The Early Irish Church

by Friar Thomas Bacon (David Moreno)
Orignally published in the February 2002, A.S. XXXVI issue of the Dragonflyre, a publication of the Barony of Vatavia.

The most famous holiday in March is St. Patrick’s Day. While not perhaps the first Christian missionary, he was the most effective, and a Christian Ireland was his legacy. Yet few are aware of the nature of that legacy. The Irish church, also known as the Celtic church, was very much different then that of the continent. This was due to both the Irish isolation and the Irish culture. This essay will explore that difference.

The most notable difference was the fact that the premier churchman in Ireland was not the bishop, but the abbot. The primary reason for this was that Ireland was a rural country, without cities. In the Roman Empire, power was concentrated within the urban areas, and this is where the church focused its organization. As the empire collapsed, the church was left as the remaining source of organized authority. And thus the heads of the urban areas, the bishops, became major points of power. But as Ireland had no cities, the bishops there had no built in source of power.

The abbots did not seek to fill this power vacuum. It arose out of the nature of other aspects of Irish culture. The first is that the concept of self-sacrifice greatly resonated with the existing culture. Since there was no opposing power to witness against, it was not possible to experience the martyrdom of the earlier church, the red martyrdom as the Irish called it. So instead they embraced the asceticism of monasticism, the green martyrdom as they called it. (The voluntary exile of missionary work outside of Ireland was called the while martyrdom.) As the monasteries grew in prestige and size, they drew in members of the lesser nobility, who naturally became the leaders of those monasteries. And just as naturally they became leaders of the surrounding areas as the bishops had no means to base their power.

Irish monasticism was not the sort one normally thinks of when one thinks of monks. The Benedictine movement was still in the future when the Irish mother houses were founded. While the Benedictines emphasized communal living, the Irish model was more akin to a collection of hermits who chose to share resources. The church building was more of a chapel, or set of chapels called oratories. Married monks were common, and at a number of monasteries the abbacy was virtually hereditary. While each Benedictine monastery was under the control of a mother chapter, each Irish monastery was autonomous, though they looked to the mother monastery as a model and was greatly influenced by it. More strikingly, women could be abbots over monks as well as nuns, though this was not common.

What was common was that the copying of books was a major activity. But whereas the continental monasteries usually restricted themselves to Christian religious texts, the Irish copied everything that came into their hands. It was in this way that much of classical Latin literature survived to this day. And why it is often claimed that the Irish saved Western Civilization.

There were four great monasteries at Armagh, Clonmacnoise, Glendalough, and Kildare. Armagh was founded by St. Patrick and so had the place of first honor. Clonmacnoise was second in importance was the major literary center. Glendalough was another university type monastery as well as a place of pilgrimage. Kildare was founded by St. Brigid, who with St. Patrick and St. Columba forms the Irish apostolic trinity. Kildare was also a double monastery containing both nuns and monks.

The end of the independence of the Celtic Church is often dated as 664 at the Synod of Whitby. This is largely because of the main source for this time is the history by Bede of Jarrow in which the synod is prominent. There were two issues at the synod. The first was the date of Easter. Because of its isolation, the Irish were two revisions behind in the formula that calculated the date, and thus from the point of Rome, was celebrating it on the wrong day. The second was the form of tonsure used. Instead of the familiar shaved circle on top, the Irish shaved the front half of their head, adopted from Druidic practice. In both cases the Irish conceded to the Roman manner on the argument that they should conform to the rest of the world rather than try to force the rest of the world conform to them.

It is the Viking raids of the ninth century that ended the distinctiveness of the Celtic Church. It was not just that the raids disrupted monastic life and destruction of wealth. But they colonized the land and founded towns. Towns that when the Vikings became christianized became the seat of power for the bishops.

By 1000 AD the various reform movements of the continent swept into Ireland. As these reforms did their work, the church in Ireland came to conform with continental models. Dioceses were formed with the bishops in charge and the monasteries folded into. The Cistercians became the primary monastic order, though others were established. The larger of the older monasteries survived, but because of the Vikings and the reform efforts were stripped of wealth and influence.

The coming of the Normans in 1169 did not have much impact on the Irish church. The reworking of the church was well underway, and the Normans simply sped its conclusion. As the Irish churchmen saw themselves of a larger international organization there was little Irish-English confrontation. The confrontations that did occur reflected the church-state conflicts the occurred throughout Europe. The distinctive Celtic Church had disappeared and for the rest of the period the history of the church in Ireland parallel that of the rest of Europe.



Cahill, Thomas. How the Irish Saved Civilization. New York: Doubleday, 1995.

O’Brien, Jacqueline, and Peter Harbison. Ancient Ireland: From Prehistory to the Middle Ages. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Otway-Ruthven, Annette Jocelyn. A History of Medieval Ireland. New York: Barnes & Noble Publishing Group, 1980.


Copyright © 1997 - present His Lordship Friar Thomas Bacon (David Moreno). All rights reserved.

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