Friday, 2 November 2012

Church History (full-time) 2.3: Field Trip 1

Evie Hone’s window in Saint Patrick’s Church on the Hill of Tara in Co Meath (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Patrick Comerford

Church of Ireland Theological Institute

Church History Elective TH 7864

Week 6, Residential Weekend

Friday 2 November 2012

2.3: Field Trip 1


Eighty years ago, while many people in Ireland were marking the Eucharistic Congress in Dublin, throughout the Church of Ireland we were placing stained glass images of Saint Patrick in windows in parish churches up and down the land to emphasise our claims to being what the Preamble and Declaration adopted at Disestablishment described as “the Ancient Catholic and Apostolic Church of Ireland.”

One of those churches is Saint Patrick’s Church on the Hill of Tara in Co Meath. The church, which was built in 1822, is now used as the Tara Heritage and visitors’ centre, but there is still a service there each year on Saint Patrick’s Day and an Open Air Service on the Hill of Tara on the last Sunday in June.

Our first place to visit on today’s church history field trip is the Hill of Tara, Co Meath. From there we go on to the monastic site at Kells, Co Meath, then to the former cathedral site at Trim, before heading east along the banks of the River Boyne to Drogheda, which was once the principal residence of the Archbishops of Armagh.
1, Tara, Co Meath

Saint Patrick’s Church on the Hill of Tara in Co Meath, with the ruins of the original church to the south west (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

You will recognise the stained glass East Window by Evie Hone in the former Saint Patrick’s Church in Tara. There is a cartoon image of this window on the stairs up to the Brown Room in the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, with images of Pentecost interspersed with images of Saint Patrick on the Hill of Tara.

This window was placed in this church and was erected to mark the 1,500th anniversary of Saint Patrick’s arrival and his mission to Ireland.

A majestic view across the countryside from the top of the Hill of Tara (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

The Hill of Tara on a clear day provides views south to Dublin and Wicklow, south-west across Meath to Offaly and Laois, west across Westmeath, north-west to Longford and Cavan, north to Monaghan, and north-east to Louth – ten counties in all. You can understand, therefore, why t was chosen as the place for crowning the Kings of Ireland, and why Saint Patrick is said to have chosen it as important starting point for one of the main phases in his mission in Ireland.

2, Kells, Co Meath

The Round Tower in Kells, Co Meath ... a monastic site dating from the ninth, or even the sixth century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Kells, Co Meath, is ancient monastic site, famous for its the high crosses and round tower.

The present Church of Ireland parish church, Saint Columba’s, and its grounds mark the original monastic site in Kells, associated with Saint Colmcille, or Saint Columba, and with both the Book of Kells, now in the Library in Trinity College Dublin, and the Kells Crosier, now in the British Museum.

Tradition says the Abbey of Kells was founded by Saint Columba around the years 550-554 on the site of a former Irish hill fort. According to the Book of Lismore, King Diarmait or Dermot, High King of Ireland, granted the Dun or Fort of Kells to Saint Columba to establish a religious community.

The abbey received a new lease of life or was refounded in the early ninth century when the Columban monks fled Iona, the island monastery founded in Scotland by Saint Columba, to escape repeated invasions and raids by the Vikings. The move began in 804 and in 807 the Columban monks transferred their principal monastery from Iona to Kells. In 814, a new church was completed and the Abbot of Iona, Ceallach, moved to Kells. After further Viking raids, more goods and relics were transferred from the abbey to other Columban houses, including Raphoe in Co Donegal, Dunkeld in Scotland and the Abbey of Kells in Co Meath.

However, the monks did not escape the Vikings completely. The Vikings continually raided Kells during the tenth century, and the abbey was sacked and pillaged repeatedly. Throughout these constant raids, the monks kept the Book of Kells intact until 1006, when it was stolen. It was returned two months later without its cover, and with illustrations missing at the beginning and end of the book. Nor were the Vikings the only threat to Kells – in 1117, the Abbot and Community of Kells were killed in a raid by Aedh Ua Ruairc.

