02 November 2012

Church History (full-time) 2.1: The arrival of Christianity in Ireland

Saint Patrick … a stained glass window in Saint Edan’s Cathedral, Ferns, Co Wexford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford,

Church of Ireland Theological Institute,

Church History Elective (TH 7864)

Week 6 (Residential Weekend I):

Friday 2 November 2012:

2.1: The arrival of Christianity in Ireland


We ended our last seminar looking at the beginning of Christian toleration in the Roman Empire and prepared to look at the Great Councils of the Church that defined the doctrines and limits of the Church in the fourth and fifth century.

This period unfolds at the same time as Christianity arrives in Ireland and this island begins to earn its reputation as the “Island of Saints and Scholars.”

This morning, in our first session, I would like us to look at the origins of Christianity in Ireland, which predate even the arrival of Saint Patrick on this island.

In our second session, I hope to introduce us to the origins and development of Irish monasticism; the great founders of the monastic tradition, including Colmcille or Columba, and Columbanus, and the great missionary expansion of that monastic tradition to continental Europe; and some of the distinguishing marks of that era in Irish Church history, including the penitentials and controversies at the time, such as the date of Easter and the monastic tonsure.

Pre-Patrician Christianity

Traditionally and romantically, Saint Patrick is said to have converted the entire population of Ireland from paganism in a very short period between 432 and 461, less than the span of one generation.

But putting aside myth and romance, it is a good starting point in Irish Church History to recognise that there were Christians in Ireland before Saint Patrick’s arrival and that his work as a missionary is only part of the story of the origins and growth of Christianity on this island.

A hint of this is already found in the way Irish mythology was long anxious to claim Irish connections with the Christian story that predate Patrick date back to Biblical times.

These include:

1, Altus, said to have been an Irish witness to the passion and death of Christ;
2, The legend that Conor Mac Nessa, King of Ireland, died of a broken heart when he heard of Christ’s crucifixion;
3, The story of a local king, Cormac Mac Airt, who converted to Christianity in the 3rd century;
4, Accounts of Mansuetus, said to have been an Irish bishop in 4th century France.

But there is a realistic medium between these legends and the concept of a sudden conversion to Christianity at the hands of a single missionary.

The seas provided Ireland with immediate access to the neighbouring islands and Continental Europe: the north Antrim coast and Galloway were a few hours apart, Wales was less than a day away; many parts of Continental Europe was accessible in a day or two by sail and ship; present-day Spain no less than three days away; Iceland, a journey of about 1,000 miles, was less than a week away.

Tacitus (ca 55-120 AD) tells us that British or Gallic merchants had a reasonably good knowledge of Ireland’s “harbours and approaches.”

The “Celtic” people in Ireland were traders, raiders and plunderers, and there is evidence of Roman traders reaching Irish harbours and beyond them up rivers such as the Nore and the Barrow, trading in wine, oil and wheat. The Irish imported pottery, metal-work and bric-a-brac from Roman Gaul and Britain, and exported copper, gold, slaves, hides, cattle and wolfhounds.

By the end of the third century, people from Ireland were establishing colonies on the neighbouring island, with colonies in north-west and south-west Wales, in Cornwall and on the west coast of Scotland.

There must have been interchange between these colonists, Christian Britons and the Roman ruling and military classes, and the traffic cannot have been all one-way either, and the return traffic must have brought some Christians to the south and east coasts of Ireland.

By the third or fourth century, there was regular commercial, mercantile and social contact between communities in Ireland and Roman communities in Britain and Gaul. So, for example, there have been abundant finds of looted Roman coins all along the northern and eastern coasts of Ireland: at the Giant’s Causeway (1831), Coleraine (1854) and more recently at Limavaddy; and Roman silver ingots with similar Christian provenance have been found in Kent and Limerick.

Catherine Swift argues convincingly that among the ruling class in Ireland, many adopted the cultural habits of Roman Britons, to the point that they became Romanised to the point that they adopted the social customs of Roman Britain and what is now Cathedral Hill in Armagh is an example of one of their temple sites.

