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Emergence of Christianity

According to the Chronicle of Prosper of Aquitaine, Pope Celestine sent Palladius in 431 AD to minister to the wayward Irish, 'to those of the Irish who believed in Christ'. We have no idea of how successful Palladius was but it would seem that Ireland was a place of some Christian activity before the arrival of Patrick, Ireland's patron saint. It is interesting that the authorities in Gaul appointed both men. Whatever the level of success of Palladius, it is generally regarded that it is to Patrick that the achievement of the bloodless and enduring conversion of the Irish people belongs. But this should not mislead us into thinking that it was just one man's success. The propagation of the cult of Patrick was an invention of later biographers who created a heroic narrative to convey the almost single handed assault on paganism in Ireland by the saint. This promotional activity was part of a wider strategy within the ecclesiastical and secular politics of the seventh century whereby the supporters of Patrick and Colm Cille were vying for supremacy over the whole of the Celtic Christian community.

Patrick had arrived to Irish shores in 432 AD and north of a line from Wexford to Galway seems to have vigorously founded many churches. This evangelising work was not a quick or easy task and was filled with many dangers as the saint reveals in his own words when he claims in his Confessio that he 'baptised thousands, ordained clerics everywhere, gave presents to kings, was put in irons, lived daily with the danger of murder, treachery or captivity and journeyed in dangers everywhere even to the farthest places beyond where lived nobody'.

The stories surrounding this work show that Patrick was aware of the ancient traditions of the Irish and he took full advantage of these natural and pagan rituals to weave them into the fabric of the Christian message. The annual pilgrimage to Croagh Patrick is a Christian adaptation of the pagan festival of Lughnasa, the celebration of the Celtic god Lugh. According to one of the authors of the Book of Armagh, Tirechan, Patrick proceeded to the summit after burying his charioteer Totmael (The Bald One) at Murrisk. There he spent 40 days and 40 nights fasting and praying. This gesture of grafting Christian symbols onto the traditional customs and beliefs rather than trying to obliterate them was perhaps a significant element in the strategy of the conversion.

The over printing of pagan landscapes by the Christian evangelists is a motif that finds expression in many examples such as wells, trees and the tumuli of the gods. The countless springs, where animistic worship had taken place over millennia, were sometimes reinterpreted as the holy wells of the saints. The seventh century tales of Tirechan often involved Patrick arriving at a well to find druids nearby, thus, indicating that these places already had some sacred significance.

The system of church that Patrick introduced would have been the episcopal one that he knew from Britain and Gaul but he also introduced the monastic life into Ireland. Embraced by great numbers of converts the trend towards monasticism was unusual in most of western Europe but it seems to have suited the Irish temperament and their impulse towards an ascetic way of life. Early churches and monastic buildings were made of wood or wattles, instead of a communal residence the monks all lived in individual cells. Where wood was scarce they built using stone and these are the extant examples we see today. The sacral space would have been surrounded by a rampart similar those enclosing the homes of local farmers.

Strong personalities and independent operations seemed to have been the hallmark of the early church whereby local ruling families had by the eight century assumed the power through kinship, of the larger monasteries. Indeed some monasteries became so important economically that their abbots were in effect as important as the local kings.

The inward momentum of Christianity soon found expression in a desire by Irish monks, at a time when Europe was being plunged into the 'Dark Ages' to renounce home and family as a form of mortification and self sacrifice and to spread the faith to other countries. Colm Cille's journey to Iona in 563 AD was essentially little different from the one undertaken by Enda to Aran a generation before.

The Irish form of Christianity grew within the social order of a Celtic world claiming no martyrs and absorbing older beliefs. It was unique in that its centres of life were the great monasteries and not the urban model of Rome, which endowed Bishops with great seats of power. Instead, there was a hereditary retention of autonomy and the Celtic tradition survived in administration as in art and architecture. It was not until the arrival of the Vikings and the upsurge in pagan cults that the Irish church was reformed along the diocesan model with St Patrick's Church at Armagh attaining the primacy of Ireland in the eleventh century.

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