conversion of northern Europe to Christianity was a bloody and
brutal business, continued in the face of fierce resistance by
In Ireland, there was no obvious 'Charlemagne' butchering the
natives into submission, though the process was not
Christianizing of Ireland
On the western
fringe of Europe, Ireland's iron age tribal society – migratory
pastoralist, living by cattle herding, rustling and raiding,
and with limited agriculture – had
continued largely unchanged
either by the rise or the collapse of the western empire. In
the 1st century the Romans had mapped the island's coastline
and traders had entered Irish
waters, even establishing a trading post at Stonyford on
the Nore. Agricola had considered an invasion during his
campaign in Britain, deploying a single legion to
subdue the island, but it was not to be.
a neighbour to a Romanized Britain for 400 years, but trade and
other contacts were never sufficient to change the nature of
Ireland and urbanisation never
No roads existed and coinage
was unknown. Without
of Rome, nothing drew the Irish tribes into recognisable
towns, or even villages.
The basic unit
of habitation in this fragmented warrior society was the ringfort
of them in close proximity) – either
a stone-walled 'cashel' or an earthen banked 'rath.' Within
the ringfort stood wretchedly flimsy huts or partially sunken
'souterrains'. Of an estimated 50,000 such 'forts' average
occupancy was an extended family ('Derbfine' or 'sure
twenty. 'Marriage' had a fairly loose meaning. A clan's chosen
chieftain was held to embody the tribe's finest qualities and
it was a privilege for a woman to bear
his offspring and strengthen clan identity.
Typical Celtic habitation
Sought after residence in 8th century west of Ireland
recorded the tribesmen of Ireland as being even fiercer than
the Britons. Human heads
were taken as trophies and Strabo and Jerome both comment
on Irish cannibalism. Inter-tribal warfare was endemic
though the clans fought as a horde, in complete disarray.
Their weaponry was limited,
slings and axes – their most prized possessions – and
they wore no armour. If the tribesmen rode to battle
on horse it was without benefit of stirrup or bridle,
of Rome's decision not to invade was that the Christianizing
of Ireland, no less insidious than elsewhere in Europe,
was a particularly protracted process. In the barbarous
conditions of the island the eradication of pre-Christian
took many centuries.
In the 4th
century, as Rome's hold on Britain weakened, the Gaels began
slave-raiding along the west coast of Britain.
Monks – Saving
quite the Pantheon!
Irish monastery of the 6th / 7th century (NOT
to be confused with the vast estates a thousand
A circular enclosure, a few rectangular wooden
structures with thatched or shingled roofs, and
a cluster of round wattle huts.
A tall, roughly hewn slab of stone would stand
near the door of the 'church'.
9th century 'Gallarus Oratory' or prayer
By the 9th century Irish monks had mastered
the Neolithic tomb-making technique of 'corbelling' – inclining
horizontal courses of stone inwards to form a point.
surviving law tract indicates a cumal (female
slave) as being equal in value to six young
heifers." – Fry
Copying, Without Understanding
"Though the Irish succeeded in transcribing
the works of ancient philosophers, they could
not really understand them – nor for that
matter could the few remaining Romans of the
west, like Gregory the Great."
– Thomas Cahill (How the Irish Saved Civilization, p204)
stone totem pole – equally
at home in a Christian holy place
stones were pagan in origin. Many stones
in Ireland are marked in a primitive
'alphabet' composed entirely of etched
Apparently, named from 'Ogam,
the Celtic god of literature and
making the sign of the cross on the
ancient stones the power of the pagan
monument was being captured for the
new religion." (Cunliffe, p476)
Brendan ("the Navigator")
this 6th century monk (founder
of a monastery at Clonfert, Galway)
spent 7 years sailing the Atlantic,
searching for, and finding, Paradise.
During the journey the holy mariner
and his band were "raised
on the back of sea monsters."
austere antics did him no harm – the
nutter lived, would you believe,
to 120. Hmm.
