The Celtic Church in Ireland

Ireland received Christianity about the same time as Britain. Soldiers, sailors, missionaries, and persecuted Christians and slaves taken captive by the plundering Scoti spread the gospel and many believed. They were simple and earnest in their Christianity, but the word of God was not their only guide. Christianity had already contracted corruption. Gnosticism, Monasticism, Aryanism, and Pelagianism (Pelagius coworker was an Irishman named Celleagh!), were giant evils in those early days.

Furthermore, the early religious history is overlaid with legends: Monks and “saints” were believed to work miracles, utter prophecies, and enjoy divine visions. They were surrounded with such a fearful sanctity, that none dared to touch the man of God. They emerged from their miserable cell as from another world, their clothes covered with dust and ashes. They boldly rebuked the vices of kings, confronted the cruelest of tyrants, threatened the overthrow of dynasties, and assumed superiority over all secular dignities.

Palladius and Patrick

Pope Celestine sent Palladius as the first Bishop ‘to the Irish who believe in Christ’ in 431. His mission was most likely concentrated on the south of Ireland, short and unspectacular. According to Scottish tradition, he moved to Fordun, fifteen miles from Aberdeen, where he founded a monastery and died about the year 450.

Palladius mission to Ireland indicates that there were already Christians in Ireland. We know that, by the time the Annals were written, oral tradition and legend had confused the activities of Patrick and Palladius. For example, many writings refer to Patrick having spent many years in Gaul and Rome. If this was the case, his Latin would not have been as poor as it was – it was a foreign language to him. Palladius, on the other hand, is known to have spent time in Gaul and Rome and it seems that the early careers of Patrick and Palladius are irretrievably blended.

Some have suggested that Patrick’s mission to the Irish pre-dates Palladius, and that Palladius was actually send to Patrick’s converts, to become their bishop, in unity with Rome.

The Celtic Church

St. Patrick left behind him a band of well-educated, devoted men, who greatly venerated their master and sought to follow in his footsteps. Ireland was unique in being the only western European country to which Christianity came without Roman conquest. The fall of the Roman Empire in the west, the extirpation of Latin institutions in Britain, and the barbarian conquest in France and Italy isolated Ireland even more.

The native Celtic Church and civilization flourished. Celtic Christians brought the gospel to the “barbarians” in Frisian, France, Switzerland etc. who had replaced the order of the Roman empire.

She differed in many ways from the Churches in the west: in doctrine, in church government, in the time of celebrating Easter, celibacy, the form of the tonsure. There were no Archbishops, and bishops were almost as numerous as parishes, the sees often descended from father to son. The clergy were subject to taxation, to secular jurisdiction, to military service; there were no tithes, the clergy were supported by voluntary gifts; the Scriptures were much studied. It has also been asserted, that the Celtic Church was opposed to the Roman Catholic form of confession, the worship of saints, and images, purgatory, transubstantiation and the seven sacraments. She rejected all foreign control – including control from the pope -, and acknowledged Christ only as Head of the Church. She was primarily a monastic Church, without the centralized, geographically ordered network that the Roman Church had inherited from the Roman Empire.

The fame of Ireland for its monasteries, missionary schools, and as the seat of pure Scriptural teaching, rose so high, that it received the name “The Isle of Saints and Scholars.” After the synod of Whitby in 664 many Anglo-Saxon nobles and clergy went to Ireland, where they started to live in monasteries or just went to receive good teaching.

The labors of the Irish were not confined to their own country. Naturally fond of traveling, and being energized by a love for souls, many missionaries left Ireland under the leadership of a loved and devoted abbot. Western Europe truly owes a debt to these Irish pioneers of Christianity in the Dark Ages!

Pope Honorius & Easter Controversy (629AD)

Pope Honorius (who was afterwards condemned by the sixth oecumenical council for holding the Monothelite heresy) addressed to the Irish clergy in 629 an exhortation—not, however, in the tone of authoritative dictation, but of superior wisdom and experience—to conform to the latest Roman mode of keeping Easter. This is the first known papal encyclical addressed to our country! A Synod was held at Magh-Lene (Oldleighlin, Co. Carlow), and a deputation sent to the Pope and the three Eastern patriarchs to ascertain the foreign usages on Easter. The deputation was treated with distinguished consideration in Rome, and, after three years’ absence, reported in favor of the latest Roman cycle, which indeed rested on an improved, better system of calculation.

