Celts/Celtic Christianity

(excerpted from http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/08098b.htm,

http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/05162a.htm and http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/11554a.htm)


In ancient times it was known by the various names: Ierna, Juverna, Hibernia, Ogygia, and Inisfail or the Isle of Destiny. It was also called Banba and Erin, and lastly Scotia, or the country of the Scots.

After the eleventh century, the name Scotia was dropped and Ireland alone remained. Even yet it is sometimes called Erin—chiefly by orators and poets.

Situated in the far west, out of the beaten paths of commercial activity, it was little known to the ancients.

·         Festus Avienus wrote that it was two days' sail from Britain.

·         Pliny thought that it was part of Britain and not an island at all

·         Strabo said that it was near Britain, and that its inhabitants were cannibals

·         All that Caesar knew was that it was west of Britain, and about half its size

·         Agricola beheld its coastline from the opposite shores of Caledonia, and had thought of accepting the invitation of an Irish chief to come and conquer it, believing he could do so with a single legion. But he left Ireland unvisited and unconquered

·         Tacitus could only record that in soil and climate it resembled Britain, and that its harbors were then well-known to foreign merchants.

Beginning with the time of Abraham, several successive waves of colonization rolled westward to its shores.

First came Parthalon with 1000 followers; after which came the Nemedians, the Firbolgs, and the Tuatha-de-Dananns, and lastly the Milesians or Scots.

In addition, there were the Fomorians, a people of uncertain origin, whose chief occupation was piracy and war, and whose attacks on the various settlers were incessant.

These and the Milesians excepted, the different colonists came from Greece, and all were of the same race

The Milesians came from Scythia; and from that country to Egypt, from Egypt to Spain, from Spain to Ireland their adventures are recorded in detail. The name Scot which they bore was derived from Scota, daughter of Pharaoh of Egypt, the wife of one of their chiefs

Partholanians, Nemedians, and Fomorians belong rather to mythology than to history. So also do the Dananns.

The Firbolgs however most probably existed, and were kindred perhaps to those warlike Belgae of Gaul whom Caesar encountered in battle.

And the Milesians certainly belong to history, though the date of their arrival in Ireland is unknown. They were Celts, and probably came from Gaul to Britain, and from Britain to Ireland, rather than direct from Spain.

·         Under the leadership of Heremon and Heber they soon became masters of the island.

·         Heber and Heremon soon quarrelled, and, Heber falling in battle, Heremon became sole ruler, the first in a long line of kings.

·         This list of kings, however, is not reliable, and we are warned by Tighearnach, the most trustworthy of Irish chroniclers, that all events before the reign of Cimbaeth (300 B.C.) are uncertain.

·         Even after the dawn of the Christian Era fact and fiction are interwoven and events are often shrouded in shadows and mists.


Social Life and Customs


·         The Irish were then pagans, but not barbarians.

·         Their roads were indeed ill-constructed, their wooden dwellings rude, the dress of their lower orders scanty, their implements of agriculture and war primitive, and so were their land vehicles, and the boats in which they traversed the sea.

·         On the other hand, some of their swords and shields showed some skill in metal-working, and their war-like and commercial voyages to Britain and Gaul argue some proficiency in shipbuilding and navigation. They certainly loved music; and, besides their inscribed Ogham writing, they had a knowledge of letters.

·         There was a high-king of Ireland (ardri), and subject to him were the provincial kings and chiefs of tribes. Each of these received tribute from his immediate inferior

·         There was the druid who explained religion, the brehon (judge) who dispensed justice, the brughaid or public hospitaller, the bard who sang the praises of his chief or urged his kinsman to battle; and each was an official and had his appointed allotment of land.

·         Kings, though taken from one family, were elective, the tanist or heir-apparent being frequently not the nearest relation of him who reigned.

·         This peculiarity, together with gavelkind by which the lands were periodically redistributed, impeded industry and settled government.

·         Nor was there any legislative assembly, and the Brehon law under which Ireland lived was judge-made law. Sometimes the ardri's tribute remained unpaid and his authority nominal; but if he was a strong man he exacted obedience and tribute.




·         The pagan Irish believed in Druidism. They held the immortality and the transmigration of souls, worshipped the sun and moon, and, with an inferior worship, mountains, rivers, and wells.

·         The etymology of this word from the Greek drous, "oak", has been a favorite one since the time of Pliny the Elder; according to this the druids would be the priests of the god or gods identified with the oak.

·         With the ancient writers the word druid had two meanings; in the stricter sense it meant the teachers of moral philosophy and science; in the wider sense it included the priests, diviners, judges, teachers, physicians, astronomers, and philosophers of Gaul. They formed a class apart and kept the people, who were far inferior to them in culture, in subjection. They were regarded as the most just of men, and disputes both public and private were referred to them for settlement. Thus their influence was much more a social than a religious one, in spite of the common opinion that they were exclusively a priestly class or Gaulish clergy. They enjoyed certain privileges, such as exemption from military service and the payment of taxes; and the ancient authors are unanimous in speaking of the great honours which were shown them.

