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Christianity first came to Ireland between the 3rd and 5th Centuries and while much of Europe was plunging into the Dark Ages, Ireland provided a beacon of light.
This was Ireland's Golden Era as it became a burgeoning land of art and literature, culture and Christianity, and many of Ireland's most famous saints were plying their trade during this time.
Ireland's most prominent patron saint, St Patrick is as much an integral figure in Irish culture as he is in the country's Christianity. Brought as a slave to Ireland from Wales in the 5th century, St Patrick went on to convert the pagans of Ireland to Christianity.
There are a great many legends surrounding St Patrick, from great battles of miracles and magic against druid priests on the Hill of Tara, sprouting shamrocks to explain the holy trinity, and of course banishing all the snakes from Ireland. St Patrick established his first cathedral at Armagh and ever since Armagh has been the Ecclesiastic capital of Ireland and home to both the Catholic and Protestant Archbishops of Ireland.
Saint Brigid was daughter of a pagan King of Leinster and a Christian Pictish slave who had been baptized by St. Patrick. According to legend, Saint Brigid prayed that her beauty be taken so that she could not marry and she became a nun.
Renowned for her generosity and care for the poor, Saint Brigid famously converted a dying man by making up a cross with rushes she found on the ground to bless him with, something children in Ireland learn to make in school on her feast day 1st February.
In around 470, Saint Brigid established the Convent of Cill-Dara in County Kildare and founded a school of art here which went on to produce the illuminated manuscript; the Book of Kildare.
Born in County Donegal in the 5th Century, Saint Columba/Columcille was descended from great Irish nobility, tracing his ancestry to Niall of the Nine Hostages, the legendary Irish High King.
From his Irish name Columcille is known as ‘Dove of the Church' and the saint established his first church in Derry in the 6th Century. While he was a monk, St Columba, the patron saint of bookbinders no less, wrote an illustrative book of psalms while at the monastery of St Finnian. Both saints then fell out over who owned the copy, the writer or the publisher, resulting in the Battle of Cul Dremhe in 561. The battle was a massacre for both sides and the stalemate was concluded in favour of the publisher by the then High King, who declared ‘to each calf its cow', effectively established the first copyright law.
In remorse over those who died, St Columba left his native soil, never to return. He set sail for Scotland to convert the Pictish pagans as penance for those who died in the battle. St Columba travelled Scotland before establishing his abbey on the isle of Iona off the Scottish coast. During his travels of the Highlands, it is said St Columba encountered the Loch Ness Monster, healing a local chieftain who had been attacked by Nessy and banishing the beast to the Loch.
Another Irish saint from this era with some interesting legends was Saint Brendan. Known as the navigator it is said he discovered the Americas, sailing from his home county of Kerry, sometime in the 5th Century.
St Brendan was ordained by St Erc around 512 and went on to establish monastic settlements at the foot of Mount Brandon on the Dingle peninsula and in later years established his great monastery at Clonfert County Galway, where he is interred.
St Brendan undertook his legendary voyage across the Atlantic in a leather coracle, along with 14 other monks in search of the Garden of Eden. It is believed by many that St Brendan's voyage brought him to North America, and that Christopher Columbus relied on the legends of St Brendan for his voyage and even visited, Brendan's monastery at Clonfert before heading across the Atlantic. Brendan's voyage was repeated in the 1970s by explorer Tom Severin, whose coracle boat is exhibited at Craggaunowen Castle in Galway.
From the 7th and 8th Centuries, Irish Scholars excelled in Latin and in turn attracted scholars from across Europe to learn Christian theology in Ireland. This Golden era of Irish history, saw monks in Ireland craft some of the finest artefacts of medieval Christian art in the form of illustrative manuscripts and high crosses, such as the famous Book of Kells on show at Trinity College in Dublin and the Celtic crosses of Monasterboice in County Louth. Great centres of Christian learning and pilgrimage grew up around Glendalough, St Kevin's former hermitage in the Wicklow Mountains and Clonmacnoise, in County Offaly and the Rock of Cashel in Tipperary.
However by the end of the 8th Century, as their reputation, importance and wealth grew, these great churches began to attract a very different kind of pilgrim, the kind that came with axes and swords in Longboats from Scandinavia. There was a legacy of off shore plundering before the Vikings decided they'd settle in the channels along Ireland's coast, establishing the cities of Dublin, Waterford and Wexford. From here they could easily weave inland for a spot of pillaging and be back in time for supper. The great religious centres were virtually defenceless but quite resourceful and began to build tall thin round towers that allowed the monks to simple shut the door, pull up the draw bridge and sit out the siege until the Vikings got fed up. You'll still see round towers today at Glendalough, Cashel and Clonmacnoise, a testament to their success.
But by the time the native Irish had sent their unwelcome Norse guests packing, the Golden Age of early Christianity was coming to a close to be replaced by decades of domination by the their British neighbours and religious strife. Then in 1879, something very interesting happened in the sleepy town of Knock
On 21st August of that year, fifteen people from the town in county Mayo, saw an apparition of the Virgin Mary, St Joseph and ST John the Evangelist at the South Gable of the local parish Church. Since then Knock has become an internationally recognised Marian Shrine and is now one of Ireland's most visited places drawing millions of visitors each year.
Knock is one of many pilgrimages that people make in Ireland, some dating back centuries, two of the most well known being The Reek and Lough Derg. On the last Sunday of July, thousands of people gather at the town of Westport in County Mayo to walk, (some barefoot!) the 765m to the summit in Croagh Patrick. For over 1,500 years people have made the pilgrimage to the top of this holy mountain, said to be where St Patrick banished all the snakes from Ireland.
Lough Derg in Co. Donegal is known for ‘St Patrick's Purgatory', the pilgrimage and 3-day vigil on Station Island in the centre of the lake. From June 1st to August 15th pilgrims gather each year to the island where they fast for three days and make barefoot circuits around the island performing the stations of the cross. It's a very serious undertaking and certainly not for the feint hearted!
Christianity still plays a huge role in everyday life in Ireland and the country's once great centres of religion and learning, while mostly ruins, are visited by pilgrims and tourists alike. Places like the Rock of Cashel, Jerpoint Abbey, Clonmacnoise, and Glendalough as well as the Book of Kells, make up some of Ireland's most popular visitor attractions and offer an insight into Ireland's Golden Age as the Land of Saints and Scholars.
Until this time next month...
Conor B & Seamus.