Celtic Christianity and the Cult of Nonsense.

There has been, in recent years, a growing trend in ‘Celtic’ themed products and beliefs in this nation perpetuated by streams of American tourists whose dollars we so desperately want. There are shops specialising in Celtic jewellery, candles and books, Celtic rituals, new-age Celtic pagans, books of Celtic names, and other such fanciful re-imaginings of fact to be found in every town, city, culture centre and airport in this little island. Most of this might be dismissed as harmless nonsense, a mildly irksome trend designed to capture tourist wealth, the source of a raised eyebrow, dismissive glance, or exasperated sigh by people who know better. There is, however, a particular undercurrent of ignorance and lies propagated by such popular ideologies. While I had been aware of such a thing, it had never angered me, until ‘Celtic Christianity’ received its fifteen minutes of fame early one morning on RTÉ Radio 1 on the Pat Kenny Show.[1] A certain individual[2] had written a new book arguing that Catholicism was essentially the first multinational corporate body. It wasn’t, simply because ‘nations’ did not exist until the 17th or 18th centuries, and corporate bodies were recognised in the pagan Roman Republic before Jesus was even born. Latin writers of Antiquity and the Middle Ages did often use the word natio to describe peoples and communities, but they did not mean ‘nation’ as we understand it today. He also stated that Ireland was home to a more pure and spiritual form of the faith called Celtic Christianity. The show received several texts and e-mails from people expressing surprise in this ‘fact’, and many were intrigued and appalled at the suppression of ‘our native faith’.

Let me be absolutely clear: Celtic Christianity never existed. It is an entirely modern invention. How can I be so sure? Well, firstly, and most importantly, the Celts, as they are commonly conceived, never existed, and they certainly never came to Ireland, therefore there could never have had a version of Christianity on these islands in any way associated with the Celts. Secondly, there was no exceptionally unique version of Christianity, such as that which the guest suggests, on these islands for any imaginary Celts to have.

‘Celtic’ is a linguistic term, like ‘Latin’ or ‘Germanic’. ‘Celtic’ refers to a family of languages which a certain group of people spoke. The remains of these languages are found in Irish, Welsh, Cornish, Breton, and Manx. ‘Celtic’ was attached to this linguistic group by 18th century scholars. This does not mean that the Irish, Welsh, etc., were Celtic people in a racial sense, or even in a cultural sense, but only in a linguistic sense. The English speak a Germanic language, yet they are not called German. France, Spain, Italy, Romania, parts of Africa, and all of South America speak languages descended from Latin. This does not make them ‘Roman’ or ‘Latin’ peoples. There were La Tène and Halstatt cultures in Central Europe, which may have been comprised of Celtic-speaking peoples, but they too were not ‘Celts’. Someone who knows their Caesar might then cry out that he refers to the Celts of Gaul, and that even the Ancient Greeks wrote of contact with a Celtic people. These ancient authorities were not even remotely concerned with historical, factual accuracy when writing about peoples outside their ‘civilisations’. They would have met a community and then named whole peoples or regions, and their culture, after that one community. The whole island of Britannia is named after one tribe which inhabited the south of the island, simply because they were Rome’s first contacts with the native population. ‘Africa’ referred roughly the lands encompassing Tunisia to Libya, and was named after the Afri tribe. Now it is the name given to an entire continent and people.[3] Demonstrably, names are not always accurate descriptions of reality. There was probably a tribe who may have called themselves something close to ‘Celts’ somewhere in Central Europe (their word was rendered into Greek, then Latin, so we don’t know exactly what they called themselves), and their name was applied to a whole culture which spread across continental Europe, but there were certainly no ethnic Celts in Ireland. What were the Irish then, if not Celtic? They called themselves ‘Gael’, or ‘Féne’, while in Latin they were called the ‘Scotti’.[4] They did not call themselves, or think of themselves belonging to a race of people called, ‘the Celts’. The native inhabitants of Ireland absorbed a Celtic language, and elements of the material culture most closely resembling that of La Tène, which possibly derived from Celtic-speaking peoples, but none of whom were necessarily ‘Celts’ themselves.

It might be argued then that I am simply being pedantic. While there were no Celts in Ireland that does not mean that there was no ‘Celtic Church’. The term ‘Celtic’ might be applied to distinguish the native Church from that of Roman Catholicism. It is true that the Irish Church had developed some interesting innovations which distinguished it from the continental Church, and in this sense could be referred to as ‘Celtic’ in the same fashion as the ‘British’, ‘Merovingian’ or ‘Visigothic’ Churches, which all fell under the umbrella of Rome. The problem is that ‘Celtic’ has become a loaded term. Scholars will refer to an Insular Church, but not to a Celtic one simply because ‘Celtic’ is not an accurate term when discussing the history of Ireland, outside of literature. Even if we were to be kind an accept that the terms ‘Celtic’ and ‘Insular’ might be synonymous, the Celtic Christianity espoused by Pat Kenny’s guest on the nation’s airwaves is a complete and utter fallacy which obscures historical truth.

