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A History of the Irish Church 400-700 AD

30 November, 1999

John R Walsh and Thomas Bradley provide an excellent summary history of that most formative period of Irish history, the three centuries of Christianity after the arrival of St Patrick.

192 pp, Columba Press, 2003. To purchase this book online, go to www.columba.ie.


1. Pre-Patrician Christianity
2. Patrick: the man
3. Patrick: the mission and its setting
4. Patrick and the church of Armagh
5. Irish monasticism
6. Some famous monastic founders
7. Colum Cille
8. Prominent Irish saints in Britain
9. Columban and other Peregrini
10. The Irish penitentials
11. The Paschal controversy
12. Celtic Church Art
Bibliography and References


The golden age of Irish art, and the time when Ireland earned reputation as an island of saints and scholars, is the subject of this splendid short history. The records of the time and the best of modern historical scholarship are combined in a clearly-written overview of the period.

Starting with the origins of Christianity in Ireland, before the arrival of the national apostle, it moves on to cover in detail the life, work and character of Patrick. It outlines the origins and development of Irish monasticism and introduces some of the major monastic founders. A separate chapter each is given over to the work of Colum Cille in Britain and to Columban’s labours in continental Europe. The book concludes with individual chapters on three important topics of the period: the penitentials, the Easter controversy and early Irish Christian art.

CHAPTER 1: Pre-Patrician Christianity
He is coming, Adzed-Head,
on the wild-headed sea
with cloak hollow-headed
and curve-headed staff.

He will chant false religion
at bench facing east
and his people will answer
‘Amen, amen.’

[Anonymous sixth-century Hiberno-Latin poem, quoted by Muirchú]

Traditionally, the humble Saint Patrick has been credited with converting the entire Irish race from paganism in the very short period between 432 and 461. It would be romantic and even gratifying if this were indeed the case. Sobering though it is, however, we have to admit that there were certainly Christians in Ireland before Patrick arrived as a missionary in the country and that the saint worked as an evangelist only in a part of the island.

Christianity entered Ireland, presumably in the fourth and early fifth centuries, by a slow and gradual process of unplanned infiltration, from the Continent (Gaul and perhaps even the Iberian peninsula) and/or Britain. British captives carried off by Irish raiders are one possible means of entry; contacts made by the Irish emigrés in Britain are another; and trade relations with Gaul, Roman Britain or Spain are yet another. Some continental literati may even have sought refuge in Ireland during the barbarian invasions of what is now France, at the start of the fifth century, bringing their Christian religion with them.

As we enter the twenty-first century, the communications era par excellence, we are so familiar with high-speed trains, chartered flights and scheduled airlines that our world is, indeed, a ‘global village’. It is possible nowadays to breakfast at home in Ireland and to sit down to lunch on the same day three thousand miles away in New York! Because of this we assume that our early ancestors were totally cut off from the outside world by the cruel seas which surround our island, that they were completely isolated and most insular. This is not an accurate picture of life in ancient times. In fact, the sea then united rather than divided peoples on the whole Atlantic seaboard of Europe in what modern historians, like E. G. Bowen, call’ a Celtic thalassocracy’, and the waters from Malin Head and Cape Wrath to Finisterre and beyond were a hive of maritime activity.

Our ancient mariners sailed in curraghs, wooden-framed craft covered in hides and capable of negotiating stormy seas with agility and in safety. Irish boats of similar (though somewhat later) construction were, we know, able to reach Iceland, a journey of about a thousand miles, within six days! We learn from Giraldus Cambrensis that in 1185 Ireland was considered ‘about one short day’s sailing from Wales’, half a day’s journey across the North Channel ‘between Ulster and Galloway in Scotland’, and ‘three ordinary days’ sailing from Spain. In the twelfth century, vessels were, of course, more sophisticated than the early coracles. But even in the period before Christ, some tiny sailing boats had been given rudders and other navigational aids. The delightful little model ship, part of the Broighter gold hoard (of Co Derry provenance) in the National Museum, shows how large these sea-going vessels could be. It has nine benches for eighteen oarsmen in all, a rudder, a mast, three booms, a punting pole and an anchor. In seaworthy craft such as this, our proto-historic Celtic ancestors plied the seas, searching for places on which to prey, in which to settle or with which to trade.

