose have say grace. Then they sit down on the butter with their bread, and instead of benches along the walls, and at a signal milk a few of the members substitute tea, from the superior begin eating. The pul- cocoa, or even wine. The noon meal is pit, during the silent meals of the day, is the chief repast of the day. The allow
occupied by one of the monks, who reads ance then is a pound of bread and a pint to his brethren from Scripture or from of milk, and there are potatoes and other some approved religious work-it may be vegetables, and frequently soup or macafrom Cardinal Newman, the lives of the roni. Indeed, except that the monks eat saints, or sermons. When the superior no meat save when they are sick, they observes that all have finished eating, he are free to partake of whatever their garsignals again, and the gowned company den produces and whatever they can buy rises, says grace, and leaves the room. that is inexpensive. At six in the evening