Christianity probably arrived in Ireland in the 4th and early 5th centuries by a slow and gradual process of unplanned infiltration, from Britain and from Continental European, probably from Gaul and what we now know as Germany, and perhaps even from the Iberian peninsula (present-day Spain and Portugal).

One local king, Niall of the Nine Hostages, commanded several raiding expeditions across the Irish Sea. British captives carried off by Irish raiders may be yet another way of Christianity coming to have a presence on this island. Some educated continental Christians may also have sought refuge in Ireland during the barbarian invasions of the crumbling Roman Empire, fleeing Gaul or present-day France, at the start of the 4th century, and bringing their Christianity with them.

Other points of contact include contacts made by the Irish emigrés in Britain, and trade links with Roman Britain, Gaul and Spain. A gravestone for a fifth century Irish Christian has been found in a Christian cemetery in Trier, and fifth century Christians, some with Latin names, are commemorated on ogham stones in southern Ireland, in Carlow, Waterford, Cork and Kerry.

In other words, many factors indicate the arrival of t Christianity in Ireland long before Patrick was captured as a slave, and there was a considerable Christian presence on this island before Patrick began his mission in 432.

There is some evidence that suggests the gradual conversion of Ireland by Britons in the 4th century and possibly early fifth century.

Pre-Patrician Christian missions in Ireland

Saint Iberius’ Church, Wexford … named after one of half a dozen or more saints whose missions are said to predate that of Saint Patrick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

There are traditions that some Irish saints preceded Saint Patrick in date: Ciaran of Seirkieran (Diocese of Ossory); Declan of Ardmore, Co Waterford; Ibar of Begerin, Co Wexford; Ailbe of Emly, Co Tipperary; Meltioc of Kinsale, Co Cork; and so on. Most of these are associated with the south and the south-east, although there is no primary evidence to support these largely unreliable traditions.

Nevertheless, the presence of British Christians in Ireland must have had an influence, direct or indirect, on the spread of Christianity in Ireland before 431, and by the time he began his mission Patrick would have found the British Christians resident in Ireland forming the nucleus for his mission and his Church.

The background to Patrick’s mission includes the presence of perhaps three heresies in Ireland – Arianism, Priscillianism and Pelagianism – that probably arrived from western Europe in the late fourth and early fifth centuries.

Some of Priscillian’s ascetic adherents may have made their way to Ireland after he was executed in 386.

Pelagius (355-425) denied the necessity of grace for salvation and emphasised God’s gift of free will to humanity. Saint Jerome vilifies him as a “most stupid fellow, heavy with Irish porridge” and claims that he, or his companion Coelestius, had “his lineage of the Irish race, from the neighbourhood of the Britons.” Perhaps Jerome was insulting his opponent, but nevertheless the possibility arises that Pelagius had Irish ancestry or had lived in Ireland.

Germanus of Auxerre was sent from Rome to Britain in 429 to combat the impact of Pelagius and Pelagianism on the Church in Roman Britain. Soon after – perhaps in 431 – Palladius was ordained by Pope Celestine, and he was sent as the “first bishop” on a mission to “the Scotti [Irish] who believe in Christ.” So, we know that from at least the third decade of the 5th century, the Irish Christians were numerically large enough to have a bishop sent from Rome, and Palladius is associated with a number of church sites in Leinster.

Palladius may have worked in the south-east of Ireland for a few years. His work in Leinster was continued, perhaps, by figures such as Secundinus, Auxilius and Iserninus. His mission activities and those of Patrick may have been confused in later writings, so that much of the work and success of Palladius was attributed wrongly to Patrick.

The late Professor Patrick Corish, in The Irish Catholic Experience (1985), links the mission of Palladius in Leinster with, perhaps, three churches in Co Wicklow. The circular letter known as The First Synod of Saint Patrick seems to provide evidence of a second-generation missionary Church in Leinster, and this stream of Christianity in Ireland has been associated with the Church in Kildare.

