Charter of Newry: The Context

The town of Newry, we are told, was established in 1144 when Cistercian monks set up a monastery here.  Not so.

Some thirteen years later their position, wealth, power and influence were enhanced when the high king of Ireland, Murtagh McLoughlin, granted a Charter and bestowed lands on them, asking other temporal rulers to do likewise. It was not as simple as that.

 The context needs to be examined.

Christianity, thanks to the efforts among others of earlier Irish missionaries, had spread across Europe and the Christian Church exercised considerable influence in the Middle Ages in all areas of life. Ironically while the strict ascetic life of the Columban Rule (after Columbanus) held sway in the monasteries of Europe,  the Church in Ireland, long isolated due to repeated Viking raids and incursions, lost touch with Rome, and laxity and corruption spread. When the raids ceased after Brian Boru defeated a combined force of Norsemen and Leinster men at Clontarf in 1014, this situation came to general attention. In addition, there was a new element in Irish society, the largely town-dwelling Ostmen (from the East) who were settled descendents of the earlier invaders. They were traders and as such, more open to outside influence. When they gave up their pagan beliefs, they accepted the ecclesiastic authority of Canterbury. It was obvious to them, to Christians abroad, to reformers within the Irish church, and to the Papacy that the centuries of disruption and isolation had seen the strict discipline and asceticism of the Irish Church lapse. 


The Irish Church had been a cause of concern even before the Vikings came. The Soissons Council of 744 (four hundred years before the Cistercians came to Ireland) had been called to rein in the erring bishops and priests of Ireland and bring them into line with Rome. Even on the continent the monasteries in the tenth century were adopting the less demanding Benedictine Rule, in preference to the Columban Rule. 


It is perhaps then ironic that the Benedictine Order was invited to help reform the Irish monasteries in the early twelfth century.  In many monasteries the abbot was a layman, there was no effective organisation of dioceses and the church’s teaching went largely ignored in such matters as marriage, divorce and baptism.  Some might see a parallel today where the Church has to look to Africa and other poor countries to provide priests for Irish dioceses, and a la carte religion has become the norm. 


A number of these Benedictines settled in Newry around 1135, probably joining a pre-existing Irish monastery here with the aim of reforming it, and bringing it into line with Roman practice and authority. They could not have come without the permission of St Malachy who was then the Archbishop of Armagh. Indeed since Malachy was one of the greatest reformers in the Church, they probably arrived here at his instigation. On his retirement from this post, his successor sent Malachy to Rome to win papal acknowledgement of the Irish Church reforms and to acquire for the Archbishops of Armagh and Cashel the pallia to signify the Pope’s endorsement of their titles and roles. These had fairly recently (1111) been established at the Cashel Synod which divided the Irish Church into twenty four dioceses with these two Archbishoprics.  


Pope Innocent II told Malachy (who had stopped at a Cistercian monastery on his journey, an experience that was soon to have a significant influence on Irish monastic history) that a national synod must request the pallia. 


The saint died in 1148 on a second journey to Rome. But in 1152 the Synod of Kells gave the Irish Church the shape that it retains to this day. Dublin and Tuam joined Armagh and Cashel as archbishoprics and thirty six dioceses were established. One effect was to end the Ostmen’s allegiance to Canterbury. The Archbishop of Armagh was recognised as Primate of All Ireland.


Significantly, about the time of the coming to Ireland of the Benedictines, Nicholas Breakspear was elected abbot of Avignon monastery in France. Complaints about the strictness of this Englishman led to a summons to Rome. The Pope recognised his talents and made him Cardinal and Bishop (of Albano) in 1146. In 1152 he was sent as papal legate to Scandanavia where his reforming zeal earned him the nickname ‘Apostle of the North’. 


In 1154 he became Pope Adrian IV. In a papal bull (Laudabiliter) the following year he granted Ireland to Henry II of England, recognised him as lord of Ireland and commissioned him to carry out religious reforms there. The fact that Henry didn’t make these shores until 1171 does not take away from these facts, which most surely were not unknown to Murtagh McLoughlin, ‘high king’ of Ireland when he bestowed a Charter on the Cistercian monks of Newry in 1157.


The strong political leadership of Brian Boru had for a time held sway over the conflicting loyalties of tribe chieftains and local kings. His death saw internal divisions break out again with the high kingship seen as the prize. The term ri co fresabra (king with opposition) was used for those who claimed the high kingship but were unable to enforce acceptance by all of the provinces. 


With the ebb and flow of military conquest, it is uncertain what rights, if any, Murtagh had over the lands he bestowed in 1157 on the monks in the Charter of Newry. Murtough MacLochlainn (exactitude of spelling would not become common for some long time) was described as King of the Cenel Eoghainn, but claimed the high kingship when he granted – in perpetuity – the lands named in that Charter [and listed in our next article]. Under the ancient Gaelic system, lands were held in common, under the stewardship of the clan chief, though feudalism was already seeping into Ireland.  The astute and ambitious McLoughlin was well acquainted with the political and ecclesiastic realities of the day. To attack or disenfranchise the reforming monks would be to incur the wrath of very powerful leaders well beyond the boundaries of the country. To patronise them would win friends and powerful support. He was interested in much more than the ‘prayers and masses for his soul’ claimed in the Charter.


In 1162 Murtagh McLoughlin was acknowledged as high king but his success was short-lived. In 1166 he blinded the captive King of Ulidia, contrary to the guarantees under which the latter had surrendered. McLoughlin was killed in the rebellion which followed this brutality. Rory O’Connor became high king. 


Tiernan O’Rourke of Brefni seized his chance to settle an old score with Murtagh McLoughlin’s ally, Dermot MacMurrough. The latter had once carried off his wife Dervorgilla (Dervla). Tiernan invaded Dermot’s Leinster. The latter fled to Britain in search of allies. The disunited Irish were not well enough organised to repel the (Anglo) Norman invasion that followed.   

… Redmond O’Hanlon ? …

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.