St. Patrick, Apostle to the Irish
By the early fifth century the religion had spread to
Ireland, which had never been part of the Roman Empire. The highly successful
5th-century mission of Saint Patrick established churches in conjunction with
civitates like his own in Armagh; small enclosures in which groups of
Christians, often of both sexes and including the married, lived together,
served in various roles and ministered to the local population.
Within a few generations of the arrival of the first
missionaries the monastic and clerical class of the isle had become fully integrated
with the culture of Latin letters. Besides Latin, Irish ecclesiastics developed
a written form of Old Irish. During the late 5th and 6th centuries true
monasteries became the most important centres: in Patrick's own see of Armagh
the change seems to have happened before the end of the 5th century, thereafter
the bishop was the abbot also. Finnian
of Clonard is said to have trained the Twelve Apostles of Ireland at Clonard
In the sixth and seventh centuries, Irish monks established
monastic institutions in parts of modern-day Scotland (especially Columba, also
known as Colmcille or, in Old Irish, Colum Cille), and on the continent,
particularly in Gaul (especially Columbanus). Monks from Iona under St. Aidan
founded the See of Lindisfarne in Anglo-Saxon Northumbria in 635, whence Celtic
practice heavily influenced northern England.
The achievements of insular art, in illuminated manuscripts
like the Book of Kells, high crosses, and metalwork like the Ardagh Chalice
remain very well known, and in the case of manuscript decoration had a profound
influence on Western medieval art. The
manuscripts were certainly produced by and for monasteries, and the evidence
suggests that metalwork was produced in both monastic and royal workshops,
perhaps as well as secular commercial ones.
Irish monks also founded monasteries across the continent, exerting
influence greater than many more ancient continental centres. The first
issuance of a papal privilege granting a monastery freedom from episcopal
oversight was that of Pope Honorius I to Bobbio Abbey, one of Columbanus's
At least in Ireland, the monastic system became increasingly
secularised from the 8th century, as close ties between ruling families and
monasteries became apparent. The major monasteries were now wealthy in land and
had political importance. On occasion they made war either upon each other or
took part in secular wars - a battle in 764 is supposed to have killed 200 from
Durrow Abbey when they were defeated by Clonmacnoise. From
early periods the kin nature of many monasteries had meant that some married
men were part of the community, supplying labour and with some rights,
including in the election of abbots (but obliged to abstain from sex during
fasting periods). Some abbacies passed from father to son, and then even
grandsons. A revival of the ascetic
tradition came in the second half of the century, with the culdee or
"clients (vassals) of God" movement founding new monasteries detached
from family groupings.
Others who influenced the development of Christianity in
Ireland include Brigid and Moluag.
Saxon connections with the greater Latin West led to papal
preferment and brought the Celtic-speaking peoples into closer contact with the
orthodoxy of the councils. The customs and traditions particular to Insular
Christianity became a matter of dispute, especially the matter of the proper
calculation of Easter. Synods were held in Ireland, Gaul, and England (e.g. the
Synod of Whitby) but a degree of variation continued in Britain after the Ionan
church accepted the Roman date.
The Easter question was settled at various times in
different places. The following dates are derived from Haddan and Stubbs: South
Ireland, 626-8; North Ireland, 692; Northumbria (converted by Celtic missions),
664; East Devon and Somerset, the Celts under Wessex, 705; the Picts, 710;
Iona, 716-8; Strathclyde, 721; North Wales, 768; South Wales, 777. Cornwall
held out the longest of any, perhaps even, in parts, to the time of Bishop Aedwulf
of Crediton (909).
A uniquely Irish penitential system was eventually adopted
as a universal practice of the Church by the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215.