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Faith and Beliefs

The Early Christians
A Part of Family Life
Religion Today

Index to Faith and Beliefs

Recognizing the importance of religion, spirituality and community in the lives of our ancestors helps us to better understand who we are today. This section provides a retrospective of the contributions of our family members as we enter a new millenium: we must recognize that, in many ways, we are the product of their faith and beliefs.


The Early Christians
The ancient druids, the original inhabitants of Ireland, were known to worship the earth, the water and all that is celestial--from the moon, to the stars and the sun. As a sort of concession, the Roman Catholic Church recognized a hybrid of the Cross with the druid sign of sun superimposed: the use of symbolism in Irish mythology and liturgy is rich. It is sure that when St. Patrick arrived in Ireland, he would have been witness to a population that was powerful. Newgrange, in County Meath, for example, is thousands of years old and is still a mystery to most archeologists given its geometric significance. Surely the early Christians in Ireland would have been taken aback when confronted with such impressive structures. Surely these early Christians would have faced a dilemma when they tried to understand the Irish.

An Easy Transition to Christianity?
Ireland has many places of mystery and intrigue--from beehive-like structures (in the South West) cut from stone to geographic formations like the Giant's Causeway (in the North East), the flat and unwelcoming lands of the Burren (in the West), etc.? What purpose would these landmarks serve? Were these homes or structures for pagan rituals dating back to megalithic times? Would Rome see these structures as a product of years of pagan life? And the biggest question yet, how could a population like this, comprised of chiefs and septs, few of them in a position to accept the introduction of organized social change, be able to cope with colonization?

The answer to many of these questions is two-fold: undeniably, the early Christians would have had to recognize the richness in Ireland's pagan history, and where religion could not explain Ireland's geography and mythology, a compromise would have to be met. After several decades of Christianity in Ireland, particularly in the southern counties, Rome, under Pope Celestine, would send its first bishop, to organize 'those Irish who believed in Christ'. Simply put, Ireland's Christian tradition is a hybrid which recognized and claimed for its own both St. Brigid and St. Patrick--the two pillars of the Irish Catholic Church.

Saint Patrick and Saint Brigid
Not unlike other European countries with their national Christian identity (e.g., France, Italy and Britain), Ireland had its own religious 'national brand'. Saint Patrick was supposed to have chased out the snakes from shadows of every blade of grass on the island. Many of the early generation could tell you that Saint Patrick arrived in 432 A.D. Some would add that he was a French cleric, a man who was destined to convert the Irish and to bring to them the Catholic Mass and all the Rites of the Church--from the liturgy to the eucharist. While these beliefs may have been the product of the early Christian Church in Ireland, it is safe to say that the Church was not so easily integrated into Irish life.

Saint Patrick remains to be an important figure in Irish history and little is known about his life. Palladius, a bishop, was sent to Ireland by Pope Celestine in the early 430s. Shortly after this time, a Bishop appears in Ireland--believed to have been a Briton named Patrick, who had studied in France. We have to revisit conditions at the time to understand what a bishop would have resembled to better understand Patrick. Aside from being versed in religious scripture (at this time, largely Greek, Latin and Hebrew), Patrick must have been able to endure very difficult travels, having sailed between Europe to England and Ireland--and throughout the countryside. There is no doubt that such a man did exist, however, it is unclear whether or not he died some sixty years later (quick math would suggest that he would have lived to more than eighty years of age). It is probable that Patrick brought with him several priests who carried on his work with the Irish Church.

The Story of Saint Brigid is even more scarcely documented. The Earliest Christian Records
The earliest records of Christians in Ireland can be found among the monasteries, artifacts and literature of Ireland. The monastic 'cells' at Skellig Micheal in County Kerry, Cross of Cong and the famous Book of Kells came many centuries after Patrick. The Catholic Church evolved of many different administrative centres, an organization of monasteries and isolated anchorites. For more than 500 years, Ireland's religious history can be traced to remote settlements--enclaves of prayer, meditation and ceremony. Ireland was devoid of anything like this


Footnotes
  1. Moody, T.W. (Ed.) and F.X. Martin. The Course of Irish History (1994, Radio Telefís Éireann: Mercier Press, Dublin).

Copyright 1995-1999 Michael S. Cullinan
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