A major synod of the church met in Kells and in nearby Mellifont in 1152, and this Synod of Kells completed the transition of the Church in Ireland from a church organised around the monasteries to a church organised in dioceses. This Synod of Kells raised Kells to diocesan standing, making it the diocese for the Kingdom of Breffni and the monastic church a cathedral in its own right.

At the end of the 12th century, Hugh de Lacy was granted all of Co Meath. Under the Anglo-Normans, religious life flourished in Kells, which became a border town garrison protecting the Pale. When a Cistercian monk tried to assert his rights as Bishop of Kells in 1185, he was ejected by the Bishop of Clonard, who assumed the title of Bishop of Meath.

When the last Bishop of Kells, M Ua Dobailén, died in 1211, the Diocese of Kells was absorbed into the Diocese of Meath by Bishop Simon de Rochfort. The Diocese of Kells came to an end after 60 years, and the former abbey church and cathedral became the parish church of Kells, known as Saint Columba’s.

Kells was burned again by Edward Bruce in 1315. The monastery was dissolved in 1551, but the church remained the parish church of Kells.

Following the Reformation, the church was in ruins. It was rebuilt in 1578 on the initiative of Hugh Brady, Bishop of Meath (1563-1584). The rebuilding was carried out by the Archdeacon of Meath, John Garvey, who was also Dean of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin (1565-1595), Bishop of Kilmore (1585-1589), and Archbishop of Armagh (1589-1595), and by the Sovereign (Mayor) of Kells, Nicholas Daly. This church was a large cruciform building with a chancel and tower, although the bell tower is the only portion of the mediaeval church still standing.

The chancel of Bishop Brady’s building was still in use as the parish church in the late 17th century. The present church was built in 1778. The church was altered in 1811, and again, in 1858, when the interior was re-ordered. In more recent times the Church roof was restored in 1965 and the interior was redecorated. At the time, the old disused gallery was turned into to exhibition space.

The monastic site

The Round Tower at the South Gate of Saint Columba’s Church, Kells, Co Meath (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

The churchyard wall surrounding Saint Columba’s was restored in the early 18th century and again in the 1990s, and marks the boundaries of the site of the original monastery.

The round tower and five large High Crosses or their remains still stand in Kells today, with four of those high crosses or parts of them in the churchyard.

The Round Tower, which stands at the south gate of the churchyard, is 27 metres tall and was built in the tenth century, although it has a ninth century doorway that may be a later insertion.

The ‘South Cross’ is the most complete High Cross in Kells (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Close by the Round Tower stands the ‘South Cross,’ which is 3.4 metres high. This is the most complete cross in Kells and it is also the most elaborate, decorated on all four sides.

Only the base and shaft of the ‘West Cross’ survive to this day (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

The ‘West Cross’ is an incomplete cross. Only the base and shaft remain, but they are 3.5 metres high, making it higher than the ‘South Cross.’

The ‘East Cross’ was never finished. A Crucifixion scene and a panel of four figures are on its east face.

The small base and socket designed to hold the shaft of the ‘North Cross’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

The ‘North Cross’ no longer exists, but a small, decorated conical base with a socket, designed to hold the shaft of the cross, remain close to the bell tower.

The ‘Market Cross’ now stands in front of Kells Heritage Centre (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

The fifth high cross in Kells, the ‘Market Cross,’ now stands in front of Kells Heritage Centre. The ‘Market Cross’ is an eighth or ninth century high cross and originally stood at the gate of the monastery. It lay on the ground for many years and was re-erected at the instigation of Dean Jonathan Swift. It is said locally that the ‘Market Cross’ was later used as a gallows during the 1798 Rising. It stood in the present Market Square, a busy crossroads, until it was damaged in an accident involving a local school bus.

