Evidencing Early Christianity

Evidencing Early Christianity and its beginnings in Ireland


Figure at prayer carved on a slab beside Kilteskin Holy Well, County Cork

This chapter is about the origins of the church, its progress in the East, then to Rome, to  Gaul to Britain and to Ireland; but not necessarily in a linear and sequential fashion, some parts of this story may have run in parallel i.e. direct contact between Ireland and the East rather than sequentially through Rome and Gaul and Britannia. Did evangelisation come only via Rome in the initial years or did it also come from the other patriarchates as well? What were the stories behind the Christian community in Ireland who asked Rome for a bishop in the early years of the 5th century AD? How long had they been here and what social identities and structures did they come to have in the years prior to Patrick’s arrival on behalf of Rome? To what extent these are answerable questions based on what little knowledge I currently have about this major field of research, I am doubtful; but I will seek, at least, to open possibilities for future research.

It is not my purpose to recount the history of the Church in the Eastern and Western Mediterranean lands. Instead it is to put the question to the existing literature, and its authors, did various Early Christianities, persecuted or not, find reason to come to South Munster in order to get beyond the Imperial Church of Rome because they were in dispute with it? On what occasions in this early part of the Church’s history did the possibility of this happening arise before the 5th century and then during the 7th century with the Rise of Islam. Within the latter time phase what impact did Whitby have on those still faithful to the churches of the East Mediterranean (see Macalister 1937, p. 71)? What impact was there on Irish topography and its early Medieval history? In the chapter following this one, as I write, I will consider how the influence of early Christianity prior to Patrick in 432 AD might have locally embedded itself in the South West, based on the traditional stories of some of its earliest saints. I will also consider how it may have come to grow and then flourish at local level, how it thrived in a reviving Western Empire as Islam impacted on the Eastern Mediterranean world. As it grew and thrived it achieved its Golden Age, as its missionaries brought their teaching, scholarship and wisdom to the Frankish Empire, to Scotland, brought its ‘papyr’ to the shores of South West Iceland; and perhaps beyond to a Greater Ireland, of the Landnámabók, in the far West. Caulfield (Harris 2009, 119), provides an interesting quote from O’Sullivan Beare, a dispossessed Gaelic Lord of West Cork, regarding a claim that the conversion of the Scotic peoples to Christianity had begun in 203 A.D. in the time of Pope Victor; for which O’Sullivan cites an entry for 429 AD from Cesare Baroneo (Baronius’ Annales Ecclesiastici of 1601?). Yet, the North African early church father Tertullian may indicate an earlier date which suggests that it might have already arrived by 198 AD. Either way if early forms of Christianity are present by the opening of the 3rd century AD this is the time of the legendary Munster overlord, married to Beara of Castille, with connections to Galicia, Northern Spain, known as Eoghan Mór of the Fiteccs (underhouses) and with him, of Oillil Olum ‘who introduced the ringforts’.

Part 1 : The Emergence of the Church in the Eastern Mediterranean World

The story of the beginnings of Christianity is universally known. Scholars would see earlier examples of some of its initial forms and practices not only within Judaism but also in those of earlier ascetic groups. The story of the initial arrival of Christianity in Ireland it appears was a story of the migration of a new faith, a new belief system. What defined its footprints, where was it first preached on Irish soil. Irish scholars increasingly see the story of Irish Christianity as something which had an established presence prior to the arrival of St. Patrick in the 5th century AD. But, how did it arrive, where exactly, and who brought it at the very beginning? Was it the outcome of migrants who were already Christian before they came? Was it the outcome of young Irish nobles hearing of the faith and wishing to travel within the Empire – and to the Holy Lands and early centres of Christian teaching to become professed in the faith, in the absence of anyone closer to home to do this? Below I will briefly and selectively explore possible beginnings; looking in Part 1 of this chapter at the early history of the monastic church before it came to Ireland, and then, in Part 2, searching for those who appear – based on tradition – to have influenced its arrival and the spread of its foundations.

Beginnings of Christianity in the Eastern Mediterranean

Christianity is a religious movement which began in the Eastern part of the Roman Empire and evolved through many phases, absorbed many influences and took many forms. One very significant form was that which began in Egypt about 270 AD when St. Anthony went into the wilderness of the Nitrian Desert in Egypt to begin an ascetic life. He was not the first. Modern scholarship would say that he is just the first we currently know about and that the desert tradition was something much older going back in time beyond Christ and John the Baptist to practices established by ascetic groups prior to Christianity.

Another person who went to the desert in the time of St. Anthony was called Amun. He dug out a cave of two rooms to live in. Over time many others were inspired by Anthony and wishing to learn from him came to settle close to the abandoned fort where he was located. By the end of his life his group of followers had grown considerably. They were populating the desert. These monks lived by themselves in huts and small houses to form a village called ‘lavra’. This monastic form is known as semi-cenobitic. Anthony died in 356 AD.

Saint Pachomius of Egypt (292 – 348 AD) is understood to have been the founder of cenobitic monasticism i.e. living together in an organised fashion. St. Anthony’s lavra was a village of anchorites who lived by themselves in their own huts and had a life in common, practiced common daily prayer evening and morning, worked in common, had common revenues and expenditures, and common meals, and wore the same identical monastic garb. This garb consisted of a linen tunic or robe and belt, a white goat skin or sheep skin coat and belt, a cone-shaped head-cover or hood and a linen scarf. At this stage, monks were identified with lay people seeking Christian perfection. Men and women joined his community. No religious ceremony was required, and no monastic vows. Monks were prohibited from becoming clergy. Pachomius was the first Abba or abbot.

St. Hilarion (291-371 AD) is regarded as the founder of Palestinian monasticism. He became a convert in Alexandria and then brought monasticism to the Roman province of Syria Palaestina.

Organisational structure of the Eastern church

The organisational structures of the East which reflect these groups are the Skete (and their ‘desert’ hermitages), the large Lavra (laura) and cave monasteries which are semi-cenobitic evolving to become cenobitic as the organisations go through accumulating followers over time and as donations come from royal support and close associations are formed with local secular leaders; the same model of development as reflected in the history of the cave monastery of Kiev beginning there much later i.e. in the 12th century but following traditional forms of development which go back to the original christian forms in the east and emphasising a retention of the original way of life and its authenticity / orthodoxy preservation of its heritage in its practices.

The Cave in the Eastern tradition

If the cave is fundamental to Eastern Christianity in its early and traditional form and if this, among other forms of Christianity came to Ireland either directly from the East or via some place in Western Europe, then where are the artificial caves? The obvious answer is that the souterrains are those caves. As a follow on does the fact that no ‘caves’ of manmade monastic form from this same period occur in England and Wales demonstrate that the Eastern form of Christianity did not go to these places, except perhaps for Cornwall which offered special conditions on routes from Ireland’s south coast en route to Brittany and avoiding Britannia and subsequently Saxon Britain?

The Cave and the Greek Church

The Greek church is a church in a rocky landscape of little and poor soils, a mountainous landscape of terraced farms and small holdings, but for all that, a developed agricultural and maritime folk economy. It has a drystone masonry tradition as well as a vernacular mud building tradition when available or else stone chips are used where soil is a scarce and valuable resource for food and cattle.

The Physical Dome and the Metaphysical One: Adaptation of the vernacular domed hut to a spiritual sanctum or private chapel.

The dome is understood to be a private sanctum, as heaven.

As John Cassian said (Conferences 24.6)

‘…dome is erected. Both horizontally and vertically the circles come into being around the centre. The more the construction advances, the more the invisible centre which shapes the dome from within becomes visible’.

   ‘If someone wishes to complete the dome of an apse to its summit, he must continually follow the line around the exact centre in keeping with that infallible norm and assemble with precision the entire symmetrical circle. One who attempts to build it up without close observation of this centre, however skilful or gifted he may presume himself to be, cannot possibly maintain without error the symmetry of the circle or be able to tell by appearance alone how far he has strayed from the true beauty of the circle. He may return again and again to that standard of truth. By its authority he corrects the inner and outer circumference of his work. He completes the structure of so lofty a magnitude by the rule of a single point.’

The Cave and the Egyptian Church

The Egyptian church is familiar with desert lands and the conservation of water and bringing harsh landscapes into service to create a sustainable folk economy. It is a place where tunnelling traditions in soil and rock. Where dwellings and underground burial and cemeteries are common. It was already a very old and cultivated civilisation.

Egyptian Round Churches

The earliest ‘churches’ are circular domed cells such as that of St Anthony the hermit preserved in Egypt.

Prior to the legalisation of Christianity by Emperor Constantine, Christians groups in their many formulations since the death of Christ underwent phases of persecution and toleration. Christianity is a religion which quickly spread from the Levant northwards to Syria, Anatolia and Greece, it also spread southwards to Egypt and across North Africa all then within the Empire.

As the Empire had become too great to administer from a central hub in 285 AD the Emperor Diocletian split it into East and West. The outcome, over time, led to a Western Empire in decline and a flourishing Eastern Empire. As the Christian Church became strong and deeply embedded in the Eastern Empire, the Church of Rome, within the old heartland of the Empire, became the patriarchate of the Western Empire. Other patriarchates existed in the East i.e. Antioch, Jerusalem and Alexandria. These were reflective of the emergence of Christianity there, and in time Constantinople at Byzantium would absorb them and their geographies.

Emperor Justinian 1st (527-565 AD) attempted to reunite the Eastern and Western Empires but was unsuccessful. From circa 537 AD onwards Byzantium had a considerable influence over Rome and for a time was influential in the appointments of its popes. Some appointees were Syrian or of Syrian origins. Tensions between the Byzantine and Roman churches arose as time progressed and events such as the abduction of popes came into the frame of politics, including the attempted abduction of Pope Sergius I (650-701 AD) from Rome by order of Emperor Justinian II at Constantinople.

