Irish History Overview

Early Christian Ireland c.400 – 800 AD

Niall na naoi ngiallach [Niall of the Nine Hostages] was the most powerful ruler in Ireland at the beginning of the 5th century. His ships raided far afield, bringing back slaves and booty to Tara, where he lived as Ard Ri [High King], and was buried with full honours. His descendants acquired the dynastic name of Uí Néill (O’Neill) and remained at Tara, keeping the title of Ard Rí in the family for several centuries. They also went on to carve out new kingdoms for themselves in the midlands and Ulster.

Saint Patrick first arrived as a child slave of Christian origin, captured somewhere in Roman Britain or Gaul. After several years as a swineherd, he managed to escape to the continent, where he trained and was ordained as a priest. In 432 AD he returned to Ireland, where he preached Christianity for over thirty years. His main base was Armagh, later consecrated as the principal archdiocese of the island, but legends of his deeds abound from all over Ireland, and by his own account he was particularly active in Connacht. He came to be revered as the founding father of Irish Christianity.

However, there is evidence of Christian activity in Ireland before 400 AD, and there were enough Christians for Pope Celestine to send Palladius as first bishop to the Irish in 428 AD. Other missionaries were also at work.

The method used to convert the Gaels to the new faith was to use the familiar ground of their own pagan culture, the sacred groves, wells, mounds, and other holy places designated by the Druids, to establish Christian churches. The people seem to have accepted the new religion without much opposition, although the last pagan chieftain was killed in battle as late as 561 AD.

The Irish Celtic Church flourished, and developed several distinctive features. Although originally organised along territorial divisions of parish, diocese etc., it soon became primarily a monastic Church, without the centralised, geographically ordered network that the Roman Church inherited from the waning Roman Empire.

There were few roads and no towns or villages in Ireland, and the people looked increasingly to the holy places where saintly men and women established their hermitages. Commonly, these mystics would live in isolated caves or beehive huts in wild and remote locations, praying and meditating, and would meet regularly to celebrate Mass and hear readings from Holy Scripture. An example of this early monastic arrangement is St. Michael’s Needle in the Skelligs, off the southwestern Atlantic coast. This Christian ascetic tradition originated in Egypt and Syria, but probably overlapped with pagan Gaelic customs too.

The chief founders of Irish monasteries were Saint Brigid of Kildare, Saint Enda of the Aran Islands, Saint Finian of Clonard, Saint Brendan (the Navigator) of Clonfert, Saint Kevin of Glendalough, Saint Ciaran of Clonmacnois and Saint Finbarr of Cork. Gaelic chieftains competed to provide land to these holy folk, and endow their monasteries with riches.

Christianity exposed Ireland to strong Latin and Greek influences, and while the rest of Europe sank into the Dark Ages after the fall of the Roman Empire, Irish monasteries became important cultural centres and outposts of European civilisation. Many built not only churches, but also dormitories, refectories, libraries and scriptoria. They developed into large communities incorporating schools, hostels and places of refuge, in some ways resembling modern universities. Many scholars from Britain and mainland Europe travelled to Ireland to study scripture and theology.

Irish monks also travelled abroad, and were the very first people to settle the Faeroe Islands and Iceland (where the Westmann Islands are named after them). The most famous explorer was Saint Brendan the Navigator, who may have reached the New World. These men were exiling themselves not only from their families but also from their native land, as a way of mortifying the flesh (i.e. denying themselves earthly pleasure in a bid to become White Martyrs, since they could not die for their faith to become Red Martyrs).

In 563 AD, Saint Colmcille of Derry, also known as Saint Columba, established a monastery on the remote northern island of Iona, from where his order is traditionally credited with the Christianisation of Scotland and Northumberland and the foundation of the great monastery at Lindisfarne.

Other Irish missionaries such as Saint Fursey travelled to England and the Continent; the monasteries they founded include those of Annegray, Luxeuil, Fontaines (Burgandy), Bregenx (Austria) and Bobbio (Northern Italy), where Saint Columbanus is buried. Their strict asceticism won widespread respect. A church, a town and a canton in Switzerland are called Saint Gallen, after the local patron saint, originally a monk from County Down. Others became academics and courtiers.

Irish secular society also flourished.  Schools for brehons (lawyer / judges), senchaid (historians / genealogists / folklorists) and filidh  (bards / musicians / poets) produced the áes dána, men learned in Brehon Law, genealogies (vital for land rights), and the traditional histories, legends, stories and songs. Before battle they encouraged the troops by telling them of past heroes and warriors, and also composed laments for those who died.

Noblemen, the clergy and the learned áes dána elite all had equal status. The difference between nobles and commoners was that nobles had groups of clients and vassals, called déis, which gave them both influence and authority, whereas commoners engaged in subsistence farming. Near the bottom of the social ladder were the landless men who were hired by commoners or the monasteries. Seafarers plied trade routes as far afield as North Africa, and many devoted themselves to piracy along the coasts of Britain, Gaul and Iberia, bringing back booty and slaves.

Under Brehon Law, women had equal status to men in most respects, including professionally and, until 697 AD, militarily. The law exempting them from warfare is known as the Cain Adanman after Saint Adanman, whose mother, Ronait, was appalled by the barbarity she witnessed of one woman with an iron sickle savagely tearing apart another woman in battle. Women were also ordained as priests and bishops.

Polygamy was the norm, but it was expected that a husband should defer to his primary wife in all domestic matters. Women were protected by law against sexual harassment, discrimination, and rape. They had the right of divorce (which carried no stigma) on equal terms from their husbands, with equitable separation laws, and could demand part of their husband’s property in a divorce settlement. They had the right of inheritance of personal property. Female chieftains also existed.

Brehon Law texts of the 8th century refer to three grades of king or chieftain. The rí tuaithe was the head of a tuath, a clan or sept. The ruire was the overlord of several tuath. The rí ruirech or rí cóicid was the king of a province. The most powerful rulers tended to be those of the Cúig Cúigi [five fifths] – Connacht, Munster, Ulster, Leinster, and Meath (which was much bigger then than now), but power was a matter of constantly changing alliances.

The documents make no reference to an Árd-Rí. For many centuries, the rulers of the northern half of the country tended to recognise the hegemony of that Ui Neill who was based on Tara and those of the southern half the Eóganacht who happened to be in power at Cashel. The lower grades of chieftain paid tribute in the form of cattle, corn etc., and, in most cases, were liable to supply a certain number of armed men to assist their overlord when he was engaged in warfare

Brehon Laws stated that when a king or chieftain died, all male members of his fine (the descendants of a common ancestor to the fifth generation) were eligible for election to succeed him. The method of election varied. Although the institution of Tanistry, whereby the chieftain designated his heir, eventually brought some order, succession disputes were endemic and a major cause of instability and open warfare. However, this had been so for many centuries, and this period was relatively peaceful by Irish standards; it was certainly prosperous.

The supreme artistic achievements of the period were the illuminated manuscripts written by the scribes in the monasteries, such as the Book of Kells or the Book of Durrow. Some fine metalwork from this period includes the ornate book shrines called Cumdachs, a host of reliquaries, vessels such as the Ardagh Chalice, the Innisfallen Crozier, and the Tara Brooch.

The Tara Brooch, found near Laytown (Co. Meath).

The combination of Christian symbols with pre-Christian Celtic motifs, found on these objects and on ancient stone pillars dotted around the island, is an interesting reflection of contemporary religious and cultural values.

The C6th, C7th and C8th AD are nostalgically regarded as a Golden Age, when Ireland was allegedly known as the Island of Saints and Scholars.

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