The Channel crossing over, sailing from Plymouth, a naval town in SW England over to Brittany, was long, cold, and grim, shrouded in fog and darkness. Most of our time through the night is spent scanning the radar, anxious to avoid a collision with one of the many massive tankers cruising through the dark.
Even when the wan light rises on Sunday morning, the sun remains invisible, and the sea still covered in a blanket of chill, grey mist. But as we approach the end of our long 21-hour journey, finally, the mist clears. Now at last we see the coast of France.
As we sail towards the inlet, then up the estuary of the river Wrach, to the tiny marina and village of L’Aberwrach, the mist burns off completely. The weather here is very different to what we have left behind us, the last three days in Ireland, Wales and England. As if to celebrate our arrival in France, the sun blazes. The open sea is behind us now. Brittany is beautiful and bathed in glorious warm sun. Nous sommes arrivé. We are here at last.
We moor the good ship White Morning, and go eat brunch in a little café. It’s housed in a small stone cottage, pretty but also tough and squat, typical of the durable architecture of Brittany, built to withstand rain and wind, and the lash of the sea.
After food, the others are so exhausted from the long trip they return to the boat to rest. I’m fortunate; I was able, and was allowed by my kind friends, to sleep the first part of the journey. So instead of returning to the boat, I go off solo to walk the coast road and explore the local area. Most of the northern britanny is, famously, here is rugged rocky coastline. But there are tiny golden sand beaches hidden in little coves,. I pass one, a lovely little spit of golden sand, trapped behind the fishing pier.
I’m hoping to see some nice old church or monastery, but without a car or bike, or even a map, I walk more in hope than expectation.
I should have known better. This is France, full of architectural history and ecclesiastical glory. Just a few miles walk up the coast road, I stumble across this wonderful little ruin.
The gates alas are closed. A notice clearly states that visitor hours are finished. Fortunately however, my family motto, (since the time of the Third Crusades) has been: “seek forgiveness; not permission”. I ignore the notice. Instead I take a quick cautious look around for potential witnesses. Seeing how there are none, I push through the unlocked gates and venture on inside.
The old church is now in ruins, although some plastic seats in the nave suggest it’s still used occasionally for open air concerts, or some-such events.
The rest of the buildings that surround the ruined church are still intact, and beautiful, warm, ancient stones soaked in sunshine.
There is a cloister, which makes me think the church was once part of a monastic complex. There are other building, less old, stone outbuildings, but still lovely. Originally there would have been an entire complex here, to support and sustain the life of a community. This would once have been a powerful place, great landlords, and expert farmers, central to the life of the entire area, ministering to the needs of the people and also dispensing education, justice, and artistic patronage. Today it is just a beautiful piece of heritage.
The old church itself is open to the sky now. Its roof has long since collapsed. Flags line the pitched wall, behind where the altar would have once stood. These flags hanging on the bare stone wall are those of the six Celtic nations; Ireland; Scotland; Wales; the Isle of Mann, Brittany and Cornwall….
Brittany is immensely proud of its Celtic identity. Indeed, many Bretons seek independence from France, to found a separate nation.
The region, formerly a Dukedom, still has its own language. This is not a dialect ofFrench, the way that, say Provençale is.) It really is a separate language, entirely different to French. In fact Breton is totally incomprehensible to French speakers. It’s a Celtic rather than a Romance, Latin-based language, and far more similar to Welsh than to French. Lindsey who lives in North Wales and studies that language, can not stop showing off throughout our trip. She takes much pleasure, constantly translating effortlessly to English from Breton via Welsh.
You have probably gathered the Bretons are a proud and singular people. We will see the distinctive Black and White Breton flags everywhere on our trip. The design, apart from the colour, is a similar layout to the flag of the United States, with a quadrant of “stars” set top-left into a field of bars. It flies from the masts and stays of sailboats, lines the walls of churches, barns, cafés and pretty much everywhere else.
We learn later, also thanks to some research by dynamic Lindsey, that the nine bars on the flag have specific meaning. They stand for the nine traditional diocese of the church in the old Duchy. The five black bars represent the five diocese of the Gallo-Roman church, while the four white bars stand for the four traditional Celtic, Breton speaking diocese of Brittany.
The “stars” in the top left corner seem to me to resemble ricks of hay. But I am totally wrong with this ignorant and ill-considered judgement. In fact they turn out to be a heraldic device, called “ermines or “ermines spots” taken from representing the winter fur of stoats! Specifically it is based on the fur garments of royalty. On the flag, it represents the coat of arms of Dukes and of Brittany, rulers before Brittany was subsumed into the kingdom of France, by way of a clever dynastic marriage.
As I look at the church, built before Britonny was ever part of France, I find even the simple stone building itself reminds me of our early Christian Churches back home in Ireland. I mean those simple little churches built between the 4th and the 10th century, by the Celtic Church, before the coming of the Anglo-Normans, and the suppression of Celtic Christianity by mainstream, continental, centralized Roman Catholicism.
These little churches, still found everywhere in Ireland, were built by the monks and devotees of the distinctive, independent, wonderfully scholarly Irish Celtic Church.
