EARLY IRISH CHRISTIANITY: A GOLDEN AGE (400s-700s)
By Dr Gillian Doherty
It is worth reflecting on the profound impact St Patrick had on the Ireland of his day, and the extraordinary fruits of his mission.
Within decades St Patrick’s arrival in 432 AD, Ireland had embraced Christianity, and male and female monasteries opened throughout the land. These quickly gained renown for their sanctity, attracting vocations from abroad because of their reputation as vibrant, dynamic places of piety and learning. Some were associated with wealthy patrons, and developed as centres of economic and political importance. Others, such as Sceilg Mhicíl, on a tiny island off the Kerry coast, were inaccessible by design, intended to be retreats from the world.
Monasteries played an invaluable role culturally, as well as spiritually. The National Museum of Ireland is the custodian of priceless works of art created in monasteries during this period, in stone, precious metals, and vellum. Irish monks excelled in manuscript production and advanced scholarship, in Irish and Latin, clerical and secular. Masterpieces such as the Book of Kells testify to the high culture of Irish monasteries, and the creative zeal of Irish monks.
In the 6th century, less than a century after St Patrick brought Christianity to Ireland, these Irish monasteries initiated an extraordinary missionary movement that is credited with bringing the faith to pagan countries, and preserving faith and culture in the Europe of the dark ages. After the collapse of the Roman Empire, and the ravages inflicted by invading barbarians, the continent was devastated. Irish monks travelled to Britain and mainland Europe to establish new monasteries, spreading the Gospel and re-evangelizing communities that had lapsed into paganism. The number of missionaries and monasteries was great, and their influence even greater, particularly in modern-day Britain, France, Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Italy. Of particular note were Saints Columba and Columbanus.
St Columba (Irish: Colum Cille), one of the three patron saints of Ireland, is credited with the conversion of Scotland to Christianity. He left his native Donegal in 563 with 12 companions to become a peregrinatio pro Christo – pilgrim for Christ. His monastery on the island of Iona, off the West coast of Scotland, was the base for the evangelization of the pagan kingdom of the Picts (modern-day Scotland). Monks from Iona went to evangelise Northumbria and from there to other parts of England. Iona won fame as a major European centre of learning, as well as a school for missionaries. Two of the greatest medieval masterpieces of Celtic art, the Book of Kells and the Book of Durrow, were produced in St Columba’s monasteries.
St Columbanus(Irish: Columbán), one of the best-known Irish missionaries in early medieval Europe, is most responsible for the assignation of ‘Island of Saints and Scholars’. In c 591, he left the great monastery at Bangor with 12 monks for the Frankish Kingdom (modern-day France) where he founded monasteries at Annegray, Luxeuil and Fontaine. He went on to establish a monastery in Bregenz in Austria and in Bobbio Abbey in Italy, where he lived until his death in 615. His tomb is still a place of pilgrimage. His monastic rule and missionary charism emphasised the importance of confession and penitence; monks were instructed to live frugal lives of prayer, fasting, study, and hard work. Students of his went on to found over one hundred monasteries. There are towns, villages, and shrines throughout Europe that bear his name, and remain centres of devotion to the saint.
Pope Benedict XVI described Columbanus as a “European saint” whose life and example could help re-inspire a disillusioned world. ‘St. Columbanus’ message is centered on a firm call to conversion and detachment from the goods of the earth in view of our eternal heritage. … With his spiritual energy, with his faith, with his love for God and for his neighbour, he truly became one of the fathers of Europe: He shows us even today the roots from which our Europe can be reborn”.
Missionaries epitomised courage, sacrifice, and moral leadership in going into exile to bring the Good News to the ends of the earth, in spite of hostility and violent opposition, values needed as much in Ireland today as they were in continental Europe 1,500 years ago.