The Character of Irish Christianity (from here)
Whenever Christianity penetrates a country it expresses itself in the language of that country and, as appropriate, in the culture and customs of that country. This has always been so, first with Jewish Christianity and then with Greek, Syrian, Latin and all other consequent cultures. It will always be like this. Christianity in Ireland is no different.
Ireland was never within the Roman Empire and never had the cities, the architecture, law, nor the administration connected with that empire. At the same time Ireland drew from the Empire through trade and settlement.
Given the war-like nature of many societies where the Gospel went it was always something of a miracle that the church made any headway at all. On the other hand, Ireland, in contrast to Britain and the Continent, was relatively peaceful during the years 500-750. This allowed Ireland to develop its own response to the Gospel and create a distinctive Christian culture which could rival any.
The first 100 years saw an explosion of church growth, and in particular, of monastic life. As a result, the administration of the church at this period seems to have included not only bishops but also, in some places, abbots. This can be explained by the largely tribal structure of Irish society in which tribal chiefs donated land for monasteries and the abbots appointed by them were still to a degree controlled by those chiefs. There was no other known alternative social ‘mechanism’ for them to use.
What organisation Ireland had was rural. Its basis lay in the extended family. A family might live in isolated farmsteads, with ditches and banks to defend them. Several extended families formed a clan, or unit, of a tribe; and the units of a tribe, within a hierarchy, formed a miniature kingdom. Lesser kingdoms would be beholden to larger ones.
It was a life spent very close to nature. Each clan had its warriors, druids and slaves. Neighbouring tribes were often blood related. There was no political unity and no central administration. The main occupation was cattle-breeding, the main sport cattle raiding. They were always fighting. Violence and blood were part of their culture.
The Irish however took Christianity to heart. One indication of this is the absence of martyrs. Christianity spread from tribe to tribe through their tribal leaders. The existing religious culture — that of the Celts — was well suited to receive the Gospel. The tribe would let members become monks rather than, as previously, druids. Monks remained part of the tribe. The tribe helped the monks and often the monastery would become the focal point of a village. Children would be educated in the monastery.
However the Irish church was always a Western church which, appropriately, always looked eastwards to its centre in Rome, for whatever its need. The church was never other than Orthodox in its belief and practice. The teaching of Pelagius, a Briton, seems mainly to have been developed by him in Europe. The use of the word ‘Celtic’ is a modern anachronism; there never was an ‘independent’ church under this name. Such wishful thinking stems from the dynamics of later controversies. At the time of which we speak Rome had not developed a highly organised and centralised machinery and churches in places like Ireland had their own customs which they had partly derived from Rome and which they developed in their own way, often lagging behind other countries.
In spite of the physical harshness of their lives (and in spite of the later make-over showing them as fierce men of power), Irish saints manifest a great spirit of gentleness as a result of the grace of God upon them. They had a strong sense of creation as the gift of God, and a strong awareness of the supernatural, and of the communion of saints. Monasteries and hermitages were often founded in astonishingly beautiful places. The Sea Islands and Lough Islands furnished such places in abundance
The Irish were well-known for penances. This was not a means of striving, but of expressing sorrow and making for surrender to produce profound change. Their aim was purity of heart. The penances were not public, nor were they harsh. They were private, personal and moderated, undertaken with the advice of a spiritual father (or ‘soul-friend’) who knew the monk intimately. This relationship shows the human and intimate side to their spirituality.
Most of the early Irish monks and bishops were regarded as saints, as was usually the case elsewhere. After the saints were their relics. With the relics came the need to ‘house’ them. Stone churches may first have been built for this purpose from the 8C onwards, often copying the form of their wooden predecessors.
After the relics came pilgrims. Much of what we see today is probably due to the rise of pilgrimage including the High Crosses and Round Towers.
With the pilgrims came saints’ ‘Lives’. These ‘lives’, often written much later than the time when the saint had lived, reflect the desire to see the saints as those who were like Christ and did the things Christ did; in turn this reflects the need to have the saints as patrons and intercessors. Today we prefer to see the saints as they were in history.
