St Patrick is traditionally credited with organizing the Irish Church, although his activities were concentrated mainly in the northern province of Ulster. It is likely that St Patrick received his spiritual instruction in the south of France, at the monastery of Lérins. This great institution was founded by St Honoratus in 375, upon his return from Greece where he had become familiar with Orthodox Christian monasticism. Like many future, Irish monasteries, Lérins was situated on a small island. For the next three centuries Lérins would be a beacon of Orthodox spirituality in the midst of a worldly Latin environment. One of the great figures attached to Lérins was St John Cassian, who strove to preserve the Orthodox faith against deviations from sound doctrine by certain extreme followers of Blessed Augustine.
When St Palladius, St Patrick and their fellow evangelists came to Ireland there were more than a hundred kingdoms of varying size to be found on the island. The people of each kingdom were known as the tuath, while the king bore the title of ri. Society was highly organised and stratified, reminiscent of the Vedic caste system. At the top were the druids, bards, lawmen and doctors, while the slaves at the base of the system had no rights. As remarked by historian David Ross, the concept of territorial dioceses could not function in such a social system. Each tuath had to be converted separately and each had to have its own Church structure, with priests and bishops effectively replacing the druids. Eventually five provincial kingdoms arose in the place of this hotchpotch of petty rulers: Munster in the south of the island, Leinster and Meath in the east, Connaught in the west, and Ulster in the north. On the odd occasion, such as the reign of Brian Boru (1002-1014), one of the provincial kings would claim the high kingship over all Ireland, based at the ancient site of Tara in County Meath. This high kingship was never uncontested or of any lasting significance. Although politically divided, before the Anglo-Norman invasion the Irish people were more or less united by three important factors: the Brehon law code, the Gaelic language and the Christian Faith.
Through the dedication and perseverance of St Patrick and his successors, Ireland became a bastion of Christianity. As a matter of fact, the Irish Church was to remain faithful to Orthodox Christianity for several centuries to come, while the rest of the Western Church, especially from the late eighth century, began increasingly to deviate from the ancient Orthodox Christian Faith. The year 500 is reckoned as the commencement of the Golden Age of the Irish Church. Over the next century monasteries would be established all over Ireland. The unprecedented upsurge of Christianity in this part of the world can be witnessed from the fact that in the first 250 years following St Patrick’s arrival, Eire produced around 500 recognized saints. None of them was martyred, except on the Continent, which confirms the existence of a close affinity between the ancient Christian Faith and traditional Irish spirituality.
The Eastern connection
Different rites were employed by the Irish and Roman churches in the sacraments of baptism and episcopal confirmation. Also in the tonsuring of monks a divergence occurred: while the Roman tonsure involved shaving the top of the head, the Irish shaved across the forehead from ear to ear. These methods were ascribed to St Peter and St John, respectively. Old Irish customs such as storing water for the feast of the Epiphany (6 January) and lighting Easter fires to let them burn throughout the year (for example at Kildare) were also unique. Naturally, on the early Irish crosses Christ is pictured as the conqueror of death rather than as crucified – another parallel with the Universal Orthodox practice of Old Rome and elsewhere, according to which the celebration of the Resurrection of Christ takes precedence over that of His death, with Easter Sunday (Pascha) as the main feast of the Church year. The practice only changed from the late eleventh century on, when heterodoxy began to portray 'the suffering Jesus' in his human nature as a victim, not as the Victor. In addition, the study of Greek was undertaken in Irish monasteries at least until the ninth century, together with that of Latin and Hebrew.
In addition to the monastery at Lérins that served as an important link between the Irish and Eastern Churches, Poitiers in France was a further conduit of Orthodoxy to the West. This was the final abode of St Hilary (315-367), a bishop who was banished to Phrygia by the unbaptized Emperor Constantine when the saint refused to yield to Constantine’s then Arian sympathies. This is rather ironic, for it was the same Emperor who convened the First Oecumenical Council in 325, at which Arianism was condemned as a heresy. Hilary went from Phrygia to Poitiers where he wrote a book dedicated to the ‘Irish bishops’. This implies contact between the Greek-speaking and Irish churches via France during the fourth century already. Early in the 6th century a monastery would be founded at Poitiers by the Irish missionary St Fridolin.
Another affinity that the Irish shared with the Orthodox practice was its own form of the liturgy. Over the centuries the Orthodox Church has maintained a variety of liturgies, all of ancient origin, such as the liturgies of St John Chrysostom, St James the Apostle and St Basil the Great. Evidence of a pre-Roman liturgy of the Irish Church can be found in manuscripts such as the Antiphonary of Bangor, a collection of hymns and prayers dating from around 680. These texts radiate a Christian view of the world that echoes the Psalms in praise of God’s creation, as in the writings of the Church Fathers. All of creation is viewed as a vast whole, without the dualism of spirit and matter that would become the dominant post-Patristic medieval Western heterodox cosmology. It is pertinent to note that the metaphysical system expounded by the Irish philosopher John Scottus Eriugena (see further on) would also reflect this awareness of the unity of all creation. This reinforces our view that Irish Christianity was a holistic, Patristic faith.
Irish missionary activity
The major figures in this enormous Irish missionary activity were St Columcille, who founded the monastery on Iona and evangelized the Scots and Picts; St Aidan, who founded the monastery on Lindisfarne and evangelized the Northumbrians; St Fridolin, who founded monasteries in France and Germany; St Fursey, who founded monasteries in East Anglia and Gaul; St Kilian, who did missionary work among the East Franks and the Thuringians, and suffered martyrdom; St Gall, the Enlightener of Switzerland; and St Columban, who founded monasteries in Belgium, Switzerland and Italy against fierce opposition. We will look at their lives further on in this essay.
Apart from a major impact that was made in Britain, the German lands and as far south as Italy, the Irish missionaries also ventured into the North Atlantic and Scandinavia. The notable contribution made by St Brendan the Voyager will be discussed further on. According to Dicuil, an Irish scholar at the court of Charlemagne, Irish settlers had been living in the Faeroe Islands for several centuries by the year 800. We may safely assume that this would have included missionary activity, given the close link between religion and everyday life in Celtic Christianity. Old Irish parchments, bells and bishops’ staffs were found on Iceland, predating the Viking era. Furthermore, the ornamentation of Norwegian stave churches showed Irish influence as late as the thirteenth century. There must therefore have been some Irish contribution to the conversion of Scandinavia to Christianity, although further historical evidence is lacking.
The end of the Irish Church
Most of the ancient Irish manuscripts were lost in this stormy period, the surviving ones often being taken to the Continent by monks. Early in the 11th century King Brian of Munster sent messengers to the Continent to buy back some of the ancient manuscripts. This monastic vacuum opened the door for the Roman Church to obtain a foothold in Ireland, with large numbers of Augustinian and Benedictine monasteries eventually replacing the lost native ones.
The first step in the Roman takeover of the Irish Church in its home base was taken when the Norman-imposed, Italian Archbishop Lanfranc of Canterbury claimed superiority over the Irish Church in 1072. Early in the twelfth century Armagh in the north and Cashel in the south were raised to the status of Roman Archdioceses, with Armagh soon to become the Metropolia for the whole of the Irish Church. Before long Dublin and Tuam would also become archdioceses, thereby weakening the hold of Canterbury over the Irish Church, without diminishing Roman hegemony. Over the centuries Armagh has retained its pre-eminent status in both the Roman Catholic and Anglican churches, both Cathedrals there being dedicated to St Patrick.