·         Above all, the druids were the educators of the nobility. Their instruction was very varied and extensive. It consisted of a large number of verses learned by heart, and we are told that sometimes twenty years were required to complete the course of study. They held that their learning should not be consigned to writing. They must have had a considerable oral literature of sacred songs, formulae of prayers, rules of divination and magic, but all of this lore not a verse has come down to us.

·         With the Roman conquest of Gaul the druids lost all their jurisdiction, druidism suffered a great decay, and there is no reason to believe that it survived long after A.D. 77, the date of the last mention of the druids as still in existence. The opening of the schools of Marseilles, Bordeaux, and Lyons put an end to their usefulness as teachers of moral philosophy; and if some of them remained scattered here and there in Gaul, most of them were obliged to emigrate to Britain. The Emperors Tiberius and Claudius abolished certain practices in the cult of the druids, their organization, and their assemblies, but their disappearance was gradual and due as much to the romanization of the land as to any political measure or act of violence or persecution on the part of Rome. Yet there can be no doubt that Rome feared the druids as teachers of the Gallo-Roman youth and judges of trials. In Gaul in the third century of the Christian Era there is mention of women who predicted the future and were known as druidesses, but they were merely sorcerers, and we are not to conclude from the name they bore that druidism was still in existence at that late date. According to Caesar, it was a tradition in Gaul in his time that the druids were of British origin and that it was to Great Britain that they went to make a thorough study of their doctrine, but the authors of antiquity throw very little light on the institution and practices of druidism in the island of Britain.

·         And they sacrificed to idols, one of which, Crom Cruach, they are said to have propitiated with human sacrifices.

·         They also believed in fairies, holding that the Tuatha-de-Dananns, when defeated by the Milesians, retired into the bosom of the mountains, where they held their fairy revels. One of the women fairies (the banshee) watched the fortunes of great families, and when some great misfortune was impending, the doomed family was warned at night by her mournful wail.



·         Intercourse with Britain and the Continent through commerce and war sufficiently accounts for the introduction of Christianity before the fifth century.

·         There must have been then a considerable number of Christians in Ireland; for in 430 Palladius, a bishop and native of Britain, was sent by Pope Celestine "to the Scots believing in Christ".

·         Palladius, however, did little, and almost immediately returned to Britain, and in 432 the same pope sent St. Patrick.

·         Pope St. Celestine I, who rendered immortal service to the Church by the overthrow of the Pelagian and Nestorian heresies, and by the imperishable wreath of honour decreed to the Blessed Virgin in the General Council of Ephesus, crowned his pontificate by an act of the most far-reaching consequences for the spread of Christianity and civilization, when he entrusted St. Patrick with the mission of gathering the Irish race into the one fold of Christ.


St. Patrick

·         When St. Patrick did come paganism was the predominant belief, and that at his death it had been supplanted as such by Christianity.

·         born at Kilpatrick, near Dumbarton, in Scotland, in the year 387; died at Saul, Downpatrick, Ireland, 17 March, 493.

·         Kilpatrick still retains many memorials of Saint Patrick, and frequent pilgrimages continued far into the Middle Ages to perpetuate there the fame of his sanctity and miracles.

·         In his sixteenth year, Patrick was carried off into captivity by Irish marauders and was sold as a slave to a chieftan named Milchu in Dalriada, a territory of the present county of Antrim in Ireland, where for six years he tended his master's flocks in the valley of the Braid and on the slopes of Slemish, near the modern town of Ballymena.

·         Continuing his journey towards Slemish, the saint was struck with horror on seeing at a distance the fort of his old master Milchu enveloped in flames. The fame of Patrick's marvelous power of miracles preceeded him. Milchu, in a fit of frenzy, gathered his treasures into his mansion and setting it on fire, cast himself into the flames. An ancient record adds: "His pride could not endure the thought of being vanquished by his former slave".