Patrick: the man and his mission

Saint Patrick … an image on the wall of Saint Patrick’s Roman Catholic Church in Skerries, Co Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The young Patrick was captured in a great raid in which “many thousands of people” [Confessio 1], some of whom were lukewarm Christians, according to his own account, and some of them could also have been committed Christians, perhaps even priests.

Saint Patrick’s account of his flight from slavery as a young man at the age of 22 may be evidence of an escape network for fugitive slaves run by concerned Christians, presumably in Leinster, more than 20 years before Patrick began his own mission [Confessio 17 and 18].

However, Patrick does not refer to Palladius. Although the missions of Palladius and Patrick may have coincided, Patrick was working in fresh territory, while Roman missionaries in Leinster were consolidating the work of Palladius and others who, by 431, had ensured that there were many people in Ireland who were Christians.

By the time Patrick began his mission, the foundations had been laid for a Church in Ireland that over the centuries that followed became a vibrant missionary Church.

In his Confessio [51], Patrick shows he is aware of episcopal activity in other parts of Ireland, including baptisms, confirmations and ordinations.

Patrick says he travelled to places in Ireland “where no one else had ever penetrated, in order to baptise, or to ordain clergy, or to confirm the people” –suggesting there were places that had received episcopal ministry from other, earlier sources.

So, Christianity had already taken root in the island before Saint Patrick began his mission.

The traditional account of the life of Saint Patrick says he was born about 372 in Roman Britain in Bannavem Taburniae, perhaps in Cumbria or at Dumbarton in Scotland. He says his father Calpornius was a deacon and his grandfather Potitus was a priest; both were from a relatively prosperous class of Romans.

At the age of 16, he was captured and brought to Ireland and later sold as a slave. After escaping and returning to his own people, he began to have visions of the cry of the Irish pleading to him to come back – an image probably drawn from Saint Paul’s vision in Troy of a man calling him across the sea to Macedonia (see Acts 16: 9-10).

Believing he was called by God to a mission to the Irish, he entered the monastery of Saint Martin of Tours. He was subsequently ordained a bishop in Rome, and was sent to Ireland by Pope Celestine, who died in 432.

Patrick arrived from Britain in Ireland around 432, and most of the details we have of his life are from his Confessio, written in reply to the attacks on his character brought against him in England, and his Letter to Coroticus.

Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Armagh ... why did Armagh become the centre of the cult of Saint Patrick? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

It is said that Saint Patrick built 365 churches and consecrated an equal number of bishops, established schools and convents, and held synods. The sites associated with him include Armagh, which became the centre of the cult of Saint Patrick, Croagh Patrick in Co Mayo and Lough Derg on the borders of Co Donegal, where he is said to have spent time in retreat, and Downpatrick, where he is said to have been buried. There is no historical reason to associate him with the site of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin, or the supposed Saint Patrick’s Well at the Nassau Street side of Trinity College Dublin, or other sites such as Holmpatrick in Skerries or Saint Patrick’s Church in Donabate, both in Fingal in north Co Dublin.
There are four different dates for his death. Most traditions say he died around 460, although other authorities say he died sometime around 491 to 493.

Mediaeval sources are unanimous in describing Saint Brigid of Kildare as a contemporary of Saint Patrick.

There is a theory that there were two Patricks, although this may arise from a misreading of “the elder Patrick,” who died in457, where elder might also be read as bishop or priest.

Neither the canons attributed to him nor the Breastplate of Saint Patrick is not his work. Later seventh-century documents speak of Patrick as the successor of Palladius. However, the O Neill dynasty had Tireachan and Muirchu write spurious accounts of Patrick’s life to establish Armagh’s claims to primacy in Ireland.

When Brian Ború became High King ca 1000 AD, he had his secretary write into the Book of Armagh a confirmation of the right of Armagh to all church revenues in Ireland. It was at least another century, however, before Armagh’s claims to primacy were recognised throughout the Irish Church.

Next: Church History (full-time) 2.2: Early Irish Church History

Canon Patrick Comerford is lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This lecture on 2 November 2012 was part of the residential weekend in Church History Elective (TH 7864).

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