Conversion of Ireland to Christianity Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The conversion of Ireland precipitated a form of monasticism that ensured the preservation of the records and literature of Western civilization after the Fall of Rome.

Summary of Event

The Irish of history have their roots in the Celtic La Tène civilization, which was probably established in Ireland by the end of the third century b.c.e. The Celtic cultural base remained predominant through the first millennium c.e., virtually the only modification being the introduction of Christianity. Pelagius Celestine I Patrick, Saint

Christianity certainly existed in Ireland before the fifth century c.e., although it was probably limited to the southern part of the island, where it had presumably been carried by inhabitants of Britain and Gaul who had fled to Hibernia from the Vandals and Huns. Saint Augustine of Hippo (a city in Roman Africa) believed that his rival, the arch-heretic Pelagius was from Hibernia, and Gallic bishops such as Victricius of Rouen, Lupus of Troyes, and Germanus of Auxerre journeyed to the British Isles in the late fourth and early fifth centuries to counter Pelagianism, which taught that salvation could be achieved by the exercise of human powers. Pope Celestine I commissioned Palladius, a Roman deacon, to convert Ireland in 431 c.e. Little is known about this missionary bishop other than that he was either the original Saint Patrick or, more likely, a predecessor. On the death of Palladius, Patrick was ordained a bishop and set out for Ireland.

Saint Patrick.

(Library of Congress)

Research on Patrick trying to establish a chronology for his life and work has yielded few positive results. His own writings, his Confessio (fifth century c.e.; The Confession in Saint Patrick, the Writings, 1887), a reply to his detractors, Epistola ad milites Corotici (fifth century c.e.; Letters to the Soldiers of Croticus, 1953), and several letters, date from the fifth century, but the earliest extant biographies come from the seventh century. Patrick was born in Roman Britain where, at the age of sixteen, he was captured and sold into slavery in Ireland. During his captivity, he turned to religion. After six years of labor as a shepherd, he returned to Britain determined eventually to convert the Irish to Christianity. Although the record of his actual missionary activity among the Irish is not clear, Patrick is credited with securing toleration for Christians, developing a native clergy, fostering the growth of monasticism, and establishing dioceses. Patrick’s doctrine is considered orthodox and has been interpreted as anti-Pelagian. There is no account of his immediate successors nor any knowledge of ecclesiastical establishments attributable to him.


The ecclesiastical polity introduced by Palladus and Patrick was probably episcopal, but their establishment of monasticism was to influence Irish Christianity profoundly. By the sixth century c.e., the Irish church became a monastic church under the control of powerful abbots within a system closely akin in tone to the Eastern anchoritic traditions that had filtered into Ireland by way of Wales; Aquitaine, a region in present-day southwestern France; and Galicia in Spain. The monasteries were organizational centers for the paruchiae, or parishes, areas often corresponding to the boundaries of the tribe from which the founder had sprung, or that tribe that patronized the establishment. Powerful personages of the tribes became abbots.

The monasteries were centers of learning, and the Irish monks transmuted the law and poetry of their pagan predecessors into a rich literary style with Christian implications. These transmuted works included the brehon, whose ancient Irish customary Brehon laws were used to arbitrate claims, and the filidh, which was made up of bardic poets, physicians, and druids. Latin learning in Ireland in the fifth and sixth centuries laid solid foundations in grammar and rhetoric, as well as knowledge of the scriptures, church fathers, and lives of saints.

