Religion: The Coming of Christianity

views updated

Religion: The Coming of Christianity

The year 431 marks the date of the official introduction of Christianity to Ireland. That was the year (according to Prosper of Aquitaine, Chronicle) in which Pope Celestine I dispatched the newly ordained Palladius as "first bishop to the Irish believing in Christ" (primus episcopus ad Scottos in Christum credentes). Nothing else is known about Palladius or his mission from official Roman sources, but Prosper appears to allude to both in his Contra Collatorem (written in the later 430s in defense of Celestine against his detractors) when he refers to the pope's having made Britain ("the Roman island") Catholic, whereas he made Ireland ("the barbarous island") Christian. This was in reference to an earlier episode, in 429, when Celestine dispatched Germanus, bishop of Auxerre, to Britain in order to overthrow those in that island who had espoused the views of the heresiarch Pelagius. That mission (again according to Prosper) had been undertaken at the instigation of the same Palladius, who was at that time still a deacon.

It is generally assumed that the mission to Ireland in 431 followed on from the one to Britain in 429, though there is no definite proof. Nor was anything more known about Palladius himself until a 2000 discovery that casts new light on his youthful years, especially those apparently spent in Rome about 417, following which he made a "conversion" to radical Christianity. There is a general consensus that Palladius did reach Ireland, presumably with a party of helpers (Augustine of Canterbury journeyed to England in 596 or 597 with an entourage of forty), and established his mission probably in the area around the present-day County Meath. The place names Dunshaughlin and Killashee are understood to derive from the Irish dún ("fort") and cell (Latin cella) and Secundinus and Auxilius, respectively (in their Irish forms Sechnall and Ausille), denoting early foundations by the continental missionaries. No church dedicated to Palladius, however, has survived.

At just this point, however, Palladius disappears entirely from view, his role and that of his followers completely submerged by the legend surrounding Saint Patrick. Native tradition associates the beginnings of Irish Christianity with Patrick, not Palladius, who was written out of history in the seventh century. Patrick, a Briton by birth and upbringing, was captured when aged sixteen by Irish pirates in a raid on his family's estate (uillula), "along with many thousands of others" (as he says himself), and brought to Ireland as a slave. His account of that episode, and of the events that unfolded because of it, has survived in his famous Confession, which is a unique testimony to the experiences of a Roman citizen snatched from his home by alien marauders and who lived to tell the tale. The Confession and the only other writing of Patrick's to survive, his letter addressed to the soldiers of Coroticus, offer unique insights into the everyday experiences of a man in the front-line of missionary activity beyond the frontiers of the Roman Empire.

Unfortunately, the dates of Patrick's mission in Ireland are not known. In fact, no dates exist at all for the saint, for the simple reason that he offers none, and no other reliable contemporary source exists that might fill that gap. Irish historians in the seventh century and after maintained that Patrick came in 432 to replace Palladius, who was assumed to have either failed or been killed, or else to have abandoned the missionary effort. Neither scenario seems likely, however, as Prosper appears to indicate that the continental mission was successful, at least in its initial stages. But no document from the Palladian mission survived, whereas Patrick's two writings became the foundation for a body of legends, which turned the Briton into an all-powerful, conquering Christian hero. In the process, however, the true character of the man was sacrificed for the purpose of creating a mythological figure whose heroic deeds formed the basis for the claims made by his followers in the centuries after him. Next to nothing is known about the progress of Christianity in Ireland in the fifth century, and Patrick emerges into the light of history only in 632, in the famous Paschal letter of Cummian, who refers to the saint (sanctus Patricius) as papa noster (our father)—the earliest indication that Patrick enjoyed a special status in the Irish Church.

Historians have been troubled, however, that nowhere in Patrick's writings is there a reference to Palladius or anyone else involved in missionary activity in Ireland, but Patrick constantly reiterates the claim that he has gone where no man has gone before. It is not at all impossible, therefore, that Patrick came to Ireland before Palladius, rather than after him, perhaps in the late fourth century or in the generation before Palladius was dispatched by Pope Celestine to those "Irish believing in Christ." That would perhaps offer the most satisfactory explanation for Patrick's otherwise inexplicable silence about the work of others before him on the Christian mission in Ireland, for modern readers of his words are unanimous that his writings reveal an individual of genuine spiritual greatness, one unlikely to be mean-spirited about others. An earlier missionary period for Patrick would also account for the presence in Ireland of Christians before 431, those "Irish believing in Christ" to whom Palladius was sent as first bishop. Certain expressions in Patrick's writings would seem to add weight to this surmise because he appears to be writing at a time when the Roman presence is still all-pervasive in his native Britain. On the other hand, the more traditional dating of his career (arrival in 432; death in 461 or 493), runs up against the difficulty that the Roman legions had long since departed what in the 440s was becoming the "Saxon shore" as Britain was prey to Anglo-Saxon invaders. Since Patrick makes no mention of these cataclysmic events, it seems reasonable to infer that his silence on the subject is due to the fact that he had left his native home long before the Anglo-Saxon occupation of Britain, which did not become complete until the sixth century.

Palladius's mission made nothing like the same impression on the Irish historical mind as Patrick's did, and yet there are occasional traces of a transitional period during which Christianity was still finding its feet, not yet securely established as the national religion. In fact, that was probably not to be the case until the late sixth or early seventh century. The earlier phase of missionary activity is represented, for example, by a remarkable survival: a list of the days of the week in a mixture of Irish and Latin, a witness to the first faltering attempts by Irish Christians to adapt to the new concepts introduced by the Roman religion. This phase of conversion is evident also in the way that Irish converts simply recycle the terminology of the older native beliefs in their earliest Christian vocabulary. Thus the Irish terms for God, belief, faith, grace, and so on, are all words used to express similar concepts in the pre-Christian religion. In time, of course, the newer religion was to replace the earlier one entirely, but not before the latter had left an indelible mark on the Irish Christian mind. How much of the new Irish Christian religion was due to the activities of Palladius and his continental comrades, and how much to Patrick and the efforts of later British clergy, is difficult to judge. The neighboring church (and doubtless also the Irish settlements in the neighboring island from the fourth century on) had a profound impact on the Irish Church in the sixth century, not only in terms of its structures and organization but also on the Irish language and the ways in which that language was first given expression. That the older formal Roman scripts of late antiquity (capitalis and uncial) never took hold in Ireland strongly suggests that the books brought to Ireland by the continental missionaries failed to find any imitators. The form of writing favored by Irish scribes and stonemasons from about the seventh century on, and even their orthography and pronunciation, both of their own language and of Latin, seem to indicate that the British influence in the longer term was the stronger of the two.

SEE ALSO Early Medieval Ireland and Christianity; Hagiography; Latin and Old Irish Literacy; Saint Patrick, Problem of; Primary Documents: Confessio (Declaration) (c. 450); From Muirchú's Life of St. Patrick (c. 680)


Binchy, Daniel A. "Patrick and His Biographers, Ancient and Modern." Studia Hibernica 2 (1962): 7–173.

Ó Cróinín, Dáibhí. Early Medieval Ireland. 1995.

Ó Cróinín, Dáibhí. "Who Was Palladius, 'First Bishop of the Irish'?" Peritia 14 (2000 [2001]): 205–237.

Thompson, Edward A. Who Was Saint Patrick? 1985.

Dáibhí Ó Cróinín

About this article

Religion: The Coming of Christianity

Updated About content Print Article


Religion: The Coming of Christianity