Orthodox Ireland – Vladimir de Beer, Ireland



Orthodox Ireland

by Vladimir de Beer, Belfast, Ireland





In this essay we will attempt to sketch the historical background of the early Irish Church, demonstrate its close relation to the Orthodox Church, introduce some of the most popular Irish saints, and conclude with a brief overview of Irish monasticism and theology.

Historical background

It is generally believed that St Patrick brought the Christian Faith to Ireland, his traditional title being Apostle of the Irish. Without wishing to diminish St Patrick’s importance in any way, it is relevant to point out that in 431 St Palladius was sent to Ireland by St Celestine I Pope of Rome, as the first bishop of the Emerald Isle, with the task of administering the sacraments ‘to the Irish who professed Christ’. There must therefore have been numbers of Christians in Ireland by the time St Patrick arrived in the following year. Furthermore, the Apostle of the Irish admitted in a letter that the law of God was well planted in Ireland ‘in days of old’, and that he did not wish to take credit for the work of his predecessors. It seems likely that St Patrick was also sent to Ireland to combat the Pelagian heresy, the Irish Church being suspected of Pelagian tendencies at the time. Having said as much, it is nevertheless a fact that Ireland at that time was still overwhelmingly pagan, with most of the population practising a nature-based religion that was administered by elders called druids. A hundred years after St Patrick, the Christian Faith was still only established in parts of the island.

St Patrick is traditionally credited with organizing the Irish Church, although his activities were concentrated mainly in the northern province of Ulster. It is likely that St Patrick received his spiritual instruction in the south of France, at the monastery of Lérins. This great institution was founded by St Honoratus in 375, upon his return from Greece where he had become familiar with Orthodox Christian monasticism. Like many future, Irish monasteries, Lérins was situated on a small island. For the next three centuries Lérins would be a beacon of Orthodox spirituality in the midst of a worldly Latin environment. One of the great figures attached to Lérins was St John Cassian, who strove to preserve the Orthodox faith against deviations from sound doctrine by certain extreme followers of Blessed Augustine.

When St Palladius, St Patrick and their fellow evangelists came to Ireland there were more than a hundred kingdoms of varying size to be found on the island. The people of each kingdom were known as the tuath, while the king bore the title of ri. Society was highly organised and stratified, reminiscent of the Vedic caste system. At the top were the druids, bards, lawmen and doctors, while the slaves at the base of the system had no rights. As remarked by historian David Ross, the concept of territorial dioceses could not function in such a social system. Each tuath had to be converted separately and each had to have its own Church structure, with priests and bishops effectively replacing the druids. Eventually five provincial kingdoms arose in the place of this hotchpotch of petty rulers: Munster in the south of the island, Leinster and Meath in the east, Connaught in the west, and Ulster in the north. On the Continue reading “Orthodox Ireland – Vladimir de Beer, Ireland”