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How did Ireland become Christian?

How did Ireland become Christian?

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An essay for the 2011 Undergraduate Awards (Ireland) Competition by Danny Flynn. Originally submitted for Arts at University College Dublin, with lecturer Elva Johnston in the category of Historical Studies
An essay for the 2011 Undergraduate Awards (Ireland) Competition by Danny Flynn. Originally submitted for Arts at University College Dublin, with lecturer Elva Johnston in the category of Historical Studies

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Published by: Undergraduate Awards on Aug 31, 2012
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02/16/2014

 
How did Ireland become Christian?
The question of how Ireland became Christian is one of much controversy.Most contemporary accounts of the Christianisation of Ireland or, more accurately, parts of Ireland, are extremely unreliable. Our earliest records of Christianity inIreland do not tell us how the religion came to the island in the first place. Nevertheless, the most crucial factors in the spread of Christianity in Ireland appear to be contact and trade with Roman Britain, cultural attitudes towards the RomanEmpire, the appeal of Christianity to certain elements of Irish society, a weakenedRoman Empire and the adaptation of the religion to the local culture and the successof various missions to the island.From the evidence, we can at the very least determine that Christianity inIreland certainly predated the coming of any official church mission, let alone themissions of Patrick Brigid and Columba. This we know because we are fortunateenough to have annals dating back to the year 432, when Palladius was sent to Irelandas “first bishop to the Irish”.
1
It is easy enough to discern from the text, whichmentions “the Irish who believe in Christ”, that there were Christians present inIreland before any official Christian mission came to the island. If there wereRomano-British missionaries proselytising on the island before this time, which is possible, we do not have record of it. However, the evidence indicates quite stronglythat the number of Christians in Ireland before the arrival of Palladius was substantial.Continental sources refer to Pelagian heretics crossing the channel to Britannia withthe intention of putting themselves beyond the reach of Roman imperial authority,from which the province had freed itself in 408.
2
However, the church worked toensure that its influence would expand further than the previous secular authority of Rome.
3
 Interestingly, the first record of Palladius dates from 429, where he attemptsto persuade Pope Celestine to grant Bishop Germanus the authority to rally the Britishchurch against the “enemies of grace”.
4
Furthermore, Prosper of Aquitaine refers toPalladius being sent to “the Irish who believe in Christ”, which may have been used tocontrast them with those who had fallen into the Pelagian heresy.
5
This seems verylikely, given the strong anti-pelagian elements that pervade Prosper’s writings.
6
 
7
8 
Since the documentary evidence indicates that Pelagianism in Ireland had gainedenough support to have earned the attention of Rome, Christianity, as a whole, musthave gained a considerable following. Therefore, history must go much further back than Palladius to determine the causes explaining how Ireland became Christian.
1
Annals of Ulster (U431); available fromhttp://www.ucc.ie/celt/published/T100001A/index.html; accessed 15/10/09
2
T.M Charles Edward,
 Early Christian Ireland 
, (Cambridge, 2000) 203-204
3
T.M Charles Edward,
 Early Christian Ireland 
, , 206-207
4
T.M Charles Edward,
 Early Christian Ireland 
, 204
5
R.F. Foster,
Oxford Illustrated history of Ireland,
(Oxford, 1989), 8
6
Roland J. Teske, John E. Rotelle
 Answer to the Pelagians, Volume 26 
, (New York,1999) 53-55
7
Prosper of Aquitaine,
 Defense of St. Augustine;
eds: J. Quasten and W. Burgahrdt(New York, 1988)
8
1
 