As well as attempting a re-unification the Empire, Justinian I (527-565 AD) introduced a set of laws and edicts to create a code of common law and governance. The first of these edicts had effects on the Britain which came into existence after the fall of Britannia, and also had influence on practices across the Christian world.

In the years immediately preceding Constantine the Great (ruled 306-337 AD), a major persecution of Christians in the Eastern Empire which had taken place under Emperor Diocletian. It finally came to an end in 324 AD during Constantine’s reign. This edict was implemented less severely in some areas of the Empire than it was in other areas. Leaders of Christian communities such as in North Africa were asked to stop their services, practices and hand over to civil authorities their churches and religious possessions. After Constantine legalised Christianity in 313 AD, some of these communities regarded those leaders who had complied with local Roman administration as traitors to their faith even though such persons were restored to office. They were defended by Donatus, a Berber, and as a consequence they became known as Donatists and were driven out of their communities. They became a schism within the Church of Carthage.

It is interesting to note the presence of souterrains in Benin in West Africa (see Benin at www.mondesouterrains.fr). Though probably not in any fashion allied with what are categorised as souterrains in Europe, one wonders if they represent a similarity of understanding in the use of underground space for dwellings and other purposes; a tradition perhaps already reflected in North Africa when early Christianity was there among the Berbers. One might whimsically reflect an entry in early Irish literature (see Lucas 1971-71, 185 ) which speaks of warriors hiding underground when one reads a similar explanation given for some of the Benin souterrains. One might also whimsically think of Irish invasion legends such as that of the Nemedians, settling at Cobh overlooked by Nemed’s megalithic tomb at Currabinny, some author in Victorian times suggesting that they were of Africa origin and had strange or frightening customs, also that there is a tradition of the Boa in North African woodcarving. But, probably, such thoughts are just fanciful.

Irish mythology, in some of its versions  speaks of both the Fomorian ( a sea people) and Nemedian ‘invasions’ of early Ireland as coming out of Africa. Since a time of Carthage (in Tunisia) controlling maritime trade and travel in the western Mediterranean – as well as access from there to the Atlantic – the potential for North African seafaring to Irish shores to settle, to trade, to raid, to enslave existed. In the later years of the 17th century AD William O’Brien, 2nd Earl of Inchiquin – with his family residence at Rostellan in Cork Harbour – fought in the siege of Tangiers (1680 AD). He and his father the famous 1st Earl Murrough O’Brien had been captured when William was a child by Algerian pirates off the Irish coast. William lost an eye and Murrough was later ransomed out of captivity. In 1631 Algerian pirates in their corsairs raided the small coastal village at Baltimore in West Cork (Ekin …..) and took many from its population to sell into slavery in Barbary and the Ottoman Empire. In the 16th and 17th centuries the famous Pirate Round existed annually from West Cork to the Barbary coast.

How far back in time did such maritime connections exist, how old were their sea routes, their navigational knowledge of the Atlantic Sea Province of archaeological parlance? How connected were the coastal settlements of  North (upon the Mediterranean) Africa and North West Africa (upon the Atlantic)  to Atlantic seafaring in the Bronze Age, in the age of Rome’s Empire, in the years of early Christianity, its legacy surviving in to the 17th century AD, surviving the end of Muslim Spain? Was not Himilco of Carthage one of the great explorers of Bronze Age society?


Exiled Christianity

The formation of Christendom in the Roman Empire is a subject of many tangents and many traditions across the lands it contained to all four points of the compass, to all four points of a Greek cross, when at its maximum extent. It is a vast subject of ongoing research. Judith Herrin (1989) writing on this subject has insightful and quotable comments regarding early Christianity including Ireland. She says

              While many monasteries were based on ascetic practices developed in Egypt, there was no single model that provided for a uniform pattern of inheritance’ (1989, 113)

               Some communities grew up haphazardly around the cell of a holy man, others were established in urban homes and country villas. The transplantation of Pachomian ideals to the West also involved unavoidable changes due to the indigenous climate and terrain of Spain, Gaul, and Ireland and to the changed political situation and the facilities available. So it is hardly surprising that the communities of Skellig Michael looked quite different from those of the Nitrian desert.’ (1989, 113)

             Herrin also speaks of the creation from the 4th century AD onwards of the idea of a rectangular church structure ‘oriented towards the altar at the east end. This basic form was widely used throughout the empire, modified by local materials, building traditions, and topographical factors.’ (1989, 113)

            When St. Augustine arrived in England at the end of the 6th century in the company of 40 monks on behalf of Pope Gregory I he came to bring the Celtic services of churches in Britain, and Ireland, with their monk-bishops, monasteries and cult into the fold of Rome. He also took the approach, on advice regarding heathen temples from Gregory, that ‘rather than destroying their existence by pulling down their buildings, as had originally been urged , the Pope recommended a cleansing purification of such structures and their conversion into churches’.(1989, 170). It is interesting to consider this quote in to relation what would become a cluster of temple civil parish names at by Clonakilty (Cluain na cille or coillte?) Bay. It is also of interest when considering the conversion or absorption of druids say as St. Ibar, and any other religious persuasions, to adopt Christianity in Ireland. One also thinks of St. Fachtna at Roscarbery and his little ‘temple’ (teampaill) and holy well in close proximity to a ringfort where he preached and a ‘burgatia’ (burg na tia or village of the house) there.

            In relation to the church of North Africa (Berber) Herrin states ‘close links between North Africa, Sicily, and Italy, the respect accorded by Christian leaders in Africa to the papacy indicates a more a more fundamental realignment of authority. It was not due to geographical proximity and the increasing difficulty of regular contact with the East Mediterranean. In their appeal to Rome, they highlighted the See of Peter as the sole Christian centre with historical weight and authority to pronounce on theological definitions of dubious orthodoxy. At an earlier time they might have deferred to the judgements of Alexandria or Antioch…’ (1989, 250). How similar might an appeal (letter) from Irish Christians have been when they contacted Rome for a Bishop circa 431 AD resulting in the arrival of Palladius and then Patrick in 432 AD?

Bob Quinn (2005) wrote about this in his book The Atlantic Irish. Speaking about early Irish Christianity and a relationship with a form of traditional Irish singing called Sean-Nós (meaning old way, said by tradition to have been ‘learned from the monks’) makes a very interesting statement ( 2005, 205) ‘ the structure and ethos of the early Irish Church is so suffused with Eastern and North African characteristics that to attribute it to second-hand influences begs too many questions’.

Rev. Canon Patrick Power writing in his study of place names in East Cork (Imokilly) in the early part of the 20th century observed that some names were not of Gaelic origin. One of these was the place name of a local river called the Toureg, which, depending on pronunciation, is very close to the Berber name Tuareg. This river joins flows to the sea beside the Blackwater River at Youghal, County Cork. At Rath townland overlooking the river lies a ringfort with a dry masonry built souterrain. In the distance to the east are Ballyknock a tri-valllate ringfort with a souterrain which produced 15 ogham stones, Killaspugmullane (cell of Bishop Mullan), a ring of Kill (cell) named civil parishes which surround a place called Donickmore (Domhnach Mór, meaning Sunday place), a ‘Desert’ place name and a Cluain Maoile ( meaning a deserted hermitage, Clonmult). How were these places oriented prior to a change in the course of the Blackwater River, from Ardmore to Youghal Bay, in the early 9th century?

On the topic of Berber Christianity, one which Jenkins (2008) would describe as part of the ‘lost history of christianity’ there is much to consider if one looks for a potential Irish association. It was the Berber presbyter at Cathage named Tertullian, who wrote at the end of the 2nd century AD that Christainity had travelled to the west beyond where Roman arms were carried i.e. to the west of Britannia. Jenkins (2008,178-9) speaks of the wide scattering in the early Middle Ages of the clergy of the African churches before the growth of Islam, bringing their customs, traditions and liturgy with them. He also states (2008,179) ‘A Spanish-Irish axis was well in place by the 7th century, and was reinforced by refugees fleeing the Muslim conquest’.

We know that St. John Cassian visited Egypt and studied monasticism there. We also know that after some controversy in which he was involved, in the Eastern Empire, he went to Rome and was given permission by the then Pope to introduce Egyptian style monasticism to the Gauls in the South East of France, close distant to the island monastery Lerins where tradition states St. Patrick studied.

Maronites and Monophysites

Some scholars in the past have argued that Monophysite Christianity came to Ireland as a result of persecutions. There are some interesting pointers to what might have given impetus to the movement of certain groups of Early Christians from the East, who they were, why they came to a land beyond the western boundaries of the Empire and where they came from?

Was banishment a reason? Naaman (2011) states

‘Monks who had inhabited ‘the Cavern of Eutyches’ were banished from the territories of the Roman Empire. Emperor Marcian ordered the above and also forbad the monks from holding meetings, building monasteries and living together in them. All of this happened after the Council of Chalcedon held Nov 451 AD’. (2011, 13)

Monophysites were those in Egypt and Syria who rejected the Council of Chalcedon in 451 AD. Maronites represent the church of Antioch, a great early Christian centre in Syria, going back to a founding church of St. Peter, and a place where Christians it was said were first named as such. It was Emperor Marcian who convened the Council of Chalcedon. Eurychianism refers to Church of Alexandria. In 553 AD Emperor Justinian I came to believe that the Monophysites would easily be reunited with the Imperial Church (Naaman, 2011, 130). If early Irish Christianity was closely related to Egyptian and Syria Christianity in its ways and mores then did some groups find refuge in Ireland? Was it at one time hoped that a re-unification could bring them into the fold of Rome?

Syrian Popes

Jenkins (2008, 47) states that ‘between 640 and 740 no fewer than six popes derived from Syria, in addition to several Greek native ones’ .

