Chapter Three: Ireland In The Early Christian Period
<- Back to ToC
In this chapter it is important that I successfully depict the transition from a polytheistic, nature-based Celtic religious system to a monotheistic, monastic Christian one both in Ireland as well as the other Celtic lands that converted to Christianity during this period, specifically Britain and Gaul. Among the key issues are the Celtic religious structure, and of course, the most prominent Celtic saints of the period. Within the context of this movement, the relevance of the worship of the Irish saint, Brigid of Kildare, and her relationship to other prominent early Irish saints will be discussed. Through these observations and discussions it will become clear how it was possible for the polytheistic bloodthirsty religion of the Celts to melt so seamlessly (and bloodlessly) into the monotheistic and scholarly religion of Christianity.
The Celtic Religions & Monastic Structure
Irish Celtic society that existed when Christianity was introduced into the country was divided into the 3 strata identified by Dumezil:
The religious class was part of the nobility in Ireland, as well as the other regions of Celtic civilization that had this priestly class. The druids were often the siblings of the Clan leaders and held many of the same privileges as the kings, and in many ways had the most influence with the whole of Celtic society, including the kings. This is because of their roles as judges, and the bardic tradition of sattire, which could make or break a ruler.
It is difficult to know exactly what the role of the Druids was based solely on the archaeology, even with the accounts of contemporaries such as Julius Caesar and Posidonius; however, with the combination of the two, a picture begins to emerge. Scholars are hesitant to refer to the Druids as "Celtic priests," and it is doubtful that they filled the same positions as modern-day priests and ministers, but in many ways this is the best way to describe them. To the Druids the Celtic peoples entrusted not only their theology and ritual leadership, but also their philosophy, and the entire system of law.
Within the archaeological record, the majority of the artifacts found were religious and ceremonial in nature, and in religious contexts. For example the ritual burial shafts in which pieces of human and animal bone, ceremonial cypress trees, iron and wooden figurines, and unbroken vessels of clay pottery were found. In the "temples" and religious buildings near or surrounding these shafts, there were no personal items recorded, leading one to believe the space was entirely sacred and for religious events only, or the occupants had little or no personal items.
Like the later Christian monks of Ireland, the Druids came from the ruling class, often siblings of high chieftains, and acting as advisors to their "kings." They were spiritual leaders as well as military advisors, holding power in times of war and peace. In the Irish literary sources, transcribed from the vernacular oral tradition in the fifth through eighth centuries, there is a hierarchy within the religious class; the title "Druid" was reserved for the highest positions of power and respect, above other bards, seers, magicians, diviners and the like, which could be put into the same category of elite non-warrior class.
According to Julius Caesar who was in Gaul on a political campain to take over their land, the Druids had one leader to whom all the others were subordinate, and, also not unlike an abbot of a Benedictine monastery, he kept this position until death, when a successor was voted as the most honorable and respected, a position sometimes contested for in arms. Also from Caesar we learn that the primary place ofworship was not in the boundaries of the villages, but out in the woods, and there were no formal buildings or temples like the Romans were used to.
The training of novitiates, according to various sources, consisted of a large number of young men going off into the woods or caves for instruction over a period of 20 years, where they learned large ammounts of what Roman observers called "poetry." This is obviously very similar to the practice of Christian monks, although the monks vows were to live in the monastic life until death. While both religious orders were responsible for the preservation of the "academia" of their cultures, the Druids instructed orally, and had no written system, other than ogam and later Greek characters, which were used only in special occasions, not for everyday recording of knowledge. Oral transmission of cultural memories of the ancients, as well as stories, and magical craft could easily be translated into the literate, Christian adaptations of the Bible, teachings of the masters, and the Rule.
