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HIST & MYTH: The Irish Celtic Church

Irish Celtic Cross
The Irish Christian Celtic Church was a prosperous and independent church that spread Christianity across a dark Europe while producing incredible works of art and battled against the powerful Church of Rome. The church flourished from the 5th to 12th centuries and did not follow the structure and influence of Rome. 

How did the church develop? here is where the debate rages, however many of the facts point to the development of Irish Monasticism as Egyptian Coptic and not Roman, blending and developing over time intertwining with its former Celtic Culture. The Irish Monastic Movement became known across Europe for its simplicity of life, scholarly pursuits, artistic expression, deep spirituality and love of nature.   


Ireland had not been part of the Roman Empire and the church developed after Christianity spread to its shores and Irish monasticism developed on Coptic lines becoming uniquely Irish Celtic in its practices. Once the Roman Empire fell Christianity was lost from most of the former Roman Empire including Britain due to invading Germanic tribes, who like the Romans did not conquer Ireland. Ireland’s church developed and grew within its insular society and was to become a shining light within Europe during its dark age. During this period much of Europe had returned to a state of chaos without the structure of Rome.

Tara Brooch - 8th Century Insular Art 

There were differences between the Irish Celtic Church and the Roman Church. The church developed around large monasteries built on land granted by local Kings. The monasteries were run by powerful abbots and abbesses. Women had equal status as men and some well known abbesses were Bridget, Ita and Hilda. It was not a hierarchical structure with dioceses or parishes controlled by powerful bishops. Monks were the key players with bishops taking more sacramental roles. The church was based on and intertwined with its former Celtic culture. It became known across Europe for its simplicity of life, scholarly pursuits, artistic expression, deep spirituality and love of nature. A totally unique church. The Irish monasteries became large centres of learning with many affluent families within Europe sending their children to Ireland to be educated. The monks were not static and roamed teaching Christianity and many taking up lives of solitude as hermits. The most notable of these hermit monasteries was on the Skellig Michael Island off the South West Coast of Ireland. An extremely remote, wild and dramatic location. It must noted here and I have written previously that Ireland during this period was not a unitary state but comprised of five Kingdoms each ruled by a provincial family. The alignment of the monasteries was therefore with the ruling king and life evolved around the monastery. 

Skellig Michael - 6th Century Monastery
Irish monks spent most of their time in prayer and lived simple lives following what they believed to be the true message of the Christian religion spread by its teacher Jesus in Palestine around 30AD. All aspects of work carried out by the Irish monks were regarded as prayer and many great works of art were created like illuminated manuscripts, high crosses, chalices (eg. Ardagh Chalice) and numerous more artefacts. The Book of Durrow is a 7th century illuminated manuscript gospel book. It is the oldest surviving complete insular gospel book containing the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Today it is stored at Trinity College Library, Dublin. The Book of Kells, produced a century later is an illuminated gospel book containing the four gospels of the New Testament. The ornamentations, calligraphy and illustrations surpass any other insular gospel books in its design and extravagance. Today it is displayed at Trinity College Library, Dublin. 
Book of Kells
8th Century Manuscript

From the 6th century preaching Christianity brought the Irish Church out side its insular society into main land Europe. It built many monasteries in Europe and its influence grew. It gained wide respect for its teachings and way of life where its monks dressed in simple woollen habits in contrast to the extravagances of the Roman Church. This became noticed by the powerful church in Rome who set out to stop the spread of the church. The Irish Church disliked the role taken by the Roman Church where bishops held power and lived in grand palaces taking titles as lords or prince of the church while living lavish lifestyles. The Irish Church sent numerous letters to Roman popes condemning the lifestyles of its bishops and for them to adopt the Irish Celtic Church practices. Whether the popes in Rome replied it is unknown. 

Britain lay at the centre of the eventual demise of the Irish Celtic Church. Irish monks like Brendan, Columba, Columbanus, Fergal and more set out to restore Christianity to Britain that had returned to a state of barbarism after the fall of Rome and invasion of Germanic tribes. These monks played a vital role in restoring Europe to Christianity during a dark time in its history. A book written by Thomas Cahill named “How The Irish Saved Civilisation” is written of its role during the period after the fall of the Roman Empire and the rise of Medieval Europe. He writes that it was Ireland through its sense of literacy and learning that set the seeds of culture for replanting the European continent. A culture that it preserved while Europe was overrun by barbarians. I think to say it was Ireland alone is probably overstating, however it is true that the role it played was very significant as during this period Ireland was in its golden era.  A beacon of light on the western edge of the then known world. 

Ardagh Chalice - 8th Century Insular Art
An eventual conflict arose in Britain between the two churches when the Roman Church under Augustine of Canterbury began to spread the Christian faith northwards into the territory of the Irish Celtic Church in Northumbria. The King of Northumbria faced an unsure dilemma which faith to follow as certain rites on the Christian calendar differed between the two churches. A special meeting was convened at the Irish Monastery of Whitby hosted by its Abbess Hilda where the Irish Celtic Church and the Roman Church confronted each other. The result was that the King of Northumbria opted to choose to support the Roman Church and this was to signal the beginning of the decline of the Irish Church. 
Book of Durrow
7th Century Manuscript

When founding monks of European monasteries died the monasteries were brought into line with the Roman church. The Church continued to grow within Ireland until the 12th century when the Abbot of Armagh named Malachy began a reformation movement. After several visits to Rome he set up the Cistercian Order. Following this the Irish Celtic Church agreed to follow the authority of the Roman Church and it was dissolved with the major orders of the Catholic Church like Cistercians, Augustinians, Franciscans, Dominicans and more setting up orders within Ireland. After over six hundred years the Irish Church had ended and during its time it set Ireland's monasteries as centres of European learning and became known as the era of Saints and Scholars.

Glendalough Monastery 6th Century
Round Tower
Today visible around Ireland are the ruins of the great monastic sites. Many of these great buildings were destroyed by Oliver Cromwell’s (English Military and Political leader) onslaught on the Irish countryside.  One of the most well known monasteries was Glendalough situated in the glen of the Wicklow Mountains. It contains the ruins of over seven churches, a cathedral, a round tower and other ancient structures. Many of the great artefacts and works of art can be viewed today at the National Museum in Dublin

If the Irish Celtic Church had continued to grow what do you think its influence would be in Europe today? Would it have been able to maintain its simple life, deep spirituality, love of nature and great artistic expression that intertwined the old Celtic culture? Its beliefs were true but would it have got lost in the materiality of what life in Europe became? Is this not what we have lost today, our understanding of the world around us and to be in harmony with nature as we once were?

Glendalough - Lower Lake, Co. Wicklow 

Please also see Book III of my History & Myth Series 

Images taken from Wikipedia.

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Ben Kesp is an author, artist and writer and you can discover more on his e-books and artwork by checking out the Ben Kesp Site.

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