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When the Abbot of a monastery died, certain well defined and detailed rules were followed in appointing his successor. Indeed, it was probably known to the saint himself before his death who would be his "comarba" or heir of the holy functions and authority which he exercised. There were two main classes from whom the successor should be chosen. First, the blood relatives of the Abbot were scanned and if a suitable man were found he was selected. Relationship was not sufficient in itself however: the person must have qualifications suitable for the office. If the deceased's family could not provide the kind of man required, then search was made amongst the second class, who were the kindred of the king or landlord who had granted the land to the monastery. As a general rule the right of the hereditary succession was not in the individual but in the family to which he or the land belonged.

In the early days of the Celtic Church these arrangements worked satisfactorily, but later the local ruling family usurped rights in the succession out of turn and contrary to the rules. In this way they ultimately gained complete control and possession of the office and all that pertained to it. Originally the only rights which the Tuath (tribe), to whom the land belonged, could claim, were baptism, communion and requiem of soul. "It was no Tuath or tribe without three free neimhidh or dignatories - the Ecclais or Church ; the Flaith or lord ; and the File or poet." This was a matter for pride, and emulation at first, but in course of time the covetousness of the secular power became the dominant factor in the relationship of the first two, and the patrimony of the Church, together with the power of spiritual supervision, gradually passed from her control until in many instances she was left desolate. A description of the state of Armagh in 1105 by St. Bernard is typical of what was happening in both Ireland and Scotland between the sixth and twelfth centuries: "A scandalous custom has been introduced by the diabolical ambition of certain of the nobles that the holy see should be obtained by hereditary succession. For they allowed no one to be promoted to the bishopric except such as were of their own tribe or family. Nor was it for any short period that this execrable succession had continued, as nearly fifteen generations had already passed away in this villainy; and so firmly had this wicked and adulterous generation established their unholy right or rather wrong, which deserved to be punished with any sort of death, that, although on some occasions. clergymen of their blood were not found among them, yet bishops they never were without."

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