The existence of Syrian popes in Rome is intriguing. The capital of the Syrian Christian Church was Antioch and as a church of the Levant it is regarded as one of the earliest and founding christian church organisations of Christendom. One of its most famous saints was St. Ephram and he is commemorated in a Medieval mural depiction of his death known as the Dormition of St Ephram. Ephraim is also remembered for his creation of early hymns using songs from Roman street singing. In the picture hermits are depicted in caves engaged in reading and other activities such as butter churning. What they recall is the practice of the life of the scholar hermit of the time and the lifestyle practiced. These caves are intriguing in so far as they are shown to function as cells for these monks. The concept of cave as monastic cell is implied.

In 2009 editors Saverio Mecca and Letizia Dispasquale published a very significant and detailed, illustrated collection of scholarly architectural and anthropological essays dealing with the vernacular architecture of dome shaped habitats ranging from North Syria to the West of Ireland. The publication draws together descriptions which range from domed, mud brick, structures in North Syria to drystone built ones along the Northern shores of the Mediterranean and beyond to Ireland. It is a strikingly interesting work when one is considering both surface and sub-surface examples of domed architectural forms at the vernacular level in Ireland.

Though this work (Earthen Domes et Habitats) is about secular architecture it is intriguing to consider how it might reflect the spread and influence of certain Christian communities from their secular origins in the early centres of the religion in the East. How imitative as well as adaptive was it, as it spread from warmer, drier, climates in the East to wetter, colder, ones in the West? The quotation from John Cassian’s Conferences, given above, is a most interesting perspective on how the architectural concept of a dome could become a spiritual metaphor for the religious life. On this basis, was it the religion which introduced it to the West, and if so, is it an indicator of certain facets of, or elements within, the spread of that religion?

In the year 70 AD after the Jewish Revolt and the destruction of the Temple at Jerusalem, the focus of Christianity moved from there to Antioch, Alexandria and Rome. It was at Antioch that Saint Peter, according to tradition, establish a first church and it was there that gentiles were first given the name Christians. The early church at Antioch was a centre of Christian learning, some say, second only to Alexandria.

At Antioch many events impacted on the church community there during the early centuries, from earthquakes, persecutions under Emperor Marcus Aurelius (161-80 AD) and Decius (249-251 AD) to that of Diocletian(284-305 AD); until Constantine’s Edict of Milan in 313 AD made Christianity a legal religion within the Empire. Early church synods and councils begin to take place.

A Brief overview of occurrences after Constantine

In 324 AD the Great Persecution ends and recriminations begin. In 325 AD the Council of Nicaea recognises christianity. In 381 AD Constantinople takes precedence over the churches of Alexandria and Antioch but not Rome. Rivalry between Rome and Constantinople is an issue. Five diocese come into being. In 385 AD the rebellion of Emperor Magnus Maximus in Britain takes place and Roman legions in Britain embark for Brittany.

In 431 AD Rome sends Palladius as a bishop to Irish Christians who had asked for one. Why? Had it something to do with the break up of Roman Britannia? Had Christian communities been cut off from their fellows there and from Rome’s influence? Had Anglo-Saxon invaders and Irish pirates worked the coastlines and targeted remnant Roman communities? Had already established forms of Christianity in Roman Britain begun to deteriorate? Why was St Germanus of Auxerre sent by Rome on a mission to post-Roman Britain in 429 AD to combat a Pelagian heresy said to be ‘full of Irish porridge’?

Was the heresy of Irish origin and also a perceived threat to communities in Ireland?  Was a return to paganism and a disintegration of Christian existence there a threat? Was this why Patrick was so quickly recruited and sent to the Irish in 423 AD?

Who was Patrick? St John Cassian founded his monastery near Marseilles in 415 AD influenced by Egyptian monasticism with the approval of the then Pope. Cassian (360 – 435 AD) was a Syrian and thought to have been at one time a priest in Antioch. Some traditions say that Patrick from Britain, as well as others coming from Ireland, studied at Lerins Island in the Marseilles district at roughly the same time period. When he leaves for Ireland as a newly appointed missionary bishop he brings with him colleagues from the peoples of the Roman world.

John Cassian brought the Egyptian desert tradition to France after several years travelling in Egypt and living the monastic life there. In the 4th century St. Martin of Tours (336 – 397 AD) goes to the region of Marmoutier northwards of Marseilles in Gaul and digs caves with his followers where he founds a great monastery and comes to be regarded in time as the founder of Gaulish monasticism. In subsequent centuries the Irish would have great devotion to Martin of Tours. The monastic and clerical forms of the church existed side by side but were there tensions between these identities? Were the monasteries the abodes of ordinary Christians fulfilling vows of humility and poverty while its was to Rome people looked for the training, ordination and education of priests and bishops to guide them and administer the sacraments? What circumstances arose if monks also became priests? If there is a wine trade in existence between the coast of Gaul e.g. Bordeaux, and Southern Irish shores at this time might some missionaries from a Christian community at Auxerre – not too distant from Marmoutier – have taken ship to Ireland and brought the religion and its scholars with them? Perhaps to Inis na Luinge on the River Lee where St.Senan resided? How might they have interacted with Christian communities – already present as refugees or blended within native communities – and with the forms of the religion they practiced, their loyalties and viewpoints?

By 451 AD the church of the East vied with that of the West for supremacy. The Byzantine empire now had 5 Patriarchs. i.e. Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem. The Byzantine bishops wanted supremacy, supremacy over the bishops among the barbarians in the West. The appointment of popes in Rome was being influenced by the Byzantine Emperor.

By 478 AD the Western part of the Empire had fallen to the barbarians. The Western Empire church had come to use Latin while the Eastern church remained Greek. But from now on there were fewer and fewer individuals who spoke both, Greek study dwindled and so communications between East and West became increasingly difficult. With language breakdown came cultural breakdown. Did adherents to Eastern christianity in South West Ireland also become cut off now? The two churches began to develop differences in rites, approaches and theology. Did Celtic Christianity follow or did this provide the stimulus for it to develop its own path evolving to become a ‘Celtic’ christianity.

From 531 to 752 AD The phrase ‘The Byzantine Papacy’ applies to the Bishops of Rome in this period; some of whom were either of Greek or Syrian origin. During this period the appointment of a Pope required the approval of the Byzantine Emperor. Rome under the Greek Popes was a melting pot of Western and Eastern Christian traditions reflected in art, literature and architecture.

Differences existed among those who spoke of the ‘state and church’ concept, where Christianity spoke of the ‘City of God ’ and Rome’s Empire spoke of a pagan ‘City of the World ’. This was explored by St Augustine of Hippo a 5th century bishop and theologian of North Africa.

By 661 AD Muslim arabs had taken over the Patriarchs of Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem and had proceeded onwards to Syria. What impact did this have on the ‘holy men’ and women of Syrian Christianity as described by Brown(1971, 80-101).

In the Western Empire influence and memory of the East began to fade. The Christianity of Constantinople faded from the Western mind, disputes, edicts, new laws emerged. The use of ciphers and abbreviations was banned by an edict of Justinian.  Perhaps other forms of the shape of the cross become less well known at this time. Then Islam began to rise in the cradle lands of Christianity removing opportunities for pilgrimage and contact with holy places. Rome dominant and centre stage in the West, Sunday is defined, altar is defined, Easter have become defined.

Egypt. The Desert a City, a ‘Caher’.

Garrett MS.16; Manuscripts Division, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University Library.

In 1966 author Derwas J. Chitty published a major contribution towards the study of Egyptian and Palestinian monasticism under the Roman Empire. In attempting to interpret souterrains as monastic cells for followers and holymen of Early Irish Christianity. To view them, and ‘desert’ place-names in Ireland, as imitations of what was happening in the Egyptian desert and elsewhere in the Near East, Derwas J Chitty’s book The Desert A City is an invaluable source of scholarly information; particularly when it comes to understanding the layout, extent and nature of such Christian ‘desert’ landscapes and the architectural elements which arose within them.

An example of such elements is a Qasr, a square fortress like tower attached to a walled enclosure, entered by a drawbridge and containing all that would be essential for the community in case the cells were over-run in dangerous times by bandits or others.  Whether or not its origins lay in simple drystone enclosures it is interesting to ask, by the 9th century the Qasr became a high enclosing wall within which the whole community – apart from a sprinkling of anchorites in the desert outside – were huddled together as a cenobium. Chitty seems also to indicate earlier enclosures which did not develop this way, are perhaps earlier and served as places in which to store basic requirements for the community i.e. ritual items, books, food etc. The word QASR (in Arabic) refers to a ‘castle’ in Middle Eastern countries. The word comes from Latin Castrum. It can be a village, a desert city or a large ruin. In Old English Qasr is Ceaster. In Latin Castrum meant a camp settlement or fort. Considering the possibility in Ireland of a Caher (drystone built ringfort) at Cashel being described as the castellum once there, was Caher derived from Qasr, also spelt Qusur?

In the 4th and 5th centuries Egypt came to be regarded with great reverence throughout Christendom as a Holy Land of piety. Pilgrims came from all parts to visit the saints who

lived there and several wrote descriptions of what the saw and heard. Palestine was so near that it was usually included in the tour. As described by St. John Chrysostom, Egypt was more fervent than any other in having its towns and even deserts propelled by armies of saints living the life of ‘angels’. It was in the Mountain of Nitria that St Amoun build his ‘two domed cells’ in what became his desert, circa 330 A.D. From this a settlement grew. In Nitria, the ascetics might live alone or in pairs or in larger numbers. Cells could be scattered over a wide area as much as three miles from the church. But they were dependent on Nitria for bread as well as a priest and church. Distances from the church could be as much as 12 miles, this becomes the ‘Desert’ area.

The most important ‘settlement of cells’ at Nitria was Cellia and it became ‘a settlement of some 600 anchorites, their cells so scattered as to be out of earshot of each other’. There were also examples of three dome cells. How did the work cell become the monastery cell of the hermit?