- Hamlin A and K Hughes, The Modern Traveller to the Early Irish Church, Four Courts Press 1997;
- P Harbison, Pilgrimage in Ireland, Syracuse University press 1992.
Irish Monasticism (here)
The ‘Catalogue of the Saints of Ireland’ divided the Saints of Ireland into three orders. The first contains all those bishops deemed to have received their ministry from St Patrick. The second lists monks who had received their ministry from Britain. The third consists of hermits. But the document is of 9C or even 10C and is clearly designed to boost the prestige of Patrick and his bishops over against the monks and hermits. But these orders were not consecutive but contemporary one with another and should be dated to the 6C. This century was one of great expansion which saw not only bishops, but monks and hermits, spreading everywhere in Ireland. The result was that the monasteries became the de facto centres of the church. Monasticism, with its multiple forms, had great appeal because its adaptability.
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St Columba (597) was perhaps the most prolific founder of monasteries of all. Born at Garten in Co Donegal, he was of royal blood, of commanding stature and evidently of great charisma. He eventually left Ireland for Scotland where, from this base on Iona, he evangelised among the Picts. His ‘Life’ written by St Adamnan gives a vivid picture of an Irish saint and monastery.
In Ireland the church was always the local church. There was nothing else. The local tribe was the point of meeting one with the other, and the number of tribes was enormous, though they might be joined up in little kingdoms or bigger ones. When the tribe responded to the Gospel, an enclosure would be set aside, with boundaries and ‘termon’ crosses, sometimes with a ditch, sometimes with a wall, clearly marking out to everyone that the area was sacred. Within it a tiny church of wattle and daub would be built. That would not take long.
In many places there seems to have been no shortage of aspiring monks. As for sites, as one travels to the places they chose one is amazed by the astonishingly beauty of the places they picked. In particular the sea islands (particularly off the West coast) and the many Lough Islands furnished such places in abundance. Even today travelling throughout the island the memory of the founding saints is singularly well preserved, though often there is little detail. Something is known of some 250 from this early period but this does not include many more, without number, whose names are hardly known, were never recorded, or which have become lost.
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Many monasteries were built at tribal centres or at meeting places on tribal boundaries. As some monastic communities grew they attracted a resident local community in an arrangement that was of benefit to all. The monasteries provided their spiritual ministrations to local families and taught the children; families helped with the agricultural labour, and with livestock. The dynamic went well – monastery and village grew together. This enabled the monks to take on such great tasks as creating and copying of literature and highly specialised metal-ware. But there were drawbacks. The principal one was that the tribal leader asserted his right to appoint the abbot, who might well turn out to be one of his own family. Worse still, when tribes were involved in a fight, the monks were expected to join in. Then there were the ‘manaim’.
In spite of the fact that the origin of this term and that of the word ‘monk’ is the same these were not the married monks, but men with families who lived round the monastery and who, with their families, lived under considerable religious discipline alongside their spiritual if not natural brothers in the monastery. This included no small degree of sexual abstinence. Any suggestion that these were monks indulging in gross laxity or immorality has to be discounted. Such a life sounds like another of those Irish solutions which had its rationale ‘on the ground’. It is all about finding ‘in-between meanings’. The Irish have always helped us think outside of our boxes – that is very much part of being Irish. Tertiaries in Western monasteries is another ‘in-between arrangement’. In the East married men have always been encouraged to spend time in a monastery.
In time, over 200 years or so, as has often been the case elsewhere, monasteries ran the danger of becoming too big in wealth and power. This led to jealousy, strife and pillage – even from fellow Irishmen. Monasteries were known to have valuables – indeed they were sometimes used as storehouses. But monasteries could also become secularised – especially if tribal leaders expected abbots to have sons in order to keep the monastery in the family. However such a state of affairs, sad though it is, often gave rise to a new impetus for a more genuine monastic life, a simpler, more solitary life, a life more given to prayer and contemplation.
The true ‘holy man’ sometimes put his cell at, or close by, a local place already deemed sacred by the Celts, such as graves, springs, and trees. This gives us some insight into their approach to the native religion and culture. This is of great importance. They did not regard what was there as simply to be destroyed. Rather, just as earlier the Church had seen the Law and Prophets of the Old Testament and Greek philosophy with its ascetic and contemplative culture, so they saw the existing religious culture as a preparation for the Gospel.