The primitive Irish were expert plunderers. We know, for example, that Patrick was captured in a great raid which netted ‘many thousands of people’ [Confessio 1], some of them, at least, lukewarm Christians, according to Patrick’s pessimistic diagnosis of their common spiritual condition. Doubtless a number of his fellow captives would actually have been committed Christians and a few may, indeed, even have been priests. Doubtless, too, as Gildas (c 500-570) informs us, this was not the only raid made on Britain by the grassatores Hiberni (‘the Irish thugs’). One local king, Niall Noígiallach (‘of the Nine Hostages’), the son of a ruler with the soubriquet ‘Lord of the Slaves’ and a woman who was herself probably a British slave-girl, is said to have made seven marauding expeditions across the Irish Sea. Looted Roman coins have been found in abundance all along the northern and eastern coasts of Ireland: at the Giant’s Causeway in 1831; at Coleraine in 1854; and in much more recent times at Limavady, Co Derry, for instance. The advent of Christian slaves, then, possibly played a part in the introduction of Christianity into the island. And, since rulers in a country could obviously acquire the most slaves, it follows that enslaved Christians might well have had access to the most influential people in the land of their captivity.

The ancient Irish were expansionists. From the end of the third century onwards the Scotti, as the inhabitants of Ireland were generally called, established a number of colonies on the island of Great Britain: in north-western and south-western Wales, Cornwall and western Scotland. (1) Intercourse between these immigrants and Christian Britons and members of the Roman imperial forces could possibly have led to the conversion of some of them and ultimately to a haphazard spread of the faith to Ireland; particularly to the south and east coasts opposite the settlements in Wales and Cornwall.

The Irish had strong trading links with Roman Britain and Gaul and some dealings with Iberia. (2) While they were unfamiliar with ‘the interior parts’ of the island, Tacitus (c 55-120 AD) tells us that British or Gallic merchants had a reasonably good knowledge of Ireland’s ‘harbours and approaches’ and there is good evidence that Roman traders reached not just the coastal harbours but points well inland along large rivers like the Nore and the Barrow. It seems that wine and oil (and possibly wheat) were carried in considerable quantities from the Continent to Ireland. Archaeologists have discovered ample evidence of a wine trade, especially in the south of the country. It is probably no coincidence that the Corcu Loegde of the modern west Cork, who later claimed to be the first Irish Christians, carried on an extensive wine trade with France. It is interesting to note, also, that the word Bordgal, the Archaic Old Irish form of the place-name Bordeaux, is to be found in the toponymy of Westmeath and Kilkenny, and is also a word in Goidelic meaning ‘meeting-place’. The Irish also imported pottery, metal-work and bric-àbrac from Roman Gaul and Britain. In exchange for these commodities, they exported copper and gold, slaves, hides, cattle and wolfhounds. While evangelisation is not the primary motive of the commercial traveller, and while French wine-shippers were doubtless more intent on filling Irish stomachs with liquor than Irish souls with religion, it is possible that foreign merchants used the opportunities afforded by their business contacts to interest some Irish people in Christianity. (3)

It is a distinct possibility that some Christian ‘learned men’ fled to Ireland during the invasion of Gaul by German-speaking peoples at the beginning of the fifth century. The Leiden Glossary, a twelfth-century document based on a sixth or seventh-century account written in Gaul but now lost, claims that such a migration took place: ‘All the learned men on this side of the sea took flight, and in transmarine parts, namely in Ireland and wherever they betook themselves, brought about a very great increase of learning to the inhabitants of those regions.’ That civilised men would have fled to Ireland in fear of barbarian invaders is not beyond belief. The island would thus have gained from the ill-wind that blew across the continent, and would have become the recipient of whatever body of knowledge these men possessed. These Gallic literati would probably have maintained their identity for a considerable period of time among the pagan Irish. Patrick’s mention of ‘rhetoricians’ [Confessio 13] may be a reference to these scholarly fugitives.

It seems, too, that that obscure product of a very sophisticated but Christian environment, the Hisperica Famina (Western Sayings) may have been penned by seventh-century scholars in Ireland from this particular background. Modern authorities widely believe that the Western Sayings is of Irish origin and probably from a monastic environment. An examination of the contents of the document reinforces speculation that it originated in Ireland as it portrays a country where the natives communicate in Irish. The work is in strange, esoteric and unfamiliar language and gives the appearance of having been composed as a lesson-book for students of advanced Latin. Its vocabulary is most strikingly indebted to Isidore of Seville (c 560-636), but it also bears a vague resemblance to the Altus Prosator (called in English Ancient of Days), a poem attributed to Columba, and to some of the writings of Columban. James F. Kenney suggests that this famous work may have been produced in Ireland by descendants of the early fifth-century, fugitive Gallic men of letters mentioned in the Leiden Glossary. (4)