The word monastery began to be used rather than the word cell as originally used for a solitary and his ‘cave’. As collectives grew, for a time the work cell still implied a monastery group.

In 407-8 A.D. the Barbarian Mazices devastated the Sketis valley and its monasteries. By this time the monastic life was pullulating up the whole length of the Nile. Circa 380 A.D. two young men Germanus and Cassian entered the monastic life at a cenobium community at Bethlehem and then journeyed on to Sketis visiting a famous place of monastic debate called the Cells (kellia). They travelled through the Nitrian desert. At the time of Cassian and Germanus the word monastery was still used ‘in its early sense of a solitary cell’ (see Chitty, 1966, 52-53).

Many hermit ascetics acquired great fame and had many followers during their lives one of whom was St. Macarius of Scetes (b.300, d. 391). He was a wealthy Egyptian but gave all away and found a teacher who lived in the desert not far from his village. The teacher accepted him and taught him the science of watchfulness – a spiritual science, fasting and prayer and also the handicraft of basket weaving. Seeing his virtues, the people of his village brought him to the bishop of Amun who ordained him priest. From Anthony the Great, he learned the laws and the rules of monasticism. They say that when he returned to Sketis after a short banishment to an island in the Nile he was met by 50,000 monks from the Nitric desert. He was called ‘the glowing lantern’ and so was his monastery called. It was also called ‘the glowing lantern of the wilderness’ or ‘the glowing monastery’. One is reminded of Kilnaglory in Cork i.e. the cell of glory or brightness.

The cloisters of Macarius were equal in number to the days of the year.

Sketis in Christian literature it is usually known as Scetis (in Greek) and is one of the three major early Christian monastic centres located in the desert of the northwestern Nile Delta. The other two monastic centres were Nitria and Kellia. The Nitrian Desert is sometimes used to mean the entire region where the monasteries were located. It can also more specifically refer to the immediate area around Nitria and Kellia, with the region around Wadi El Natrun then more specifically called the Scetis Desert.

The desolate region became one of Christianity‘s most sacred areas. The desert fathers ( and mothers) and cenobitic monastic communities used the desert’s solitude and privations to develop stoic self-discipline (asceticism). Hermit monks believed that desert life would teach them to eschew the things of this world and follow God‘s call. Between the 4th and 7th century A.D., hundreds of thousands of people from the world over joined the hundreds of Christian monasteries in the Nitrian Desert.

Online accounts of the Greek monastic peninsula of Mount Athos are of considerable interest and one might consider the existence of early ecclesiastical communities on the peninsulas of West Cork and Kerry. The 20 monasteries of Mount Athos are the dominant holy institutions for both spiritual and administrative purposes. Although, since the beginning of Mount Athos’ history, monks were living in lodgings of different size and construction quality. All these monastic lodging types exist until today, named as seats, cells, huts, retreats, hermitages, caves, sketai and all of them are known under the general term ‘dependencies’ of the Holy Monasteries. We can talk about three different kind of institutions in Mount Athos: monasteries, sketae and cells.

In each of the 20 monasteries – which today all follow again the coenobitic system – the administration is in the hands of the abbot who is elected by the brotherhood for life. He is the lord and spiritual father of the monastery. Entry to the mountain is usually by ferry boat.

A cell is a house with a small church, where 1 to 3 monks live under the spiritual and administrative supervision of a monastery. Monastic life in the cells is totally different from that in a monastery.

Some of the cells resemble tidy farmhouses, others are poor huts, others have the gentility of Byzantine tradition. Usually, each cell possesses a piece of land for agricultural or other use. Each cell has to organise some activities for income. Besides the traditional occupations (agriculture, fishing, woodcarving, spirit distillation, iconography, tailoring, book binding etc.) new occupations have been taken up, for example taxi driving, couriers, car repairing and computer services.

Small communities of neighbouring cells were developed since the beginning of monastic life on Mount Athos and some of them were using the word ‘skete’ meaning ‘monastic settlement’ or ‘lavra‘ meaning ‘monastic congregation’.

The unknown author of the History of the Egyptian Monks (Historia Monachorum in Aegypto), perhaps Flavius Rufinus, visited Nitria at the end of the fourth century. He stated

‘In this place there are about fifty dwellings, or not many less, set near together and under one father. In some of them, there are many living together, in others a few and in some there are brothers who live alone. Though they are divided by their dwellings they remain bound together and inseparable in faith and love’.

Later on, some cells came to attract many monks, expanded their buildings and started functioning in the coenobitic way of monasteries.

The first ones, both in architecture and life-style, follow the typical model of a monastery, that of a community living together, sharing and distributing work, and praying together daily. In contrast, the idiorrhythmic community (intermediary between the ceonobitic community and the seclusion of a hermit) resembles a hamlet, and the daily life there is much like that of a cell. But there are also some duties for the community.

Near the centre of the settlement is the central church called Kyriakon (Κυριακόν, that could be translated ‘for Sunday’ , where the whole brotherhood meets for the Divine Liturgy service, on Sundays and on greater feasts. Usually there are also an administration house, a refectory for common celebrations, a cemetery, a library, storehouses and a guesthouse.

The above extracts, from online sources, are fascinating to read in the light of what survives in Irish place names such as Domhnach meaning the Sunday place and Desert and the view that some souterrains across the South Munster landscape are monastic cells and/or small groups of them in close proximity with others being independent and isolated at a short distance. Do the above extracts profile to some extent the geographical landscape of  Southern Ireland in Early Christian times prior to the existence of diocese, civil parishes and townlands there? Most of the above extracts in this paragraph are from Wikipaedia (as seen on 30th March 2016).

What is a cell in religious terms?

It is a place which can be a room, a cellar, a hut, a cave in which a hermit lives and undertakes a life of contemplative prayer alone, in the company of a few followers nearby or greater.  The terrain can vary from rough and rugged lands such as cliff faces overlooking lake lands where groups may hew rock shelters from craggy spaces, to low well watered valleys with fertile plains.  The place chosen can become both a spiritual as well as a temporal space. Within an individual habitation for a single individual, in the desert tradition of the early church, a distinction was ofter made between the temporal and the spiritual space by dividing the cell into two or more sections. Where small follower groups, or young novices, live, may be a cell of a few cubicles. Architecturally, in the case of the solitary’s cell sectioning it creates distinct rooms or chambers (cubicles). When the single, isolated hermit has a small number of followers or confreres either other individual cells are built or the internal space of the cell is shared by excavating it into further sections. In such an arrangement one of these sections may be larger than the others to act as a place of communal prayer and the eating of meals such as the agape. Such small groups of hermits are known as Scetes after the communities of the Sketis Desert in Egypt. Where in Irish place names might one find a mis-translation many centuries ago of this word in to a Gaelic word?

Initially, the isolated individual cells and the Skete cells interact with a centralising space in the nearby landscape for bread, a priest, a chapel and to celebrate feast days, festivals and ‘the Sunday’ rituals. The cell of the ‘founder’ of Christian worship in the locality becomes the focal point of this centralising space, where overtime the original meaning of the word monastery, as the single cell of a hermit, becomes transformed to mean a community space and social entity as much as a physical space. Initially, this monastery is of the semi-cenobitic type, one which preserves the organisational nature of the scattered cells in proximity to a centralising space or focal point. What drives this development? Land in close proximity needs to be cultivated to feed the community and those who gather nearby to serve it. The garden of the hermit or garth of a small group becomes a landscape of plough-lands and other types of cultivated patches. Agricultural work requires resources and industry to aid it and to work its produce. Woodland is worked. Water resources are harnessed to power some of its activities. Mineral resources are worked for building stone and metals. How such scenarios evolved from small to large is the subject of ongoing scholarship both in Ireland and in the East. A great monastery, its demesne lands, tenants, scholars and schools comes into being. It is cenobitic to an extent but retains some of its earlier manifestations.

But, in time, this whole structure of private cells – and hermitage cell groups as dependents living in other parts of the demesne landscape, is replaced by new monastic orders who prefer the organisational structure of the whole community in various degrees of holy orders centralised in one space. However, the tradition of private, individual isolated or detached spaces, within the community continues and survives as the Eremitic or Anchorite tradition: the Third Order. This is expressed by anchorites living in seclusion in buildings attached to monastic or parish churches or in isolated, hermitage, places in remote wilderness as places of retreat and retirement.

As the centralised monastery becomes the norm, the cells of the earlier monastic form are abandoned and forgotten. In many cases its physical remains are abandoned to the vagaries of time and local circumstances, its surface structures dilapidated, its burial traditions abandoned, its lifestyle lost and its communities scattered or absorbed into the newer monastic forms. Whether it is part of a re-occurring circumstance from early Benedictine reforms to Whitby reforms to 12th century Reforms is an important consideration. Its heritage legacy still lingers, its burial places where scetes or versions of them once were, or at an old Cluian (hermitage enclosure) by Ballyvourney where St Abban’s grave lies with ogham stones beside it, at individual isolated underground cells (maoile, abandoned, ruined, deserted) or at local central hubs and their proximal landscapes of religious symbolism. At places high, isolated, rugged and remote, as much as at places still of soft lowland harmony and fertile soils. But all abandoned to the vagaries of folk memory, unwitting traditions beside holy wells, killeen burial grounds still used for certain burials. Its inscribed commemoration stones, carrying records of families and peoples, removed for use as relics, to sanctify places of refuge, a church, a shrine or left to fall and become overgrown where they once stood or incorporated into local farm buildings what were their stories? From what did this legacy originate before its fall from the 16th century onwards, how did it enter the Irish landscape from its sources of origin, who brought it, how long did it take to gain its initial footholds, its momentum to eventually dominate, obliterating the ways of heathendom, in landscape, in mentafact and in artefact?