The ‘Market Cross’ now stands in front of the former courthouse, and is protected from the elements by plastic roofing. Sadly, it was re-erected in the wrong orientation, so that the west face now faces north.

The base of the ‘Market Cross’ has two friezes, including a deer hunt (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

The shaft of the ‘Market Cross’ is 2.5 metres high. The top of the shaft and part of the wheel are broken. In addition, the cross has been badly damaged from weathering, although what remains of the carving is splendid. The main scene shows the Crucifixion, in which Christ is shown without a halo. Some of other scenes depicted on the cross include: the Adoration of the Magi, Loaves and Fishes, Moses receiving the Ten Commandments, and Adam and Eve. The base has two friezes, including parading horse and foot soldiers and a deer hunt.

Today, Kells is an active and lively parish in the Church of Ireland. Saint Columba’s Church, Kells, is grouped with Saint Patrick’s Church, Donaghpatrick, and the Rector of Kells is the Revd Asa Bjork-Olafsdottir, who moved from Iceland to the Diocese of Meath last year.

3, Trim, Co Meath

Looking from the Echo Gate across to ruins of the Cathedral of Saint Peter and Saint Paul (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

The ruins of the vast Cathedral of Newtown Trim date back to 102, when an Augustinian Priory was founded there in 1202 by Simon de Rochfort, Bishop of Meath. This was once the largest abbey of its kind in Ireland. Bishop Simon successfully petitioned the Pope to move the cathedral of the Diocese of Meath from Clonard to Newtown Trim, claiming it would be better protected by nearby Trim Castle.

The cathedral was dedicated to Saint Peter and Saint Paul and with the adjacent Priory or Hospice of Saint John the Baptist this was one of the most important ecclesiastical sites in Ireland until the dissolution of monasteries in the 1530s, and the main parts of the mediaeval cathedral still stand. From then, until Saint Patrick’s Day in 1955, the Diocese of Meath was without a cathedral.

Saint Patrick’s Cathedral on Loman Street, on the north side of Trim (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Today, the Church of Ireland cathedral in Trim is Saint Patrick’s Cathedral on Loman Street, on the north side of the town. This is the Church of Ireland cathedral for the Diocese of Meath. It claims to be the oldest Anglican church in Ireland – although this claim is disputed by a church in Armagh which says its 20 years older than the cathedral in Trim.

The tower is part of the remains of the mediaeval parish church of Trim, and further ruins of this earlier church lie behind the cathedral. Although the Diocese of Meath was without a cathedral after the dissolution of the monasteries in the 16th century, The Bishops of Meath have been enthroned in Saint Patrick’s since 1536. However, Saint Patrick’s did not become a cathedral until Saint Patrick’s Day 1955, and the deans continue to called Dean of Clonmacnoise.

Trim Castle ... said to be the largest Norman castle in Western Europe (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

We may also stop to look at Trim Castle, or King John’s Castle, which was built by Hugh de Lacey in the late 12th century and is said to be the largest Norman castle in Western Europe.

On the banks of the River Boyne, the Hospital or Priory of Saint John the Baptist s was a house of the Knights of Saint John of Jerusalem, and a defence tower at the entrance once formed part of the knights’ priory.

4, Drogheda, Co Louth
Saint Peter’s Church, Drogheda, Co Louth, served as the Pro-Cathedral of the Diocese of Armagh for centuries (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Saint Peter’s, the Church of Ireland parish church in Drogheda, Co Louth, is built on a site that has been a centre of worship since at least the founding of the town of Drogheda itself.

The earliest archaeological feature of Drogheda is the Millmount motte, probably established by Hugh de Lacy before 1186. Saint Peter’s church was established on the north side of the River Boyne also before 1186 and was given by de Lacy to the Augustinian canons of Llanthony Prima in Monmouthshire, Wales.