It was accordingly adopted in the South of Ireland, under the influence of the learned Irish ecclesiastic Cummian, who devoted a whole year to the study of the controversy. A few years afterwards Thomian, archbishop and abbot of Armagh (from 623 to 661), and the best Irish scholar of his age, introduced, after correspondence with the Pope, the Roman custom in the North, and thereby promoted his authority in opposition to the power of the abbot of Iona, which extended over a portion of Ireland, and strongly favored the old custom. But Abbot Adamnan of Iona also yielded to the Roman practice before his death (704).

Invasion of the Danes

In the eighth century the Irish held so high a character for learning, that the literary men invited by Charlemagne to his court were chiefly from Ireland. But the invasion of the Danes about the beginning of the ninth century, and their occupation of the country, quenched this light. These piratical and predatory hordes wasted her fields, slew her sons, or dispossessed them of their inheritance, demolished her colleges, and maintained themselves in the country with the cruelty and arrogance of usurpers. Moral, spiritual, and literary darkness followed. All that was left were the memories and legends of the great saints.

Pope Adrian IV

As the years passed, the raiders were Christianized and communications between the continent and Ireland were opened again. Sadly, the Christianity being introduced then was very different from that which Patrick had earlier brought. The simpler, genuine faith was overlaid with superstition and fables, growing eventually to full medievalism.

Malachy, Bishop of Armagh (1134-1148) was one of the first Irish Bishops to gain legatine powers from a Pope. He worked hard to make the Celtic Church Roman. At a Synod held at Kells (1152) under papal legate Johannes Paparo, further steps were taken to enforce conformity to Roman usage. Four Archbishoprics (Armagh, Cashel, Tuam and Dublin) were introduced and the bishops wore the pallium, a sign of submission to the See of Rome.

However, this was not enough and around 1155 the (English) Pope Adrian IV authorized King Henry II to invade Ireland “to proclaim the truths of the Christian religion to a rude and ignorant people” ; on condition that a penny should be yearly paid from each house to the See of Rome. The Pope based his right to Ireland thus:

“For it is undeniable, and your majesty acknowledges it, that all islands on which Christ the sun of righteousness hath shined, and which have received the Christian faith, belong of right to St. Peter and the most holy Roman church.” (Laudabiliter)

King Henry II (1154-89AD)

In 1166 Diarmat MacMurrough, deposed king of Leinster, decided that he needed outside assistance in order to defeat his enemies, High King Ruairi O’Conor of Connacht and O’Rourke of Breiffne. He went to Henry II, king of England, and obtained a band of Norman lords (with Strongbow as leader) in pursuit of wealth and adventure to assist him.

The synod of Cashel (1172AD)

Late 1171 Henry joined and completed this conquest of the country. In Cashel an assembly of the Irish clergy, presided over by Christianus, bishop of Lismore and papal legate, proclaimed Henry’s title to the sovereign dominion of Ireland, and took the oath of fidelity to himself and his successors. The decrees issued at the synod of Cashel mark the end of the (independent) Celtic Church and the final alignment with the Church of Rome. The native liturgies were abandoned, and the liturgy of the English Church was adopted.

From now on, a papal legate was present in Ireland. Pope Alexander III. was extremely gratified with this extension of his dominion, and in September, 1172, (in the same tone of sanctimonious arrogance) issued a brief confirming the bull of Adrian, and expressing a hope that “the barbarous nation” would attain under the government of Henry “to some decency of manners;” he also wrote three epistles—one to Henry II., one to the kings and nobles of Ireland, and one to its hierarchy—enjoining obedience of Ireland to England, and of both to the see of St. Peter.

The hierarchy did not regret the change. Under the ancient system, the native chieftains were absolute master over all their followers, including the clergy. A new order was introduced by Henry II, and the local authorities had no longer authority over the clergy. To maintain his sovereignty over the Irish clergy, the English Kings filled up the vacant sees mostly with Englishmen. The Irish clergy, meanwhile appealed to Rome to decide the question, or rather, to confirm their nomination. Jealousy, hostility and disputes characterized the relations between the English and the Irish ecclesiastics; the latter sought to transfer their allegiance as churchmen from the sovereign of England to the pope of Rome, so that the struggle for supremacy lasted for centuries.

The changes were however not practiced immediately. The people continued for a while to marry outside the Church, they still refused to pay tithes. Clergy still married: in 1224 a son of Bishop O’Mullover, designed for the Episcopal dignity, was killed.