"Tales of solitary ecstatics
and madmen remained as abundant as
ever, whether of Sweeney, the king
who thought he was a bird and lived
his life in treetops, or of Kevin
of Glendalough, a sixth-century hermit
who lived in a hole in the rock wall
of a cliff, emerging in winter to
stand for hours stark naked in the
icy waters of the lough or in summer
to hurl himself – again naked – into
a bush of poisonous nettles."
A Heathen Isle
had its 'kings' – perhaps as many as 150 – but
'king' implied nothing of 'court and palace' but rather, a
parochial warrior chieftain, a dominant barbarian enjoying
the luxury of two ditches
about his desperately primitive corral and holding
as personal slaves any hostages the tribe might have come by.
paid tribute to the king in the form of cattle, sheep, and grain
and served as warriors in time of war. The king was guided by
his 'brehon' (judge) and by peripatetic
witch-doctors – the Druids,
a revered priesthood, holding power over life and death,
and, according to
Caesar, making human sacrifices. Poets and bards (the filid)
committed to memory tribal exploits and were held in high
When the kingship
system intermittently threw up a 'High King' the
tribes gathered, hostages were taken from the submitting
clans, and the warrior overlord had sex with a horse (see
side quote). After perhaps a week of ceremony, drunkenness
and 'judgments' the tribes dispersed to their forts, watery
bogside 'crannogs' and
Ex-slave Patricus ('directed
by the Holy Spirit in a dream') confronted Druidic priests
on the Plain of Tara at a gathering of the High King Laoghire.
Patrick confounded them with a "miracle of fire". He
brought a "great
darkness over the land." At
first, the king feigned conversion but his conversion became
Patricus threatened him with death. The whole of Ireland was
to Christ, churches sprang up everywhere – and the snakes
confrontation of Christian missionary and
supposed encounter with established royal
magicians (7th century 'Life of Patrick,' Tírechán, Bishop of Tirawley)
is a transparent re-write of Elijah's contest
with the priests of Baal from the biblical
'Book of Kings'.
waste a good yarn?
the poetic notion of a golden age of 'saints and scholars' between
the 6th and 9th centuries (and a handful of 'illuminated' gospels
as if to prove the point) the reality is far more sober: early
attempts to Christianize the barbarous savages of Ireland were ephemeral, compromised,
and highly localised.
primitive Christianity reached the British Isles in the late
3rd/ early 4th centuries, where it competed with both established
Roman religions and native Celtic cults. It must have gained
a boost from the elevation of Constantine (three
bishops from Britain are known to have attended the Emperor's Synod
of Arles in 314, which imposed Constantine's ruling against
the Donatists), though archaeological evidence suggests Mithraism
Britain than Christianity.
British (or Celtic) 'Christianity' pre-dated any
agreed canon of sacred texts, sacraments, liturgical year or
organisation. At Ariminum in 359 British bishops are known to have supported Arianism.
Early Romano-British Christians, in common with the brethren
parts of the empire, were evolving their own version of 'divine
truth' and had no natural subordination to a bishop in Rome.
'free' Church of the British Isles
In the early 5th
century, an individualistic form of Christianity emerged in Roman
Britain under the guidance of Pelagius (354-418),
which stressed free will ('De libero arbitrio') and the ability
of the individual to find God through
personal faith (sola-fides doctrine
centuries before Luther!). JC's
redemption was held to be by instruction (doctrina) and
example (exemplum) – salvation without the
Church – not
an approach which found favour with the ambitious pontiffs on the
north Africa, Augustine (locked in a bitter conflict with the
tenaciously 'independent' Donatists) was promoting the novel
'original sin' and the 'tainting'
nature by the behaviour of Adam. Only through the sacraments
of 'Holy Mother Church' could a supplicant receive 'Divine
Grace,' a dogma the bishops
of Rome found
vigorously rejected Augustine's notions and when he
reached Rome, his severe
asceticism was horrified by the
obvious grandeur of the Church hierarchy, and of the papacy in
particular. His 'liberal' Christianity, upheld in Jerusalem
in 415, was condemned repeatedly in Rome and at other Catholic
synods (the Councils of Carthage 416 and 418 and as late as 529
Synod of Orange.)