Although there may have been a Celtic Church here in earlier times, the dedication to Saint Peter suggests that it was an Anglo-Norman foundation as Celtic Churches were not usually dedicated to Biblical saints.

The first church on the site was probably built about the same time as nearby Mellifont Abbey, as the remains of some of the original tiles and mouldings found on the site are similar to those found at Mellifont.

At the dissolution of the monasteries, the Crown took possession of the rectory. It was granted in 1605 to Sir Garrett Moore, ancestor of the Earls of Drogheda, who held the advowson until the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland in 1870.

Saint Peter’s is important because it served as the Pro-Cathedral for the Diocese of Armagh Diocese for several centuries. The Primates of Ireland lived either in Termonfeckin, Dromiskin or Drogheda, and very seldom visited the northern part of the Diocese because of the unsettled state of Ireland.

Diocesan synods of were held in Saint Peter’s up to 1559, and many consecrations of bishops and ordinations were held there. It is also the burial place of several Primates, including John Colton (d. 1404), Nicholas Fleming (d. 1416), John Swayne (d. after 1450), Octavian de Spinellis (de Palatio) (d. 1513), Thomas Lancaster (d. 1584), John Long (d. 1589), Henry Ussher (d. 1613) and Christopher Hampton (d. 1625).

Inside the present Saint Peter’s, Drogheda … the large medieval church had six chapels (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

The large mediaeval church had six chapels – Saint Anne (the principal one, which at the time supported two chaplains), Saint Martin, Saint Patrick, Saint Peter, Saint John the Baptist and Saint George.

During the Siege of Drogheda in 1649 Cromwell’s Parliamentary forces burned the steeple of the church in which about 100 people had taken refuge.

The mediaeval font by the door at the west end of Saint Peter’s (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

By 1747, the Church was mainly in ruins, a new church was built, completed in 1752. The interior was reordered in the 19th century. The magnificent font by the door at the west end of the church is the only surviving relic of the mediaeval church still in use. Saint Peter’s also has many interesting monuments and graves.

The church marked the 250th Anniversary of the new church in 2002. This also marked the end of a three-year restoration programme following an arson attack in 1999 that severely damaged the interior.

Canon Patrick Comerford is lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. These briefing notes were prepared for a field trip on 2 November 2012 as part of the residential weekend in Church History Elective (TH 7864).

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

Glendalough ... the monastic “Valley of the Two Lakes” (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford,

Church of Ireland Theological Institute,

Church History Elective (TH 7864)

Week 6 (Residential Weekend I):

Friday 2 November 2012:

2.2: Early Irish Church History


The monastery at Clonard was once one of the most important centres of learning in the Irish Midlands (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

During the late fifth and sixth centuries, the monasteries became the most important centres of Irish Christianity, including Armagh which claimed its origins in the labours of Saint Patrick, and Clonard, which is associated with work of Saint Finnian of Clonard, who is said to have trained the “Twelve Apostles of Ireland” at his abbey in the Midlands.

The great monasteries included places such as Kells, Glendalough, Clonmacnoise, Durrow, Bangor, Ferns, Tallaght and Finglas.

Monasticism in these islands developed with particular characteristics that are unique, so that for a long time true ecclesiastical authority lay not with bishops but with the abbots of monasteries.

Following the growth of the monastic movement in the sixth centuries, abbots controlled not only individual monasteries, but also expansive estates and the secular communities that tended them. Abbots were not necessarily ordained and many were members of an hereditary caste within noble or royal families.

A late Celtic high cross at Saint Edan’s Cathedral, Ferns, Co Wexford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2009)

This focus on the monastery means the monastic system came to be the dominant ecclesiastical structure in the Irish Church, and the network of monasteries attached to an abbey, rather than the diocese, was the dominant administrative unit of the church.

Bishops had sacramental roles and spiritual authority, but appear to have exercised little ecclesiastical authority in the way that bishops did in continental diocesan structures modelled on the Roman administrative system.

