I grew up in a very Irish household and assumed that the Irish had always been Christian, but of course, that’s not true. Until the 6th century most Irish people were pagans, worshipping a pantheon of Gods and Goddesses that controlled everything in the natural world, including their harvests. Their gods had served them well for thousands of years, so why did the Irish abandon them? In the book In Search of Ancient Ireland by Carmel MacCaffrey and Leo Eaton it states.
“When Patrick died 492 – or 496, depending on whichever version of the annals one prefers – he had been spreading Christianity among the Irish for more than sixty years. But Ireland had not changed much over that time. Pockets of Christianity existed around royal courts and local centres of power, where Patrick and other early missionaries had been successful, but the vast majority of the country was still pagan.”
I suppose we have to look at it from their point of view. Would you give up on the gods that were making your harvests plentiful? Of course not, you’d stick with what works.
I know everyone thinks Patrick converted the Irish to Christianity in the 5th century, but the Cult of St. Patrick wasn’t developed until the 7th century with the goal of making the church in Armagh the central church of Celtic Christianity.
Why did the monks of Armagh choose Patrick? I’m not entirely sure, but it could be because of his writings. His autobiography is called The Confession. When you read his words you get the impression that he was a very humble man, a sinner, like the rest of us, someone with which the common man could relate.
“My name is Patrick. I am a sinner, a simple country person, and the least of all believers. I am looked down upon by many. My father was Calpornius. He was a deacon; his father was Potitus, a priest, who lived at Bannavem Taburniae”
So if it wasn’t St Patrick and the other missionaries, what forced the Irish people to adopt this new religion? It seems that the answer lies in Central America. Around 536 AD a volcano under Lake Ilopango erupted causing a catastrophic global event. It spewed ash and dust in the atmosphere cooling the climate. This in turn caused widespread famine and disease, and plunged Europe into the Dark Ages. Recently, scientists have compared Ice core samples from the Greenland Ice sheet Project with the Irish Annals
The Annals are sparsely written and hardly ever mention women, children, or peasants, just noblemen and notable events. Here are the entries following the Lake Ilopango eruption.
Annals of Ulster: “536AD Failure of bread”
Annals of Inisfallen: “537AD Failure of bread”
The plague that swept through Europe after the famine is also mentioned:
Chronicon Scotorum: “541AD A great mortality which is called Belefeth, in which Mobhi Clairinech, whose name is Bercan, 'prorectano poetae', perished.”
Even though the entries are meagre, for me, they put a human face on the suffering. The Irish starved. Their crops failed and their animals died, and then came the plague. They believed their gods had deserted them and converted to Christianity. It is after this period that the great monasteries are built and we see a flowering of Irish culture. This conversion wasn’t as big a leap as you might expect. The Celtic Church adopted many of the pagan practices, and monks in this period were married men with families.
Scholars today believe that the Celtic Church with its monasteries that coveted the written word came into being because of a volcano in Central America.
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