In other words the outlook and practices of an existing culture could be given a new shape and direction within the context of the Gospel.
In the Empire some pagan temples were destroyed and idols smashed. But the situation was different with the Celts. They were not urban temple builders in stone but looked to natural phenomena such as the sun, the sky, the earth, rocks, mountains, water and trees for their deities. Many of their offerings to these have been found in lakes and pits. The days of the seasons were also important to them with regard to continuing fertility and escape from death. Universalised generalisations have to be avoided. But most would agree that the Celts already had some idea of God as three; that they had a very strong sense of creation, awareness of the supernatural and of the unity of things. They had a robust attitude to religious practice; and they believed in a life hereafter.
The early monks and evangelists were able to redirect such sensibilities. Thus the view that saw creation as a manifestation of God could easily be seen as also made by God, and penetrated by his presence.
The Greek and Romans were inclined to work with a dichotomy between matter and spirit. But the Christian belief in Christ the Son of God being born of a woman and uniting himself with humanity gave to the Eastern Fathers a more unitive perception of the divine and the human in the church and in the sacraments and a more cooperative view of their relationship in terms of ‘synergy’ (‘working together’) than was the case in later Western Christianity. In this respect Thom is correct in seeing the early church in Ireland as a ‘Patristic Church’.
The Irish monks showed a great degree of sensitivity to the beauty of creation and God’s presence in it everywhere. Their repentance and asceticism may have been severe by our standards but it was very much motivated by love of God and of one’s neighbour. It is this ‘difference’ from what prevailed in the West which now, by way of reaction, fuels the attraction to ‘all things Celtic’.
It is an interesting comment that ‘the Celtic mind acknowledged no real dichotomy between reality and fantasy, between the world and the ‘world beyond.’ This is precisely what has raised suspicions in people’s minds about the Irish. They may seem at times to blur the edges, to mix the divine and human, to confuse nature and grace – and this is why people call ‘foul’, meaning it is all superstition. I am sure there was confusion and therefore superstition – this will occur in every culture. But this does not mean to say (and here is another fallacy) that the culture is defined by superstition. The church always and without doubt remained very clear as to where the proper lines of demarcation lay between true and false lay and its teaching uncompromised. The conversion of any society is rarely complete..
Two chapters – on holy wells and ancient stones – will consider areas where people have tried to make the accusation of paganism and superstition stick. These are areas where historians are most reluctant to tread because there is more or less nothing in the historical record by which to assess the phenomena. This has created a vacuum in which many have given free reign to strong criticism and wild interpretation.
Father John’s other Websites.
The Parish website
Father John is the Rector of the Orthodox Parish of St Bega, St Mungo and St Herbert, Keswick.
The parish website contains photographic essays on the early church in Ireland and Britain. Follow the link British Isles on the left side of the Home page.
There is also a web-essay on the Living Tradition of the Saints. This is a concise version of Fr John’s great book: The Living Tradition of the Saints and the Significance of their Teaching for us, which represents 40 years of study and prayer with the Saints.
The Synaxarion of British and Irish Saints
During 2012 through to 2014 we have been developing a comprehensive guide to the Orthodox Saints of the British Isles, including, of course, Ireland. This work has the backing of the Orthodox Hierarchs of the major jurisdictions in the UK and The Republic of Ireland.
The Character of Irish Christianity
The First Arrivals
Irish Hermits and Tomb Shrines
Holy Wells and Trees
High Crosses and Cross Slabs
Contributors and Helpers
About the Website
St. Patrick's Hymn A Convert’s Heritage – Western Saints
St. Melangell, the Righteous Abbess of Wales
Orthodox Outlet for Dogmatic Enquiries
Ιστολόγιο για την Ορθοδοξία στις Βρετανικές Νήσους
Στα ίχνη του αρχαίου (ορθόδοξου) κέλτικου μοναχισμού
Η Ορθοδοξία στη Δύση (αφιέρωμα)