Clonmacnoise on the banks of the River Shannon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The monastic system In Ireland became increasingly secularised from the 8th century on, with the monasteries even making war on each other or taking part in secular wars. For example, 200 monks from Durrow Abbey are said to have been killed when they were defeated by the monks of Clonmacnoise in 764.

Saint Maelruains’ Monastery in Tallaght was part of the reforming Ceilí Dé movement of the ninth century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

A reforming monastic movement emerged in the Ceilí Dé, who were associated particularly with the monasteries in Tallaght and Finglas.

Irish missionaries in Britain

A high cross at Kells, Co Meath … this was once one of the largest monastic communities associated with Saint Colmcille or Saint Columba (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

In the sixth and seventh centuries, Irish monks established monastic foundations in what we now call Scotland – think of Saint Columba (ca 521-597) or Saint Colmcille in Kells and Iona, and in Continental Europe, especially in Gaul – think of Saint Columbanus.

Columba is associated with the foundation of abbeys at both Kells, Co Meath, and Durrow, Co Laois. However, was held partly responsible for the Battle of Cúl Drebene (561) and was sent into exile. In 563, he founded the monastery of Iona which became one of the major centres of Irish missionary activity in Scotland and northern England.

Monks from Iona, under Saint Aidan (died 651), founded the See of Lindisfarne in Anglo-Saxon Northumbria in 635. Aidan was sent from Iona at the request of King Oswald of Northumbria, and the influences of his monks and disciples spread from Lindisfarne throughout northern England and into the Midlands.

Saint Cuthbert (ca 636-687) was involved in founding a monastery at Ripon, but when he and his colleagues from Melrose refused to conform to the date of Easter and other accepted Western practices they were expelled. He became the Prior of Melrose and later Prior of Lindisfarne, and in 685 he became Bishop of Lindisfarne. He is still associated with the Diocese of Durham.

The English historian Bede (ca 673-735) implies that Irish missionary activity in northern England was more successful at converting the English than the mission started from Canterbury in southern England that began with Saint Augustine in 597.

Irish Continental missionaries

Irish monks also founded monasteries across the continent, exerting influence greater than many more ancient continental centres.

Saint Columbanus, a monk from Bangor in Co Down, left Ireland in 590 on a perpetual pilgrimage and moved to Gaul, where he founded monasteries in Annegray and Luxeuil. His fervour and his emphasis on private penance brought new spiritual energy to an area where Christianity was at a low ebb.

However, the observance of Irish customs led to the expulsion of Columbanus and his companions from Gaul in 610, and they eventually settled in Bobbio in what is today northern Italy. He died in 615. His surviving works include letters, sermons, a penitential and rules for monastic and community life.

Saint Gall was a disciple of Saint Columbanus, and followed him to Italy in 612. However, Gall remained in what is now Switzerland, where he lived the life of a hermit until his death around 650. The monastery of St Gallen, which takes its name from him, was founded ca 719 on the site of his hermitage.

Pope Honorius I issued a papal privilege to Bobbio Abbey, granting it freedom from episcopal oversight. Many of the monasteries of the Irish missions adopted the Rule of Saint Columbanus, which was stricter than the Rule of Saint Benedict, which was prevalent across western Europe. This rule involved more fasting and included corporal punishment. However, it eventually gave way to the Rule of Saint Benedict by the 8th or 9th centuries.

Irish scholars who had considerable influence in the Frankish court include John Scotus Eriugena (died ca 877), one of the founders of scholasticism and one the outstanding philosophers of the day.

Distinctive Irish practices and divisions

1, The Date of Easter:

The customs and traditions particular to Insular Christianity became a matter of dispute with the wider, Western Church. The most notable dispute was over the proper calculation of the date of Easter.

The insular churches shared a method of dating Easter that was distinct from the system used on the Continent. Calculating the date of Easter is a complicated process involving both the solar and the lunar calendars.