One, some or all of the avenues detailed above may have brought Christianity into Ireland. Of its presence in the country by the start of the fifth century we can be in no doubt for there is indisputable, mainly cumulative, evidence that Christianity had reached Ireland before Patrick began his mission in 432. (5)

Linguistic studies are of assistance in attempting to throw light on the progress of Christianity in early Celtic Ireland. The history of certain British words derived from Latin and borrowed by Archaic Old Irish, such as Cáisc (‘Easter’) and cruimther (‘priest’), suggests the gradual conversion of Ireland by Britons in the fourth and possibly early fifth centuries. These words reveal a most basic practice of the faith in an undeveloped Church without a bishop, for there is no word in rudimentary Old Irish for ‘bishop’. The first stratum of Christian loanwords is therefore possibly pre-431 when ‘the first bishop’ arrived in the country. The improvised vocabulary of the nascent Irish Church came into Archaic Old Irish through British speech rather than directly from Latin. It follows from this that British Christians, or their Irish converts on their return home, introduced these loan-words (and probably the faith they reflected) into parts of the island. (6)

There is a tradition, too, that certain Irish saints preceded Saint Patrick in date: notably Ciaran of Saiger; Declan o Ardmore, Ibar of Beccére, Ailbe of Emly, M’eltioc of Kinsale, Mo-chanoc and Mo-chatoc. The Lives of these saints are all very late – no earlier than the twelfth century – and provide no conclusive evidence that they were active in the pre-Patrician period. Most of these were probably British by birth, to judge by their names, and most are associated with the south and the south-east of the country. This, and other evidence available to him, leads Thomas F. O’Rahilly to make the sweeping claims that ‘Irish Christianity owes its origin to Britain’, that ‘already before 431 no small part of the population of the south-east and south of Ireland must have been converted by British missionaries’, that British evangelists continued to arrive in Ireland during the next three decades, and that after 461 British influence had the field to itself. Nor does the dearth of evidence prevent E. A. Thompson from basing his account of Patrick’s activity in Ireland on the supposition that British Christians resident in Ireland formed the nucleus round which he established his Church in Ireland. All we can say with confidence is that British Christians, either directly or indirectly, influenced the spread of the faith to Ireland and that this influence may have been exerted before 431.

James F. Kenney is of the opinion that another ground for concluding that there were Christians in Ireland prior to Patrick’s mission is that there are traces in Ireland of certain heresies – Arianism, Priscillianism and Pelagianism – which were current in western Europe in the late fourth and early fifth centuries. It is even possible that some of Priscillian’s adherents made their way to Ireland after their leader’s execution in 386. Pelagius (355-425) was responsible for much doctrinal controversy in the Church in the opening decades of the fifth century. He denied the necessity of grace for salvation and emphasised instead God’s gift of free will to men. Pelagius was certainly a most articulate and highly influential individual in his generation. This celebrated figure may have been an Irishman, for his adversary Saint Jerome vilifies him as a ‘most stupid fellow, heavy with Irish porridge’ and claims that he, or his companion Coelestius, had ‘his lineage of the Irish race, from the neighbourhood of the Britons’. It is more likely that Jerome was merely insulting his opponent in the way we might dismiss another as a ‘Philistine’. Pelagius received his training, spent his life and made his real impact on the Continent. It would be foolhardy, then, to accept the dubious evidence regarding his origins and to claim that he was representative of a flourishing, if deviant, Irish Church. The only conclusions that can be reached are either that these heresies infected pre-Patrician Christians in Ireland or that the traces remain from a later contamination. Pelagius definitely had a pernicious effect on the Church in Roman Britain and it was to combat this threat that Germanus of Auxerre was sent by Rome to that island in 429. An offshoot of this excursion was the subsequent mission of the ‘first bishop’, Palladius, ‘to the Scotti who believe in Christ’: incontrovertible evidence that from at least the third decade of the fifth century, there were sufficient Irish Christians to justify the appointment of a bishop for them by Rome. (7)

431 is regarded as the first unassailable date in Irish history. Under that year Prosper of Aquitaine entered in his Chronicon (Chronicle) the words: ‘Palladius, ordained by Pope Celestine, is sent to the Scotti who believe in Christ, as their first bishop.’ Palladius, probably a deacon of Auxerre at the time of his elevation, is the man referred to above as having been instrumental in having Germanus sent to tackle Pelagianism in Britain. James Carney claims that Prosper ‘used Scotti in a restricted sense and intended to refer geographically not to Ireland but to Scotland.’ He states that a number of church-dedications to Saint Paldy in southern Scotland seem to attest his presence there but he is convinced that there is no evidence of Palladius having been in Ireland. It is most likely that Carney is wrong in this conjecture for Dál Riata, the Scottic colony in what is now Argyll, was probably founded only in the final years of the fifth century. Furthermore, most modem scholars definitely associate Palladius with hallowed spots in Leinster.