Here follows several samples of his misrepresentation of fact:

Pat Kenny: “Would they [Celtic monks or priests] have been married?”

Guest: “I think they would certainly have had partners. They practiced concubinage…”

The Insular Church condemned concubinage among the laity in the De concubines non habendis cum legtima uxore (“On not have concubines as well as a legitimate wife”), found in the Collectio canonum Hibernensis. Celibate bishops had the highest honour-price of all clerics in Irish law.[5] On the other hand British bishops often took wives.[6] This simply due to the fact that the vow of celibacy was only made a mandatory feature of clerical orders at the First and Second Lateran Councils in the 12th century, and re-affirmed at the Council of Trent in the 16th century, long after the more curious habits of the Insular Church ceased to be practiced, some time in the ninth century. Irish monks tended to take vows of celibacy, but priests often did not. This was an aspect of religious life common to all of Western Europe, yet the author portrays this as being a unique feature of the ‘Celtic Church’, a blatant misrepresentation of historical fact.

Guest: “… the Irish developed a form of Christianity quite independently of Rome…”

The first bishop of the Irish was Palladius, personally appointed and dispatched by Pope Celestine in AD429.[7] This is the first reliable date connected to Ireland, and is accepted as being the beginning of the history of Ireland. The first date in Irish history is a direct contact to Rome. Around AD633 the Irish cleric Cummian convened a synod to discuss the Easter Question. The synod could not come to agreement, so a delegation was sent to Rome to ask for the judgement of the papacy. This Irish bishop was following canon law to the letter, and shows that the Irish Church did see Rome as its superior and the ultimate court of arbitration, and that it was in contact with the See of Peter. In fact there are several letters of communication back and forth, from Rome to Ireland, which survive from the pre-Norman period, illustrating that the Irish Church was in sustained and frequent contact with its patriarch on issues of doctrine and canon law. This is hardly evidence of the type of ‘independence’ which the guest suggests.

Guest: “… [the Irish form of Christianity was] what we now call, in terms of heresy, (in inverted commas) Pelagian.”

The guest also informs listeners, at a later point, that Palladius had been sent to Ireland to confront the Pelagian heresy, which is true. However, Palladius seems to have been successful as the Pelagian heresy was suppressed by the late 5th century, before the growth of the Insular monasticism in the 7th and 8th centuries, which is evidently what the guest claims to be the shining example of the ‘Celtic Church’. He may be referring to a 7th century letter from Pope-elect John IV in which Rome mistakenly confuses the Eater controversy in Ireland with Pelagianism. The Irish were not Pelagian, at least not after AD500, long before the Golden Age of Irish monasticism, which is obviously the period which inspired the guest.

Guest: “The God we believe in is one of our own creation… …spirituality is what the spirit within you that makes you free”

Is he a closet atheist? He also states at various points that he does not submit to the judgment of the Church but instead relies on his own. This is a laudable principle, yet he fuses it, somehow, with spirituality, and with what he believes to be the true form Christianity. The ‘spirit within’ that makes individuals free is Reason. The guest has freed himself from the institutions of faith, but remains bound to their ideologies. He has questioned his faith, but only to a point. He has realised that the Catholic Church is not the vessel of God’s truth, but he still clings to the same ultimate fantasy as they do. It is almost as if he has seen through the illusion, but has decided, rather than turn from it entirely, to refashion it to suit his own purposes.

Also, contrary to what the guest and Pat Kenny say, modern scholars hold that the Jews were not slaves in Egypt but were employed as highly skilled labourers and courtiers.

In fairness to the guest he is correct on many of his views concerning the expansion of the Church of Rome, and its partnership with the Roman Empire, and I agree with many of his more philosophical views of how faith evolved, its perverse view of sexuality, and that Jesus would be horribly disappointed in how his teachings have been corrupted by institutionalised faith. The Insular Church did disagree with Rome on several issues of practice but never doctrine. They held the exact same religious views as Rome, but granted greater powers of administration to abbots, cut their hair a different way, and had a different day for Easter. The guest makes specific reference to the last point, as if it were something special. The great Christian cities, Rome, Constantinople, Antioch, Carthage, Alexandria, Jerusalem, all had slightly different ways of calculating Easter, and so often celebrated it at different times. So did the Irish, but it happened that the Merovingian Church was attempting to standardise Easter in its lands at the same time that it was receiving an influx of Irish missionaries who celebrated the movable feast on a different day, causing some upset. Vast swathes of Christendom, and many of its most important cities, were conquered by Islam leaving Rome in the west and Constantinople in the east as the patriarchs of the Church. Merovingian France was the most powerful kingdom in the west, so Rome agreed with it. This is not evidence of a different, more spiritual religion, only of widespread differing religious practices.

