Ireland: Magical Land on the Edge of the World
The history of Ireland is the story of an island on the edge of the world. The story of its people is filled with adventure, magic, legend, myth, giants, saints, scholars, poets, and incredible feats of bravery and courage. The fascination of Ireland is in large part due to the fact that the line between myth and history is not always clear. This includes the more narrow focus of the history of the Irish church and Celtic Christianity. This is something we briefly considered with Saint Patrick. When it comes to how we deal with legend, it is important to consider that most legends don’t come from stories made up out of thin air, but are rather the product of years, decades, and centuries of passing on stories that grew with each retelling. Consider the legend of Patrick driving all the snakes out of Ireland. It is quite likely that such a legend grew out of a real event, such as Patrick in a specific small locale overcoming the magical arts of druid priests and their serpents.
The beautiful thing about the legends of Ireland is that in the long run of real history, it was true Christianity that overcame and defeated the paganism that for so long had such a grip on the Celtic people. It is the legend of Christian heroism, adventure, and missionary efforts that prevailed over ancient celtic paganism, bondage, and human sacrifice. Thus, the changing mythology of Ireland shows us the true history of Christianity conquering paganism and transforming the people of Ireland. The legends convey the story of the truth.
The ancient architecture scattered throughout Ireland itself tells this story of Christianity transforming Ireland. In Ireland you will find ancient pagan structures that date to hundreds of years before the time of Christ. To this day you can visit a tomb dating to the megalithic time period, wherein you will find a map of the moon, which a small window into the tomb lets in moonlight only on the winter solstice each year, lighting up this map. Such architecture and others found in Ireland, testifies to the ancient pagan religion and worship of moon gods and other such pagan practices, including human sacrifice and pagan sexual rituals. But such pagan remains were replaced with ancient Christian remains from the time of Patrick on, such as church buildings, celtic crosses as grave markers, and monasteries – all the way to the early portion of 20th century when Ireland established a new constitution which begins by stating,
“In the Name of the Most Holy Trinity, from Whom is all authority and to Whom, as our final end, all actions both of men and States must be referred,
We, the people of Éire,
Humbly acknowledging all our obligations to our Divine Lord, Jesus Christ, Who sustained our fathers through centuries of trial,”
The legends of Ireland tell the true history of a land that was once deeply pagan becoming a land that was deeply Christian. Sadly, today, Ireland has been secularized like the West, and has, by and large, forsaken her Triune God. And it is my prayer that her ancient Christian history would call her back to Jesus Christ once again. God delivered Ireland from paganism once, so should He will, He can do it again.
But going all the way back, was Patrick really the first person to bring the gospel to Ireland? Certainly Christianity took a hold with Patrick and grew from there, but was he really the first? Well according to legend, Patrick was not the first. The legends differ, but the differing legends show us that someone brought the gospel to Ireland first. Some stories say that there was a Celtic Roman Soldier, some claim him to be the soldier present at the crucifixion, who testifies upon the death of Christ in the gospels, “Truly, this was the Son of God.” Other stories would assert that business brought Joseph of Arimathea, the wealthy man who buried the body of Christ, up to the Celtic people, thus bringing them the gospel. Whatever the case may be, this reminds us that sometimes it takes time and waiting on God to give the growth. From the 1st century, to Patrick, God then gave great growth to Christianity in Ireland.
WarLords and Monastic Mission
What was the fruit of the missionary efforts of Patrick in Ireland? We mentioned some of those things last time, so I’ll briefly recall to mind that Celtic Christianity was catholic Christianity, meaning it was the same faith as the universal church, which means Nicene orthodoxy, a rich tradition of Psalm-singing (for so long the Psalter was the hymnbook of Celtic Christianity), and like Patrick, a rich Trinitarian prayer-life and Christ-centered devotion is shown in so many others coming out of Ireland.