Britannia from Paul to the Empire’s collapse

It one takes the suggestion that St. Paul visited the West and that he came to Roman Britannia was his mission there, circa 69 AD, undertaken solely within Britannia, or did it and its influence spread into surrounding tribal lands? Was Britannia virgin territory for evangelising or were some Christians already present (Stokes, 1907, 5-10) as a result of Roman settlement and conquest? Did the collapse of Roman Britain, and its territories elsewhere in the Empire of the West from the late 4th century onwards, give impetus to the scattering of peoples and momentum to the spread of Christianity during the 5th century AD and afterwards? If significant groups of people are fleeing from social collapse and in search of a new homeland, did the foundation of Christian communities in South Munster offer opportunities to some? Among the personal names contained on early Ogham inscribed stone slabs, how many were once Roman citizens? As Christian communities arrived and settled in South Munster how many dark coastlines at night became places of a thousand candles? Do demobbed soldiers and the residents of vici (villages) attached to their forts, some of whom hold Christian offices such as that of deacon, leave a disintegrating social structure in favour of a new beginning further west in Ireland? Do they bring pottery and coinage with them among other items? How many had already visited its landmarks and places of note, aligned themselves with and interacted with native peoples? How much of the archaeological evidence for Roman contact with Ireland is of this nature (Cahill Wilson 2014)?

Part 2 : A search for identities and their influences

Early Christianity and Eoghan Mór

While the story of Eoghan Mór, dúns, fiteccs and prophets (Meyer 1912, 312-313) can be interpreted as referring to druids who control the fitecc dúns, there is also the possibility that the prophets were early Christian religious persons. Perhaps they were druids who converted without loosing their traditional social roles in society. If their king had become Christian then did his nobles, professionals, artisans, his subjects and tenants in general, all do the same? One examples of a druid converting to Christianity is St. Ibar of Wexford. His nephew Abbán, sounding so much like a variation on Abba, founds several centres of Christianity across Munster. Abban’s sister Gobnait founded a nunnery hermitage at Ballyvourney, a place where Abbán’s grave lies.

In the period 189 -199 AD Pope Victor I was Bishop at Rome. He was a Berber Christian. If one chooses to interpret the words of Tertullian, the Berber saint of Carthage, as implying that Christianity had reached Ireland by 198 AD, does this mean that by the time of Eoghan Mór’s presence in Munster, during the 3rd century AD, there were some adherents of early Christianity already present? If the Corcú Laoidhe had the first Christian king and their Ciarán was the first native born Irish saint, then was it in their lands that Eoghan met the prophets and devised a scheme for clientelism? Was it in their lands that the dúns and fiteccs mentioned existed and was it the prophets who were tasked with administering these structures? It is interesting to read that the Carmelite Order in their Book of the First Monk state that their original members, in the tradition of the Prophet Elijah at Mount Carmel in Palestine, described themselves as prophets rather than as monks. Does this suggest that the earliest Christian preachers and hermits in Ireland were regarded as prophets? Some early Irish saints were regarded as prophets. If the Eoghan Mór story has truth and if early Christian hermits/preachers had converted from the druidic tradition, did they control dúns and fiteccs (under-houses) in pre-Christian times and before Eoghan’s time? If so, did they reside in the dúns and fiteccs? Did they use the dúns as dangans i.e. strongholds, to store food and other items as the story relates? Did such places of resources become local focal points for Christian communities? Therefore are some dúns and fiteccs, in some parts of Ireland, more ancient than the period of Christianity’s arrival and if so, were they absorbed by it especially those existing in parcels of land granted to them by local kings? Did they first appear in the original heartland of the Corcú Laoidhe (West Cork) and as such would that help explain early metal objects in association with a souterrain and ringfort there; objects of a bronze technology era still in use at the beginning of the first millennium AD? Do the dúns, and clay or rock tunnelled fiteccs, reflect the fortunes of the Corcú Laoidhe kingdom, its rise and fall in the early centuries AD? How might the arrival of the peoples of Eoghan Mór, Miles Espaigne and Oilill Olum in South West Cork have impacted on this rise and fall of a kingdom? Would it have encountered elements of Christianity already present?

Druidic Ireland as the Christians arrive

Face of a crucified figure carved in relief on a slab beside Kilteskin Holy Well, Rostellan, Co. Cork

The Cork architect and antiquarian scholar Richard Rolt Brash writing on Primitive Churches in Chapter IV of his book The Ecclesiastical Architecture of Ireland (1875,15-16) makes some very interesting statements.

Speaking of the period of change from druidic belief system to a christian one he says they ‘had an elaborate system of religious beliefs, administered by a learned and astute order of priests(Druadh). Contemplating such a state of things, and arguing from our knowledge of the history of christianity in all ages, we must infer it to be an impossibility that such a rapid and wholesale conversion of our island could have taken place. Indeed, many of the incidents in the lives of these primitive fathers indicate this. We find several of the chiefs rejecting their doctrine, while Laoghaire, the reigning monarch, died an unbeliever. There can be no doubt that Patrick and his fellow labourers fought a harder and a longer battle against  Gaedhelic paganism than they ever got credit for, and that the ground they gained in Ireland was gained inch by inch.

Under such a view of the case, we can fancy these soldiers of the Cross settling themselves in various localities, collecting around them such as would hear their teaching, erecting their humble oratories and churches, suitable in size to their means and the wants of their little flocks, and, when a faithful and zealous community was formed, repeating the same process in some adjacent locality, until ultimately the whole island was leavened with christianity and the old Druidic system completely undermined. Such a process then would lead to the erection and multiplication of small churches in Ireland, and that such did take place we have abundant evidence. Were those marked on the Ordnance maps enumerated, as well as the known sites of those no longer standing, they would amount to several thousands, and yet how great a number must have disappeared, of which we have no knowledge. It would seem that when the original church became too small for the increasing converts, instead of building more commodious edifices, they erected one or more additional ones, of a size but little larger than the original.’

Brash was very conscious of the associations between souterrains and Early Christianity as is evident in the above book (1875, 141-148). He was also conscious of their associations with killeen (cillín meaning little cell, cillíní little cells) sites and with ogham stone discoveries as, evident in comments made in connection with his report on the Ogham stones at Knockboy, Seskinane church in West County Waterford (Brash 1868-69, 118-30).

In the his 1844 book on the Blackwater River, Cork, O’Flanagan illustrates a three chamber, beehive domed, masonry souterrain from Castle Hyde (Littir civil parish) at Fermoy County Cork – a drawing reminiscent of Crofton Croker’s earlier published drawing (circa 1830s) for Kilcrumper parish graveyard (Lisnasallagh or Ballyhindon townland) where a two chambered beehive site, as partly seen, was exposed – and makes the startling statement in his text:

‘The circular and oval cells are usually domed with stone on the overlaid principle, the section mostly used being a pointed arch, occasionally a semicircle. These underground structures were evidently the models of the Clochans or beehive-shaped stone dwellings, so plentiful in the south and west’ [of Ireland].

Brash’s interpretation of how christianity gradually overlaid the landscape in Ireland provides much food for thought regarding the impact of such missionaries and their communities opening up virgin territory from forests and wild inhospitable places fro settlements. It also raises questions about radial progression from such nodal points in to surrounding landscape areas, from developing and developed centres to places of small settlement dependencies and more remote solitary habitation spots. How many were the result of locally based people joining them, how much was about communities who came to join them either migrants from other lands or other parts of Ireland?

Pelagius and his Irish Porridge

Pelagius (360-418) was a monk from Britain – some have suggested he was Irish – ‘whose reputation and theology came into prominence after he went to Rome sometime in the 380’s AD’ (Wikipedia). St. Jerome considered him ‘stuffed with Irish porridge’. According to Wikipedia, Pelagius ‘advocated free will and asceticism’ but his view was opposed by the North African theologian, Augustine (354-430), Bishop of Hippo, leading to its condemnation as a heresy at Council of Carthage in 418 A.D. He left for the Holy Land. ‘These condemnations were summarily ratified at the Council of Ephesus (A.D. 431)’.

Patrick, A Christian Roman Briton (or Breton) in Ireland

In 431 AD Pope Celestine I at Rome sent Bishop Palladius to Ireland on what appears to have been a failed mission undertaken in the province of Leinster. Palladius soon left leaving two of his colleagues behind him.  The following year 432 AD the Pope sent Patrick as a missionary bishop.

What was it, among the then Christians of Ireland, that caused them to seek a bishop to be sent to them? Was it a need for someone to convert, to advise, to baptise, to confirm, to ordain? Did this requirement spring from newly formed Christian settlements, groups of Christians establishing new lives on land received from native clans, settling themselves on offshore islands, along the great inland rivers, and along the rugged coastline of bays, coves, creeks, harbours of the South to retain close contact with abroad?

Whether Pelagius was Irish or a Celtic/ Roman Briton why was Jerome of the opinion that what he had to say was Irish porridge? Why describe it as Irish? Why describe it as porridge? What is implied about the nature of Irish Christianity at this time? Was it a mishmash of views arising from differing forms of Christianity and its followers, coming from differing origins, arriving on Irish shores and founding settlements? How heterogeneous was this Christianity? How typical of communities in Britannia was it?

Was it in response to such that some communities asked for help from Rome? If Palladius’ mission failed then did Patrick, with his colleagues, decide to land somewhere in Munster rather than begin again in Leinster? Is there any truth to the view that Patrick landed on the South Munster shoreline because it was already a place of Christian communities and that because it already had these communities he moved northwards further inland to evangelise? What place along the South Munster shoreline was most prominently recognised by mariners as a place to land, to shelter and to trade? It is about 300 years after Tacitus wrote that the harbours and approaches to Ireland (meaning southern?) were well known and a little under the same length of time since Ptolemy of Alexandria produced his Geography. It is also about 300 years since the state of Britannia came into being. What degree of interaction for commercial, as well as social, purposes had taken place in those years. How frequently did Roman naval vessels and those of merchant seamen visit the coastline? Did they moor at well established settlement sites along the coast? As a place well known enough to appear in Ptolemy’s Geography was the Old Head of Kinsale one of these, being at the Eastern boundary of Curcú Laoidhe lands; a port controlled by them or a port of foreign merchants and settlers allowed by them? Might this be why a tradition of St. Patrick being at Curtaporteen/Curtaparteen (court of the port(?) referring to seizen or taxes?) survived in local folk memory, and why the Old Head was also known as DunmacPatrick with the lands of Lispatrick attached to it? Who was this Patrick, someone of the Roman patrician class?