·         St. Patrick learned from Dichu that the chieftains of Erin had been summoned to celebrate a special feast at Tara by Leoghaire, who was the Ard-Righ, that is, the Supreme Monarch of Ireland. This was an opportunity which Patrick would not forego; he would present himself before the assembly, to strike a decisive blow against the Druidism that held the nation captive, and to secure freedom for the glad tidings of Redemption of which he was the herald. As he journeyed on he rested for some days at the house of a chieftain named Secsnen, who with his household joyfully embraced the Faith. The youthful Benen, or Benignus, son of the chief, was in a special way captivated by the Gospel doctrines and the meekness of Patrick. Whilst the saint slumbered he would gather sweet-scented flowers and scatter them over his bosom, and when Patrick was setting out, continuing his journey towards Tara, Benen clung to his feet declaring that nothing would sever him from him. "Allow him to have his way", said St. Patrick to the chieftain, "he shall be heir to my sacred mission." Thenceforth Benen was the inseparable companion of the saint, and the prophecy was fulfilled, for Benen is named among the "comhards" or successors of St. Patrick in Armagh. It was on 26 March, Easter Sunday, in 433, that the eventful assembly was to meet at Tara, and the decree went forth that from the preceeding day the fires throughout the kingdom should be extinguished until the signal blaze was kindled at the royal mansion. The chiefs and Brehons came in full numbers and the druids too would muster all their strength to bid defiance to the herald of good tidings and to secure the hold of their superstition on the Celtic race, for their demoniac oracles had announced that the messenger of Christ had come to Erin. St. Patrick arrived at the hill of Slane, at the opposite extremity of the valley from Tara, on Easter Eve, in that year the feast of the Annunciation, and on the summit of the hill kindled the Paschal fire. The druids at once raised their voice. "O King", (they said) "live for ever; this fire, which has been lighted in defiance of the royal edict, will blaze for ever in this land unless it be this very night extinguished." By order of the king and the agency of the druids, repeated attempts were made to extinguish the blessed fire and to punish with death the intruder who had disobeyed the royal command. But the fire was not extinguished and Patrick shielded by the Divine power came unscathed from their snares and assaults. On Easter Day the missionary band having at their head the youth Benignus bearing aloft a copy of the Gospels, and followed by St. Patrick who with mitre and crozier was arrayed in full episcopal attire, proceeded in processional order to Tara. The druids and magicians put forth all their strength and employed all their incantations to maintain their sway over the Irish race, but the prayer and faith of Patrick achieved a glorious triumph. The druids by their incantations overspread the hill and surrounding plain with a cloud of worse then Egyptian darkness. Patrick defied them to remove that cloud, and when all their efforts were made in vain, at his prayer the sun sent forth its rays and the brightest sunshine lit up the scene. Again by demoniac power the Arch-Druid Lochru, like Simon Magus of old, was lifted up high in the air, but when Patrick knelt in prayer the druid from his flight was dashed to pieces upon a rock. Thus was the final blow given to paganism in the presence of all the assembled chieftains. It was, indeed, a momentous day for the Irish race. Twice Patrick pleaded for the Faith before Leoghaire. The king had given orders that no sign of respect was to be extended to the strangers, but at the first meeting the youthful Erc, a royal page, arose to show him reverence; and at the second, when all the chieftains were assembled, the chief-bard Dubhtach showed the same honour to the saint. Both these heroic men became fervent disciples of the Faith and bright ornaments of the Irish Church. It was on this second solemn occasion that St. Patrick is said to have plucked a shamrock from the sward, to explain by its triple leaf and single stem, in some rough way, to the assembled chieftains, the great doctrine of the Blessed Trinity. On that bright Easter Day, the triumph of religion at Tara was complete. The Ard-Righ granted permission to Patrick to preach the Faith throughout the length and breadth of Erin, and the druidical prophecy like the words of Balaam of old would be fulfilled: the sacred fire now kindled by the saint would never be extinguished.

·         One of the apostle's first anxieties was to provide a native ministry. For this purpose he selected the leading men—chiefs, brehons, bards—men likely to attract the respect of the people, and these, after little training, and often with little education, he had ordained. Thus equipped the priest went among the people, with his catechism, missal, and ritual, the bishop in addition his crosier and bell. In a short time, however, these primitive conditions ceased. Abut 450 a college was established at Armagh under Benignus; other schools arose at Kildare, Noendrum, and Louth; and by the end of the fifth century these colleges sent forth a sufficient supply of trained priests. Supported by a grant of land from the chief of the clan or sept and by voluntary offerings, bishop and priests lived together, preached to the people, administered the sacraments, settled their disputes, sat in their banquet halls. To many ardent natures this state of things was abhorrent. Fleeing from men, they sought for solitude and silence, by the banks of a river, in the recesses of a wood, and, with the scantiest allowance of food, the water for their drink, a few wattles covered with sods for their houses, they spent their time in mortification and prayer. Literally they were monks, for they were alone with God. But their retreats were soon invaded by others anxious to share their penances and their vigils, and to learn wisdom at their feet. Each newcomer built his little hut, a church was erected, a grant of land obtained, their master became abbot, and perhaps bishop; and thus arose monastic establishments the fame of which soon spread throughout Europe. Noted examples in the sixth century were Clonard, founded by St. Finian, Clonfert by St. Brendan, Bangor by St. Comgall, Clonmacnoise by St. Kieran, Arran by St. Enda; and, in the seventh century, Lismore by St. Carthage and Glendalough by St. Kevin.

·         Patrick’s Confession [handout]

Growth of the Irish Church