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Programme 3 - Monastic Settlements
Wednesday, 7 June 2000

ARCHIVE - SELB programme code :TG

This episode is now part of our archive. This programme is stll available to schools to borrow or purchase from the Audio Visual Recording service at the SELB. Please quote the SELB programme code in your correspondence. See our ordering page for more information.


The programme explores what it was like to live in the monastic settlement at Nendrum, on Mahee Island in Strangford Lough.

The presenter takes two children on a journey from the modern monastery at Portglenone to the Ulster History Park at Cullion, gathering evidence to help build a picture of life within the monastic community at Nendrum in early Christian Ireland.
Background Information
Image of an old churchMahee Island is the largest island in Strangford Lough and lies close to its western shore. The monastic site of Nendrum was founded by Mochaoi after whom Mahee Island was named. Mochaoi was said to have been converted by Patrick himself and died at the end of the 5th century. From the 7th century to the 9th century, the Annals of Ulster record a succession of bishops and abbots.

Then in 987 the "herenagh of Oendrium (abbot) was burned in his own house," probably as a result of a Viking raid of which there were many at this time in the area. Nendrum seems to have passed out of use during the 15th century, being replaced by a more accessible church on the mainland.
The Site
Monastic settlements laid the foundations for the spread of Christianity both in Ireland and abroad. Usually established in the 6th and 7th centuries, these became important centres of the community as no towns existed in that period. They attracted local craftsmen and farmers because they offered some degree of protection against Viking raids which were prevalent at the time. The custom was to build monasteries inside ring forts.

Image of a Monastic SettlementThey consisted of tiny huts made of either stone or wood and wattle. The most important building was the small church which was built at the centre. This was because the worship of God was central to people’s lives. In other huts were the kitchen, a dining room called the refectory and sometimes a library. The monks lived in individual cells usually called bee-hives because of their shape.

Nendrum is approached from the mainland by way of a causeway built in the nineteenth century; originally access was only by ford at low tide. Prior to excavation in the 1920s, all that was visible of Nendrum was the base of a round tower and the remains of a church. When the archaeologists dug deeper they discovered a monastic site of some importance.

It had a triple-walled cashel enclosing the buildings of a Celtic monastery. Within these three cashels was a school, workshops, a cemetery, a church and a round tower. These alone revealed that this was a site of considerable historical importance.
Monastic Life
Image of a monk's cellThe word monk comes from the Greek word "monachos", which means "alone". It was first used by early Christians to describe men who felt the need to go away by themselves to some lonely place to contemplate God and pray. The first monks, also called hermits, lived in caves or rough shelters. They ate little and went without all the things that ordinary people of the time wanted or needed.

The first monasteries grew up around these hermits because men who also felt the call to a religious life came to find the hermits in their lonely shelters, wanting to learn from them and to copy their way of life. One of the first hermits was a man called Benedict who at first lived in a cave. However, he realised that it might be better to start a community of like-minded men who loved each other like brothers rather than to struggle alone.

Saint Benedict, as he became later, founded the Benedictine religious order. He wrote down the things that he believed every monk should do and these became a blueprint for the many different orders that were to follow him.

Image of inside a Monk's abbeyIt has never been easy to become a monk. A man wishing to enter an abbey must give away all that he owns and from the moment the door shuts behind him he must share everything with the community. A monk's life has always been hard and not everyone is suited to it.

He must first become a "novice" or beginner, under the tutelage of a senior monk. After two years, during which the novice is free to leave the order at any time, the other monks in the community vote on whether he will be allowed to take his vows, or promises to God, and become a monk.

Monastic life today has changed little from its earliest beginnings. Monks still live in sparse cells and devote their lives to the service of God. Printing and literature still play a large role in their lives. Early monks used to copy and decorate beautiful religious books by hand. Today they use a printing press or computerised desktop publishing.
Before the Programme

  • Discuss the meaning of the following keywords:
    Monastery, Cashel, Monk, Manuscript, Round Tower, Vikings, Cell.
  • Explore the pupils’ understanding of how a monk lives today.

After the Programme

  • What are the differences between monastic life in early Christian Ireland and monastic life today?
  • The earliest monks lived alone as hermits and spent all their time thinking about God. If you wanted to be a hermit and live away from everyone else, where would you go and why?
  • Not all monks lived on their own. Many lived in groups and formed the first monasteries. The men who became monks had to agree to three vows:

      - The vow of OBEDIENCE - a monk agreed to obey the abbot of his monastery in all things.
       - The vow of POVERTY - a monk gave up all he owned when he entered the monastery.
       - The vow of CHASTITY - A monk promised never to have sexual relationships.
       - Some monks took on an extra vow - the vow of SILENCE - promising that they would only speak when praying to God.
  • Which of these vows would be the hardest to keep? Explain why.
  • Many monasteries had round towers. Why was the door so high off the ground?
  • Why might monasteries have been attacked?
  • Pupils could draw their own comic book depicting a Viking raid on a monastery.

Further Resources
Information concerning school visits to The Ulster History Park can be obtained from:

The Education Officer
Ulster History Park
Tel: 028 8164 8188
History Programmes
Programme 1:
Belfast Blitz:
Programme 2:
Rural Victorians
Programme 3:
Monastic Settlements
Can't find your subject? Visit our archive section where you can find programmes supporting other curricular subjects, including: Geography, History, Citizenship and English.

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