A Contemporaneous Viewpoint : Patrick, Benedict and Cassian

The date of Patrick’s death is understood to be anywhere from 460 to 493 AD. St. Benedict of Nursia (circa 480 to 543/547 AD) in Italy is regarded as someone whose Rule for monastic life had major influence on the bringing together of congregations into a confederation, and the religious order later formed in his name was heavily influenced by the writings of St. John Cassian (360-435 AD) who brought Egyptian style monasticism to the West. Cassian founded his monastery in South Eastern Gaul and in this locality the monastery island of Lerins is located. Tradition holds that Patrick, the son or grandson of of a church deacon living in a vicus village beside a Roman fort, studied at Lerins. In the beginning words of his Rule (White, Carolinne, 2008), Benedict speaks of the varying kinds of hermits/monks then in existence and sets out to write a Rule of life to guide them. He identifies four kinds of monk i.e. the coenobites who live in monasteries and ‘do service under a rule and an abbot’, the anchorites (hermits, recluses) who having trained for a long period in the monasteries go out alone into the wilderness / desert to fight physical and mental temptations, the sarabaites who are not trained and are a law unto themselves, the gyrovagues who wander, stay in different cells and do not settle. One thinks of the Cork civil parish of Fánlobbus (wandering and affectionately described miscreant) and St. Mocomoge on a journey from Bantry Bay to Kinneigh or DesertSerges parish. What was the nature of the cells they occupied? Should one envisage St. Gobnait riding her white horse southwards, staying at the cells of Kilshannig (old cells) above Donoughmore (great Sunday gathering place) in Muskerry on her journey to Ballyvourney? Does she wander as others would do until she is given a sign as with Michael whose bell did not ring until he found a ringfort to settle in and create his church at Kilmichael? Was Gobnait’s sign nine white deer?

In the East there were varying forms of lifestyle associated with ascetics. Some closed themselves off in their cells, some lived in the branches of trees (dendrites) – which reminds one of the Irish story Buile Shuibhne  and Sweeney Agonistes, some were grazers who existed with no abode and eat wild herbs and hay, some played the role of fools in fear of pride, stylites who sat on pillars. How many of these forms of behaviour existed here within communities of Christian followers, or among hermit monks, it is interesting to reflect upon in the light of stories told in Irish folklore.

Historiography of Early Irish Christianity

The scholarly search for the  origins of Early Irish Christianity – and its pathways to Ireland, has a significant history in its own right; particularly the work of George T. Stokes (1907) in his lecture on the Ancient Celtic Church (Stokes, 1907,17-40). It is interesting to consider his writing in the light of subsequent research and discoveries, both from the perspectives of Western as well as Eastern scholarship in more recent times.

Ciarán of Saighir/Seir (or was it Seghir) : The first Irish born saint in Ireland

While it is disputed that he was one of Ireland’s ‘twelve apostles’, tradition regards Ciarán of Saighir, in County Offaly, as the first native born saint in Ireland. His father was a prince of the Osraige people in the region of County Offaly and they were once ruled by the Corcú Laoidhe. Ciarán’s mother lived on Clear Island in West Cork in the lands of the Corcú Laoidhe and it was there he began his ministry before establishing his Saighir monastery in Offaly; perhaps, on lands granted through his father. Ciarán is thought to have been born circa 352 AD. In 313 AD, about forty years before, Constantine had issued an edict to legalise Christianity throughout the Empire; a gradual process of transition ensued. Are Ireland’s Saighir and Syria’s Seghir the same place name?

Are there grounds for seeing a palimpsest of the layout of Syria’s Seghir in the layout of the Cush early Christian site in County Limerick as well as on the island of  Skellig Michael County Kerry? Did Ciarán use the Seghir name for his monastery in recognition of a connection with, or influence from, Roman Syria; in a Roman Empire of trade and sea travel stretching as far west as Britannia, its legions in transit across the Mediterranean Sea, recruits from the East stationed in the West?  St. Luke speaks, in the Acts of the Apostles, of Antioch in Syria as a place where the first Christians were given that name. Seghir is a village of mud built domed huts east of Antioch. During the beginning years of Christianity in Ireland was there a connection between Ciarán and Antioch? Is native Irish tradition on Clear Island correct in its view that he began his ministry there i.e. in the lands the Corcú Laoidhe? Is it also true that the Corcú Laoidhe had the first Christian king in Ireland; a people who claimed to have once ruled extensively in Munster, and also for a time in the early centuries AD claimed the high kingship of Ireland? If all of this has traction, then, did Irish Christianity begin  in West Cork in response to a need among Christian settlers, already established there, for someone of native origin to become a teacher of the religion and evangelise across the local landscape? Did the Corcú Laoidhe encourage a formal introduction of it within their lands resulting in the introduction of hermitages (Dair monasteries), deserts, oratories, holy wells for baptisms, and residential as well as penitential ‘caves’, all in imitation of practices occurring in the East?

Holy Well at Kilteskin near Rostellan Co. Cork and beside Hermitage townland.

Though of a later period in time, when one thinks of Pope Sergius I (650-701 AD), of a Syrian family from Antioch, should one also think of Desertserges civil parish (the hermit wilderness or desert of Sergius), and, partly contiguous with it, of an early monastic foundation in Kinneigh parish at Laravoolta – before removal to Sleenoge – townland, in West Cork? If so does this explain a density of souterrains (cells?) running in a rough arc from Fanlobbus to Murragh parishes surrounding Kinneigh; Kinneigh thus being their semi-cenobitic monastic centre?

Ogham Stones and the early years of Irish Christianity

There is a close association between ogham stones and souterrains in so far as they are used in the construction of both tunnelled souterrains and masonry built ones. There are widely spaced dates given in the literature for when these inscribed stones were introduced to the Irish landscape. These date suggestions range from the 1st century to the 4th century AD. Some scholars have argued that they are pagan in origin, others that they are Christian.

The view has been taken in the past that they came to be placed in souterrains because they were a convenient source of building stone and were available in abandoned graveyards. Furthermore, it was deduced from this rationale that their origin pre-dated the souterrains. I do not agree with this viewpoint. Certainly they may have originated in settings where they represented the memory of persons deemed worthy of being, or who could afford to be, commemorated. Did they stand above graves or were some created as cenotaphs and placed on memorial platforms (leacht)? Was it as part of an early reform in church practices that they were removed and repurposed? Or was their use in souterrain construction contemporary with their use on leacht platforms and in association with graves?

If their association with platforms and graves implied that they commemorative, that they were not only monuments in memoriam of persons deceased but also tangible relics connected with persons in the afterlife, then what purpose would the inscriptions on such stones serve when placed in the context of a souterrain? In masonry souterrains they are found built into walls, as roofing slabs, as pillars supporting roofing slabs. In some cases the souterrain’s walls have no masonry work and only the roof is slabbed over using ogham stones. In tunnelled souterrains Ogham stones are found used to construct entrance porches. The number of ogham stones used in souterrains can range from 15 to 10 to 6 to 3 or less. When there is a small number used examples may be found positioned near the entrance or even at the back end of a chamber. If they were not placed in souterrains by chance, then what does their presence represent? What did it represent in the early Medieval mindset? 


Ogham stone re-purposed as a window lintel in a parish church at Knockboy, Seskinane, Co. Waterford

Why at places like St. Declan’s oratory at Ardmore i.e. an oratory and at Seskinane (Knockboy) in North West Waterford in a later medieval parish church were ogham stones used in the construction of surface structures? Were they used because the inscriptions had a spiritual significance? If so, then was it for the same reason that they were incorporated into the construction of souterrains? If true then might it not be possible to say that they represent a period in time when both souterrains and ogham inscribed stones are contemporary and not a case of one being subsequent to the other? If so, then do those dates for ogham inscriptions assigned a pre-5th century timeframe indicate that that some souterrains are older than the 5th century and that the origin of the practice of using them in souterrains is older? If ogham inscribed stones were used in the construction of oratories and perhaps early churches also, then, if it was because they had a spiritual  significance, were they present as a blessing, a protection for those occupying the souterrain or praying there? Like religious statues in a modern church were they present as objects of veneration and for intercession with saintly person now in the spiritual afterlife? Applying such logic to explain the presence of ogham stones in souterrains, were some souterrain forms therefore built as shrine places (feretories), and were other souterrain forms protected by incorporating ogham stones in their entrances?

If one takes the view that oghams inscribed stones are Christian in origin, and were created in early ecclesiastical settings, then do they represent a practice which began during the early years of the arrival of the church in Ireland? As a cipher code which is based on the Latin alphabet by means of which primitive Gaelic is written down, do the inscriptions represent the application of Latin to a Gaelic method of ciphering much older in time, something once common on wood but adopted by literate Christians to create inscriptions on stone? What criteria were there for deciding who deserved such an inscription and who did not? Were all Christians entitled to be remembered in this fashion or was it only done in recognition of a saintly life? Was it something reserved for religious persons or was it for others also according to status and influence? There are about 330 inscriptions from Ireland the bulk of which are from South Munster. Why do they occur so frequently there? Does it means that the cipher originated there, was most commonly used there and is therefore the heritage of a pre-dominance of early christian culture there; rather than elsewhere in Ireland? If so, to what extent does the distribution pattern of known ogham stone provenances map the progress of early christianity across South Munster? Furthermore who are the people the inscriptions record and what were their places of origin? How many came from abroad for whom no lineage was known? How many represented a local lineage? For estimate purposes, at two names per inscription about 660 persons are recorded across Ireland.

