Christianity comes to Ireland

The year 432 AD is generally accepted as the year of St. Patrick’s arrival in Ireland. He was not the first bishop sent to Ireland to convert the pagan population there, as an earlier missionary named Palladius is recorded as having preceded him for that purpose. However, there is much conjecture in this respect, and frequently Palladius is confused as a second Patrick, while some other accounts even suggest that there was three Patricks. Many later annalists apparently uncertain as to the true year of the death of the great saint, recording it as 493 rather than 461. All this is subject for debate, but the general consensus is that Patrick was sent to Ireland by Pope Celestine, following the death of Palladius; that he arrived in Wicklow but received a hostile reception there and that he then landed on the shores of the present Co. Down where he said his first Mass on Irish soil in a barn at Saul.

Following his arrival, legend says that he travelled to Meath where he hoped to convert the High King, Laoghaire, then resident at Tara. Tradition also relates that he lit his Paschal Fire on the Hill of Slane; that this was seen by the High King, to whom was accorded the honour of lighting the first fire on the same occasion in conjunction with a pagan feast; that Patrick was immediately summoned into the presence of the king; and that he so impressed Laoghaire with his teachings that he received permission to travel the country with his new religion. This he did with very obvious success. His years as a slave on Slemish and his understanding of Irish customs and their language were of immense help to him in his mission.

Ireland is full of legends of the great saint and there is hardly a parish in the country that has not some story of a visit by him. Very many parishes, particularly those containing the name ‘Donagh (e.g. Donagh in Co.Monaghan, Donagh in Co. Fermanagh, Donaghpatrick, Donaghmore, Donaghmoyne, Donaghcarney, Donaghyclavey etc etc., ) are traditionally said to have been founded by the saint himself.

Patrick founded his principal church in Ireland at Armagh, close to the great ancient Ulster capital of Eamhain Macha and this he created as the arch-diocese of Ireland, the city of Armagh ever since maintaining the title of Primatial City.

Patrick is said to have visited Connacht on three occasions, and during one of those visits he spent forty days and forty nights in contemplation and prayer on the mountain of Crochan, since known as Croagh Patrick, in the present Co Mayo. On another visit to Cruachan Connachta, seat of the royal families of the western province, he baptized two of Laoghaire’s daughters, both of whom, according to legend, died immediately afterwards.

Following a visit to Rome and to the Pope, Leo the Great, in 440, Patrick returned to continue his mission, visiting the three northern provinces of Ulster, Oriel and Aileach, before heading southwards again to Leinster and Munster. At Cashel (of the Kings) he baptized the king’s sons and organised the Christian church in the south, both monastic and episcopal, but placing the ecclesiastical government of the church in the authority of bishops rather than in the hands of abbots.

St. Patrick’s ‘Confession’, written by him in his later life, is the main source of the life-story of the great saint as, in it, he tells of his youth and capture by Irish raiders, and his subsequent travels in Ireland. March 17th 461 is given as the date of Patrick’s death at Saul, near where he had said his first Mass, but a grave at the cathedral in Downpatrick is marked as his final resting place.

The ‘Annals of the Four Masters” (Volume 1, pp 155-159) record the following under the year 493 AD: -
“Patrick, son of Calphurn, archbishop, first primate and chief apostle of Ireland, whom Pope Celestine the First had sent to preach the gospel and disseminate religion and piety among the Irish; who separated them from the worship of idols and spectres; who conquered and destroyed the idols which they had for worshipping; who had expelled demons and civil spirits from among them, and brought them from the darkness of sin and vice to the light of faith and good works, and who guided and conducted their souls from the gates of hell (to which they were going), to the gates of the kingdom of heaven. It was he that baptized and blessed the men, women, sons and daughters of Ireland, with their territories and tribes, both fresh (water) and sea-inlets. It was by him that many cells, monasteries and churches were erected throughout Ireland; seven hundred churches was their number. It was by him that bishops, priests and persons of every dignity were ordained; seven hundred bishops, and three thousand priests (was) their number. He worked so many miracles and wonders that the human mind is incapable of remembering or recording the amount of good which he did upon earth. When the time of St Patrick’s death approached he received the Body of Christ from the hands of the holy Bishop Tassach, in the 122nd (year) of his age and resigned his spirit to heaven.”

“The body of Patrick was afterwards interred at Dun-da-lethglas (identified as Downpatrick) with great honour and veneration; and during the twelve nights that the religious seniors were watching the body with psalms and hymns, it was not night in Magh-inis or the neighbouring lands, as they thought, but as if it were the full undarkened light of day.”

Following the death of St. Patrick, the political life of the country went through a period of turmoil, with continual warfare over the high-kingship, principally between various members of the ruling families. Eventually the succession problem was settled, with the High-King ship alternating between the northern and southern branches of the Ui Neill family. Despite all this unrest, the seeds of Christianity had been well and truly sown and the new religion flourished.

Monasteries sprang up all over the country and many great saints emanated from these. Principal of these wonderful people was St Colmcille, or Columba to give him his correct name. Born at Gartan in Co. Donegal in 522 and of royal birth, Colmcille got into trouble when he copied a manuscript of the new testament, written by an older monk, and was brought to court before the king, who gave the unusual judgement “to every cow its calf and to every book its copy”. Colmcille refused to give up his copy, a battle ensued and many were slain. As penance for his action Colmcille imposed exile on himself in 563 and departed for Iona, off the west coast of Scotland, where he founded a monastery that would become very famous over the following centuries.

Meanwhile a dispute had arisen over the kingship of Dalriada (a small kingdom consisting of north-east Ulster and south west Scotland.

Colmcille was brought back home to decide on the issue which was settled at the Convention of Drumceatt in 573 when Colmcille’s judgement that Dalriada serve the King of Ireland with its land forces and the King of Scotland with its sea forces, was readily accepted by the warring parties. There too he decided on the fate of the fili (poets) whose power had become much too strong for everybody’s liking over the preceding years.

Besides his foundation on Iona, Colmcille also founded monasteries at Derry, Durrow, Swords and Kells. Other great saints to emerge from this period were St Brighid of Faughart, whose convent at Kildare was the most famous centre of the religious life for women; St Kevin of Glendalough; St Ciaran of Clonmacnoise; St Finian of Clonard; St Comhgall of Bangor; St Brendan (the Navigator) of Clonfert; St Canice of Kilkenny; St Molaise of Devenish; St Mobhi of Glasnevin; St Finbarr of Cork; St Jarlath of Tuam; St Mochta of Louth; St Tiernach of Clones; and a host of others. Over 500 Irish saints are recorded in the Annals between the time of St. Patrick’s death and the first arrival of the Vikings.

Meanwhile the Roman Empire had collapsed and Europe was over-run by hordes of pagan northern invaders from the Scandanavian countries. Irish monks and scholars were soon to the rescue, however and played a major part in the restoration of Christianity to the continent. Principal of these were Columbanus, who established monasteries at Luxeuil and Bobbio; St. Gall, the location of whose monastery in Switzerland still bears his name; St Aidan at Lindisfarne in England; and St. Kilian at Wurtzburg in Germany; to mention just four of the more famous.

This glorious era of learning and Christianity in Ireland earned for the country the marvellous title “Island of Saints and Scholars”, a title that was richly deserved. But a dark cloud was rising over the horizon and this era of monastic glory would soon attract the attention of some unwelcome visitors. This occurred with the first arrival of the Vikings in 795 AD.