Wednesday 21 November 2012

Early Medieval Ireland and Christianity

Below is a useful introduction to the history of Christianity in Early Medieval Ireland, even if I don't agree that Saint Brigid may never have existed!

Colin A. Ireland

The history of early medieval Ireland can be understood only against the background of the conversion to Christianity that introduced ideas that changed the culture and society of pagan Ireland forever. Christian doctrine and theology shaped social behavior and altered cultural practice, yet much was kept that did not contravene Christian conscience as affirmed by some early Irish law tracts. Christianity, as the "religion of the book," required literacy so that believers could read the Bible and perform the Latin liturgy. With literacy in Latin came literacy in the vernacular, that is, in Irish (Gaelic). The early Irish took readily to these intellectual pursuits, and Ireland produced the earliest, and arguably the richest, vernacular literature in medieval Western Europe.

The richness and variety of literary texts in the early Irish language has encouraged many to see this literature as a repository of pre-Christian lore and belief. But most Celticists accept that it is impossible to recreate accurately the pagan beliefs and practices of pre-Christian Ireland based on archaeology and the surviving literature. Most medieval texts that purport to represent pre-Christian Irish characters and events were compiled several centuries after the introduction of Christianity, and vast cultural and societal changes separate them from the times they pretend to portray. Many texts reveal direct influence from identifiable Christian authors and their writings. Critics now accept that a tenth-century Irish saga from the Ulster Cycle, for example, tells us as much about Ireland in the time of its tenth-century redactor as it does about the pre-Christian Irish characters depicted in the saga.


The first firm date in Irish history does not come from Irish sources but rather from the south of France in a chronicle written by Prosper of Aquitaine (c. 390–463). Prosper's Chronicle states that in 431 a certain Palladius was ordained bishop by Pope Celestine and sent "to the Irish believing in Christ." Prosper made it clear that Saint Patrick was not the first Christian missionary to Ireland. In addition to Palladius, there are traditions of Christian saints and their communities in Ireland, particularly in the south and east, before Patrick's arrival. These pre-Patrician Christians may have developed the earliest Irish writing system, known as ogham.

Saint Patrick may have flourished any time during the period around 432, when Irish chronicles say that he arrived in Ireland, to around 492, when they claim that he died. These dates represent a period that critics accept as being too long to accurately reflect Patrick's career in Ireland. Most scholars state simply that Patrick flourished sometime in the mid to late fifth century. Although we do not have firm dates for Saint Patrick, we are fortunate that writings by him do survive—his Confession and the Letter to (the soldiers of) Coroticus. Both reveal much about the character and personality of the man even if they tell us little about Ireland in his time.

By the late seventh century the richness of early Irish literature becomes evident in several saints' lives written in Latin. Irish hagiography (from the Greek words meaning "writings about holy persons") includes early texts about the saints Patrick, Brigit, and Columba. Besides their emphasis on religious topics, we see their propaganda value as they attempt to promote certain regions and dynastic families who supported an individual saint's cult.

Two surviving seventh-century lives of Saint Patrick reveal much about how Irish clerics of that period viewed Patrick, but they do not add much reliable information about Patrick himself or about Ireland in his lifetime. Tírechán of Armagh compiled around 670 a collection of anecdotes about Saint Patrick (Collectanea de Sancto Patricio). A near contemporary of Tírechán, Muirchú maccu Machthéni, wrote a life of Saint Patrick around 690 (Vita Sancti Patricii) that is a more finished work of hagiography than Tírechán's. Muirchú's work relates, among other episodes, the conversion of King Lóeguire at Tara and Patrick's contests with Lóeguire's druids. Both of these seventh-century hagiographical works reveal a northern bias in their acceptance of the primacy of the see of Armagh and Patrick as patron saint of all Ireland, and both stress the role of the Uí Néill (O'Neill) dynastic family.

While the hagiography about Patrick tended to emphasize sites and families in central and northern Ireland, Leinster in the east also had its special saint. Cogitosus wrote around 680 a life of the female saint Brigit (Vita Sanctae Brigitae). Brigit's cult is centered in Kildare, a monastic city that became famous for its scriptorium and a center from which many Irish scholars departed for the continental schools in the Carolingian age. There is no firm historical evidence for Brigit, and she may be the one case of an early pagan Celtic goddess being transformed into an Irish saint. The struggle between the Uí Néill dynasts of the north and the ruling families of Leinster are reflected in the competition between Armagh and Kildare, with Armagh eventually gaining supremacy throughout Ireland but allowing Kildare and its saint Brigit to maintain their importance within Leinster.