Irish and insular Christianity used a calculation table similar to that approved by Saint Jerome. However, by the sixth and seventh centuries, it had become obsolete and had been replaced, and the divergence emerged.

The first differences over these calculations surfaced in Gaul in 602, when Saint Columbanus resisted pressure from the local bishops to conform to the new calculation.

Most groups, including the southern Irish, accepted the new tables with relatively little difficulty. At the Synod of Mag Léne around 630, the southern Irish accepted the common Easter calculation, Northumbria at the Synod of Whitby in 664, the northern Irish at the Council of Birr around 697, East Devon, Somerset and Wessex, 705, and the Picts in 710.

However, the monks of Iona and their associated monasteries raised significant objections, and Iona did not change its practice until 718. Strathclyde followed in 721, North Wales in 768, South Wales in 777, and parts of Cornwall not until 909.

2, The monastic tonsure:

In Ireland, free men had long hair, and slaves had shaven heads. However, all monks, and perhaps most of the clergy, had a distinct tonsure or method of cutting their hair, as a mark of distinction.

The prevailing Roman tonsure was a shaved circle at the top of the head, leaving a halo of hair or corona this was eventually associated with the imagery of Christ’s Crown of Thorns.

The exact shape of the Irish tonsure is unclear but it appears the hair was in some way shorn over the head from ear to ear, perhaps in a semi-circular shape. Later, the Roman party jeered this as the tonsura Simonis Magi, in contrast to their “tonsure of Saint Peter.”

3, The Irish penitentials:

In antiquity, penance had been a public ritual. A distinctive form of penance developed In Ireland, where confession was made privately to a priest, under the seal of secrecy, and where penance was given privately and ordinarily performed privately as well.

Handbooks or “penitentials” were designed as a guide for confessors and as a means of regularising the penance given for each particular sin.

For some sins, penitents took their place in a separate part of the church during the liturgy, perhaps wearing sackcloth and ashes and took part in some form of general confession. This public penance may have followed a private confession to a bishop or priest. For some sins, private penance was allowed, but penance and reconciliation was usually a public rite that ended with absolution.

The Irish penitential practice spread throughout Continental Europe, where the form of public penance had fallen into disuse. Saint Columbanus was credited with introducing the “medicines of penance”, to Gaul.

Saint John Lateran … the Irish penitential system was adopted at the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Although the Irish practice met resistance, by the beginning of the 13th century it had become the norm, and this uniquely Irish penitential system was adopted as a practice of the Western Church at the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215, with a canonical statute requiring confession at least once a year.

4, Peregrinatio:

A fourth distinctive tradition in the early Irish Church, and one connected with the penitentials, was the concept of peregrinatio pro Christo, or “exile for Christ.” The concept of peregrination in Roman Law refers to living or sojourning away from one’s homeland. It was later used by early Church Fathers, including Saint Augustine of Hippo, who wrote that Christians should live a life of peregrinatio in the material world while awaiting the Kingdom of God. But the idea had two additional unique meanings in Celtic countries.

The penitentials prescribed permanent or temporary exile as penance for some sins. But there was also a tradition of voluntary peregrinatio pro Christo, which involved permanently leaving home and putting oneself entirely in God’s hands. Many of these exiles became missionaries, including Saint Columba and Saint Columbanus.

There were other distinctive traditions and practices. Bede implies a baptismal rite that was at variance with the Roman practice, perhaps with some difference in the rite of confirmation

The arrival of the Vikings

Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin … a Viking foundation dating from ca 1030 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

During the ninth and tenth centuries, waves of Norse warriors ransacked large swathes of Ireland, and many monasteries were plundered, robbed of their treasures and religious artefacts.

But the Vikings also brought positive change to the Church in Ireland, and the establishment of towns and cities such as Dublin, settled in 841, Waterford and Limerick opened the way for change.

In 943, the future King Olaf of Dublin was baptised in England, and later retired to Iona. The Norse city dwellers in Ireland became Christians by around the early 11th century.

