Move back one step  Move forward one step  List of themes 

    Church and saints

Ireland was christianised in the course of the 5th century. This is well over one hundred years before England began to be christianised by St. Augustine who arrived in Kent in 597. The Celtic church was already established in Scotland and northern England before the movement from the south and there was a degree of tension between the more Rome-oriented church, as favoured by St. Augustine and his followers, and the more independent Celtic church with its centre in Iona (Scotland).


Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum (c. 731) ‘An ecclesiastical history of the English people’ by the Venerable Bede [ picture on right is by James Doyle Penrose (1862-1932) ]

There were many points of disagreement, including the way of calculating Easter, and in 664 there was a famous synod held at Saint Hilda’s monastery, later called Whitby Abbey. While the significance of the Synod of Whitby has been exaggerated in the past, it is indicative of the differing practices between the two strands of Christianity in the British Isles at the time. Much of the information about the early church is provided by the church history written by Bede (c. 672-735), a monk writing in Northumbria during the early 8th century.

The church and the earliest records of vernacular language

The Christianisation of both Ireland and England is closely related to the earliest attestations of the vernacular languages, Old Irish and Old English. Needless to say, during this period those members of a society who could read and write belonged overwhelmingly to the clergy so it is quite natural that the textual record for the earliest stage of Irish (and English) is closely associated with ecclesiastical documents. Even the Old Irish and Old English secular literature which exists can be assumed to have been written, if not by members of the clergy, at least by individuals who had been trained by the clergy.

For Irish, the oldest remains of the language are interlinear glosses written into Latin texts – nearly all of a religious nature – to help the monks understand the originals. These glossed texts are in manuscripts found at various locations on the continent – in France, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, northern Italy – where Irish missionary monks were active in the early medieval period. This activity continued for several centuries and was particularly strong in middle and southern Germany where Irish Benedictine monasteries were known into the high Middle Ages as Schottenklöster ‘Scottish, i.e. Irish, monasteries’.

For more information on the earliest documents of Old Irish, see the Sources module.

St Patrick, St Brigid and other early Irish saints


Tradition claims that this was initiated by St. Patrick who lived in this century. Just who he was (a single individual?), when exactly he lived and what he did in Ireland is a matter of dispute and the subject of much scholarly research. Nonetheless, he is regarded as the patron saint of Ireland. The shamrock (Irish seamróg), a variant of the clover plant, is traditionally said to have been used by St. Patrick to illustrate the notion of the divine trinity (three leaves on one stem). Many stories are associated with St. Patrick, e.g. the banishing of snakes from Ireland. This captured the imagination of many later writers and artists – not necessarily concerned with historical accuracy – as can be seen in the above, rather romantic portrayal of the saint.


The Irish female patron saint is St. Brigid who flourished in the second half of the 5th century and who is traditionally associated with Kildare. There is an early Vita Brigitae by Cogitosus (a monk from Kildare) which is dated to not later than 650 AD. The cross of reeds seen in the above image is traditionally associated with St. Brigid.

There are other Irish saints about whom a considerable amount is known. St. Columba (521-597) was an outstanding Irish missionary who was responsible for christianising much of Scotland. In 563 he established a base on the island of Iona off the west coast of Scotland which then became a centre of Irish monasticism. There is a life of Columba – Vita Sancti Columbae – by Adomnán (c. 628-704), an early example of Irish hagiography (writings about the life and work of saints). In Irish Columba is known as Colm Cille (Columcille) ‘dove of the church’.


Left: Illustration of episode from the Navigatio (boat stranded on the back of a giant fish)
Right: St. Brendan and his disciples prepare to depart on the Navigatio

Another famous saint of early medieval Ireland is St. Brendan (c. 484-577). There are many legends about St. Brendan and the monasteries he is said to have founded. One of these, Clonfert in Co. Galway, would seem to indeed stem historically from this saint.


Left: St. Brendan’s Cove, Dingle Pensinsula, Co. Kerry
Right: The Bantry Boat, probably commenrating St. Brendan’s voyage. This is a replica of the stone original in beaten metal (Wild Goose Studio, Kinsale, Co. Cork)

Today St. Brendan is, however, remembered for a voyage which he is supposed to have undertaken between 565 and 573 to an island far off the Irish coast, the Terra Repromissionis ‘The Land of Promise of the Saints’. There has been much speculation about the nature of the voyage and where the Terra might have been. Suggestions vary from Iceland and Newfoundland in the North Atlantic to Madeira or the Canary Islands further south. The voyage is said to have begun from a cove below Mount Brandon (St. Brendan’s Mountain) at the tip of the Dingle Pensinula in Co. Kerry.


Left: Portal of church at Clonfert, Co. Galway
Right: German manuscript of the Navigatio

Knowledge about St. Brendan’s voyage is derived from a medieval report of it in Latin (c. 900), the Navigatio Sancti Brendani Abbatis ‘The Voyage of St. Brendan the Abbot’ which was very popular at the time and exists in manuscripts and translations from many European countries. The Latin original is in the Bibliotheca Augustana of the Fachhochschule Augsburg (west of Munich).


Carey, John, Máire Herbert & Pádraig Ó Riain (eds) 2001. Studies in Irish Hagiography. Saints and scholars. Dublin: Four Courts Press.

de Paor, Liam 1993. Saint Patrick’s World. The Christian culture of Ireland's apostolic age. Dublin: Four Courts Press.

Edel, Doris 2001. The Celtic West and Europe. Studies in Celtic literature and the early Irish Church. Dublin: Four Courts Press.

Kenney, James F. 1993 [1929]. The Sources for the Early History of Ireland, Ecclesiastical. Dublin: Four Courts Press.

O’Rahilly, Thomas F. 1942. The Two Patricks: A Lecture on the History of Christianity in Fifth-Century Ireland. Dublin: Institute for Advanced Studies.

Plummer, Charles (ed.) 1997 [1910]. Vitae Sanctorum Hiberniae. 2 vols. Dublin: Four Courts Press.

MacCarthy, Robert 1995. Ancient and Modern. A short history of the Church of Ireland. Dublin: Four Courts Press.

Selmer, Carl (ed.) 1989 [1959]. Navigatio Sancti Brendani Abbatis. Dublin: Four Courts Press.

Watt, John 1972. The Church in Medieval Ireland. The Gill History of Ireland, Vol. 5. Dublin: Gill and Macmillan.