The first firmly historical Irish saint was Saint Columba (Columba the Elder, c. 521–597; Colum Cille in Irish). Adomnán (+704), abbot of Iona, wrote a life of Columba (Vita Sancti Columbae) sometime in the last decade of the seventh century. The life of Columba follows typical hagiographical motifs rather than offering historical details and describes prophetic revelations and miracles. Columba, like Patrick, was a missionary. As the first Irish pilgrim (peregrinus) saint, Columba left Ireland sometime around 563 and founded the monastery of Iona on a small island off the coast of Scotland. Tradition relates that Columba went into exile as a penance for his part in the dynastic wars of his Uí Néill relatives.

Columba's self-imposed exile from Ireland reveals much about the monastic ideals of his period. It was considered a penance to leave one's homeland to reside among foreign people. But to do so for the love of God, or for Christ's sake, was a powerful act of piety. We see this ideal in Patrick's writings and actions. Patrick, who was originally from Britain, was captured by Irish raiders and taken in his teens as a slave to live in Ireland. When he escaped after years of servitude, his religious faith drove him to return to Ireland to convert to Christianity those who had enslaved him rather than return to his home in Britain. Deorad Dé ("exile of God") was the Irish term for a person willing to undergo self-imposed pilgrimage (peregrinatio) or exile as an act of piety.

Many examples of Irish pilgrim exiles exist. One of the most famous is Columbanus (Columba the Younger, c. 543–615)—not to be confused with Columba the Elder—who spent roughly twenty-five years on the continent as a pilgrim and founded several monasteries in France and one in Italy. Columbanus was educated at the monastery of Bangor, Co. Down, in Northern Ireland. He composed Latin texts that include sermons, a penitential, a monastic rule, and letters, some of which were addressed to popes. His writings reveal the depth of the education that he received at the monastic school in Ireland. He left Bangor sometime around 590, at about the age of fifty, and traveled with twelve companions on the continent, particularly in what is now France, where he founded monasteries at Annegray, Luxeuil, and Fontaines. But Columbanus was eager to move on and visit Rome. Although he never fulfilled his wish, he succeeded in founding the most important of his monasteries at Bobbio in Italy. Columbanus died around 615.

This pattern of pilgrim saints founding monasteries on the continent was repeated frequently in subsequent centuries. One of Columbanus's Irish disciples, a monk named Gall, was too ill to travel to Italy with Columbanus and stayed back, eventually founding a monastery at Saint Gallen in Switzerland. Gall died around 630. Another Irish missionary, Kilian, departed Ireland more than a century later with a group of companions and founded a monastery at Würzburg in Germany. Kilian is one of the few Irish pilgrim saints to have been martyred. He was assassinated, along with two companions, as a result of political intrigue after a trip to Rome around 687/9.


The ideals of Irish monastic life can be seen in the missionary work and training activities of Irish monasteries. During the early decades of the seventh century many Anglo-Saxon nobles were educated at Irish monasteries in northern Britain, specifically at Iona. When these Irish-educated English nobles returned to England, they invited Irish missionaries into their pagan kingdoms to evangelize. The Anglo-Saxon king Oswald invited the Irish bishop Aidan from Iona into his kingdom, and Aidan founded the monastery at Lindisfarne on the coast of Northumberland around 635. The English historian Bede (+735) shows that Irish missionary activity in northern England was more successful at converting the pagan English than that started by Rome in 597 from Canterbury in the south of England.

Monastic schools in Ireland became centers of excellence for peoples from all over Europe, as can be seen by tracing the English who came to study and train as missionaries in them. The historian Bede and an earlier English contemporary Aldhelm (+709) report that sizeable contingents of English students trained as missionaries in Ireland, specifically at Rath Melsigi, Co. Carlow, in Leinster. These English monks trained in Ireland in order to convert their pagan Germanic relatives on the continent. Several of them had successful ecclesiastical careers after their Irish training.

Bede and Aldhelm, as clerics, emphasized religious training, but both confirm that secular subjects were also taught at Irish monastic schools. Study of the scriptures was paramount, but they both make it clear that students often traveled from site to site seeking out teachers who had specialized knowledge in secular subjects as well. Bede said that the Irish willingly welcomed the English students, gave them food, and provided them with books and instruction, without seeking any payment (Book iii, chapter 27).

Much early Irish literature is associated with monasteries, which shows that many of the learned persons of Ireland, whether secular or religious, received their educations at monastic schools. This means as well that the literature associated with these monasteries is preserved in both Latin and Irish.

