Mayo Theme -
Mayo of the Saxons
It is perhaps remarkable that events happening on the wider international stage of ecclesiastical politics in the seventh century should have had a profound and lasting effect on County Mayo. But such is the case when the origins of the name for Mayo are examined.
Maigh Eó na Sacsan, 'Mayo of the Saxons' - was the name by which the place was known right up until the seventeenth century. Who were these 'Saxons' and what motivated them to settle in Mayo? For an answer to these questions we must look at an ecclesiastical argument in AD 664 concerning the calculation of the date of Easter. In England, on the island of Lindisfarne, Iona monks under the leadership of Colmán celebrated on one date while some southern English monks celebrated on another - the date celebrated in most of Europe by that time.
The English clergy won the argument as far as king Oswy was concerned, and the defeated Colmán left Lindisfarne for his own monastery of Iona, and from there to Ireland. Taking his own loyal followers with him, a mixture of English and Gaels, he set sail for Inishbofin off the west coast of Connaught. Was this a haphazard journey or was it a well-planned targeted destination? Secure in the knowledge that there was an abandoned church on the island, which Colman and his entourage could occupy immediately, they founded a monastery there in 668 AD.
Inishbofin was an ideal location for the traditional concept of exile and self-sacrifice, facing as it does the western ocean, a frontier post on the outer rim of Christendom. But the harmony of this island community could not be sustained as differing approaches to monastic discipline caused conflict between the English and Irish monks. Whilst the English concentrated on the agricultural routine of the monastery, the Irish monks used the close proximity of the island to home to wander off and visit their kinsmen, expecting on their return to enjoy the fruits of the English monks' labour. This tension between the two groups drove Colmán to relocate the discontented English monks elsewhere. The place he chose was on the good pasture and tillage land of the plains of Maigh Eó, unfolding towards Croagh Patrick in the west.
There in the early 670s Colmán founded his new monastery. Colmán returned to Inishbofin where he died, leaving the English to societal, legal and ecclesiastical systems unfamiliar to them. The Irish churches were tightly interwoven with the traditional Brehon laws governing society. The English monks had to find their niche within this unfamiliar system. There can be no doubt that they were successful in dealing with all of these issues as Maigh Eó grew to become by 700 a famous seat of learning with an enclosure covering more than 28 acres and grants of land which amounted to over two thousand acres. Judging by the extent of its enclosure and the expanse of land it farmed, the monastery was on a par with some of the more famous sites like Clonmacnoise, Glendalough and Kildare. Indeed, just like these more famous examples, Maigh Eó in its early history expresses both cultural assimilation and the interconnections between Ireland and the wider European world.
- Orschel, V. 2001, Maigh Eo na Sacsan Anglo Saxons in Early Christian Mayo in History Ireland, Vol. No.2, Summer 2001
Mayo - Vestvågøy - Mid-Argyll
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