When the rest of Europe was in the Dark Ages in the centuries following the fall of the Western Roman Empire Ireland was known as the "Land of Saints and Scholars" because of its monastic seats of learning. This was no idle boast as the School of Ross in what is now Rosscarbery in West Cork attests.
Gaelic Ireland was not a land of towns, they came with the Vikings, Normans and the English Plantations. The Gaelic settlement was around monasteries which would typically have a library, almshouse, school and hospital for the treatment of the sick, monks were the scribes, the healers with medical knowledge, the lawyers with their knowledge of Latin and the educators. Monasteries were built next to fortifications to protect them and inhabitants built houses on the roads connecting the two to find sustenance and protection, the Irish Sráid-bhaile being similar to the Italian Borgo, Greek Chora or Arabic Rabat, habitations huddled around a strong point for safety if an enemy attacked. Fine examples are seen in West Cork at Kilcrea and Timoleague but the greatest was the School of Ross.
St. Fachtna founded the School of Ross as well as the see; and his death occurred about 590, on 14 August, on which day his feast is celebrated. At that time the chiefs of the tuath were the O'Leary, known as Uí Laoghaire Ruis Ó gCairbre. There is evidence that the School of Ross thrived from the 6th to the 10th Centuries and had over a 1,000 pupils who would have been sons of members of the Gaelic Aristocracy - girls and children of the poor would not have attended. P. W. Joyce wrote "Ross Carbery in Cork, was formerly a place of great ecclesiastical eminence; and it was "so famous for the crowds of students and monks flocking to it, that it was distinguished by the name of Ros-ailithir" [allihir : Four Masters], the wood of the pilgrims."
It was founded by St. Fachtna, who is generally regarded as the same person who founded the Diocese of Kilfenora; the feast in both cases is kept on 14 August, and in both the saint's descent is traced to the princely race of Corcu Loígde. Fachtna was born at a place called Tulachteann, and died at the early age of forty-six, in what year we cannot say, but probably late in the sixth century, and is buried in his own cathedral church in Rosscarbery. The Annals of Innisfallen (Dublin copy) mark 600 as the year of his death: "Died Fachtna first Bishop of Ross-Ailithre in Corca-Laidhe which goes by the additional name of O'Laeghaire of Ross i.e. Corca Laidhe-I-Laeghaire Ruis".
Like many other Irish saints, he received his first lessons in religion from Saint Ita of Killeedy, the "Brigid of Munster", from whose care he passed, according to some writers, to St. Finbarr's seminary at Loch Eirce, near Cork. He is reported by some to have founded Molana Abbey, on the little island of Dairinis in the River Blackwater, not far from the town of Youghal. Returning to his native territory, he set about a more important foundation on a rocky promontory situated in the midst of woods and green fields between two bays.
This was the monastic School of Ross, called in the Life of St. Mochoemoc "magnum studium scholarium", for it quickly became famous for its study of Scripture, and the attention given to all the branches of a liberal education. One of the assistant teachers was St. Brendan the Navigator, whom Fachtna had known and loved as a companion when under the care of St. Ita. One old document represents Brendan as being at Ross in 540. While engaged in teaching there, St. Fachtna was stricken with total blindness; but it was reported that his sight was miraculously restored. Fachtna, it is generally thought, received episcopal orders, and became the first Bishop of Ross. He is sometimes called Facundus, in allusion to his eloquence.
Of the later history of the School we have but few details, but mention of the native spoiler is not missing in them. In 1127, according to the Chronicon Scotorum, one Toirdhealbach O Conor sailed to Ross-Ailithir and laid waste the land of Desmond. He was followed by the Anglo-Normans under Robert Fitz-Stephen, who towards the close of the century completed the destruction. All record of this ancient seat of learning is then lost.
Little remains today. The chancel and nave were destroyed by the Puritans in 1647 and the bishop hanged. Ross is still a separate Diocese in the Church of Ireland and its standing is echoed in St. Fachtna's in Rosscarbery and St. Patrick's in Skibbereen being referred to as Cathedrals, the seat of a Bishop. Today St. Fachtna's Cathedral on the Hill of Rosscarbery overlooking the bay is on the site of the School of Ross and carries echoes of past glories including the arms of George III in the Narthex.
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