The monastery of Iona, founded by Columba, encouraged literary production in both languages. For example, one of its more famous abbots, Adomnán (679–704), mentioned already as the author of the Latin "Life of Columba," wrote a description in Latin of the significant sites in the Holy Land called "On the Holy Places" (De Locis Sanctis). Abbot Adomnán also wrote and promulgated a law (Cáin Adomnáin, 697), written in Irish, which was intended to protect women, children, and clerics from the ravages of warfare.

Columba himself, the founder of Iona, has a Latin hymn, "Exalted Creator" (Altus Prosator), attributed to him, although not all critics accept the attribution. Three poems in praise of Columba rank among the oldest complete poems in the Irish language. One of them, the "Eulogy for Columba" (Amra Choluim Chille), has been dated on linguistic grounds to around 600, which coincides well with Columba's death date of 597. According to tradition, Dallán Forgaill, a professional poet, composed it in order to eulogize Columba on his death. This poem is important for several reasons besides its great age. It reflects an ancient tradition of praising secular rulers, but it is unusual for praising instead a religious leader. It demonstrates how the learning of the monasteries blended native customs with Christian teachings. For example, it complies with the norms of secular eulogy by noting Columba's aristocratic background and by providing genealogical information that can be corroborated in other sources. Columba is called a great champion, but rather than battling against his enemies and sharing largesse among his subjects, Columba excels in self-denial and Christian learning. His praiseworthy qualities are not those of a secular ruler, but of an ascetic, scholarly cleric.

The monastery at Bangor also produced learned religious texts in Latin beside a vibrant vernacular literature of Irish tales. We have already noted that Columbanus, the Bangor-educated missionary to the continent, corresponded with popes and wrote sermons, a penitential, and a monastic rule in Latin. In the late seventh century a collection of beautiful religious poems and hymns in Latin, the "Antiphonary of Bangor," was compiled there.

Important vernacular literature also came from Bangor. "The Voyage of Bran" (Immram Brain), perhaps the earliest example of the Irish "otherworld voyage," was written at Bangor. It tells of Bran's voyage across the Western Ocean and recounts the wonders that he encountered in a sinless otherworld. It employs a motif whereby characters in a pre-Patrician context prophesy the coming of Christianity and the salvation of the Irish. Tales in Irish about the early cultural hero Mongán mac Fiachnai also originated at Bangor. The tales about Mongán portray the Irish Sea as a highway between Ireland and Britain and relate episodes that involve battles against English kingdoms.

The mixture of Latin and Irish writings, like the texts produced at monasteries, is well illustrated by early Irish law tracts. Most, but not all, law texts produced for the church tend to be written in Latin. The "Irish Collection of Canons" (Collectio canonum hibernensis) of about 725, the primary example of Irish church law, is based on biblical and patristic sources. Penitentials and monastic rules represent the Irish tendency, evident in the vernacular law tracts, to codify and schematize social organization and behavior. A group of ecclesiastical laws in the vernacular is represented by cána (sg. cáin), of which Cáin Adomnáin (Adomnán's Law, 697) has already been cited. Other examples include Cáin Phátraic (Patrick's Law, 737) and Cáin Domnaig (Law of Sunday).

The majority of secular law tracts, written in Irish, were redacted between around 650 and around 750. A collection of vernacular law tracts called the Senchas Már (the "Great Tradition") appears to have been compiled in the northern midlands. A separate group of "poetico-legal" texts called the "Nemed school" probably originated in Munster. These law tracts reveal a great deal about the hierarchical nature of early Irish society and social custom. They discuss social rank and status, kinship structure, distribution of inheritance, rights to property, making and enforcing of contracts, the grading of professions, and so on. It is significant that the law tracts tended to be compiled during the same period that saw the spread of ecclesiastical literature.


The study of early Irish politics is made difficult by the proliferation of names of petty kings, none of whom ever clearly rose to prominence. The genealogies and regional king-lists preserved from early Irish sources are particularly rich when compared to other parts of medieval Western Europe. Part of the problem can be understood by recognizing that the Irish word translated as "king" (rí) does not designate a centralized, powerful monarch, as we might encounter on the continent, for example. Instead, it is used to describe the leader of any small local group based on blood kinship (tuath). These groups existed in varying hierarchical relationships to one another so that a local "king" might be a vassal to a stronger "king" in the next valley, and that neighboring "king" would in turn be subject to a regional "king" who might control, at least nominally, an entire province.

The politico-geographical divisions of Ireland have a long history, whether the divide is between north (Leth Cuinn) and south (Leth Moga) or into the provinces that exist to this day: Ulster, Connacht, Munster, and Leinster. The notion that one king could rule all of Ireland—usually called the "High King of Tara"—had developed by our period, although it remained an ideal rather than a reality. Nevertheless, this ideal implies the incipient concept of an Irish nation encompassing the entire island.