Thankfully, Prosper gives us another small item of information which throws some light on the matter. In his Contra Collatorem (Against the Contributor), written about 434 in Rome, Prosper seems to imply that Palladius’s mission was to Ireland itself. He writes of his master Pope Celestine: ‘By ordaining a bishop for the Scotti, while he strove to keep the Roman island Catholic, he also made the barbarous island Christian.’ Most scholars accept that this gives proof positive that Palladius’s mission was to Ireland, ‘the barbarous island’, itself and that the Pope managed also to preserve Britain, ‘the Roman island’, from the Pelagian heresy by sending Germanus of Auxerre there in 429. Undaunted, Carney argues that Britain was metaphorically ‘divided into two “islands”, the northern barbaric, the southern Roman, and we are not merely entitled, but compelled, to dissociate Palladius from Ireland’. His theory is based on the fact that all of Britain had not been subjugated by the Romans and that the north had remained unconquered and pagan.

Nevertheless, most authorities remain unconvinced by Carney’s ingenious theory and believe that Palladius laboured, for some time at least, unobtrusively in Ireland. The fact that Muirchú, in his seventh-century Life, makes Patrick the successor of Palladius adds strength to their position. Muirchú states: ‘They knew for certain that Palladius … had been consecrated and sent to this island in the cold north in order to convert it … Neither were these wild and harsh men inclined to accept his teaching nor did he himself wish to spend a long time in a foreign country, but decided to return to him [Pope Celestine] who had sent him. On his way back from here, having crossed the first sea and begun his journey by land, he ended his life in the territory of the Britons’ [I, 8]. Thomas F. O’Rahilly argues quite brilliantly that the activities of Palladius and Patrick have become confused and that much of the work of Palladius, who, he claims, was called Patricius in Ireland, has been wrongly attributed to Patrick. He believes that Palladius laboured in Ireland until 461 and was then succeeded by Patrick, who worked there until his death about 492. Most Patrician scholars of this century do not make such exaggerated claims. John Ryan [1931] holds that the first bishop’s mission in Ireland was short and that ‘within a year Palladius was dead’. Ludwig Bieler [1967] suggests that Palladius was ‘still successfully active in Ireland at least two or three years after his commission’ at the time (434) of Prosper’s entry in his Against the Contributor. Bieler holds that Palladius laboured in the south-eastern corner of the island. He observes that a bishop sent by Rome would have had the assistance of quite a large staff and that a mission with papal backing would have been constantly reinforced by fresh personnel.

Something like this may indeed have happened. Palladius could have established a church in Leinster, with his work being continued by shadowy figures like Secundinus, Auxilius and Iserninus – men who had no contact whatsoever with Patrick. Professor Corish, in his most incisive study, The Irish Catholic Experience (Dublin, 1985), builds on the case put forward so cogently by D. A. Binchy in 1962. Corish speculates that ‘the fragments of topographical information that cling to Palladius’s name locate his mission in Leinster’ (actually with three very ancient churches in Co Wicklow) and that his efforts were supplemented or continued in that general area by the missionaries named above. Auxilius and Iserninus are credited, along with Patrick, with issuing the circular letter known as The First Synod of Saint Patrick. Monsignor Corish has no difficulty in associating the canons in this particular document with Auxilius and Iserninus. Kathleen Hughes [1966] is of the opinion that the document was produced by a fairly well-developed, second-generation yet still missionary Church in Leinster. The venerable Church of Kildare, still strong enough in the seventh century to be regarded as a rival of Armagh, may, we might add, have then been a relic of the former effectiveness and independence of the fifth-century Roman mission of Palladius and his followers in Leinster. Corish believes that Patrick played no part in the framing of the document which now bears his name and that it ‘is not hard to see circumstances in which his name came to be added later’.

