First Steps

First Missionaries to Ireland


"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)

First Mission - Palladius

It is difficult to say with certainty when Christianity first arrived in Ireland. According to the Chronicle of Prosper of Aquitaine, the earliest record is the ordination by Pope Celestine I of Palladius as the first bishop to Irish Christians in 431. This was apparently on the recommendation of St. Germanus, bishop of Auxerre in Gaul. This raises several questions perhaps the greatest being what prompted a French bishop to take this step? What made him feel the time was ripe? Many argue that this demonstrates that there were already Christians living in Ireland.

Palladius arrive in the south of the island and was active in Leinster, particularly in the area around Clonard. According to the Life of St. Patrick “Palladius was ordained and sent to covert this land lying under wintry cold, but God hindered him, for no man can receive anything from earth unless it be given to him from heaven; and neither did those fierce and cruel men receive his doctrine readily, nor did he himself wish to spend time in a strange land, but returned to him who sent him. On his return hence, however, having crossed the first sea and commenced his land journey, he died in the territory of the Britons.” Others say that Palladius died in the plain of Girgin in a place which is now called Fordun. Yet others that “seeing that he could not do much good there, wishing to return to Rome, migrated to the Lord in the region of the Picts.”

St Patrick Champions the Rule of Bishops - the Roman Diocesan system

Nora K. Chadwick argues in ‘The Age of the Saints in the Early Celtic Church’ that in 432AD Saint 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 Roman Diocesan system did not sit well with the prevailing culture of the time in Ireland, which was rural, family based with tribal kingdoms jealously defending their rights and influence.

Saint Patrick did not have any family or tribal connections in Ireland and was very much an outsider pressing an unpopular diocesan system that incompatible with the local culture. He found life very difficult, endured many hardships and wrote “I daily expect either assassination or trickery or reduction to slavery”.

The Rule of Abbots/Abbesses Prevails

On the other hand the monastic system flourished as it fitted closely with the tribal culture of the people. There were very few martyrs amongst the early Christian missionaries to Ireland. This was partly explained by the similarities of the pagan beliefs in the area to Christianity. The pagans believed in One God, a Supreme Spirit, and the eternal soul.

Thus the difficulties that Palladius and Patrick faced in their missions were not with Christianity as such but with the diocesan system that they tried to impose. What limited success Patrick had in this regard was short-lived as, shortly after Patrick’s death, bishops were once again placed under the authority of the more territorial Irish abbots and abbesses. Even Armagh, Patrick’s main foundation, succumbed to the rule of abbots.

The Heriditary Tribal Naure of Abbeys

In Ireland, the foundation of a monastery or abbey normally commenced by a grant of land to the founding saint. In most instances the granter of the land was of the same tribe as the founder.

An Irish Abbey was headed by an abbot and included bishops, priests, monks and laymen. Manaig were married laymen, who in return for labour and taxes received many benefits and were entitled to “the spiritual ministrations of the church and a clerical education for their first born sons and every tenth son thereafter” . In the case of a crisis of succession, a manaig could even become an abbot .

Daughter houses of the abbey of the founding saint would be part of that saint’s paruchia which was a network of abbeys or monasteries attached to the founding abbey. All the abbots of the paruchia were under the authority of the abbot of the founding abbey – the coarb of the saint.

On his deathbed an abbot would nominate his successor from the derbhine, within the rules of Tanistic succession, passing to him his crozier as the symbol of authority. As has been discussed the land, the main wealth of the church, was in the hands of the founding abbots and their successors or coarbs. Coarbs were unique to Celtic Churches and their ownership of the land explain the abbots’ substantial authority and other peculiarities such as why the abbacy was attainable to the manaig.

The Island of Saints and Scholars

In the course of three or four centuries from the time of St. Patrick, Ireland became the most learned country in Europe: and it came to be known by the name now so familiar to us--Insula sanctorum et doctorum, the Island of saints and scholars.

There were over 40 significant abbeys many of which had long histories. One of the earliest, St Finnian’s Abbey of Clonard, was founded in about 520 and grew to about 3,000 monks. As mentioned earlier, this was in the vicinity that Bishop Palladius attempted his largely unsuccessful mission one hundred years earlier.

St Brendan the Navigator was a student of St Finnians’ and was ordained a priest in 512. He then built several monastic cells until 530 when he undertook his famous seven-year voyage accompanied by his former student, St Moluag. St Brendan’s Abbey of Clonfert was founded about 557 and grew to around 3,000 monks.

St Ciaran founded Clonmacnois on the River Shannon sometime between 545 and 548 and this grew to 2,000 monks although some estimates suggest many more.

Saint Moluag ordained St. Comgall, and afterwards restrained him from leaving Ireland, persuading him instead to establish the Abbey of Bangor between 552 and 558 and is variously estimated to have up to 8,000 monks. Saints Moluag and Comgal were closely related, both being nobles of the Dál nAraide who descended from Fiacha Araidhe the 37th King of Ulidia (Ulster).

Saint Moluag stayed some years helping his disciple before leaving Ireland to sail with 12 companions to found his Great Monastery on what is now the Isle of Lismore, in Argyll.

Last updated 11 July, 2015