The Greco-Roman invaders and visitors tell us that the Druids believed in human imortality, were philosophers and theologians, and could communicate with the gods. This role did not change much as they moved from one religion to the next. The Druids accepted Christianity as a valid form of worship, and vice versa. The Christians also borrowed some ideas and philosophies, which then took root and became widespread. Among them were the ideas of heaven as a place where one maintains one's worldly persona, purgatory as a place between this world and the next, prayers for specific things as evolved from cursing, the submission of the human form to the will as the Celts cared nothing for their human bodies which would live on elsewhere, the immense importance of the trinity as the symbol of the Christian god, and others.
The continuity of the Celtic religion into Christianity was apparent not just in Ireland, but throughout the Celtic lands, including northern England, Cornwall, Wales, Brittany and the Isle of Man. In these areas the rise of Celtic Christianity in the 5th, 6th and 7th centuries forever changed the Christian tradition as well as the monastic.
Celtic Christianity in Ireland
Irish Christianity was essentially different from other forms of Christianity, because Celtic Monasticism was vastly different from the Roman and Gaulish traditions. The holidays, Rules and degree of aseticism, among other things, were all based on a pre-Christian Celtic system of organization. Until the Synod of Whitby in 664, even standardized holy days like Easter were held at a different time in the Celtic Church.
This difference was in large part due to the fact that the Romans had never gotten to Ireland. Although the first missionaries to Ireland in the 4th and early 5th centuries had tried to establish churches with bishops ruling in a dioscean structure, by the 6th century this had been completely replaced by the Irish monastic tradition.
Celtic monasticism is thought by some to have begun with the foundation of the women's monastery of Kildare in around 500AD, though others would argue that this monastic settlement was a women's sanctuary dedicated to the goddess Brighde long before then. Sellner tells us that "By the seventh century a distinct form of Christianity had emerged in Ireland and the British Isles" which is a direct result of "the values of the Celtic pagan culture that preceeded the arrival of Christianity on its shores, as well as the ideals of the early desert Christians who valued thesimplicity of life." This of course led to conflict with the Roman church officials.
The Rule of St. Columbanus was significantly more strict than that of St. Benedict, which was the one primarily followed on the continent. The structure of the rule, as well as the architecture and locations of the monasteries were more hermitic than the other forms of monasticism. Schools and scholarship in general was better in Irish monastic houses than elsewhere in Europe, and students came from all over to study not only Biblical subjects, but also classical Greek and Roman writers as well.
Because Ireland had no cities, Christianity could not grow as an urban religion the way it had across the rest of Europe. Instead, Irish Christianity became not an urban political religion, buy a monastic royal one, organized in much the same way as the secular Celtic tribal hierarchy, and often monastic leaders had more power than the bishops "The ascetical movement of the 6th century found its recruits chiefly among the aristocracy, and the wave of monastic foundations was largely the work of devout princes," says Lawrence. He goes on to say that the ruling family or clan would donate lands to the church or monastic settlement, knowing that they would not leave the hands of the clan, because often the abbot was a co-heir to the throne. One notable example of this is St. Colm Cille, discussed below, who was both an abbot and a prince of the Uí Néill clan.
Because of the royal nature of the Irish monastic life, there was clearly a difference between the form of Christianity practiced by the monks and the common people, as Turner observes in his commentaries on pilgrimage in Christianity. Often, medieval men and women knew very little about the theology of Christianity, or very little of the Bible, and therefore got most of their religious education from the symbolism in pictures and architecture. They were by and large not literate, and their religious education primarily came from stories of the saints' lives and their relationship with nature and symbols relevant to their lives amd easily understood. This peasant religion focused on the natural world, and the marvels of nature and the seasons, and the saints they worshipped were often closely associated with these elements, much as the pagan gods before them had been. These sites, made holy by the blessings and presence of the saints through relics became the focus of pilgrimages, celebrated on the feast days of the saints.