Pope Boniface and the Empress Galla Placidia, the feeble Emperor
Honorius (395-423) expelled Pelagians
elsewhere) and issued an edict requiring all bishops to sign
Pope Zosimus's 'Tractoria' condemning Pelagius's 'heresy.'
Despite the censure, in the 5th
and 6th centuries Pelagianism spread far across
the Roman world and found natural allies with other factions
locked in conflict with the Bishop of Rome – for example, the
Nestorians (for a time, the 'national'
Christian church of Persia).
the Irish Sea, the blending of Christianity into native culture
would be even more pronounced.
Island of the Druids
the 4th and 5th centuries, a tiny handful of British Christians – captives,
traders, repatriating auxiliary troopers, and adventurers – made
passage to the non-Romanised island further west. They took their
idiosyncratic understanding of the faith with them.
"Christianity began to make its appearance,
not actually with St Patrick but here and there in isolated places
some time before him, through individual believers who came from
Britain and Europe, probably more in search of trade than
legendary Romano-Briton Patricus, if his Confessions are
to be believed, he chose to leave the enmity of his hometown
in northern Britain (at some time during the 5th century)
to proselytize his own version of the Jesus myth in the wild
claimed "thousands" of converts, yet also
admitted "daily expecting to be murdered or betrayed
or reduced to slavery." His
achievement, such as it was, was confined to Airgialla (close
by the ancient tribal centre of Emuin Machae).
later centuries, as the bishopric of Armagh sought to establish
a universal authority, Patrick's memory was to be finessed
into the cult still with us today. He is credited with the unlikely
act of changing his friends into deer so that they could escape
their enemies and the no less unlikely act of founding
the town of Armagh in 444 on a ridge where he brought back to
life the local chief (and his horse!)
those, like Patrick, not born in Ireland the
re-settlement could not have been easy – Hibernia's primitive
barbarism knew nothing of civilization.
were still sacrificing prisoners of war to the war gods, and newborn to the harvest gods ... They displayed proudly
the heads of their enemies in their temples and on their
palisades; they even hung them from their belts as ornaments
..." (Cahill, p136)
survive in this hostile environment the early Christians assumed the
mantle of the Druids, rival magicians and soothsayers
but also possible converts.
the Celts, religion and 'prophecy' were nature-based, conducted
sacred groves and streams, without need of dedicated buildings.
Water deities and 'healing waters' were commonplace. The
word 'Druid' itself is derived from a word meaning 'oak
earliest Irish Christians lived and worshipped in
caves and forest glades, just like the rival Druidic priests.
They wore the same white woollen robes. Sacred pools and springs
were transformed into holy wells and rededicated to obscure
kings were often
but a modicum
a handful of artifacts, marked them out as 'gurus,' 'magicians,'
a new type of Druid – men to be respected and feared.
Green Martyrs ... devised a new form of holiness by living
alone in isolated hermitages, braving all kinds of physical
adversity, and imposing on themselves the most heroic fasts
and penances, all for the sake of drawing nearer to God." –
a land fearfully superstitious the local chieftain
might be seduced by such displays of extreme sanctity and 'heroism',
as if the priest
were the creature from another world.
that failed, Christ-magic – a
gem-encrusted reliquary, for example, or trance-induced prophecy,
or the 'power
of words' –
could engender fear, respect, acceptance and land. At first,
in desperately primitive shelters, later in
at favourable water sources, the evangelizers constructed
simple huts and a stone building for prayer – a
far-cry from a Romano-British town but an advance for Ireland.
from Patricus, we know that a Secundinus moved into Meath (Dunshaughlin),
Auxillius into north Leinster
(Killashee), and Benignus into Armagh. Their
'monasteries' echoed the basic unit of habitation in the
warrior society of Hibernia: the
ringfort, and perhaps also the monkish communities pioneered
in the even more severe Egyptian desert.