Some names appear to be Latin while other are Latin versions of Gaelic names. These names, and the lives they represent, span a period of time which ends approximately in the early 7th century AD, an end date which is quite close in time to the date of the Synod of Whitby when differences between the Celtic and Roman churches were settled in favour of Rome. It is also a period not very far removed in time from that of Emperor Justinian I who introduced an edict to ban the use of ciphers and abbreviations – due to their inaccuracies and the confusion they caused – across the Empire; at this period the Empire in the West was in decline.

Ogham stone Drunlohan, County Waterford

Are there any connections between the names in ogham inscriptions and early christianity in South Munster? Three examples will suffice. The first is an ogham stone from Arraglen, County Kerry which reads along the arris of the stone QRIMITIR RONANN MAQ COMOGANN. Qrimitir (cruimthir in Gaelic) is a word which refers to a presbyter or priest; bringing to mind both Kilcrumper (cell of the presbyter or priest) and Cruimthir Fraoch by the junction of the Funcheon and Blackwater Rivers by Clondalane, Fermoy.  Also, on one face of the Arraglen stone there is a Greek style cross in a circle; somewhat similar to one on a stone, without an ogham inscription, at Ballyvourney, Cork which has a small robed(?) figure with a staff walking the rim of the circle. The Arrraglen stone is not from a souterrain. The stone is situated between close to Mount Brandon on the Dingle Peninsula.

The second is a County Cork find from a place called Ballyhank in Muskerry, Cork and its inscription has the word AB which could refer to an Abba. The inscription reads AB ULCCAGNI; meaning Abba Ulccagni? It is one of six inscriptions found on 5 ogham stones found in a souterrain. These inscriptions record 6 persons some with ancestral information, some not. Were they a small hermitage group i.e. 5 followers and an abba (abbot, father) named Ulccagni? Were they seisúr ceann meaning 6 heads i.e. sheskin?

Ballyhank in Gaelic is Baile Sheanc. Baile refer to home place. Does Seanc mean ‘old’, or does it refer to anchorites and early saints?

The third stone came from the town-land of Coolineagh in the Aghabulloge, Muskerry area of County Cork. Since its discovery in the 19th century it has been a source of controversy both in terms of its precise find-spot as well as in attempts to read the inscription, which is badly worn. This stone may have come from a souterrain.

Olan the Egyptian

Sir Samual Ferguson read the, subsequently worn and faded, Coolineagh ogham stone inscription as Anm Corpimaq fuidd eguptt. (see stgeorgeministry.com). What languages does this inscription contain? Vulgate Latin and Primitive Gaelic? If what is understood to be Ferguson’s reading is true and accurate, than what does it say? Anm means soul i.e. with ‘pray for the soul of’ being implied. Corpimaq, as written at a time when the idea of putting a space between each word in a sentence rather than stringing all words together was being developed, seems to be two words which are Corpi and Maq. In Gaelic (Irish) the word Corp means the human body as in corpse. In Latin the word is Corpus and the genitive case is Corpi i.e. body of. The word Maq is an old Irish form of the word Mac meaning ‘son of’. The word Fuidd appears to be either from the Latin verb sum/fuit meaning ‘of’ or ‘from’, or alternatively it has to do with the verb fugio/fugit meaning ‘exiled of’ or ‘exiled from’. Eguptt is taken to refer to Egypt. Putting all together the inscription seems to read:

                         Pray for the soul of the body of a son in exile from Egypt

As the patron saint of the parish of Aghabulloge is St. Olan (Eolang in Gaelic) and as this ogham stone is said to have come from a souterrain found within an enclosure connected to the site of Coolineagh parish church – where another ogham stone, upright in the graveyard, has a small round stone ‘cap’ known as St.Olan’s Cap i.e. a miracle working stone seated on the top of the ogham stone, then it is easy to see why Archdale King might have understood the Corpimaq reading, above, to have read Pray for Olan the Egyptian.

Also, close to the graveyard there is a further Ogham stone, said to have come from a mill site, erected in the 19th century and situated beside St. Olan’s holy well, a place of local annual pilgrimage on that saint’s day. One is reminded of the Félire (Calendar) of Oengus the Culdee (Céile Dé, people of God) written in the 9th century which mentions the seven Coptic monks of Egypt at a place in Ireland called Dísert (desert hermitage) Uilig. Before moving to Tallagh in Dublin, Oengus was located in County Offaly where Ciarán’s Saighir was located, a place to the north of County Tipperary (where the Faddan Mór psalter with papyrus in its binding was found).  Did the 40 of the 50 scholars who came from abroad to St.Senan at Inis Luinge (island of the ships) go a short distance northwards from there into the lands of Aghabulloge (field or ford of the Bulloge), Donoughmore (Big Sunday place) and Kilshannig (old cells)? Were Eolang and Lacteen among them, Eolang clearing an area of ground to make a field, to make an enclosure, to make a meadow (cluain) for his cell, a spiritual meadow (see the story of Eithne’s cell in the next chapter here): Lacteen doing the same, while others settled together at what would become known in later times as the ‘old cells’ (Kilshannig); from which the parishes of Aghabulloge, Donoughmore and Kilshannig would subsequently derive? Did some of these scholars adapt the ogham cipher for use in burial inscriptions? Was the above inscription badly written on the stone, errors being one of the reasons why in subsequent times Emperor Justinian, in the 6th century AD, banned the use of ciphers?   

It is interesting to question why they were here and if there were others about whom no record survives. It would not be startling to learn that persons from Egypt and the Levant as well as Greece and Rome had come to Ireland during the early days of Christianity. There are other references to direct associations between Ireland and Egypt such as in the 7th century Antiphony of Bangor where the Irish church of the time is described as being the true vine of Egypt (Dalrymple, 1997, 417-420), that the Irish church consists of ‘pueri aegypto’ (sons of Egypt) as described by the English monk Alcuin in a letter to Emperor Charlemange.  Of great importance in giving archaeological substance to literary references such as these was the discovery in 2006 in a bog in County Tipperary of an 8th century psalter known as the Faddan More psalter the covers of which contained papyrus (Read, 2011). Based on the above information how likely is it that many practices from early Christianity in the East came directly with the religion as it adapted itself to the South Munster landscape, and included in those practices was the use of natural cave spaces and the creation of ‘artificial cave’ spaces? It is not initially a place of religious buildings. Instead it is a place without any such entities. What is personally essential for those who, on arrival, are practicing and preaching the religion is the cell as a place for prayer and habitation. The cell can be a hut, a hovel, a natural cave or an artificially created one. It can be a cellar or residence re-assigned.  It is from such basic requirements that later hermitages and monasteries with their churches and cultivated lands arise across the South Munster landscape.

Patrick and Christian Ireland at the Time of his Arrival. Names and identities of the first christian leaders in Ireland

Who was here? They were prophets. They were druids. They were holy men and women, unordained, untrained and holding no official office; later to be remembered in the folk christianity as Saints. Are these the only names the first christian missionaries had in the East? Later, under a more established church structure,  some would become presbyters, deacons, priests as was happening in Britain under Roman rule and with the arrival of Germanus’s mission there. Others of this status we hear of are Mochuda, Dicuil…It is three prophets who advise Eoghan Mor about Fiteccs. Does this mean that these holymen with communities around them were already here in his time i.e later 3rd to early 4th century?  If so, then do the arrival of Palladius in 431 and Patrick in 432 AD indicate that communities here had evolved to a stage where spiritual direction, recognition and guidance was being sought as part of the ongoing development of these churches and their communities?

Being so far away from the Levant at a time when Roman civilisation is in turmoil, is this a reason why South West Ireland, at that time, had a more stable society, a sparsely occupied natural landscape, the monastic church of the East would send seven Coptic monks if not more unknown, and why some would settle at Desert Uilig in the West? While some communities sought closer associations with Rome, did others reach out to the East for support and to the Church of what would later formalise as the Byzantine church? Is this what the Patrick story is really about i.e. East and Western churches seeking a dominant position or a co-habitational situation on the island of Ireland and might it be that Patrick did not associate with the South West lands of Munster because this territory, as exampled perhaps by the distinctive ecclesiastical monuments of Dingle, Iveragh and West Cork, and offshoots further up the west coast of Ireland, were already too closely aligned with the church of the East?

If this was so, then when did these offices of priest, presbyter and deacon come in to being and therefore does the presence of these ‘prophets’ indicate a time earlier than these office ? Or, were those already established slow to adopt and change? Or, did it require a mission(s) to Ireland to force change making the prophets hand over to officially ordained priests, presbyters and deacons? Is this what Palladuis’ and Patrick’s missions were all about? Is this why Rome was asked by christian communities here to send a Bishop?

Whether or not initially any were called Abba is not known or the Syrian word for bishop Ma, suggestive of the place name Maigh which is translated as  from modern Irish as ‘a plain’ rather than bishop e.g. Ballymadog (Baile máige Dóige) or Baile Má Coda) to mean home-place (parish land?) of the bishop or home-place of the plain: both places being beside Clonpriest (Cluain meaning spiritual meadow, Pruachais from Pruchóg meaning a hut or hovel)?  In what tradition were Declan, Brendan, Ciaran of Saighir? When the records of Saint Patrick’s mission speak of these earlier. pre-Patrician saints giving their churches to him, what does this mean. Are they giving over the communities who have grown up around them to Patrick? Do some like St. Ibar of Wexford resist? Do some get to train in Rome as a result of surrendering their ‘churches’ i.e. church communities to the rule of Patrick?

