Who has not heard of St Patrick and his bringing of the faith to Ireland?
While he is widely credited with bringing Christianity to Ireland, there is evidence to suggest that he arrived late, quite some time after other missionaries.Whatever about the truth of that, it is known that a bishop was appointed to Ireland in 431AD, and this may well have been Patrick.
The coming of Christianity brought not just faith but knowledge and experience of an outside world. Christian missionaries valued and encouraged learning and the important skills of reading and writing, until now unavailable to the inhabitants of Ireland who relied on an oral tradition to pass knowledge and history down.
They also brought from overseas new and more efficient methods of farming and of commerce.
The result was a rapid population rise but unfortunately not a peaceful time.
Both Christian and non-Christian were quick to adopt new farming practices which made land more productive and profitable and therefore more desirable.
Another result was the rise of ever more powerful chieftains who, with their clans, ruled over often vast areas of land and fought pretty much constantly to defend or expand their territories
The increased need for defense led to the fortification of existing enclosures and the construction of tens of thousands of new forts throughout the country, many of which were located close to or even on the same sites as the equally fast growing number of Christian monastic settlements.
It was during this period that most of the thousands of ‘raths’, ‘duns’, lisses’ and ‘cahers’ – all types of fort – that now dot the Irish landscape and give many places their names were built.
The Rise of the Monasteries
The years between 500 AD and 700 AD were remarkable in Ireland for the extent of the development of a monastic tradition of Christianity.
While paganism would remain a force for a few centuries more, the Irish adopted and adapted to a Christian way of life with enthusiasm and the importance of monastic centres in the life of the country increased rapidly.
Some Irish monks, such as those on Skellig Micheal, choose to lead an austere life living in remote, inhospitable places and observing a very simple routine. The spent their day in prayer and fasting and lived in very basic stone dwellings known as beehive huts because of their shape.
Ordinary people began to emulate this, if not in their daily lives then in regular periods of abstinence and of pilgrimage to holy places established by these monks.
The latter is a tradition which continues in at least some these places, notably Lough Derg and Skellig Michael, right to the present day.
While these monks took the road of solitude and private prayer, others lived in congregation in more elaborate monasteries and devoted themselves to learning and to literature.
This was a time when in the rest of Europe there was a certain lack of intellectual activity as the fall of the Roman Empire took its toll. Irish monks travelled Europe spreading their knowledge and keeping alive many European centres of learning. This dual approach, austerity on the one hand and scholarship on the other, to the practice of Christianity led to Ireland developing a reputation as the Island of Saints and Scholars.
The Book of Kells
It was during this period that the famous illuminated bibles and manuscripts, of which the best known is the Book of Kells, were created.
The book contains the four Gospels, hand written and decorated with extraordinarily detailed and elaborate drawings, patterns and motifs. It is thought to have been to work of primarily two monks, and to have been started around 600AD on the Island of Iona, off Scotland. It was moved at some point to Kells Monastery in Co Meath.
In 1007 it was stolen, not for its content but for its gold cover, which was encrusted with diamonds and other precious stones and therefore very valuable. The covers were removed and the book discarded in a ditch. Fortunately it was found quickly but there had been some water damage. The cover was never found.
In 1541 the book was removed to the Vatican for safe keeping but was returned to Ireland just over a century later and given to Trinity College in Dublin, where it remains to this day.
Assimilating Older Ways
An interesting aspect of this time is the way in which the older traditions of the pre-Christian population were both respected by and in many cases adopted by the growing church. The basic structures of society, the clans and their hierarchy and laws, were largely undisturbed. Many sites, practices and dates that had significance in the Celtic calendar continued to be important, though now imbued with a Christian meaning.
Irish motifs and artistry were incorporated into the illuminated manuscripts and used as decoration on stones and buildings. Sacred vessels, such as the Ardagh Chalice harnessed the metalwork expertise of iron age Ireland and featured more elaborate versions of designs already used by them in earlier non-Christian work.
Of course all of this was in one sense a clever move, resulting in an easier transition from paganism than would otherwise have been the case. But particularly in the case of ornament the motive does not seem to have been opportunism, but rather a respect for earlier tradition.
Where to Visit in Ireland
So many places, so little time! The legacy of early Christian Ireland is everywhere, so you will inevitably come across it, these are just a tiny selection of the top places to see.
The Book of Kells and many other manuscripts from the era are on display daily in the Library of Trinity College. The National Museum in Dublin has a permanent exhibition, The Treasury, which contains great church treasures, including the Ardagh Chalice.