(or group of kindred monasteries, a paruchia) maintained
its independence and followed its own 'rule' – or
lack of it. Rival
'soldiers of Christ' competed for power and
influence and not infrequently
their 'houses' waged
war on each other.
they sided with the local tribe in a blood-feud with a neighbouring
for example, the 6th century Colum Cille (aka
St Columba) lost out and was exiled
to Iona by King Diarmait after a battle in which
a psalter (thereafter known as the "Cathach" or
Warrior Psalter) was the spoils of war. 3000 had
died. The excommunicated evangelizer left
Ireland behind for better prospects
in Scotland (he spent thirty-four years on a rock –
Left to its
own devices the Irish Christianity that eventually took hold compromised
heavily with the native tradition and
moved by stealth.
company with 'Roman' ideas of bishops ruling geographic
a uniform liturgy and Roman sacraments – and settled
for land grants and close integration with the tribal
concubinage were common among the monks.
attracted the shanties of servers and vassals and grew in size.
they rapidly became inherited personal property.
hands of an increasingly powerful Abbot, appointed
from a single family. The numerous bishops
performed a subordinate priestly role.
and Celtic gods found their way into a
very 'Irish' form
of Christianity in which 'saints' were everywhere, working
miracles, uttering prophecies and enjoying divine visions
("Colman. There are about 300 saints of this name mentioned
in Irish martyrologies." – Oxford Dictionary
of Saints). Even women
might take a leading role – a
Christian version of 'Druidic priestesses' unthinkable in Catholicism.
Gods Metamorphose into Christian 'Saints'
move saw her re-emerge as "Brigid, the Mary
of the Gael" – an iconic device to reinforce,
by proxy, devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary herself.
goddess of fertility, valour, metal-working and
healing (perhaps originating with the Brigantes
tribe of southeast Ireland and northern Britain.)
Female acolytes maintained a perpetual fire in
her honour and her festival – 1st February
('Imbolc') – celebrated the sun's return
and arrival of spring.
the early 9th century a Kildare monk, Cogitosus,
revamped the old goddess stories into the Christian 'St
Brigid' (aka 'Bridget, Bride etc) – a
miracle-working abbess, partnered by 'St Conleth'
(a craftsman in metal). Miracles included ever-lasting
food from her larder and turning her bath water
into beer for visiting clerics! Nuns at Kildare
kept an ever-burning fire until forbidden in
1220. Festival for the saint – 1st February.
1960, even the Roman Catholic church conceded
the deceit and removed Bridget's sainthood.
In a wonderful disregard for time and space,
legend has it that St Bridget acted as midwife
at JC's birth!
Senan (or maybe not)
Celtic goddess from whom the river Shannon is named,
and revered particularly by the coastal tribe of
Corcu Baiscinn. She was believed to be a slayer
of (sea) monsters. A sanctuary existed on the island
a 9th century Christian yarn Sinann re-emerged
as 'St Senan', with a biography extending
over 150 years. He was credited with numerous
miracles, including vanquishing a (sea) monster
and with establishing a monastery – you
guessed it – on the island of Inis-Cathaig.
The Vikings – rarely
credited with the role of civilizer – undisputedly
established the first towns in Ireland in the 9th century.
Vikings set up the shops and trading posts which the
Irish were not interested in providing for themselves
and served Ireland peacefully as merchants, seamen and
farmers." (Fry, p58)
Coastal raids began in the late 8th century
and were followed by major intrusions in the mid-9th century.
Ireland's many waterways, easily negotiable by the shallow
Viking longboats, meant virtually no place in Ireland was safe
from the raiders. The monasteries – the only repositories
of portable wealth – suffered repeatedly and many were
abandoned and fell into ruin.
Having successfully plundered the west
the early 10th century the Vikings established
permanent settlements in the
south and east – at Waterford, Wexford, Wicklow,
Limerick, Cork and Carlingford. A Viking settlement on the
River Liffey was Dubh Linn.
themselves the newcomers introduced farming
techniques hitherto unknown in a land still largely dense
forest and bog. They traded across the Irish Sea, in the process
the natives with keel-based boats and coinage. But
the Norsemen were cut
save by sea.