One of the other significant differences between Celtic and Continental monasticism was the attitude towards women. Says Sellner: "While the other Christian churches increasingly isolated women from positions of authority and relationships of friendship with males, the Celtic church, influenced by the pagan Celts' belief that women were equal to men and had similar rights, encouraged their leadership." In some cases it was the women abbesses who held authority and jurisdiction over the men in the double monasteries of Ireland, Britain and Gaul.
Seven facets of Celtic Christianity seem to have given the most shape to the Celtic monastic traditions and literature, as described by Edward Sellner. The first is the love and respect of the physical environment, including natural landscapes, animals and all living things. This is a direct result of the pre-Christian beliefs in the earth as a mother, and a respect for the sacrality of all living things. Respect and love of nature is reflected in the stories of Sts. Kevin of Glendalough, Ciaran and Brigid.
The second is a love of learning, obviously carried down from the Celtic druidic tradition. This is why such elaborate books were created in monasteries like the Book of Kells and other similar manuscripts. Additionally, many scholars came to Ireland from all over Europe to study, just as the druids had done centuries before.
The third element of Celtic spirituality is the "innate yearning to explore the unknown," which is explained as a result of the "migratory nature" of the pagan Celts which led them to dominate much of Western Europe. This is the origin of the concept of "white martyrdom" in which a monk goes forth leaving possessions, family and friends in order to travel the wilderness, which was considered by the Irish to be the most difficult of the forms of martyrdom.
Fourth is their "love of silence and solitude," evidence of which we see in the rural nature of Christian Ireland, and in their need to travel, and in the monastic tradition of a retreat, where monks and nuns could go to find space alone. Often caves, mountaintops and desolate beaches were chosen for these places of solitude.
Next we see that the Celts had a different understanding of time that is perhaps in keeping with Eliade's notion of the mythology of a culture being "in illo tempore" and also that there are no clear boundaries between past, present, and future. Time is cyclical. It is through this different understanding of time that St. Brigid can be midwife to Mary and foster-mother to Jesus, while her Life says she lived 500 years after the birth of Christ.
A sixth understanding of the world that is a major element of Celtic Christianity is the appreciation and joy found in ordinary life. Because time is a circle, God could be with them now, and that the "afterlife" is the present.
The seventh aspect of Celtic Christianity is the incredible value placed on kinship and family ties, especially "soul friends" and fosterships. These foster relations and soul friends played important roles in great figures throughout Celtic history and literature. These soul friends could also be supernatural beings, such as angels or other saints, and had the function of being a mentor, teacher
These various differences in Celtic Christianity may not seem to be shockingly different from other forms of Christianity, however, when we see how much of their faith is founded on the pagan Celtic traditions, other traditions gain greater significance.
Pilgrimage In Ireland
Long before the decline of the monastic tradition as a result of continuous centuries of Viking and Norman invasions, the importance of pilgrimage in the peasant religion had increased dramatically. This was probably due in part to the emphasis placed on the need to travel, to become a "white martyr" since Ireland had no "red martyrs" who had died for their faith.
There are several thousand Holy Wells and other sacred sites in Ireland. Many of them have clearly pre-Christian origins, and show signs of continuous worship from the ancient Celtic times to today. These pilgrimage sites "are often connected with striking natural features, such as mountains, caves, wells, river sources and mesas" all of which are found as archetypal symbols and holy sites all over the world.
In Ireland, holy wells, are the most popular sites of pilgrimages, one of the most famous being St. Patrick's Purgatory at Loch Derg where there is a well and a cave. Pilgrims fasted for as long as 9 days in medieval times. Wells and other pilgrimage shrines are visited on saint's feast days, and often a pattern is performed. A pattern usually consists of going around the well a certain number of times, which can change from 3 to 9 or 12, and praying. Sometimes this was done while on their knees. The water from the wells were traditionally put on the afflicted body part, for the most popular reason to go on a pilgrimage was to cure some sort of illness, in addition to worshipping the saint. Occasionally there is no saint associated with the well, or there is only a loose association, whereas many wells are said to have been founded or created by the saint in some miraculous way.