The Celtic people also had a rich cultural tradition of singing and poetry, but with the coming of Christianity, Christianity transformed their singing and poetry and made it Christian. Many great Psalm and hymn tunes we sing today come from Ireland. Ireland shows us that when Christ redeems a group of people, He doesn’t totally destroy their culture, but He changes and transforms it. Christ is The Redeemer. Celtic Christianity was not a different kind of Christianity than we are a part of today, but it was a certain cultural expression of the catholic faith.
Celtic Christianity was also monastic, like many areas in the early church. But it was not at all isolationist. The missionary-zeal of Patrick was something that took deep root in Irish Christianity. The monasteries of Ireland essentially functioned as training grounds for monks to be sent out on missionary efforts and establish new churches and monasteries wherever they went. In fact, with the fall of the Roman empire, the Christian faith also faced a decline. But while Christianity in the falling empire was declining, it was exploding in Ireland. Ireland became a missionary sending zone and missionaries went out from Ireland, re-lighting the flames of the Christian faith in Scotland, England, and beyond, even to the European continent. One historian even says, “It is no exaggeration to say that, with the exception of Kent and Sussex, the whole English race received the foundation of their faith from Celtic missionaries.”
One of the downfalls of monastic practices was their vows of celibacy. Thus, after a time, since the missionaries did not marry and have children, some of the Islands and places where they established churches or monasteries died out. Nevertheless, these celtic missionaries played a great role in re-evangelizing the English people.
Christianity and Literacy
Not only this, but Christianity also transformed the Irish barbarians into a literate and scholarly people. A once illiterate people were made literate because of the Christian faith. The fact that God has communicated His Word to men through the written Scriptures shows us that God ideally desires for men to be literate. Ireland is called the land of Saints and Scholars. Once a backwater third world country at the edge of the world, was turned into a land of saints and scholars. In fact, more than half of all our biblical commentaries between 650 and 850 AD were written by Irishmen.
Having previously discussed Patrick, I think the best way to tell the story of early Celtic Christianity is through the stories of two particular figures. These two figures that I will tell you of are real historical figures, yet each have elements of their story that can seem larger than life, but which shows the conquest of Christianity over the kingdom of darkness.
The first one I know that some of you have read a little bit about in Needham’s Church History, and that is St. Columba. Columba lived in the century after Patrick, from the years 521-597 AD. His story is quite similar to Patrick in that he spent his life on missionary journeys, going face to face with pagan druids with the gospel of Jesus Christ, establishing churches everywhere he went. Indeed he is credited with starting over 300 churches.
Columba was Irish born, the son of an Irish king. He got into some controversy early on involving military aggression in which I am not sure what the truth is. But he became a monk and established a number of churches in Ireland before setting sail for Iona, from which he became a missionary to the people of Scotland. The monastery established at Iona itself became a massive training and sending agency of monks and missionaries throughout Scotland, Briton, and beyond. For some time it was even a place of spiritual fatherhood which the British isles looked to for spiritual guidance, as opposed to looking to Rome, though of course there was no papacy and it was nothing like Rome in authority or practice. I cannot overstate the influence and importance of Iona in training and sending Missionaries during that time.
Columba himself was quite the character, and in many ways a model of Christian manfulness who shatters our modern stereotypes of what we think a monk was. One historian describes him as “a big man, bald and aggressive.” I am also quite fond of Nick Needham’s description of Columba describing him as, “Tall, beautiful, burning with physical energy, constantly singing the Psalms of David in a booming voice, fearless, and in love with travel and adventure, Columba summed up in his own person and life the essence of Celtic Christianity.” As you see in that description, Columba was known for being a great singer, and his voice in singing and preaching was capable of being heard at an enormous distance. Indeed God created him exactly for the life that he lived.
His life is filled with stories such as “On one occasion when he was opposed by certain druids, he entoned a Psalm with such marvelous effect that his enemies were reduced to silence and the surrounding spectators trembled before him.” Certainly the power of manful Psalm-singing is something for us to take to heart and a practice so dearly needed in the modern evangelical church. There is something powerful about masculine Psalm-singing men that is in itself a persuasive testimony to the power of Christ over evil.
