Irish abbot. Founder of the monastery of Tallaght (Co. Wicklow) on land given by Cellach mac Dunchada, King of Leinster, in 774, Maelruain became the most influential figure in the reform movement of the Culdees (Celi-Dé). Little is known of his life, but several important writings survive: The Teaching of Mael-ruain, the Rule of the CeliDé, and The Monastery of Tallaght. The movement was necessary because the Irish monasteries had not maintained their traditional ascetical practices. The Culdees restored the primacy given to community prayer, with its repetitions of psalters and genuflexions; they also insisted on the continuous practice of ‘enclosure’ with the consequent exclusion of ‘pilgrimage’ with its implication of wandering exile and sometimes settlement in other countries. They insisted too on the practice of celibacy, both by monks and the other clergy.
In these ways their programme was similar to those of Carolingian and English reformers of the 9th–10th centuries, but their presentation of it was marked by a characteristic extremism. Women were spoken of as ‘men's guardian devils’, ascetic practices included total abstinence from alcohol; Sunday was observed like a Jewish sabbath; while vigils in cold water or with the arms in the form of a cross and flagellation were recommended. Although their strictures on the decadence of contemporaries cannot always be believed, they had no scruples about collecting from them tithes to which they believed themselves entitled. In general they revived traditional ascetic observances, but lacked all constitutional means of making their reform permanent.
This led, however, to the compilation, under Maelruain's direction, of the oldest Irish Martyrologies, those of Oengus and of Tallaght, also to the production of his Stowe Missal, formerly enshrined, which is a unique record of early Irish liturgy. Like other Irish reformers, he attached great importance to spiritual direction and to the confession of sins: he laid down rules for both. His monastery's devotional life was distinguished by emphasis on both the Blessed Virgin and Michael as its heavenly protectors.
Intellectual and manual work were integral elements of its life. There are, he said, ‘three profitable things in the day: prayer, labour and study, or it may be teaching or writing or sewing clothes or any profitable work that a monk may do, so that none may be idle’…Or again: ‘Labour in piety is the most excellent work of all. The kingdom of heaven is granted to him who directs study, him who studies and him who supports the student.’
On the site of Maelruain's monastery at Tallaght a church was built in 1829, partly from medieval remains. A long-standing custom of holding on his feast a house-to-house procession, which included dancing jigs in the day and drinking at night, was suppressed by the Dominicans in 1856. Feast: 7 July.
K. Hughes, The Church in Early Irish Society (1966), pp. 173–93;E. J. Gwynn, ‘The Teaching of Mael-ruain’, Hermathena, 2nd suppl. vol. (1927), pp. 1–63;id., ‘Rule of the Celi Dé’, ibid., pp. 64–87; E. J. Gwynn and W. J. Purton, ‘The Monastery of Tallaght’, P.R.I.A., xxix (1911), C, 115–79;The Irish Saints, pp. 228–41.