Survival often meant alliance with the local clan.
They married local girls, took to speaking Gaelic, and
Militarily they were a spent force after a crushing defeat
by a (rare)
the 10th century.
The Viking settlers were not hostile to
Christianity as such but were wary of a 'state-sponsored' or
imposed religion. Parallels between Viking religion and Christianity
abound. In Norse mythology their principal god Odin sacrificed
himself (to himself!) by hanging for nine nights on the World
Tree (Yggdrasil) in order
to learn the mysteries of the runes. The spirit realm of Asgard – and
within it, Valhalla – were a 'heaven' for fallen
heroes. The world would end with the final battle of Ragnarok between
gods and giants.
With changes in their vernacular, these
'Ostmen' (foreigners) adopted a freely interpreted Irish Christianity,
blended with their traditional paganism.
with a raven at his shoulder and the evil
wolf Fenris at his feet – decorating
a 'Christian' cross.
(Isle of Man)
amulet of Thor's hammer – readily
transformed into Christian cross.
mould from 10th century Denmark was evidently
used to produce both good luck charms!
Youghal, County Cork.
Began as a Viking stronghold in the 9th
century. Walls are Norman.
Harp from Viking burial.
The Vikings had their own professional
poet/storytellers, known as 'Skalds', who versified
heroic virtues and sagas.
When the Norsemen went local their bardic
tradition blended with that of the Gaels.
island of Hibernia (or Scotia), outside
of a handful of scattered, secularised and rival monasteries,
remained essentially pagan until at least the 12th century,
when a Roman Christianity was brutally imposed
by French Catholics, otherwise known as "Anglo-Normans."
(or 'Scotia') –
Before Anglo-Norman Catholics established
Mac Crimthainn, king and bishop of
Cashel (820-47), earned the reputation for burning more
the Vikings of his time." (Fry, p49)
More than a hundred warring kingdoms and sub-kingdoms; rival
monastic 'paruchia' (groups of scattered monasteries, ruled
by secular families), and 'Ostmen' (Vikings).
Each vied for supremacy. Monastery fought
monastery; tribes and Vikings formed temporary alliances.
Centuries of violent raids, shifting alliances, and dynastic
feuds. Despite the tradition of a 'high king' the endless
any sense of national identity.
bishops and a fallen king of Leinster (Diarmait Mac Murchada)
appealled to Anglo-French warlord Henry II
to invade. He obliged – with all the brutal force
of a Norman 'super-power.'
1139 the Bishop of Armagh, Máel Sechnaill
(aka 'St Malachy'), appealled to the head of Roman Catholicism's
prevailing avant guard, Bernard Sorrel, head of
the Cistercian Order, based at Clairvaux in France. The fanatical
St Bernard chalks up among
his achievements advocacy of the crusading orders, particularly
the Knights of the Temple of Solomon – the Templars (founded in 1120);
the triumph of his nominee Innocent II in an 8-year fight
with the 'anti-pope' Anacletus; and inspiration for the Second
Crusade of 1147. The meddlesome politico-bishop
saw an opportunity in
Malachy complained to the abbot
had fallen into
families, who billeted troops in them; that the monks themselves
kept concubines and lived with their families; and that
the Irish populace practiced
made and dissolved at will without regard to the church.
services were seldom held, and when they were, there was
little preaching and no singing or chanting;
and the laity, who paid no tithes, were quite uninstructed
in the Christian faith. Ireland, St Malachy told St Bernard,
was Christian in name but in reality heathen." – Fry, p59/60.
Here was a heathen land ripe for a Holy Crusade!
Bernard responded with a detachment of Cistercian
monks who set up an abbey at Mellifort (nr Drogheda) in
1142. Fanning out across the countryside
followed and other existing houses brought into the new order.
But Malachy's 'distressing' report had not
stopped with Bernard but had gone on to the Pope, who was at
the same time
receiving reports from Theobald, Archbishop of Canterbury. Theobald
raised his own concerns
about the free-wheeling Irish Church – its operatives were
active in Britain and threatening his own power-base.