As a model of Christian manhood, Columba was not a man absorbed with himself, confident in his own strength, or one to beat his chest in pride. He faced many great dangers in his missionary journeys from pagan warlords, druids, beasts, and the fierceness of the terrain. And thus Columba wrote his constant prayer, “May the Trinity protect me wherever I stay.”
It is reported that Columba even had an encounter with what is called today the Loch Ness Monster in Scotland. Legends of the Celtic people are filled with dangers and encounters from such sea or deep lake creatures, which creep beyond merely the realm of myth. The story goes that Columba, while on a missionary journey, encountered the Loch Ness monster. Columba and the men with him happened upon a man who had just been killed by it, and it began to chase after one of his men. At Columba’s command to “go no further” the monster stopped and returned to the deeps, not harming anyone since.
St. Brendan the Navigator
If Columba was a model of Christian manfulness shattering our modern stereotype of ancient monks, no less was this the case with St. Brendan the Navigator. Brendan was also an Irish monk during the 6th century. He is called St. Brendan the Navigator because he is known for an incredible sea voyage that lasted 14 years, bringing 14 other monks with him. Brendan had heard stories of a land of paradise across the sea, which he greatly desired to see if he could find. Indeed, at that time there were a number of Celtic monks who had taken sea voyages Westward out on the Atlantic Ocean establishing monasteries at the Faroe Islands, Iceland, and possibly even as far as Greenland. At that time of course North America was essentially unknown. But based upon the Voyage of St. Brendan, it is pretty evident that he made it to the North American coast and possibly even as far down as the Caribbean islands.
The things he describes encountering are legitimately elements one encounters on the route it seems that he took. There was a guy in the 1970’s who made a boat in the same fashion as Brendan would’ve had and took to the same route Brendan would’ve taken. He encountered many of the same things and he made it successfully to North America.
Brendan survived and returned home to Ireland after 14 years and is buried today in Clonfert Ireland. He wrote what is known as the Voyage of St. Brendan. And after the Bible, it was the most popular thing read throughout the middle ages.
In setting out on this voyage, Brendan writes, “Shall I abandon, O King of mysteries, the soft comforts of home? Shall I turn my back on my native land, and turn my face toward the sea? Shall I put myself wholly at thy mercy, without silver, without a horse, without fame, without honor? O King of the glorious heaven, shall I go of my own choice upon the sea? O Christ, wilt thou help me on the wild waves?”
Brendan submitted himself to the sovereignty of God, encouraging his men at sea, “My God do unto us as he willeth.”
On his journeys, Brendan also encountered a sea monster that was attacked and defeated by another sea monster which he describes as breathing out fire.
One very fascinating piece is that in recent centuries engravings in stone have been found in West Virginia that date back to the 500’s, the time of Brendan’s voyage, and the engravings are in old Ogham, which is an old Celtic language. It seems very likely that these are from Brendan and his men.
This is the translation of one of the engravings: “A happy season is Christmas, a time of joy and goodwill to all people. A virgin was with child; God ordained her to conceive and be fruitful. Ah, behold, a miracle! She gave birth to a son in a cave. The name of the cave was the cave of Bethlehem. His foster-father gave him the name Jesus, the Christ, Alpha and Omega. Festive season of prayer.” In Brendan’s navigation it seems this location coincides with a time he describes during the Christmas season in which he talks about them taking a journey inland for 40 days before finding the land too vast to explore the end of. They thought it was an island, but it turned out to be too vast for them to continue exploring the end of. It could’ve been West Virginia. There is also an engraving found there that is a symbol called the right hand of God, and when deciphered, it translates as, “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, One God.”
After this Brendan also describes sailing near an island with inhabitants that were threatening them from shore, even throwing hot coals at them, shouting at them, there was smoke rising from the Island and it seemed as if the island was on fire. He describes it as having an awful stench… could this be human sacrifice or cannibalism happening in the Caribbean islands?