The similarity of Irish churches, to here, is no coincidence. Brittany, like many other great swathes of Europe, were either evangelized or re-evangelized, by Irish monks from the 6th to 11th century. This happened all over Europe. Very few modern Europeans are aware of this extraordinary connection, but it’s true.
Much of western and central Europe was first Christianized by, or at least under the umbrella of the all-powerful Roman Empire, after Christianity became the state religion of the Empire. (Following the conversion Constantine and his successors.) Italy, most of France, Spain and large parts of Central Europe, North Africa and the Middle East were converted in this manner. Armenia, also in the Roman sphere was the first country in the world to adopt Christianity as the state religion, around
Southern Britain, including Wales, but unlike Ireland, was also Romanized and Christianized in this period by the Roman Conquests. Christianity there survived the recall of the legions. Not so in Northern Britain. That area was untouched and remained pagan. So did Scandinavia, and vast regions of eastern Europe, including the realm of the Teutonic Knight; Prussia and Poland; and the Baltic States, none of which had ever been converted.
Meanwhile, other areas that previously had been Christian now suffered a reverse of the faith, following the collapse of the western half of the Empire, under assault of pagan barbarian, crossing the Rhine from 406 AD.
By a curious twist of fate, one little country on the periphery of Europe was saved from all the chaos precisely because of its relative isolation. The Romans had never bothered to conquer Ireland. They called it Hiberina, which sounds pretty until you realise it means “land of winter” !
But the arrival of St Patrick (probably Welsh) and other began a thriving monastic tradition. Ironically, Irish monks actually started to export Christianity. From the fifth and sixth centuries onwards, they slowly started to undo the barbarian damage and began to reclaim Europe for Christianity.
The great monastery of Iona, on an island off Scotland was established by Columba, also called Colum Cille. (Callum Cille to the Scots) That beacon of learning and faith was responsible for the Book of Kells, the stunning illuminated Gospels on vellum now in Trinity College Dublin. The influence and teachings of the Iona monks spread outwards, leading to the conversation of the Scots and Picts.
Colum Cille’s disciples later founded the monastery of Lindisfarne and did similar work in Northern England. Much of this was “virgin territory”, outside the Latinized heartland of Christian Europe. Of more concern to the church were these areas on mainland Europe lost during the chaotic barbarian period.
The inhabitants of these lands now had to be reclaimed by the church. Again, it was Irish monks who did much of this work. Burgundy in France, and Bobbio in Lombardy, Northern Italy were both re-evangelized by another Irish monk, one with a similar name to Colum Cille, the legendary Columbanus. St Gallen in Switzerland went the same way, converted by his follower, Galen, whose monastery of course gives the Swiss city its modern name.
Irish monks would be active for hundreds of years across the continent. They founded monasteries and churches, abbeys and scriptoria all over Europe. They would advise the legendary Frankish king, and first Holy Roman Emperor, Charlemagne. They were instrumental in establishing the ancient University of Paris, the Sorbonne.
As I say, most modern Europeans are unaware of this ancient connection. I’ve had many students from Milan (Lombardy) and even Swiss from the St Galen, with no idea of it. Essentially this strand of history was suppressed by the dominant narrative of the centralized Catholic church in Rome,
Later Rome, acting in concert with Canterbury, suppressed the Celtic church in Ireland itself. They used the Normans as their strike force, and the Synod of Cashel (1172) as the announcement. The Celtic church, with its distinctive, liberal ethos, was replaced by or forced to comply with, the conventional norms of the Roman tradition. For all the talk of “the land of Saints and scholars” the extraordinary Irish contribution to the history of European Christianity has been largely downplayed ever since. * This is still a little known story, and amply rewards further research.
In Brittany however, it’s a different story. In contrast to elsewhere, Bretons are acutely aware and intensely proud of their Irish and Celtic connections. They celebrate it everywhere, on their churches; in their traditional music and in their folk festivals; even on their flag.
You can feel it in their character too. Bretons are typical, hardy people of the sea, of the Atlantic. They may lack the sophisticated refinement of Parisians or the jaded, moneyed, polish of the Mediterranean south. The basic, no-nonsense but hospitable, friendly nature of the people, as well as the rugged landscape, means I often feel like I am sailing off the coast of Cork, Kerry, or Scotland.
I start to see, and to enjoy the links too, in the character of the people, in the landscape, in the profile of a cliff, in the weather (which can be both beautiful, or gruesome) or a gnarled, weather-eroded little statue, on the simple façade of an ancient church.
This, for me at least is another, a different France. And I like it. Here, looking at the little church flags, alone under the Breton sun, I feel a little surge of Irish pride!
That evening we return to the café-restaurant. I stuff myself with good local seafood. Next day we sail onwards, southwards down the coast, on to Audierne and beyond.
Thank you for reading. -Arran.
Note on Irish monasticism and evangilizing in Dark age & medieval Eurpoe, * The Irish contributon is still little understood and appreciated. A rare exception to this rule is Kenneth Clark’s monumental study on western art history “Civilization”. Another book, almost a polemic, to make the case more forcefully, is the modestly-named How the Irish saved Civilization, by Thomas Cahill. If it suffers from a touch of hyperbole at times, it does at least as a primer on the subject, and as acorrective to the previous amnesia.