In 1028, King Sitric the Silkenbeard of Dublin made a pilgrimage to Rome, and Christ Church Cathedral was founded soon afterwards, and certainly before he was deposed in 1036.

The first Bishop of Dublin, Dúnán, was appointed in 1030, and the bishops of the Norse cities initially looked to Canterbury in their loyalty.

Three reforming synods in the 12th century brought sweeping changes, including organisational changes, to the Church in Ireland:

The Round Tower at the South Gate of Saint Columba’s Church, Kells, Co Meath … the Synod of Kells in 1152 defined the provincial and diocesan structures in Ireland (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

● The Synod Rath Breasail in Co Tipperary, in 1111 reorganised and rationalised the diocesan structures, with archbishops in Armagh and Cashel. But Dublin was ignored, as if the only diocese in this part of the island was centred on tyh mountain monastery of Glendalough.
● The Synod of Kells in Co Meath in 1152, presided over by the Papal Legate, Cardinal John Paparo, recognised the place of Dublin and an additional archbishop in Tuam for the west of Ireland, while the Archbishop of Armagh became Primate. The arrangements at Kells still, to a greater degree, shape the diocesan structures of both the Church of Ireland the Roman Catholic Church.
● The Synod of Cashel followed in 1171, and we shall discuss that when we are looking at the Anglo-Norman impact on the Irish Church.

Between Rath Breasail and Kells, Saint Malachy, Archbishop of Armagh, twice visited Rome, in 1139 and again in1148, to attend councils and receving Rome’s endorsement for Armagh’s claims to the primacy.

These three synods transformed the structures, the liturgy and the culture of Irish Christianity, bringing it into line with Christianity on Continental Europe. Because of these synods, we can talk of a 12th century Reformation in the Church in Ireland.

These sweeping changes were strengthened and consolidated with the arrival of the new religious orders that replaced the old traditional monastic system, including the Augustinians, the Benedictines and the Cistercians.

The Cistercians built their first house at Mellifont in 1142, and by 1170 there were 13 Cistercian houses in Dublin. The Augustinians were introduced to Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, by Laurence O’Toole when he became Archbishop of Dublin in 1162, and by 1170 there were about 40 Augustinian houses in Ireland.

The arrival of the Normans

Selskar Abbey … Henry II is said to have done penance here in 1172 for his part in the murder of Thomas a Becket (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

In 1154, the first year of his reign, King Henry II of England obtained a Papal Bull from the English-born Pope Adrian IV, authorising him to go to Ireland “to check the torrent of wickedness to reform evil manners, to sow the seeds of virtue.”

In 1155, Pope Adrian also authorised Henry II to invade Ireland in order “to proclaim the truths of the Christian religion to a rude and ignorant people,” on condition that a penny should be yearly paid from each house to the See of Rome (the so-called “Peter’s Pence”).

Whatever we may think about the veracity of these claims, they were certainly found an excuse to be acted on in 1168 when Dermot MacMurrogh, who had been exiled as King of Leinster, sought Henry’s aid to recover his kingdom.

An Anglo-Norman or Welsh-Norman force arrived in Ireland in 1169, followed by stronger forces in 1170, and Henry landed in Waterford in 1171, to receive the submission of many Irish chiefs.

In late 1171, the Irish clergy gathered at the Synod Cashel accepted Henry II’s claim to Ireland, and swore an oath of fidelity to Henry and his successors. The decrees of the Synod of Cashel mark the end of the divisions of the Church in Ireland from the Church of Western Europe, Irish liturgies were abandoned and the liturgy found in the English Church was adopted.

We shall look at the Anglo-Norman and post-Norman Church in Week 9.

Next: Church History 2.3, Field Trip 1: Tara, Kells, Trim and Drogheda.

Saturday: Church History 3.1, Introduction to Church Art.

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).

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).