40: Irish Christianity Before Patrick


Be wise now therefore, O ye kings:
be instructed, ye judges of the earth.

Psalms 2:10

While the Romans never attempted to conquer Ireland they were not oblivious to the place that has become known as “The Emerald Isle”. The first historical figure to write about Ireland is Agricola, a most successful Roman General, whose troops in the 1st Century had conquered Britannia as far north as the Firth of Forth and the Clyde. Looking across the Irish Sea he could easily discern the soft rolling hills of Ulster on a clear day. It was Agricola who gave Ireland its ancient name, “Hibernia”.

The Romans were not only aware of Ireland but they interacted with the peoples of the island. We know that Agricola had considerable influence over one of the Irish Kings who had been deposed in one of the many feuds. The Irish Kings were not averse to trading with the Romans, in fact such trade was necessary for their economic survival. This explains the thousands of Roman coins which have been discovered all over Ireland.

There is a sense of inevitability that as Christianity grew throughout the Empire, trading outposts such as Ireland would come into contact with Christian merchants, perhaps even early missionaries.

The Irish in common with all the peoples of the British Isles in pre-Roman times were Celts, having been part of an earlier major movement of people. The population of Gaul (modern France) were similarly Celtic, with the old Celtic language being understood across Western Europe. Their religion involved the worship of many gods associated with nature; the forests, lakes, rivers, mountains, the sky, the sun etc…. It was a religion dominated by the Druids; the stone circles and the stone altars bear witness to the old religion.

With the arrival of the Roman merchants the Druids were challenged by the travelling Christians and their new faith about a man called Jesus.

Ireland is a country steeped in folklore and ancient stories. Some reflect the pagan past while others relate to the coming of Christianity. All of this folklore, however, bears testimony to Ireland’s rich literary, music and artistic tradition, which Christian Ireland lifted out of paganism, transforming it into the cultural centre of Europe.

That story is for another episode and a later time, but what interests us now in the period when Rome ruled Western Europe are the accounts of the conversion of the King of Tara, Cormac McArt in the 3rd Century. In an Ireland steeped in Celtic superstition it is recorded that he upset the Druids in converting to Christianity. As one of the most powerful Kings in Ireland he acquired wealth and developed the city of Tara in Meath considerably, but he had acquired greater riches in Christ. He was a man of learning who established Tara as a centre of scholarship, while he himself authored a number of works, but his greatest discovery was the Gospel of Christ.

The story of his death and burial adds a certain authenticity to the account of his life. He had left instruction that he was not to be buried at Brugh with his ancestors because this was a pagan burying ground. He desired to be buried at Rosnaree as a Christian. This would intimate that already there were people in Ireland living and dying as followers of Jesus Christ. When King Cormac MacArt eventually did die, choking on a fish bone in 253AD, his pagan family and court attempted to cross the Boyne against his wishes for a burial at Brugh. While Christianity had gained a foothold, there was much opposition, illustrating that it was a very great thing for a figure of such prominence to espouse the faith. The old account, however, records that as they brought his remains across the Boyne a heavy flood prevented the burial and they were forced to bring him to his chosen Christian site.

The story of Cormac MacArt’s conversion is given added credibility by the records of Ptolemy, the Greek topographer, who identified a Christian Church in modern Co Wexford, in an area which has since been turned into a Marian Shrine by Roman Catholicism. Now called Our Lady’s Island, connected to the mainland by a causeway, and set in a beautiful salt water lagoon, this was site was established Christians early in the 2nd Christianity , just a few decades after the death of the last of the Apostles. It would be 1,000 years at least before Mary would be venerated in this place after the Norman invasion. MacArt was almost certainly not the first convert.

Therefore, centuries years before Patrick, Christianity had arrived; a battle was being waged between truth and error, between light and darkness – a conflict which continues to be waged today.

Riches I heed not, nor vain, empty praise
Thou mine inheritance, now and always
Thou and Thou only first in my heart
High King of heaven, my treasure Thou art

Irish, 6th Century

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