At the end of the program a contribution from a listener was read out. In brief, it is said that the illustrious Columbanus did not accept the primacy of Rome, and specific mention is made of a letter he sent to Rome telling them to ‘look after their own business,’ and leave him alone. This is not exactly what happened. Columbanus wrote to Pope Gregory the Great, an educated reformer whom the Irish monk saw as a like-minded individual, hoping to convince him that the Insular method of calculating Easter was far superior to the Gaulish method, and that the Merovingian bishops were exploiting the laity through practicing such contemptible acts as simony.[8] What also comes across in Columbanus’ letters is his acceptance of papal authority in such controversial matters, but with a certain caveat. The popes were, for Columbanus, the leaders of the Church as the rightful heirs of Peter, but they could only enforce the laws of the organisation, not change them; such a power could only rest in the hands of the Church as a whole, as decided upon by synods.[9]

There was no Celtic Church as defined by Pat Kenny’s guest. While older scholars have referred to a ‘Celtic Church’ modern scholars have replaced it with the more accurate term ‘Insular Church’. Neither of these names, which refer to one organisation, agree with the Celtic Christianity as espoused by the guest. This Celtic faith is based on assumption, and a misleading interpretation of the evidence. He also projects modern terms and concepts back on the past, which is anachronistic, and academically and intellectually reprehensible, if not irresponsible. There are many examples of the popular history of Ireland to be found on the bookshelves which are worthwhile to read, but this work is absurd in its portrayal of religion in Medieval Ireland. It would be laughable had it not been conferred a worrying level of legitimacy by appearing on the programme of a respected broadcaster such as Pat Kenny. Due to this, many of the opinions stated, however true or false they may be, and which were dressed up as historic fact, have passed into the popular domain. Misinformation and obfuscation have been granted a seal of approval. Lies and half-truths have been planted in the minds of listeners.

I would welcome the disintegration of organised religion, as would Pat Kenny’s guest, but not if it were to be replaced by local “bioregional spiritualities that go beyond both monotheism and polytheism.”[10] This is pure nonsense. ‘Bioregional’ has nothing to do with faith, it is an ecological term invented in the 1980’s. ‘Spirituality’ is a vague tapestry of lies. The only thing that goes beyond mono- and polytheism is atheism. Pat Kenny’s guest is using vague and pseudo-scientific language to grant himself an air of authority, and perverting history to ‘prove’ his theses. This acceptance of abject deceit, whether intentional or inadvertent, which has become pervasive in today’s society, has been long recognised as a threat to Science. It is also a menace to other forms of investigation. An attack on real History,[11] and the acceptance of pseudo-history, allows fanciful notions of ersatz nationalism to take root, and for the recognition of quasi-historical works, such as the Bible, as unadulterated fact. This must not be tolerated.

[1] Today with Pat Kenny, 07-01-2010, available for download from the RTÉ website, 1:39:10. The website promoting the book in question can be found at http://www.aislingmagazine.com/index.html.


[2] I am not entirely aware of the legalities of naming private individuals in an essay such as this, but he is named in the radio programme, and his website http://www.daramolloy.com/.

[3] Think this is crazy? That this could only happen in ancient times and would never happen in the modern era? When explorers first arrived in what would be Canada they asked the Iroquois natives of a village what was the name of the place they were in. The Iroquois replied ‘Kanada’, and so the country was named. Later it was learned that ‘Kanada’ means ‘village’ in the Iroquois language.

[4] The Scots are descended from Irish populations which established themselves in the west of the county and intermarried with the native Picts. Both the inhabitants of Scotland and Ireland were recognised as having a common origin for most of the Middle Ages.

[5] Corpus iuris Hibernici, Miadsleachta.

[6] Gildas, De excidio Britanniae.

[7] Prosper of Aquitaine, Chronicle.

[8] Hughes, K., “The Celtic Church and the Papacy”, in Lawrence, C.H. (ed.), The English Church and the Papacy in the Middle Ages, (Burns and Oates; London, 1965), p13. (Please note that ‘Celtic’ here refers to ‘Insular’; this article was written before the scholarly shift in terminology.)

[9] ibid¸ p16

[10] From his website http://www.aislingmagazine.com/globalisation/theses.html.

