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Updated on February 2, 2013


Religion in Celtic Ireland before St. Patrick was based on following the rhythms of the seasons, overseen by the druids. These “pagan” superstitions had deep roots, and their traditions remained strong even after Christianity took hold. St. Patrick began his mission on the Emerald Isle in 432 A.D., working until his death on March 17, 464 A.D. March 17, as we know, is celebrated in Ireland and around the world as St. Patrick’s Day.

Patrick was not a native of Ireland, but technically, of all things, British (say it ain’t so!). Actually, his father was a Roman official stationed in Britain. While about 16, Patrick was captured by Irish raiders and taken back to Ireland as a slave. He spent several years tending herds of pigs for his master, before escaping back to Britain. Patrick eventually made his way to France, joined the Church, and rose to the position of bishop. One might think after achieving such a lofty perch and its comforts, traveling again to the land of his enslavement to convert a supposedly wild people, would be the last thing Patrick wanted to do. But he did.

Although generosity and welcoming strangers are an ingrained part of Celtic culture, the first few Irish towns he visited, threw Patrick out when learning of his purpose. Gradually, Patrick began winning converts, helped by performing miracles which showed his God was mightier than the druids’ gods. He also used a plant which grew abundantly on the island, the shamrock, to help teach Christian doctrine. Its three petals represented the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Patrick was not the only missionary laboring in Ireland, but certainly the most influential.As his popularity spread, the number of his followers began to grow rapidly, while churches sprang up all over Ireland. Patrick himself decided to establish his pastoral see at Armagh, in the northeast of the Emerald Isle.

The rise of Christianity in Ireland coincided with the beginning of the monastic movement on the European mainland. The Irish joined in enthusiastically, building great monasteries. The most famous was Clonmacnois in County Offaly, established by St. Ciaran in the 6th century. The monasteries became centers of education, as well as prayer, where the monks diligently copied great literature from antiquity, including the Bible, with the finest example being the magnificent Book of Kells. What happened next is eloquently explained by historian Kuno Meyer: “For once, at any rate, Ireland drew upon herself the eyes of the world, as the one haven of rest in a turbulent world over run by hordes of barbarians, as the great seminary of Christian and classical learning. Her sons carrying Christianity and a new humanism over Great Britain and the continent, became the teachers of whole nations, the counselors of kings and emperors.” The influence of the Irish became so great that French historian Allemande remarked, “At that time, it was sufficient to be an Irishman to be considered holy and become the immediate founder of an abbey.” The Irish monks were on the roads and seas, with their distinctive tonsure of the head shaven from the ears forward, instead of the customary circle on top. Western Civilization would forever owe its gratitude.

The women of Ireland became involved as well. Numerous convents were founded, the most celebrated being in Kildare, under the abbess, St. Brigid- “Oh, she was fair as a lily, and holy as she is fair, the Virgin Mary of Erin, Brigid of green Kildare. She came to earth when the snow drops were starring the rain-drenched sod. The sweetest blossom among them, from the far-off gardens of God.”- Teresa Brayton. This extraordinary period of Irish history lasted centuries, but could not endure forever, for the foreigners were soon at the shore, and they were not holding the holy book. We’ll end this amazing epoch with 2 short prayers:

Wilt thou steer my frail black bark

O’er the dark broad ocean’s foam?

Wilt thou come, Lord, to my boat

Where afloat, my will would roam?

-Cormac MacCuilleanain- 9th century A.D.

Sweetest Jesus, gracious, free

That was stretched upon the tree

Now and ever with us, be

-Friar Michael of Kildare


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