How did Ireland become Christian?
It is of fundamental importance that we understand how Christianity gained afoothold in Ireland in the first place before we even consider how the new religionachieved dominance throughout the island. The most obvious condition for thearrival of Christianity in Ireland, is of course, contact with the Christian world.Without this, the idea of Ireland becoming Christian would be absurd. The presenceof Christianity on the island is therefore, in itself, a testament to Irish contacts withthe Latin world and with Britain in particular. It is generally accepted that Irelandhad close relations with Britain, dating back to pre-Roman times.
9
The existence of the kingdom of Dal Riada, which spans both islands demonstrates this clearly. Thereis also strong evidence of a cultural connection between Wales and Leinster 
There isalso evidence of extensive overseas raiding of Britain by the Irish,
as well as the borrowing of Latin words in early Irish literature.
 Contact between Ireland and theRoman world, especially Britain, was a necessary condition for Ireland’s eventualconversion to Christianity.The greatest indication of the extent of trade between Ireland and the Romanworld, particularly Britain, is perhaps the archaeological evidence. While it must beadmitted that the remaining evidence for overseas trade from this period is scarce,such evidence certainly exists. It should also be noted that its scarcity does notnecessarily mean that the volume of trade itself was scarce, contrary to the view of Kathleen Hughes.
Ironically, Hughes provides the best counter-argument to her claim in her own book. The use of cows and slaves as the dominant units of currencyshow that irish society was based on barter rather than coinage.
Both of these thingsare biological. They are therefore far more perishable than metal coinage and theextent of them can not be taken as reflective of the actual volume of trade.Furthermore, coinage, since it was not a universal unit of value, not being sanctionedas official currency as it was in Britain, was not in demand in Irish society. Ittherefore had no value beyond the metal from which it was made. It is only logical toassume that Christian traders from overseas would be compelled to use the medium of  barter when dealing with the Irish. Much of those items exchanged between Irelandand the Latin world may also have been perishable. It is also worth noting that wellover two thousand Roman coins have been found in Ireland,
 though it is extremelyunlikely that the native Irish used them themselves. It is, however, a possibility thatthey were used by Britons that had come to Ireland as a result of emigration or raiding. The existence of trade between Ireland and Roman Britain would certainlyhave contributed to the spread of Christianity to the island.
9
R.F. Foster,
Oxford Illustrated history of Ireland,
(Oxford, 1989), 7
10
T.M Charles Edward,
 Early Christian Ireland 
, (Cambridge, 2000), 237
11
Thomas Cahill,
 How the Irish Saved Civilisation
, (London, 1995) 38
12
R.F. Foster,
Oxford Illustrated history of Ireland,
(Oxford, 1989), 7
13
Kathleen Hughes,
 Early Christian Ireland: Introduction to the sources,
(Cambridge,1979), 27
14
Kathleen Hughes,
 Early Christian Ireland: Introduction to the sources,
27-28
15
Kathleen Hughes,
 Early Christian Ireland: Introduction to the sources
, 372
 
How did Ireland become Christian?
While contact with the Christian world explains how Ireland was exposed toChristianity, it does little to explain why Christianity was able to become thedominant religion throughout the island. This can, to some extent, be understood interms of the appeal of Roman civilisation. Thomas Cahill comments on thisextensively in ‘
 How the Irish Saved Civilisation’.
Rome was seen by continental‘barbarians’ as the ‘place to be’.
The same is more than likely true of Britons. Theappeal of Roman civilisation was obvious and Christianity, since Constantine, wasintimately associated with Roman society and culture. It is not really in question thatthe conversions to Christianity throughout the empire, once it became the officialreligion, were largely superficial.
It was in the interests of Roman citizens to adoptthe new religion and this may account for the spread of Christianity within RomanBritain. Ireland in turn owes much of its Christianity to Britain.
If Christianity hadnot achieved dominance in Britain, it could hardly be expected to make much progress in Ireland. The conversion of Ireland can probably be best explained throughcomparison with Britain. Pre-Roman Britain was, in many respects, similar toIreland. Both were pagan, druidic cultures, where recurrent warfare and a cult of  personal display were characteristic of the respective societies.
However, similar tothe barbarians of the continent, Britain proved receptive to Roman influence. It beganwith the importation of Roman wine, and the Roman amphora trade grew over time.
20 
The Britons even began to incorporate Roman ideas into their town planning.
21 
Roman goods may have been the exclusive domain of the upper echelons of society,as few leaders could have had access to these roman imports.
This tells ussomething about cultural attitudes towards Rome in the region. It is possible that the posession of Roman goods may have become a mark of status throughout Britain and possibly Ireland. Were this the case, it would have reinforced the idea of the RomanEmpire as a culture of wealth and sophistication. If this was indeed the case in Britain,the situation is likely to have been very similar in Ireland. This attitude towardsRoman society would, no doubt, have aided the spread of Christianity throughoutIreland.The appeal of Christianity to Irish society can obviously not be explained solely by prevalent social attitudes towards Rome. Aspects of this religion must haveappealed in some way to sections of Irish society. Otherwise the religion could not
16
Thomas Cahill,
 How the Irish Saved Civilisation
, (London, 1995), 17
17
Thomas Cahill,
 How the Irish Saved Civilisation
, 21-22
18
R.F. Foster,
Oxford Illustrated history of Ireland,
(Oxford, 1989), 9
19
Christopher Haigh,
The Cambridge historical encyclopedia of Great Britain and  Ireland 
, (Cambridge, 1995), 44
20
David F. Williams, ‘The impact of the Roman amphora trade in pre-RomanBritain’, in:
Centre and periphery: comparative studies in archaeology
ed: T. C. Champion (London, 1989), 142-148
21
Christopher Haigh,
The Cambridge historical encyclopedia of Great Britain and  Ireland 
, 44
22
Malcolm Todd,
 A companion to Roman Britain
(London, 2004), 233

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