The idealized concept of kingship was circumscribed by certain inherited proscriptions. For example, a king must not be physically blemished, as this implied an imperfection in his reign. The sacral character of kingship is shown by the idea that a just, righteous king would have a peaceful, prosperous reign; his "king's truth" (fír flathemon) guaranteed the land's fertility. Sovereignty, as an abstract concept, was portrayed as a female so that a king, when he assumed the kingship, symbolically married his kingdom.

Kingship was not based on a strict father to son (or closest male relative) succession, but rather eligibility for kingship was based on blood kinship extending over several generations. This meant that grandsons and great-grandsons might be eligible to contend for the kingship if they could muster support from relatives and political allies. This system appears on the surface to provide a democratic method of selecting the most qualified and popular candidate, but it often led to social strife and political division.

In the northern half of Ireland the Uí Néill dynasts dominated the political scene, but the Uí Néill must be understood as interrelated families who exerted the greatest political control. The Uí Néill themselves divided into northern and southern divisions, and each of these subdivided again into various branches. Each branch of the Uí Néill claimed descent from Niall of the Nine Hostages (Niall Noígiallach), a quasi-historical fifth-century character. The various branches of the Uí Néill, north and south, alternated as they supplied the high king of Tara, without any branch ever clearly predominating. Other dynastic families from other parts of Ireland frequently occupied the high kingship during this time as well.

The hierarchical nature of early Irish society is well illustrated in this concept of descent through prominent families. It can be seen functioning in Irish monasteries as well. For example, nearly all of the abbots at Iona from Columba (+597) to Adomnán (+709) were descended from Columba's own family, the Cenél Conaill branch of the northern Uí Néill.

In Munster a high kingship was centered on the ecclesiastical site at Cashel, Co. Tipperary. The ruling dynastic families in Munster were known as the Éoganachta, descended from Corc of Cashel, a contemporary of Niall of the Nine Hostages. The Éoganachta of Munster, like the Uí Néill, divided into two major divisions, this time between east and west, and these two major branches had their own subdivisions. Connacht takes its name from the Connachta, a tribal group descended from Conn the Hundred-Battler (Conn Cétchathach), who is also an ancestor of Niall of the Nine Hostages. The Uí Briúin produced the major dynastic families of Connacht. In Leinster by the early historical period the Uí Cheinnselaig and Uí Dúnlainge were the families that dominated the region, but the major Leinster dynastic families had already passed their peak of influence.


In 795 the first recorded Norse raid took place on Ireland's north coast. This Irish raid came soon after the first attacks in England. Iona was also attacked in 795 and again in 802. In 806 sixty-eight persons were killed at Iona by raiders. In 807 a new monastic community was begun at Kells, Co. Meath, and was completed by 814, by which time much of the administration had been moved from Iona to Kells. It was during this period or immediately before it that the magnificent illuminated manuscript, the Book of Kells, was completed.

There are two great periods of Norse activity in Ireland. The first centers on the first four decades of the ninth century. During this period the incursion consisted primarily of hit-and-run raids conducted by fast-moving, seagoing Vikings. In the second half of the ninth century the Norse began establishing permanent settlements that eventually became important commercial and trade centers. These include modern port cities such as Dublin, Wicklow, Wexford, Waterford, Cork, and Limerick. Permanent Norse settlements were more prominent in the southern half of Ireland, in part because of the success of the northern Uí Néill at resisting their incursions.

These Norse cities came to represent small kingdoms within Ireland that traded with, fought against, and in turn allied themselves with Irish kingdoms. By the early decades of the tenth century Irish kingdoms were often as not successful in their struggles against the Norse kingdoms. The Norse kingdoms tended to remain independent of each other and never presented a unified force against the Irish. The Norse in Ireland never controlled large areas the way they did in England, where vast territories came under the Danelaw. In France the entire province of Normandy memorializes the Norse kingdom that was established there and which eventually came to exert power over much of western Europe, including Ireland.

The Battle of Clontarf (1014) has often been presented as the defeat of the Viking invaders by the Irish king Brian Boru. But, in fact, the battle represents the successful dynastic wars of the Uí Briain/O'Brien descendants of Brian Boru of Munster in their rise to supremacy and reveals Norse and Irish kingdoms allied with and against each other. The Uí Briain were allied with the Norse of Limerick against the Norse of Dublin and their Irish allies from Leinster. While Brian Boru's victory (he was killed in the battle) may have marked the gradual demise of the Norse kingdom in Dublin, its real significance was the rise of the Uí Briain dynasts of Munster. With the decline of the Norse kingdoms we can recognize the outlines of modern Ireland emerging as the trading cities founded by the Norse continued to thrive.


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