The Coming of Christianity

Chapter Two

The Coming of Christianity

The First Christians

Ireland became a Christian country in the fifth century, and St Patrick is largely credited with the conversion of the pagan Gaels and the establishment of the Church. According to tradition he landed in County Down in 432, but there were certainly Christians in Ireland before this date. Ireland had many contacts with the rest of Europe, and there was a steady trade in such commodities as wine, oil and the hides of cattle. As the Roman Empire declined, the Irish traders also became raiders, and some set up new kingdoms along the west coast of Britain. By these contacts Christian beliefs were probably brought to Ireland. It was Palladius, however, who was sent by Pope Celestine to be first bishop to the Irish ‘believing in Christ. He arrived in Ireland in 431, and until fairly recently it was believed that he died a year later, apparently in Britain, without having made much impact. Some scholars now believe that he lived and worked in Ireland for another thirty years or so, and that, because his second name was Patricius, there was some confusion among later historians between Palladius and the great Irish saint who succeeded him as bishop.

St. Patrick

Much remains to be discovered about Ireland’s patron saint. The traditional dates of his mission to Ireland are 432-61, but the ‘two Patricks’ theory suggests that he arrived in 456 and died some thirty years later. The problem is not solved by the two documents which he left behind his Confession written in old age, and the much earlier Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus. The saint does, however, write that he was the son of a Roman official. Calpurnius, lived in the village of Bannevem Taberniae, which may have been in Wales, and was captured at the age of sixteen by Irish raiders. For six years he was a slave in Ireland, looking after his master’s sheep on a hillside commonly believed to be Slemish mountain in County Antrim. He turned to prayer, and eventually a voice told him that he should escape to a waiting ship. Patrick travelled 200 miles to the coast, where he joined a ship carrying Irish wolfhounds to the continent. Eventually he returned to Britain, where he had visions in which the people of Ireland begged him to ‘come and walk again among us’.

He himself does not say where he was trained as a cleric, but a seventh-century biography suggests the monastery at Auxerre in Gaul. After many years of preparation he set sail and eventually landed on the shores of Strangford Lough. His first convert, Dichu, gave him a barn to use as a church, and the place is named Saul from the Irish for a barn, sabhall. From this first church Patrick travelled all over Ireland, but his principal missionary work seems to have been in the north, the central lowlands and the west.

Patrick considered himself a Roman citizen, and the church he established was Roman in character and organisation, with a number of bishops each exercising authority within his own diocese. The dioceses corresponded to the tuaths. He chose Armagh (Ard Macha. close to Emain Macha, the great hill-fort once occupied by the Gaelic kings of Ulster) as the ecclesiastical capital of Ireland, and so it remains today for both the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of Ireland. Monastic life also reached Ireland during Patrick’s years as a missionary, and within a century abbots were more important than bishops and the monasteries were the main centres of both religion and learning.


As the Gospel spread throughout Ireland, growing numbers of people wanted to dedicate their lives to God. In a rural society there were no great cities where they could join together in prayer and contemplation, and so monasteries came into existence. The collapse of the Roman Empire meant that communication with the mother church was impaired, and the Celtic Church in Ireland developed its own separate character and rites, as did the churches in Scotland and Wales. Irish monasticism had an austere quality, and many monks chose to live alone or in very small groups on islands or hill-sides.

The first Irish monastery to become famous was founded by St Enda on the Aran Islands at the end of the fifth century. St Finnian, who studied in Wales, founded Clonard early in the sixth century. He became known as the ‘teacher of the saints of Ireland’, for twelve of his pupils, sometimes known as the ‘twelve apostles of Ireland’, founded a number of important monasteries. They included St Columba or Columcille (Derry and Durrow), St Ciaran (Clonmacnois, a great seat of learning overlooking the river Shannon), and St Brendan the Navigator (Clonfert).

The early Irish monasteries were groups of simple buildings quite unlike the great monasteries of Europe. They included a church, a refectory, the monks’ cells, schools, library and a workshop. They were usually made of wood or wattle, with thatched roofs, but stone was used in the barren west and this ultimately became the practice throughout Ireland.

The monks shaved their hair at the front of their heads and let it grow long at the back, a style of tonsure which contrasted with the continental practice of shaving the crown of the head. More important than the divergence over tonsure was the Celtic Church’s adherence to a traditional method of dating Easter, while the Roman Church accepted a new method devised by Victorius of Aquitane in 457. Not until 716 did the Columban monasteries conform to Roman practice, and thereafter Armagh rather than the Columban monastery on the Scottish island of Iona was the supreme centre of the Irish Church.

St Columcille, whose name meant ‘dove of the Church’, was the most remarkable of the monastic leaders. The event which, it is commonly believed, changed his life came after he had founded religious houses at Derry and Durrow, while staying with St Finnbarr of Moville he secretly copied a gospel text belonging to his host. Finnbarr became angry and claimed the copy, and King Diarmait ruled ‘To every cow her calf , to every book its copy’. Columcille rejected the finding, and there followed a battle in which many were killed. It is said that, as a penance, he chose exile in a foreign land where he could win for Christianity as many souls as had died in the battle. Columcille sailed to Iona in 563, and for three centuries the monastery he founded there was the most renowned in the Celtic fringes of Britain.

Ireland is sometimes called the land of saints and scholars, and name derives from this golden age of the Irish Church, when great numbers of ‘pilgrims for Christ’ followed Columcille’s example and spread with missionary fervour throughout Britain and Western Europe. For many it was an act of penitence, but there was also a firm desire to convert the pagan hordes which had destroyed the Roman Empire. One ninth-century author wrote of an Irish nation ‘with whom the custom of travelling into foreign parts has now become almost second nature’.

