St Patrick is seen by many as the Apostle of Ireland – “the man who brought Christianity to our ancestors”.
But one has to wonder: the process seems to have been so smooth, so easy, so without conflict, one has to ask was this the beginning of a process, or was it rather the end of something that had been going on for a long time, a slow infiltration of a new faith into a nation outside the Empire?
At much the same time that St Patrick is thought to have come to Ireland, it was recorded that a pastor named Palladius was sent by the Pope ad Scottos in christum credentes – “to the Irish who believe in Christ”.
This is evidence that there were Christians in Ireland before Patrick. Indeed the community must have been large and well informed, for it was able to produce, 50 years before Patrick, a fully-fledged heretic in Pelagius, whose ideas were vigorously denounced by St Augustine, St Jerome and others.
He flourished in the years before 418AD, though his controversial career lasted a mere seven years. Though he first came to notice as living in the Roman province of Britannia, he was explicitly called ‘Scottus’ which was the term used to describe the natives of this Island – the Scots as such did not then exist as a nation.
Well over a century ago the Celticist Heinrich Zimmer published Pelagius in Ireland (Berlin, 1901). Written in German, this was no casual aside by a busy scholar of the Celtic languages, but a documented statement of the case for his Irish identity running to some 450 pages. The associate of Pelagius, Celestius, was undoubtedly Irish.
Pelagius was a layman, but one, according to Joseph Pohle, one who “was highly educated, spoke and wrote Latin as well as Greek, and was well versed in theology”.
Jerome refers to him in terms of vulgar abuse: “He was a great omadhaun, and had his wits as heavy as his paunch from eating Irish stir about” (in the colourful but accurate translation of Douglas Hyde). (A modern reader may be surprised at this kind of language from a learned theologian, but then “others days, other ways”. The world is not yet free of racial abuse of a person’s views to this day.)
The cruxes in the debate were his teachings about original sin and on the action of grace. He was influenced by Greek philosophers, notably the Stoics. But his ideas were tested at several councils and he was acquitted, though he was eventually condemned by two Popes.
Heretic though he was, Pelagius was one of the most influential Irishmen who ever lived, whose ideas permeated the Roman Empire, especially North Africa and the Near East.
But the effects of the Pelagian views and their universal spread are not to the point here. What is significant is that this well-informed theologian emerged with them from Ireland, which would seem by 400 AD to have harboured a Christian community that was both scholarly and thoughtful, revealing the Irish were not mere wild natives beyond the pale of the Empire.
St Chrysostom, writing in 387, says that churches and altars were already raised in Ireland”
By the Edict of Milan in 313 the Emperor Constantine allowed Christians to practice their religion freely. Christianity spread throughout the empire as the pagan cults died. There is archaeological evidence of Christianity in Britain by in the 3rd Century. By 350 AD Christianity there are bishops too, though the period is obscure.
So we could say that since from about 300 AD some knowledge of Christianity would have been available to Ireland through trading and other kinds of contact. Indeed St Chrysostom, writing in 387, says that churches and altars were already raised in Ireland.
Roman influences on Irish society are visible: Cormac’s great hall at Tara some see as influenced by Roman buildings and the Fianna seem to have been created as a royal militia for the High King on the model of a Roman legion.
In Ireland, too, the history of this period is obscure. Archaeology may yet cast more light on this Dark Age; but perhaps we need to be a little more careful about just how long Christianity has been preached and expounded on this island.
This article first appeared in The Irish Catholic on August 29, 2019. The original post is available here.