In his Confessio [51], Patrick shows himself aware of episcopal activity elsewhere in Ireland and the administration (independently of him) of the sacraments of baptism, confirmation and ordination. He states that he himself had travelled to places in Ireland ‘where no one else had ever penetrated, in order to baptise, or to ordain clergy, or to confirm the people’ – thus insinuating that there were, indeed, places in the country which had received spiritual ministrations from another (possibly earlier) source or indeed other sources. Furthermore, his account of his flight from slavery as a young man of twenty-two may give evidence of an escape network for fugitive slaves run by concerned Christians, presumably in Leinster, more than twenty years before Patrick began his own mission [Confessio 17 and 18]. But Patrick does not refer to Palladius or any other missionary, predecessor or contemporary, by name. One of Patrick’s outstanding traits is his humility. If Palladius’s mission was anything other than unspectacular (and probably short), it is difficult to imagine that Patrick would not have acknowledged the fact. He clearly regarded himself as essentially a pioneer, and not as anybody’s successor or co-operator. Though the Palladian and Patrician missions may have coincided, Patrick was working in virgin territory bringing the gospel to pagans, whereas the Roman missionaries in Leinster were consolidating the work done by Palladius and begun by the anonymous evangelists who, by 431, had ensured that there was no small number of Scotti believing in Christ.

The record of the coming of Christianity into Ireland is obscure and even confusing. It cannot be denied, however, that the faith had already taken root in the island before the mission of Saint Patrick, apostle of Ireland. How the new religion established itself in the country is a hazy yet tantalising chapter in our early history. By the time the saint had begun his mission, the groundwork had been done and the foundations had been laid for a Celtic Church in Ireland that over the next few centuries would become one of the most vibrant parts of the Body of Christ.

1. Though the settlement in Argyll in Scotland probably dates from the closing years of the fifth century and has, therefore, questionable relevance for the topic under discussion, we mention it to underline the extent of Irish colonial activity in Britain in our period. For a fresh treatment of Irish emigrés in Britain, see Lloyd and Jennifer Laing, Celtic Britain and Ireland, AD 200-800: The Myth of the Dark Ages (Blackrock, Co Dublin, 1990).
2. Art historians have discovered links between specialised motifs, notably the Visigothic marigold design, on artifacts in the Iberian peninsula and in Ireland. These supposed associations are confirmed (or at least supported) by references in the writings of Orosius, the early fifth-century Portuguese historian and apologist, to a special relationship between Galicia, the Celtic settlement in Spain, and Ireland. (It is interesting to remember, as supportive evidence of the strength and endurance of this interrelationship, the existence of a very early Celtic monastery with Irish connections, prior to the Arab conquest of Spain in the seventh century, at Santa Maria de Bretoña near Mondoñedo in the same region.)
3. It is surely significant that the earliest stratum of Latin loan-words in Archaic Old Irish is concerned with the vocabulary of mercantile activity.
4. The earliest form of writing in Ireland, the Ogham Script, is based on the Latin alphabet and is most commonly found on standing-stones in Kerry, Cork and Waterford, the very region where these French scholars are thought to have settled. While these erudite emigrés did not import the art of writing into Ireland (for Ogham Script may have been introduced as early as the fourth century), they were coming to a country already touched by Roman scholarship and open to deeper influences.
5. We can, of course, dismiss the four pious legends which make an Irishman: (1) a witness (Altus) to the events on Calvary; (2) a ruler in Ulster (Conor Mac Nessa) who died broken-hearted on hearing of Christ’s crucifixion; (3) an important local king (Cormac Mac Airt) who converted in the third century; and (4) a bishop (Mansuetus) in fourth-century France.
6. The cults of two prominent saints, one from France and the other from Britain, were also imported into the country. Early Irish Christians venerated Saint Martin of Tours and Saint Ninian, the founder of Candida Casa, the famous early monastery on the west coast of northern Britain. There are the ancient parishes of Desertmartin (Co Derry) and Templemartin (Co Cork] and a town-land called Kilmartin (Co Dublin), for example, and Ninian feafures in many of the early martyrologies. These cults may have been introduced by Gallic and Brittonic evangelists in the decades before Patrick’s mission. However, it is more likely that they reflect a later devotion to Martin or Ninian among Irish Christians who had connections with Gaul or northern Britain.
7. The reader will find translations (with notes and explanations) of pertinent texts, written in Latin in the fourth and fifth centuries, in Liam de Paor, Saint Patrick’s World (Blackrock, Co Dublin, 1993).


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