St Columbanus was the most famous Irish monk to work on the continent, and in propagating Celtic ideas about confession of sins and penance he had more influence on the Church as a whole than Columcille. In 590 Columbanus sailed for France from Bangor, where he had studied under the strict and scholarly St Comgall, and before he died in 615 founded monasteries in France, Germany and Italy. The most renowned were at Luxeil and Bobbio.


The Vikings

Although the Irish often fought among themselves during the early centuries of Christianity, it was not until the end of the eighth century that the island was menaced by a new set of invaders. These were the Vikings, and their first recorded attack was on the island of Lambay, off the east coast, where St Columcille had founded a monastery. In the same year, 795, the Scandinavian warriors plundered Iona. There were other raids on Iona, and after sixty-eight monks had been murdered in 806, the survivors fled to Ireland and established a new monastery at Kells in Meath, All round the Irish coast monasteries fell to the helmeted invaders whose longships appeared suddenly from the sea. The shallow draught of the vessels meant that the Vikings could sail up rivers like the Shannon and the Bann. Thorgest of Turgesius had fleets on Lough Ree and Lough Neagh, and he drove out the abbot of Armagh. In 845 Thorgest was captured and killed by Malachy, the King on Meath, and thereafter the Irish began to have some success in battle.

The Vikings were not only interested in plunder, but also in trade and settling new lands less crowded than the narrow fiord valleys of their Norwegian homeland. In 841 they built a stockaded settlement or longphort on the river Liffey, and this was to become the city of Dublin. other major Irish towns, such as Wicklow, Wexford, Waterford, Cork and Limerick, were also founded by the Vikings. The Irish economy expanded, and silver coins were minted for the first time in Dublin. The ports became centres of power and influence, and the east coast gradually became more important than inland centres such as Tara and Armagh.

The dominant dynasties in ninth-century Ireland were the Ui Neill at Tara and the Eoganachta at Cashel. However, a new force arose in Munster, the Dal Cais, and in 964 their King Mahon seized the throne of Cashel. Mahon’s younger brother, Brian Boru, succeeded him in 976 and became so powerful that in 1002 the leader of the Ui Neill yielded the high kingship to him without fighting. In 1014 Brian defeated an alliance of Dublin Norsemen under Sigurd, Earl of Orkney, and Leinstermen under Mael Morda at the battle of Clontarf. He died at the moment of victory, slain by a fleeing Norseman who entered his unguarded tent. Henceforth the role of the Norsemen in Ireland was largely a peaceful one. Most of them had given up pagan beliefs, and they intermarried with the Irish and concentrated on developing trade. They became known as Ostmen (men of the east), and severed their ties with Scandinavia.


Reform of the Church

Not surprisingly the period of disruption caused the Church’s moral standards to fall. In many monasteries the abbot was a layman, there was no effective organisation of dioceses, and the Church’s teaching was often ignored in such matters as marriage, divorce and baptism. However, a reform movement was already under was on the continent, and its influence spread to Ireland. At first the Celtic Church tried to hold on to its traditional separatism, resisting the claims of the (French)-Normans archbishops of Canterbury to exercise jurisdiction over the whole of Britain and Ireland (with the new Roman Catholic Church finally instigated in 1054 hence the Conquest/Crusade of England in 1066, this brought in feudalism and the destruction of the Western Rite Orthodox Church of which the Church of Rome was until it revoked this ). It was the Ostmen who first accepted church government from England (they themselves were from Viking stock as were the French-Normans? so in away the Vikings had won a victory over the Irish)) and for a period the bishops of Dublin were consecrated by the Archbishop of Canterbury. In 1111 a synod was held at Rathbresail near Cashel, and Irland was divided into twenty-four diocese, with archbishops of Armagh and Cashel.

St Malachy was the greatest of the Irish reformers. born in Armagh in 1095 he became Archbishop of Armagh in 1132. In 1137 he retired to Bangor, but two years later was sent to Rome by his successor at Armagh. His mission was to acquire for the archbishops of Armagh and Cashel the pallis or lamb’s wool collars which would signify the Pope’s recognition of their position and of the reforms that they had carried out. On his way he stayed with St Bernard, the head of the Cistercian order, at Clairvaux and was so impressed that he sent a number of monks to be trained there. The first Cistercian foundation in Ireland was established at Mellifont in 1142, and there were eventually thirty-nine Cistercian houses in the island. Meanwhile Pope Innocent II had told Malachy that a national synod must request the pallia, and the saint died in 1148 on a second journey to Rome. It was the Synod of Kells in 1152 which gave the Irish Church the shape it still retains. Dublin and Tuam joined Armagh and Cashel as archbishoprics, and thirty-six dioceses were established. The effect was to end the Ostmen’s allegiance to Canterbury, and the Archbishop of Armagh was recognised as Primate of Ireland.


Kings with opposition

With the death of Brian Boru in 1014 Ireland again became an island of conflicting dynasties, with the high kingship as the prize. The term ri co fresabra or ‘king with opposition’ was used for those who claimed the high kingship but were unable to enforce acceptance by all the provinces. In 1162 Murtough MacLochlainn was acknowledged high king, but his success was shortlived. In 1166 he blinded the captive King of Ulida, contrary to the guarantees under which the latter had surrendered, and was killed in the rebellion which followed this brutality. Rory O’Connor became high king, and his ally Tiernan O’Rourke of Brefni seized the chance to settle an old score with Murtough’s ally, Dermot McMurrough, who had once carried off his wife Dervorgilla. However, when Tiernan invaded Leinster. Dermot fled to England in search of allies. Although the Gaelic kingdoms had been moving gradually towards a strong central monarchy, the process was incomplete and the Irish were not well enough organised to repel the Anglo-(French)-Norman invasion which followed Dermot’s flight.