Many saints in Ireland are only vaguely Christian, and often the feast days for the ones that are clearly Christian coincide with the pre-Christian Celtic festivals, as Moira MacNeill describes in The Festival of Lughnasa, which details several of these Christianized pre-Christian festivals. Cogitosus in his Life of St. Brigid tells us that 150 or so years after Brigid's death, Kildare was already a great pilgrimage site so popular that he calls it a "city." Even the two feast days of St. Patrick, March 17 and August 1, are carefully positioned to be near the vernal equinox (mid-March) and the ancient festival of Lughnasa (around August 1) so that the festivals of old can continue in the same fashion the always have, but with constantly rewnewed traditions.
The Holy Trinity of Ireland
The three most important saints in ireland are St.Patrick, St. Colum Cille (or Columba, as his name has been Latinized) and St. Brigid. Chapters 4 and 5 will discuss St. Brigid in great detail, but some description of the others should be included to give an idea of the monastic models andthe context of the worship of St. Brigid.
St. Patrick is the most well-known Irish saint, whose veneration has continued to spread throughout Ireland. His many lives are also well known, such as those by 7th century monks Tirechan and Muirechu, but the only writing we have from Patrick himself is his Confessio, written at the end of his life. From this writing we know that there did exist a missionary to Ireland named Patricius, though all other details of his life are debatable. He is credited for bringing Christianity to Ireland, but there were Christians living in Ireland before his arrival, and there had been several previous missionaries sent from Rome. Pope Celestine is said to have sent a missionary bishop to Ireland in 431 named Palladius, and it is thought by some that the stories attributed to Patrick alone could have been composites of the two figures. The stories of his life describe the bishop Patrick as a great traveller, and a founder of many churches throughout Ireland, however, his Confessio does not mention any places beyond present day Co. Mayo on the western coast of Ireland.
The story agreed upon by most scholars as having at least some ammount of truth to it is that he was taken in one of the many Irish raids of the crumbling Roman Empire in Britain, and was held as a slave for several years. After he gained his freedom he left Ireland, but returned many years later, in around 432, according to some annals, and lived there until his death, placed at about 461. All the other tales of St. Patrick's life are products of the medieval authors' imaginations. He battles druids with magic powers in battle and healing, he converts figures whose names indicate they are actually pagan gods and goddesses in human peasant form, so they are symbolically converted to Christianity and destroyed. There is no historical foundation for the story of Patrick driving the snakes out of Ireland.
St. Colum Cille, (pronounced "COLL-um KEEL-uh") on the other hand, is well known as a historical figure. We know a great deal about his life, genealogy and his monks. However, many of the stories and legends associated with or attributed to St. Colm Cille are just as rooted in paganism, folklore and fantasy as those of SS. Brigid and Patrick. He was undoubtedly a member of the Ui Neill clan, and some say a prince in line forthe throne of the High Kingship of Ireland. He is supposed to have founded the monasteries of Iona in Scotland, Kells, Durrow and Derry in Ireland. He was probably born around 521, in modern day Co. Donegal. In 563 he was exiled to Iona, either as a result of a synod's condemnation, or as a part of the Irish tradition of white martyrdom, in which a pilgirm would leave home and family to travel forever in the service of God. Many heroic legends are ascribed to Colm Cille, some of the most interesting are those in which he mentions "his druids" which can either signify his monks and travelling companions or on some occasions, Christ.
As we will see, Brigid poses a stark contrast to the historically extant figures of Patrick and Colm Cille, despite their hagiographers' occasional (or even frequent) embellishments and exaggerations of the other two members of the Thaumaturgical Triad of Ireland. Also, one will notice that gender seems to play a role in the factuality of the saints lives. Why was the primary female figure of peity and Christianity drawn directly from the Celtic past? Chapters 4 and 5 will attempt to answer this important question.
On to Chapter Four.