Tag Archives: History of Ireland

Permeable Parameters


I learned, just the other day, that for archaeologists ‘the present’ began in 1950. Which is a very odd idea, considering how we usually think of the ‘present’ being now, now, now (not then), now (you get the idea), and 1950 as the past. The reasoning behind this is that, since radio-carbon dating is rather important to the field, such a method of dating is useless after 1950 because of the amount of radiation we have ejected into the atmosphere through nuclear testing and accidents. It would be as if we could somehow calculate the age of the posts in a wooden house from the specific type of water contained within, only to turn around and find out someone went and threw them in a lake. Not very helpful. So, the past ends, and the present begins for archaeology in 1950. Which makes me wonder…

When Did It Begin?

History, as an academic field, has a quality which is often overlooked; it has a beginning. Strange as it may seem, the History of Ireland began on a specific year, as did the History of Britain, some of the Americas, all Australia, and large swathes of Asia and Africa. The other swathes of Africa and Asia, and big chunks of Europe and America are harder to define historically for reasons that I am about to tell you very soon, possibly in the present, though it may be history when you read it… Anyway, moving on.

The "Tusculum portrait", possibly th...

Julius Caesar, brought History to Gaul and Britain, got stabbed for his troubles (Image via Wikipedia)

So, the History of Ireland began in 431AD, when Prosper of Aquitaine reported that a certain Palladius was dispatched by the papacy to Ireland.  The History of Britain began around 55BC when Julius Caesar invaded, but it didn’t take, and they had to start again in 43AD; it was a real success, and soon the British were wandering all over the world introducing History (and Flags) to everyone they met, whether they liked it or not. The beginning of the History of Rome, or Egypt, or any such ancient empire, is slightly more difficult to pinpoint. Why is this? Well, for something to be History it must first be written text, and it must be authenticated, verified, and rigorously investigated. ‘Things’ are material, and material is archaeology, and archaeology goes way farther back in time than History, but History relies on the written word, on documents, manuscripts, letters, books. By this very simple fact the History of a nation can have a beginning, the moment someone mentions somewhere in a letter our interest is piqued, the second we find an alternative view the heart begins to race, and when we find controversy, dissent, disagreement in texts, oh how the angry ink does flow!

Prosper of Aquitaine was not the first to write of Ireland, but he was the first to give us a name, a date, and an event that could be corroborated: the dispatch of a bishop from Rome. With Christianity came writing, and with writing came the recording of events, of history. The History of Rome begins with murky myths, hyperbolic propaganda, and, well, lies, so we have to be very careful. In fact when dealing with Romans, if History has taught us nothing else, it would be very wise to be cautious and suspicious. While the History of Central and South America was recorded by such peoples as the Maya and Inca, North American History began with Columbus, simply by virtue of the fact that the Native Americans didn’t write anything down. Hopefully some of you are sitting there shocked, how can this be true? Well, it isn’t completely true; oral history is a valuable resource, but it is highly prone to alteration so it is often judged very harshly. We who have lived in a culture that has worshipped the written word for millennia sometimes forget that our earliest histories are oral, that our nations’ foundations are often hidden in myth. Which is where archaeology comes in; history, literature, and archaeology working in harmony create a far more vibrant image of the past than any could alone.


The Book Of Durrow (Image via Wikipedia)

But then you might wonder, how can we trust these ancient writers and chroniclers? Caesar was a propagandist, the Crusaders believed in angelic manifestations, and the British love Marmite, how can we rely on any of them to give us an honest account of history? The answer is quite simple: we don’t. This is a crucial fact, this is what divides breathless myth-hunting Scotsmen from real historians: we don’t actually believe a source until we have thoroughly investigated it.  Some historians have spent their entire lives working on specific texts or individuals, let alone periods of history. Manuscripts are poured over, analysed for every little scrap of information; we can garner an astonishing amount of data from what the words were written on and with, in what script and style, how the language is used and constructed, from the mistakes and omissions, and that’s before we even bother to read the text! You’d be surprised how much you can tell from a manuscript from the way the letters are formed, let alone the texture of the page. Just looking at the image above, an expert could immediately tell that the script is Insular, most likely from a wealthy Irish or Irish-influenced monastery, sometime in the 7th century just from the way it is written (it also helps that this book is rather well-known, sadly it’s rather difficult to find images of the more fun obscure texts, but if I could find them online they wouldn’t be obscure). Real historians, when faced with a difficulty or conundrum, don’t resort to aliens or Templar Knights (unless of course you are investigating the Crusades) to provide a quick and easy solution; no, they go back to the text, they start again, and again, and examine more texts, and yet more again. And then they die of old age.

History, or Historical?

Where then does history end and the present begin? I study the early medieval period, so anything after 1100 seems terrifically new to me, in some respects (Printed books? Lame. Manuscripts are what all the cool kids examine!), but I enjoy reading about pretty much any historical period, so at this point (and things may change later) I am at a bit of a loss as to say where history ends. A historian I know once declared to me that anyone who studies the 20th Century isn’t a historian, they are just a news-reporter who’s running a bit late. I thought him a bit harsh, but it made me wonder, is the Second World War history? It must be, right? It happened ages ago, before either I or my father was born. My grandparents lived through it, so I am only one generation removed from the most destructive and violent conflict in history. But at the same time, there are still quite a few people living who either fought in, or lived through, the war; if there is somebody still living who remembers the events first hand, is it history? And we are still living through its consequences, but then aren’t we living with the consequences of all of history? Iraq and Libya have both lost their dictators in narrow sewers, discovered them, and then executed them in my lifetime, but I don’t think that I am living in history. The terrorist attacks on London or the US don’t feel like history to me, they are part of my life, but only in a minute fashion; they hold a far greater and lamentable grasp on the lives of so many others. Even the first Iraq war, or the Falklands, hardly seems like history, they only just happened. But they may be historical. Could that be a way to skip around the issue? These are historical events, we are living through historical moments in time, which will become history once everyone who has witnessed them is dead.

Does History begin with the written word, and end when the last survivor of a specific event dies? Or does it begin with the first witness, and end when the consequences of an act have passed? Or from the earliest memory to roughly a week ago? What you may consider as History is (or indeed, was) somebody else’s life, their present, their memories. And for me, that is what makes the study of History so fascinating; it’s not the examination of dry facts, of mulling over great battles, it’s the recreation of a life. In my work, I get to read the private letters and thoughts of people who died over a thousand years ago, I try to tease out what facts I can to see how they lived and died, what they hoped and worked for. I work with comparably little information when you consider the tsunami of sources available to a historian of the Modern Period (newspapers, diaries, letters, government documents, written accounts, news broadcasts, films, radio, novels, comics, art, laws, the list go on…). It may be easier for them, but I, at least, expect more of them.

History is a tremendous puzzle, especially the further back you go, which is what makes it so bloody interesting. So I don’t really care when it ends, only that it doesn’t. And if you don’t find the investigation of the past at the very least interesting, there is something very, very wrong with your world perspective.

“Disobedience, in the eyes of anyone who has read history, is man’s original virtue. It is through disobedience that progress has been made, through disobedience and through rebellion.” – Oscar Wilde

(The quote is somewhat tangential to the essay, but the man is not wrong)


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.