Malachy himself was given legatine powers by Innocent II to impose
Roman Obedience (a sartorial flourish was the introduction of
the Roman-style bishop's pallium) – but it was not enough.
A papal legate, Cardinal John Paparo,
put in a presence at the
Kells in 1152 and reported back to Rome, where a far
more drastic solution to the Irish question was conceived by
a new and energetic incumbent on the papal throne.
1155 Pope Hadrian IV – an
Englishman trained as a French cleric – issued the notorious
bull Laudabiliter urging
England's Henry II to conquer Ireland:
is indeed no doubt ... that Ireland and all other islands
... belong to the jurisdiction of St. Peter and of
the holy Roman Church.
We, therefore ... granting a benignant
assent to thy petition, are well pleased that, for the enlargement
of the bounds of the
church, for the restraint of vice, for the correction
of morals and the introduction of virtues, for the advancement
of the Christian
religion, thou shouldst enter that island, and carry out
there the things that look to the honour of God and to its
that the church may there be adorned, the Christian religion
planted and made to grow."
The Norman invasion of Ireland followed
in 1169 and almost the whole island was subjugated, Ironically,
it was encouraged and assisted by Dermot MacCurrogh, King of
Leinster (eastern Ireland), at war with Rory O'Connor,
the then high-king.
Wary that his Norman knights might carve out
an independent kingdom, Henry II took over and completed the
conquest of Ireland.
A Synod of Cashel followed in 1172. Christianus,
papal legate and bishop of Lismore, presided. It marked the end
of an independent
The native liturgies and practices were suppressed, the Roman
By a combination
of castle and church, feudalism was introduced into Ireland
and ancient liberties extinguished. Anglo-French knights (de
de Barrys, de Montmorencys, le
Groses, et al)
grabbed vast estates. Roman Catholicism sank in its insidious
the 'take' for St. Peter and the Pope was an
annual pension of
like other invaders before them, the Norman Catholics would
be absorbed into Ireland – but a thousand years of religious
strife lay ahead.
1171 Roman Church
Welcomes an Ireland Under the Norman Boot
Pope Alexander III commended Henry II as "the
most beloved son in Christ" for an invasion "so
In 1220 AD, the nuns of Kildare were compelled by their Norman Bishop
to accept subservience to male priests – opening the door to all-manner
of abuse. The bishop also prohibited the keeping of the sacred flame, a pagan
custom of great antiquity.
In 1366 the Statutes of Kilkenny introduced 'race laws' to preserve the
identity and loyalty of the English in Ireland.
The English settlers were forbidden to marry the 'Irish enemy', sell
them horses or even play hurling! In the spirit of Christ's loving church, Irish Christians were excluded
from English churches, though in practice, the laws proved difficult to enforce.
Thomas Cahill, How the Irish Saved Civilization (Doubleday,
Barry Cunliffe, Facing the Ocean - The Atlantic & Its People (OUP,
Peter & Fiona Somerset Fry, A History of Ireland (Routledge,
L. & J. Laing, Celtic Britain and Ireland (Irish Academic Press,
W. Cook & R. Herzman, The Medieval World View (OUP, 1983)
David Farmer, Oxford Dictionary of Saints (OUP, 1997)
Rosamond McKitterick, The Early Middle Ages (OUP, 2001)
P. H. Blair, Roman Britain & Early England (Sphere, 1974)
N. H. Sitwell, Outside the Empire (Paladin, 1986)
David Bellingham, Celtic Mythology (Quintet, 1990)
Michael Grant, From Rome to Byzantium - The Fifth Century AD (Routledge,
Robert Kee, Ireland, A History (Abacus, 1998)
Esther de Waal, The Celtic Way of Prayer (Hodder and Stoughton, 1996)
Some fifty articles are now available as a book.
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Copyright © 2004
by Kenneth Humphreys.
Copying is freely permitted, provided credit is given to the author
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