As noteworthy as their zest for learning was the Irish monks’ penchant for poverty, asceticism, contemplation, and solitude. This form of monasticism, reminiscent of earlier brehon and filidh spartan characteristics, reflects the Celtic spirit of individualism. During the sixth century c.e., this ascetic spirit of the Irish was manifest in the activities of Finnian at Clonard, Cieran at Clonmacnoise, and Comgall at Bangor. Of particular note were Briget of Kildare, a miracle-working transmutation of the Celtic goddess Ceridwen, who founded four monasteries, and Brendan at Clonfert, the subject of the Irish epic Navigatio Brendani (n.d.; An Old Italian Version of the Navigation Sancti Brendani, 1931), who is rumored to have traveled to North America. For the sake of solitude more than for proselytizing, Irish outposts were founded on pagan frontiers. Therefore, in the British Isles, monasteries were founded by Columba in 563 on Iona, an island off the coast of western Scotland, and by Aidan in 634 at Lindisfarne, an island off the northeast coast of England. These centers were responsible for the spread of the Christian faith into Scotland and Northumbria. On the Continent, the works of Columba at Luxeuil and Bobbio, Gall in Switzerland, and Kilian at Wurzburg were similar in method and intent. Each of these foreign missions provided a great stimulus for the maintenance of Latin learning and Christian ascetic piety in Western Europe in the early Middle Ages.

In the realm of spiritual discipline, Irish innovations made a lasting impression. The Irish monks first replaced public penance with private penance, consisting of prayers and works of mortification directed by the confessor for the penitent.

By the mid-seventh century, certain practices of Irish and the whole of Celtic Christendom were considered irregular in the eyes of the Roman Church, which was then episcopally governed and Benedictine in its monasticism. Differences between Irish and Roman practices included peculiarities of liturgy and rituals in the Mass, single immersion in baptism, extensive rites for ordinations, procedures in episcopal consecration, and especially differences in the celebration of Easter, the Irish tonsure, and the use of leavened bread in the communion. England was the scene of the clash between the Roman and the Celtic (Irish) traditions in the fifty years following Augustine of Canterbury’s mission and the death of Columba at Iona (597). The Synod of Whitby in 664, witnessed the debate between the Roman Wilfrid and the Celtic Colman, but the resolution resulted in King Oswald of Northumbria’s preference for Roman practices. By the beginning of the eighth century, the Irish had conformed to Roman practices as they understood them, and Armagh, a district of Northern Ireland said to be the site of Patrick’s first mission settlement, emerged as the chief episcopal center. The harsh rules of innovators such as Columba made the more moderate papal-sponsored Benedictine form of monasticism seem attractive by comparison. Complete alignment with continental practices was impeded, however, by Viking invasions beginning in 795 c.e.

What was for most of Europe the Dark Ages was for Ireland the golden age. During this era, religious art, such as the Ardagh Chalice and the Book of Kells (1914) and other illuminated manuscripts, flourished. As the invading Germanic tribes burned the books of the Roman cities, the Irish monk scribes, perched on remote islands, copied all the Western literature they could obtain, thereby preserving Western civilization.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cahill, Thomas. How the Irish Saved Civilization: The Untold Story of Ireland’s Heroic Role from the Fall of Rome to the Rise of Medieval Europe. New York: Doubleday, 1995. Scholarly yet approachable work that argues that although Ireland knew neither Renaissance nor Enlightenment, its monks refounded Western civilization by preserving Western literature. Contains a pronunciation guide to Irish words, illustrations, a bibliography for each chapter, and a chronology from approximately 3000 b.c.e. to 1923.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Da Paor, Liam, trans. Saint Patrick’s World: The Christian Culture of Ireland’s Apostolic Age. Dublin: Four Courts Press, 1993. A collection of early sources on Ireland’s early Christian church, with translations and commentaries by De Paor. Bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dumville, David N., et. al. Saint Patrick, a.d. 493-1993. Rochester, N.Y.: Boydell, 1993. A general biography of Saint Patrick that also covers early church history in Ireland. Bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">O’Laughlin, Thomas. Saint Patrick: The Man and His Works. London: Triangle, 1999. A biography of Saint Patrick that also examines his writings. Bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Thompson, E. A. Who Was Saint Patrick? 1986. Reprint. Rochester, N.Y.: Boydell, 1999. Uses both primary and secondary sources to account for Saint Patrick’s life, including his own written works. Reconstructs the conversion of Ireland.
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Categories: History