“In order to get a greater understanding of the Saints and Scholars of Ireland – let us first look briefly at the Celtic History that influenced Ireland before the introduction of Christianity.
A brief summary of Celtic History:
The Celtic Culture is very ancient – going back over 2,700 years. Throughout history the Celtic tradition and belief has continuously developed and progressed in keeping with the times. In ancient days, the early beliefs of the Celts were taken over and reformed by the Druids, who in turn were influenced by Roman religion. In time, this was transformed by christianity in the form of the Celtic Church, which was finally absorbed by Catholicism and is today still growing in influence.
The people known as Celts are thought to have originated in central Europe (Hallstatt – hall meaning salt) and for around 3,400 years these proto-Celtic peoples expanded across the Continent and eventually inhabited a large portion of central, western and north-western Europe. They made their wealth on salt extraction and the sale of it, and some of the innovative Celtic blacksmiths embraced the technology of iron – producing some of the best metal in Europe. By the 7th century the Hallstatt people had become prosperous in the salt and iron businesses.
The Celts in Ireland:
It is thought that the Celts first entered Ireland around 300BC. (This time is recorded in stories such as Tain Bo Cualnge – where independent warriors travelled around the land stealing cattle and pillaging each others’ territory). They lived in artificial islands – called crannogs and local clan and tribal chieftains became the regional Kings who were subject in turn to the High King. The High King was supreme over Ireland and the gods’ representative on Earth.
After the first century BC the Celts were in retreat and many came under Roman rule – including Britain in the first century AD – but the Celtic culture has never been eliminated and remains strong today in Ireland, Wales, Scotland and Brittany (also Cornwall and the Isle of Man). As Ireland was never invaded by the Romans, Celtic traditions, history, archaeology and remains survived in Ireland but were lost in other Celtic strongholds. Ireland therefore became almost the “protector” of this culture during the Roman Empire.
The Land of Saints and Scholars:
By the 5th Century when St. Patrick came to Ireland – he began by converting the High King of Ireland to Christianity – and symbolically – he converted the whole island.
During the 7th century in Ireland many English Princes and nobility retired into Ireland for the sake of religious instruction and a delight in reading. The Irish looked after them very well and for free. Many Irish teachers who were very good were asked to go to France, Burgundy and Germany to preside over schools and monasteries there. The best known monasteries were these “teachers” originated from are Armagh, Clonard, Bangor and possibly Inisfallen.
Our holiday takes us on a journey that follows an old Western Maritime Pilgrimage that took place along the whole west coast of Ireland. To explain this a little more:-
How Pilgrimage’s Began:
Pilgrims travelled to Rome where they would have followed a circuit of the “Seven Churches” – an epithet that was subsequently associated with a number of important Irish pilgrimage sites – where the proliferation of small Churches probably represents an international imitation of the Roman model.
Earliest Irish Pilgrims appear to have been clerics who went abroad on pilgrimage for the sake of the Lord and their own immortal souls, but with the avowed intention of staying away permanently and never returning home. In time, these Irish “peregrini” wandering on the Continent became a thorn in the side of the order-loving Carolingian administrators, until, during the final years of Charlemagne’s life, they were finally forbidden to circulate freely in his empire.
Lay participation in Irish pilgrimage expanded around the 800’s and increased visits to and veneration of relics began – believing it would have beneficial results – enriching people spiritually – and the monasteries materially. Soon there was a huge push to influence pilgrims to stay at home. During the second half of the 8th Century a profound change took place in the character of Irish Pilgrimage and they stayed at home to spread the word instead of travelling abroad. (“To go to Rome – much labour – little profit”). Therefore as a suitable replacement for the journey across the Irish Sea to Rome – the Church looked westward and decided the difficult waters of the Atlantic Coast could provide as much physical and penitential hardship as any pilgrimage to Italy.
Seaborne pilgrimage traffic up and down the coast can be deduced from the spread of the cult of maritime saints like Brendan and Colmcille, which is reflected in Church and Holy Well dedications on islands along the Atlantic coasts of Ireland and Scotland and which also found a foothold on mainland locations such as the Dingle Peninsula and Glencolmcille. The offshore islands of the south west, west and north coasts of Ireland were already endowed with a spiritual aura through the hermits who sought a solitary life on them in previous centuries. Islands such as Skellig Michael and Illauntannig (Magharees) in Kerry, the Aran Islands, St. MacDara’s and Ardoilean in Co. Galway, Caher Duvillaun, the Iniskeas and Inishglora off Mayo, Inishmurray in Sligo, Rathlin O’Birne and Tory in Donegal all preserve ecclesiastical monuments that could be interpreted as the result of possible new pilgrimage activity revolving around the veneration of the graves of hermits who had lived and died there.
The Celtic festival gatherings – especially the Lughnasa festivals on mountains such as Croagh Patrick and Mount Brandon – provided an annual framework that could easily be adapted for Christian pilgrimage by subtly transforming the cult of the Celtic God Lug into that of a nationally popular Saint!
It is interesting to note that there are a very high number of pilgrim deaths recorded pre-834 – then very little till 950 after the Viking Raids had subsided. After that there are many places recording pilgrim deaths. It is also worth noting that more round towers were built around this time – probably due to renewed vigour of pilgrim traffic. The 200 years after the turn of the millennium is likely to have been the greatest lay pilgrimage activity in Ireland (similar to Europe – beautiful Churches in Romanesque style – particularly on the road to Santiago). The location of Irish churches in the romanesque style makes a strong case for associating their introduction in the 1120’s with the increasing pilgrim traffic. Even if they didn’t have decorative elements – Churches were probably erected to cater for pilgrimage traffic as on the Aran Islands – almost featureless – and high crosses are likely to date from the 11th or 12th Century’s.
It is presumed that monks built these sites – not only for internal use but also to service the lucrative pilgrimage traffic. How else – but from the Church and its personnel – would such extensive terracing take place to support beehives on Skellig Michael?”