Whatever the case, at this juncture, Brendan encouraged his men, “Soldiers of Christ, be strong in faith unfeigned and in the armor of the Spirit, for we are now on the confines of hell; watch, therefore, and act manfully.”
I’ll close the story of Brendan with a couple stanzas from a poem he wrote:
Christ of the mysteries,
I trust you to be
Stronger than each
Storm within me.
I will trust in the
Darkness and know
That my times even
Now, are in your hand.”
Distinctives from Rome, Developments into Rome
We’ll conclude with the big discussion surrounding Celtic Christianity. Was it Roman Catholic? How was it different? We have hit on that along the way to some degree, that it was not, but I will give you a few more distinctives from the Papacy and then briefly describe how Ireland became predominantly Roman Catholic in later centuries.
Celtic Christianity had an independent spirit, in terms of independent churches, monasteries and freedom from the authority of the papacy that lasted well into the middle ages. This was in large part due to the fact that at that time they were considered to be on the edge of the world, out of the reaches and grasp of the empire.
This independence was maintained through its first controversy with the papacy in the year 663 AD. It was the first Synod of leaders of the Celtic Church and the leaders of the English church with Papist representatives. The synod met to debate the date of Easter, in which the Celtic church held a different date than the papacy. They also debated things like the style of the hair that monks were to have. The real issue though was the underlying issue of the authority of the papacy. England ends up aligning with the papacy, Celtic churches do not.
One Irishman named Columbanus around that time wrote to Pope Boniface, insisting, “we Irish, inhabitants of the world’s edge, are disciples of Saints Peter and Paul and of all the disciples who, by the Holy Spirit, wrote the divine scripture, and we accept nothing outside the evangelical and apostolic teaching; not one has been a heretic, not one a Judaizer, not one a schismatic, but the Catholic Faith as it was given to us first by you, that is the successors of the holy apostles, is preserved intact.”
It was not until the 11th and 12th centuries that Ireland began to be brought under the papacy. At that time the pope sent out new requirements for the monks, which Ireland thumbed its nose at, thus such actions validated, in the mind of the papacy, the conquering of Ireland, and so Ireland was partially subdued by the English, and the Roman church advanced. This hatred and bloodshed between the Irish and English was only just beginning. Fighting between the two would continue nearly to our present day.
Going up to the time of the English Reformation, James Ussher, an Irish Puritan, was deeply concerned about the historical claims of the Roman Catholic Church on Ireland. It was vital to him that history be fought for and told truthfully as an apologetic against Rome. So that gives us a reason why Church History is important. So Ussher spent years in deep study of church history. It resulted in “The Annals” – a great work of Church history still in use today. Since Ireland was mainly Roman Catholic at this point in history, he also wrote a series of articles demonstrating that the pre-reformation Irish Church, as it was founded by Patrick, was essentially identical to the faith of the contemporary Protestant church. Ussher also asserts that it was not until the council of Trent that the Irish church apostatized.
Historian Crawford Gribben writes, “Ussher’s Answer was a compilation of quotations which affirmed that many of the most important Catholic doctrines had no foundation in the traditions of the early church. The authority of traditions, the real presence of Christ in the mass, confession of sin to a priest and the priest’s power to forgive sins, the existence of purgatory and the necessity of prayers for the dead, prayer to saints, images and merits – Ussher demonstrated that the Church Fathers did not believe in any of them. The Roman system, he claimed, was a ‘great dunghill of errors.’”
Despite Ussher’s best efforts, the Roman Catholic counter-reformation, and many wars with much bloodshed, solidified Roman Catholicism’s hold upon Ireland, thus ensuring the minority status of Irish protestants, reformers, and puritans. Despite being a minority, there was puritan revival in Ireland, particularly in the 1620s-1640s that is a part of our rich theological heritage and church practice, such as simple Word-Centered Worship services, acapella Psalm-singing, expository preaching, and reformed theology, all down the stream from ancient Celtic Christianity. Despite the modern secularization of Ireland, history cannot be changed, which tells of Christianity’s transforming of Ireland. God did it once, He can do it again. May God save Ireland.