Alas, Poor Foolish People

“Alas, poor foolish people, what will you do now? Who will take care of you in your trouble?” Archbishop Saint Laurence O’Toole.

Ireland in the late 12th century was seriously in need of Church reform. Devastation rendered by the Norse invasions had left most of the monasteries in ruins and many people were Catholic only in name.

Some new monasteries had been established and others, including Clonmacnoise, had recovered, but the great centres of learning that had earned Ireland the title “Land of Saints and Scholars” were never again the same and the glory of the Golden Age of monasticism was barely remembered. .

Before a century had passed, a reform of the Church had begun, in line with the general reform led by Rome. In 1129, the man known to history as St. Malachy became Archbishop of Armagh. Malachy initiated many reforms supported by the princes of the northern part of Ireland. When he travelled to Rome to receive the pallium from the Holy Father, Innocent II, Malachy had a significant encounter with Bernard, Abbot of Clairvaux and head of the Cistercian order. This eventually led to the founding of the Cistercian monastery of Mellifont.

Despite some signs of reform, Malachy confided to Bernard how many evils were rampant in the Irish Church at this time. Whether this was sufficient reason or whether it was the additional evidence of ecclesiastical abuses in the country given by other bishops, in 1155, the Holy Father and only English Pope, Adrian IV, commissioned Henry II of England, to invade Ireland. The purpose was to reform the Church and its people and this was authorised by the Papal Bull “Laudabiliter.”

Henry was named “a Catholic prince labouring to extend the borders of the Church and teach the truth of the Christian Faith to rude and unlettered people.”

This may have been how the English monarch was presented to the Pope but history tells a different story and Henry II is remembered as the man responsible for the death of the holy martyr Thomas Beckett, Archbishop of Canterbury. Henry had little time to spare for Ireland then, however his shadow was ever looming over Ireland.

When almost twenty years later, the King of Leinster, Diarmait McMurrough appealed to the English King for aid, the mandate was already in place for an English invasion of Ireland. History has perhaps unjustly laid the blame entirely on the Leinster King for inviting the English to Ireland. As it turned out, it was the Normans, under the banner of Richard de Clare, sometimes known as Strongbow, who actually carried out the invasion. In this he was supported by Irish warriors loyal to Diarmait McMurrough.

In 1162 following the death of Archbishop Gregory, Saint Laurence O’Toole was consecrated Archbishop of Dublin by Gelasius, Archbishop of Armagh and successor of St. Malachy. His election was endorsed by the High King, Ruairi O’Connor and the king of Leinster, Diarmait McMurrough who was married to Saint Laurence’s sister. Saint Laurence was then just 32. The community at Glendalough where he had been Abbot supported him and also the clergy and people of Dublin. Although Brian Boru had vanquished the Danes at Clontarf in 1014, Dublin was to a great extent, a Danish or Viking city.

The years in which Saint Laurence O’Toole lived were full of prominent persons whose names are familiar from Irish history. The arrival of Richard de Clare in 1170 and his well trained Norman knights, allied now to the Irish of Leinster, brought about an unprecedented political and cultural instability which needed the intervention of Saint Laurence O’Toole. As Archbishop of Dublin he was able to combine the skill of a leader and reformer with pastoral care of his flock and fearless negotiation with secular authorities.

He introduced Augustinian monks from France to Christ Church Cathedral to help reform the sacred liturgy. A deeply prayerful man, Saint Laurence frequently joined the monks in the early hours to sing the Divine Office. Contemporary sources tell of how afterwards he walked in the graveyard, watching and praying over his city as it wakened to the day.

In 1179, Saint Laurence led the six Irish bishops who attended the Third Lateran Council in Rome. His holiness impressed Pope Alexander III who appointed him Papal Legate to Ireland with the responsibility of reforming the Church and defending it against attack. The Archbishop committed himself to the challenge of re-igniting the Faith and bringing about a reform in the lives of the people, not just in his own diocese but throughout the country.

The Heart of St Laurence O’Toole in Dublin

On his return, Saint Laurence summoned a council of the Irish Church at Clonfert which took firm action against malpractices. This Council deposed seven so-called “lay bishops” and forbade any layman from having “the rule of any church or church matters.” The ordination of the sons of priests and bishops was also prohibited.

A diligent reformer, Saint Laurence was also a compassionate pastor. He provided food for the poor and destitute of Dublin and fed them from his own house. He continued his works of charity, especially towards homeless children, whom he looked after and housed in his own residence.

Many times his presence alone was enough to put a stop to violence and it was in this way that the Archbishop made his outstanding contribution to negotiating peace between the different factions. He was well-placed to mediate with the Norman leaders as his own niece Aoife, daughter of Dermot McMurrough, had married Richard de Clare. We can only imagine what distress it had caused Saint Laurence to witness this Irish princess, his sister’s child, aligning herself with the foreign invaders.

Even as the peace talks were being conducted, the city of Dublin was attacked by the Normans. Killing and looting took place and Saint Laurence was seen carrying wounded and dead bodies in his arms. He saved other lives by the sheer force of his presence. In 1175 he was one of the signatories of the Treaty of Windsor between King Henry II and the High King of Ireland. This meant that Ruairi O’Connor accepted Henry as his overlord and restyled himself as king only of Connaught while still retaining some authority over the other kings.

Saint Laurence attempted to meet King Henry of England and undertook a perilous sea voyage for this reason. However he failed to achieve a meeting. For the last ten years of his life, Saint Laurence was a constant traveller and often visited England in his efforts to bring about peace between the two countries.
The Archbishop followed King Henry to France and exhausted and ill, this is where he died. His shrine is venerated at Eu in Normandy although his heart was returned to Ireland and reposes in Christchurch despite an attempt to steal it. Many miracles were attributed to his intercession and he was canonised by Pope Honorius in 1225.

Dublin’s Archbishop carried his people in his heart and on his deathbed, his last words were for them. “Alas, you poor foolish people, what will you do now? Who will take care of you in your trouble?”

Respected by kings, princes and leaders as a person of honour and integrity, his mediation in matters ecclesial and civil, was eagerly sought by all sides. It was said that Saint Laurence O’Toole was the one man in Ireland that everybody trusted.

Saint Laurence, patron of the diocese of Dublin, pastor of your flock and model of true patriotism, pray for us.

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