How many of these ‘churches’ exist when Patrick arrives? Where are they located? Are they mostly in Munster? Are these ‘churches’ i.e. communities of christians in particular territories with up to say a 10 mile radius of a central assembly place, the Domhnachs of early druids and brehons converted to the new religion such as Erc? Therefore does the topographical distribution of the Domhnach centres and their ‘paruchiae’ across the South Munster landscape demonstrate what these communities and their landscape configurations remain with the souterrains of these communities clustering beneath the surfaces of these places, their densities indicating closeness to the centre point, while the outer rims of these distributions indicate the extent of the paruchia’s territorial area?

If, it was the case that established representations of the church of the East and the church of the West existed on the island of  Ireland and if christianity of the lands of the South West were predominantly Eastern  in their orientation, then how did they respond as the Christianity of the Byzantine Empire became decimated by the Islamic conquests of the early seventh century? Did some of those Christian communities, and their spiritual leaders, seek refuge in South West Ireland among already established communities practising version of the Faith?  If so, then why and when did the original arrival of such communities take place? Was it in  much earlier times such as the Emperor Diocletian’s persecutions of the later third to early fourth centuries? Or, was it after the Synod of Chalcedon and splintering within the church at that time? It is easy to speculate but proof is another matter, although, what is to be proved or disproved needs to be stated for research to begin.

Is it in such survivals of Irish rural traditions and toponyms that the myths of ancient landscapes and their cultural identities blend into the mists of mountains as the prophets of the ‘new teaching’ of a Christian religion comes to quench druidic fire ceremonies and over time inculturate its places of assembly and some of its priesthood? Were one writing a fictional novel, a fantasy in that genre, there is a rich tapestry of material to draw from in the legends of this rural landscape of South Munster.

Whatever happened in the initial three centuries of the Christian era, whatever peoples came and vanished, whatever generations of living, interacting at home and abroad, there may have been, this new church evolving, spreading and formalising itself in the Mediterranean lands became subject to many phases of official persecution lasting up to the splitting of the Roman Empire into the Eastern (Byzantine) Empire and the Western Empire under Rome’s control in 285 A.D. under the Emperor Diocletian who is also noted for the last, Great Persecution, of Christians. It was a time which encapsulated the early years of Christian and Jewish burials in underground cemeteries, a time of vast catacombs in a ‘city of the dead’ beneath Rome’s streets, a time of ‘fussi’ professional artisan ‘cave-makers’, a time of rectangular and barrel-vaulted cubicula and linking corridors, of family burial spaces and agape meals enjoyed, of sainthood spaces, of spaces for sailors and craftsmen among those of many other occupations. When Diocletian died in 305 AD Constantine the Great was chosen ushering in official recognition of Christianity and the emergence of an age of Christian Church floruit encompassing reforms and doctrinal councils; but not without disputes, schisms and persecutions of those who would not conform; those who would scatter to many places, many lands within both empires and beyond. Some, perhaps, in their various forms, to remote lands beyond the Western Empire’s control, to distinct, independent people groups in the tribelands (tuathas) who might welcome them as new comers or to join others of their faith already resident in settlements along the coast and inland on the banks of great rivers and their tributaries. In their various forms, to create ‘a porridge’ of contradictory versions of the faith of the new teaching, a lack of uniformity and orthodoxy, a Pelagian heresy ‘ full of Irish porridge’. As the chronicle pages of the 5th century AD closed and those of the 6th opened, the once underground world of a subterranean church, of a one time persecuted church, beneath Rome’s streets became faded from living memory. New burial customs became focussed on  temple and graveyard, as temple became church, a blending of pagan into Christian architectural. But the burial practices of the higher social strata do not necessarily trickle down to those of the lower ones. What burial practices came to the lower levels and what pastoral alternatives did the church of the Eastern Empire offer? What practices came in tandem with the arrival in the West of the monastic church from the East, compared with transitioning from pagan concepts of temple, priest curator and a socially hierarchical, clerical, church representing traditional Roman society and administration? How different were they? Does the distinction echo in the ‘temple’ named civil parishes of Clonakilty? Beyond Rosscarbery, and west to Iveragh and Dingle, did such a place name and its implications ever exist; in a deeper more ‘desert’ like landscape of hermitages, ancient gods as saints, pilgrimages and festivals where an eastern monasticism and its syncretising to Christ’s way might thrive?

To Syncretise and Inculturate

It is said that the process of inculturation of gentiles into the Christian faith is one which has been ongoing since the time of St.Paul. St.Patrick’s mission to Ireland was one example occurring during the 5th century AD. But was the process underway in certain parts of Ireland at a much earlier point in time? Inculturation is defined as the adaptation of Christianity to a non-Christian culture. An important part of this process is syncretism which seeks to bring differing schools of thought together. Very little is known about the nature of druidic belief in Ireland before the arrival of Christianity. How ancient and unchanged over time were its teachings? How adaptable to new teachings was it and what influences might it have absorbed from abroad prior to a clash with Christianity? Is it feasible to suggest that prior to Patrick’s mission, Druidism, to some extent, accepted Christians and Christian communities from abroad as well as being tolerant of native born Christians within its lower as well as higher social ranks? Did some druids such as Ibar of Begerin (Wexford), among others, easily convert to Christianity and, if so what form of Christianity from across the Empire was it? Mochuda, a bard at Cashel, converted and became in time St. Mochuda (St Carthach i.e. Carthage of Lismore). Erc, of the silver mouth, was a Brehon. Did he also convert before becoming St. Erc of Slane, County Meath? Was the transition from Druidism to Christianity connected with a process of infusing Christianity into the social architecture of pagan Gaelic society? Was Druidism, and its formal practices, already becoming a thing of the past since the slaughter at their centre on Mona (Anglesey) by Rome’s Paulinus in the 1st century AD? Could symbols and stories be merged together to create common points of reference, a common ground, which blended the traditions of two cultures together? Could one set of meanings and identities be grafted on to another so well that only one understanding, one version, of a story would survive for subsequent generations to know?

A story comes to mind which concerns the Celtic harvest god Crom Dubh, the ‘bent back’ god who carried the harvest grain for the sun god Lughaid of the Long Arms (sun rays) and whose consort was the goddess Áine. Crom was said to have been given a high place in heaven because when a famine struck the people at one time, he fed them by giving them a great cow. Because of this, every hair on the cow’s hide was taken to be a soul saved for heaven and therefore Crom was honoured there. Were there many such stories used as pagan Irish society became Christianised to the point where it could be said that Christianity had finally triumphed over heathendom? An interesting early Irish poem lauds this triumph. It is called The Downfall of Heathendom as translated from the Felire Oengusso by the Cork writer Frank O’Connor (Riordan, 2014, 41-42) and which dates to circa 800 AD.

                              The Downfall of Heathendom.

Ailill [Oilill] the king is vanished

  Vanished Croghan’s fort,

Kings to Clonmacnoise

  Come to pay their court.

Heathendom has gone down

     Though it was everywhere;

God the Father’s kingdom

     Fills heaven and earth and air.

This poem (Riordan 2014, 41-42) gives a sense of the thinking which resulted from the preceding centuries of evangelisation in the Irish landscape; one of triumphalism, of a great battle fought and won.

Did Christianity offer freedom to the enslaved in the pagan Gaelic society of the time? Did it offer a new way of life, a new identity, a better afterlife, a secure and safe future; a new concept of community living, a new and protected sense of self and worth as a follower of Christ and member of a Christian ‘family’? As native young men, such as Declán and Ciarán from its higher social ranks, went abroad for training and ordination in the new faith, on their return, alone or with missionary colleagues from other lands, did many from many walks of life and circumstances, join them to found Christian communities across South Munster? Were there consequences if some absconded from subservient circumstances and choose baptism as a new beginning? Did Christianity in South Munster spread quickly and draw great numbers of people to itself because it offered a better social paradigm upon which to live and to be? Was it a grass roots level desire for something new and better which ultimately brought the end of pagan society and transformed it into a Christian one?

Where in South Munster did these new Christian communities rise? Who directed their establishment? Who choose where to situate their settlements? Where were these foundations of Christian communities located? Is it possible to trace some of them from surviving topographical information? I will look at these question in the next chapter.


The tradition of the cave or its man-made version (souterrain), no matter how small or large the structure is, is an inherent part of the early history of Christian life and its origins. The monastery church or oratory is not the centre of the religious life. That centre is the cell, and the cell is expressed as a private space for prayer and reflection: ‘stay in your cell and your cell will teach you everything’. As the original Christian communities embedded themselves and became part of the fabric of Irish life in their own times, they introduced forms of religious worship and living which imitated those of the cradle lands of Christianity. They learned of the great Fathers and Mothers of the Egyptian and Syrian desert lands and of their adjacent lands. They learned of the writings of their scholars and some among Irish communities committed themselves to the life ambitions described their in. They created their own ‘green deserts’ .

They went to the wild and thorny places, to coastal cliff lands, to bog lands, to mountain tops to do penance and gain enlightenment. Other sought to achieve the same in lands of much salubrious surroundings. Some may have created nothing to leave in their wake, others may have left surface structures easily disintegrated, while others again, I am of the view, either tunnelled in rock of clay to create habitations, cells, for themselves as in the tradition of the Desert Fathers and Mothers. Some may have used structures already in existence, something also within the desert traditions of the East. If so, then such tunnelled habitations remain within the South Munster landscape as places forgotten, hidden, long abandoned, once inhabited, once used for prayer, once used for penitential austerities, beneath the surface of the landscape.

In the next chapter I will attempt to approach aspects of the arrival and growth of the monastic and early church in South Munster and attempt to associate them with the territory’s very substantial souterrain – and other early ecclesiastical monuments – legacy. In subsequent chapters I will consider the architectural and engineering legacy of the souterrain heritage in the territory followed by a chapter which will look at the distribution of the monuments in terms of local associations and historical traditions.