Review: Households of God, edited by Martin Browne and Colmán Ó Clabaigh

Martin Browne and Colmán Ó Clabaigh (eds), Households of God: The Regular Canons and Canonesses of St Augustine and of Prémontré in Ireland (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2019), 320pp.

The Augustinian canons were, with the Cistercians, the most important religious order in Ireland before the arrival of the Observant Franciscans in the 15th century, and certainly the most numerous. It is remarkable that it has taken so long for a volume dedicated to the Irish Augustinian canons to appear, especially in light of the fact that the canons survived in Ireland (and in exile in Continental Europe) long after the Reformation. This volume is based on the proceedings of a conference that took place at Glenstal Abbey in 2017, ‘The Augustinian Canons and Canonesses in Medieval Ireland’. The book is particularly pertinent to my own research because Athassel Priory, the subject of my forthcoming book with Four Courts Press, was an Augustinian house.

Part of the reason the Augustinians were neglected for so long may be hinted at in Martin Browne and Colmán Ó Clabaigh’s introduction to this superb edited collection. The canons regular have sometimes been regarded as ‘half-monks’, a sort of halfway house between the monastic and secular clergy. The Augustinian rule has also been seen as a ‘default’ form of life, adopted by ancient Irish monasteries in the 12th century as part of the reform initiated by St Malachy. While the Cistercians were the exciting monastic innovation in 12th-century Ireland, therefore, the Augustinians were what was left over – the default Irish religious life against which Cistercians, Benedictines and, later, the friars defined themselves against. Put simply, according to the traditional view, the canons regular were not radical, so they were not particularly sexy.

The editors and authors of this volume do an excellent job of showing that the Augustinian canons regular were anything but a half-hearted monastic default. In the first place, the canons and canonesses regular were a very diverse group following a variety of different observances. Marie Therese Flanagan, Miriam Clyne and Tracy Collins deal with three distinct groups (the Victorines, Premonstratensians, and Augustinian canonesses), and there were even more than this. The canonical life allowed a great deal of flexibility, from canons who interacted closely with the secular world as chaplains and parochial clergy to strict, enclosed communities that pursued a life of prayer and contemplation alone.

The volume focusses on some specific communities, through Christy Cunniffe’s chapter on Clonfert, Arlene Hogan’s on Llanthony and Tadhg O’Keeffe’s extensive focus on Athassel in his chapter on Augustinian transeptal churches, and it achieves an admirable balance between the study of material remains and textual sources. It is particularly impressive that the volume also covers the Augustinians’ cultural contribution: hagiography (Pádraig Ó Riain), pilgrimage (Louise Nugent) and liturgy (Colmán Ó Clabaigh). The volume is truly a study of the Irish Augustinians in 360 degrees.

The major achievement of Households of God is to dispel once and for all the lingering idea that the canons regular were uninteresting, or lacking in commitment. As Clemens Galban shows in the book’s closing chapter, the canons regular survived the dissolution against all odds, reoccupying many of their houses or properties close by, and continuing their apostolic work. The Augustinian rule and form of life were flexible, but the expressions of religious life that followed were inspiring to the men and women who followed them, as well as enduring. This first-class volume lays the foundations for even more research on the canons and canonesses regular in the future and will be a key monument in the landscape for anyone studying medieval Irish monasticism for years to come.

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