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Christian Heritage

Saints and Scholars!

Ireland was known in medieval times as INSULA SANCTORUM ET DOCTORUM, or the “Island of Saints and Scholars”, a reflection of the number of monasteries and other religious institutions established across the island, places of prayer and worship that also served as places of learning in the days before universities.

Irish monks spread Christianity across Scotland and England, founding monasteries at Iona, Lindisfarne and other sites. Some, filled with zeal, wandered further afield, bringing religion to many on the continent – St Gall to the place of the same name in Switzerland, Virgil to Salzburg in Austria, Columbanus to Bobbio in Italy, Killian to Franconia… to name but a few!

Of course, the saint most associated with Ireland is Saint Patrick, credited with converting the Irish to Christianity. However, it is known that there were Christians in Ireland before the time of Saint Patrick – in 431AD Pope Celestine sent Palladius “to the Scots [an ancient term for the Irish] believing in Christ” to be their first bishop. Palladius landed in Wicklow only to be expelled by the local chief!

It is uncertain where Saint Patrick lived before he was captured by Irish pirates about the year 403 and sold into slavery. It is thought that it was somewhere along the Irish Sea coast of northern England or southern Scotland. After six years herding sheep on Slemish mountain in County Antrim, Patrick escaped back to his homeland. Having decided, during his travails in Ireland, that he wanted to steer the Irish away from their pagan ways, he studied under St Martin at Tours (modern day France) and then with St Germain at Auxerres (France). Eventually, St Patrick made his way to Rome where he presented a letter from St Germain to Pope Celestine, a letter that recommended Patrick as being suitable material for the conversion of the Irish.

Having duly received authority and benediction from the Pope, Patrick made his way to Ireland. On the way, news was received of the death of Palladius and Patrick was consecrated bishop. He landed in Ireland close to the site of modern day Wicklow town. Like the previous bishop of Ireland he was expelled and made his way northwards, landing on the Lecale peninsula in County Down. The local chief, a man named Dicho, was converted by Patrick, the first of the Irish to be baptised by the new bishop! The chief gave Patrick a barn for his use and, the Irish for barn being sabhal [saval], this place is called Saul to this day.

Many sites across Ireland are associated with Saint Patrick. One of the more prominent within the Foyle catchment is Lough Derg in County Donegal. The saint is believed to have spent time in penitence on Station Island in the lough. This has been a place of pilgrimage famous throughout Europe since the twelfth century. Legend recounts that the lake gets its name from the blood of the last serpent in Ireland slain here by Patrick (Derg or dearg meaning red) while others claim the name has its root in deirc or cave, named after the cave that was once the focal point of pilgrimages. Many other places are linked with Patrick such as Donaghanie (or church of the horse) beside the River Camowen, named after the horse that the saint employed to kick a serpent to death that occupied a nearby lake!

Saint Columba, or Columkille of Iona, established a monastery at doire or Derry (translates into English as oakwood). Columba sailed from Derry to Iona in 563AD with twelve disciples. Establishing a church there, he used this island as a base from which to traverse the Hebrides, converting the native Picts to Christianity.

The early monastic sites in Ireland can be divided into two broad groupings – those established in remote and wild places where people sought to seclude themselves from the temporal, devoting themselves to worshipping God and those that were established as religious centres but where education was as, or almost as, important.