[11] Acceptable, and accessible, works on the history of Early and Medieval Ireland are available in bookstores, such as Professor Dáibhí Ó Cróinín’s, Early Medieval Ireland 400-1200. There is also A New History of Ireland, Vol.1: Prehistoric and Early Ireland, which contains various works by many eminent scholars in the field. This essay was written specifically with these works in mind (except for two explicit references to an article by Kathleen Hughes which will only be available to certain libraries) so that anyone who was curious could easily investigate my sources.

Ceterum autem censeo, religionem esse delendam.


9 responses to “Celtic Christianity and the Cult of Nonsense.

  1. Pingback: How did the Celts save Britain? Time travel? | A Frivolous Endeavour

  2. Pingback: Leave the Celts Alone. | A Frivolous Endeavour

  3. Pingback: The Fear of God | A Frivolous Endeavour

  4. Thank you for this informed, well-researched response to that mind-numbing thing called ‘Celtic Christianity’ which still turns up here in Scotland and is living and breathing in North America! As a budding patristics scholar looking into canon law, such images of Insular Christianity as demolished here and projected elsewhere trouble me. Perhaps more scholars should write readable books…?

    • Thank you for your comment.

      It puzzling how popular ‘Celtic Christianity’ has become. I am not quite sure as to its position within the various Christian religions; it does not appear to be Protestant or Evangelical, but rather some misunderstood quasi-Catholic branch, at least in the versions I have encountered. I find the desire to attach this ‘religion’ to the Churches of the medieval Irish(who weren’t Celts) rather curious, as there is ample evidence to illustrate how they endeavoured to be orthodox. Maybe you are correct in saying that scholars should produce material which is more accessible, that would be a good idea in general, but the simple fact of the matter is that those who have surrendered reason for faith are rarely swayed, even in the face of overwhelming evidence.

  5. Pingback: A Few Thoughts About ‘Celtic’ Christianity « the pocket scroll

  6. i appreciated the facts but the cynicism is a little over the top and annoying. the irish call themselves “celts” because many of the celts came to ireland in the beginning of the iron age, actually bringing new ironworking technologyu to ireland and they blended in quite nicely and more or less seamlessly. also, i know that much of the neo-pagan stuff is over the top but can you please have a little faith (ooo, i know i just used the “bad” word) yes, a little faith in the fact that maybe some of the celtic neopagans actually understand that the celts werent that high on the spiritual pedestal that you belive they put them on. they knew of less planets, had a very confusing pantheon and many other things but the druids were exeptionally spiritual and wise, even if the commoners werent so bright. just think that maybe some of the celtic enthuiasts know more that a teaspoon on the subject and share your opinion. i just though your style was very condescending.

    • Thank you for your comment!

      It’s interesting that you focus on ‘celtic neo-pagans’, a group which I mention once in the whole piece, and even then, only tangentially. As the title states, I was discussing the myth of Celtic Christianity, especially that brand espoused by the interviewee noted in the post (unless this comment is a result of reading the other pieces I have written, which would make some sense). But, even so, it seems that one of the key issues was not grasped: the Irish are not Celts. It may even be argued that their never were any Celts. There is a family of languages called Celtic, but that doesn’t make their speakers Celts (try calling an English person German and see how well that goes down). There are certain material cultures associated with these language families, but again, that doesn’t make them Celts. The people who we call Celts may not even have recognised that they all belonged to the same cultural or linguistic origins. The medieval Irish and Welsh, even though their languages and cultures are, from a historic perspective, very similar, do not appear to have noted such similarities. Interestingly, if we were to judge the early medieval and prehistoric Irish by their material culture, we would assume them Roman, since more Roman material has been found in Ireland than so-called ‘Celtic’ material.

      Curiously, modern paganism has its roots in the Renaissance, its ‘Celtic’ aspect developing in the Romantic Movement of the 18th century. Those who invented it were less concerned with accuracy in their reinvention (or just plain invention) of ‘Celtic’ beliefs than with finding an alternative to Christianity. Such beliefs were based on Classical writings about Celtic-speaking peoples, and so very likely hold the strong bias of imperial Latin writers. I am led to believe that even the idea of druidism may an imposition of Roman perceptions on a culture (or cultures) they deemed primitive, and, since these druids didn’t leave anything for us to read, we know next to nothing about them, except what the Romans and, later, Christians, tell us; dare we trust them to be unbiased?

      I admit, my rancour was up when I wrote this piece several years ago; I had just heard the individual in question misrepresent evidence and offer factually incorrect opinions on the radio, and have his views seemingly accepted. I was quite annoyed. I don’t wish to appear condescending or cynical, and I do not think that I write in such a fashion, or with such an aim; I think that I write with a certain jocundity. I suppose there is a degree of onus on the part of the reader to read in good faith…

      In any case, thanks again for your comment!

  7. Well done!A very scholarly piece – just what is needed. My own humbler effort can be read at http://www.churchnewspaper.com/5687/archives .

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