Christianity in the Sixth Century

Rome, the Early Celtic Church and Tribal Loyalties

"The Church in The British Isles will only begin to grow when She begins to again venerate Her own Saints" (Saint Arsenios of Paros 1877)


The (western) Roman Empire had collapsed in the fifth century. Rome itself had been sacked in 410 by Visigoths. By the end of the 5th century only the eastern part of the Roman Empire, centred on Constantinople, was a stable area of Christian orthodoxy. In the west the Pope and his entourage in Rome were an oasis within an Italy dominated by the Arian Ostrogoths. Spain was dominated by Arian Visigoths and North Africa by Arian Vandals. Gaul was ruled by pagan Franks and Britain by the pagan Angles and Saxons.

The Early Celtic (Irish) Church

In the sixth century, at the time of St Moluag, things were very different in Ireland. Christianity had been introduced in the previous century and was flourishing.

In his work The Highlanders of Scotland William F. Skene, wrote:

“ The church of the northern Picts and northern Scots, to which the name of Culdee was afterwards given, ….emanated from the church of Gaul, a church always opposed to that of Rome, and claiming a descent from the church of Ephesus, and its founder, St. John the Evangelist;”

Skene was the Historiographer Royal for Scotland so is a respected authority. Nevertheless many argue that The Celtic Church is older than the Continental Churches:

“ The churches of France and Spain, must yield in point of antiquity and precedence to that of Britain, as the latter Church was founded by Joseph of Arimathea immediately after the Passion of Christ”

It appears to be a common misconception that Saint Patrick brought Christianity to the Irish when he landed in Ireland in 432AD. Patrick came to Ireland as a Roman Bishop to champion its episcopate order (anathema to Irish Culture) and to challenge the foundations of an already developing Celtic Church .

The Eastern influence was very strong in the Celtic Church.

“ There seemed to be a peculiar affinity between the tribal or clan system of the Celts and the monasticism of Egypt. The monasterium or collegium both in Egypt and in Celtic Ireland and Scotland consisted of a number of huts which were the dwellings of the clerical and lay monks and their families, for many of the latter were married…. The clergy of the Celtic Church were missionaries rather than theologians…. In this respect they were like the early apostles and disciples in the Churches of Asia Minor.”

Elements of eastern orthodoxy were merged into Irish Christianity, through connections with Gaul, by the Coptic and Eastern Church. An antiphony from the seventh century from the monks of Bangor, County Down, praise their monastery as “the true vine transplanted out of Egypt.” Some distinctive features of Irish Christianity such as the frontal tonsure, hand bells, and wheeled cross may have been derived from eastern traditions, not to mention one of the most amazing of all achievements of Irish monasticism - the illuminated manuscripts. The earliest of these, The Book of Durrow (675), contains religious portraits almost identical to the icons on the pages of earlier eastern gospel manuscripts. The most famous is the magnificent Book of Kells (800). These ancient treasures display a breathtakingly beautiful blend of intricately woven art that seems to be a combination of the patterns familiarly found in eastern carpets and the fantastically coiling spirals of La Tene art.

Another outstanding aspect of Irish Christianity is the connection between religion and the natural world. The eminent Celtic scholar Kuno Meyer wrote, “To seek out and love nature was given to no people so early and so fully as to the Celts.” Six hundred years before the establishment of St. Francis’ ecologically friendly order, St. Brigid was hanging her cloak on a sunbeam, St. Mocolmoc was charming the bees, and a blackbird was laying its eggs upon the praying hands of St. Kevin, who remained kneeling until the eggs hatched so as not to disturb them.

Tribal Loyalties

The tribes of the Kingdom of Ulidia included the powerful Pictish (some would say Cruithne) Dál nAraide and Dál Fiatach tribes who spoke a P-Celtic language together with the Dál Riata or Dál Riada, a smaller subject tribe who spoke a Q-Celtic Gaelic.

In the fifth and sixth centuries they were being pressed east by the aggressive O’Neil expansion to such an extent that the Dál Riada settled in Argyll, eventually moving their capitol there from Ireland. For obvious reasons there was little love lost between the Ulaid tribes and the O’Neill’s. St Moluag was a noble of the Dál nAraide who were allied to the Dál Riada. Columba was an O’Neill and there was clearly friction between him, St Comgall and St Moluag.

Mould writes that inevitably the divide between the tribes extended to the Church . As Skene points out the Church at that time was very tribal . Columba could not, or did not deign to, speak the same language as the Picts and could only converse with the Gaelic speaking Scots of Dál Riada and his travels away from this area were few and infrequent.

On the other hand, as we shall see later, St Moluag was not only on friendly terms with the Scots of Dál Riada but also with the Picts inhabiting the North of Scotland and could communicate with ease with both groups.

Last updated 11 July, 2015