What We Can Learn from Irish Christians

Oratory (prayer chapel) Dingle Peninsula

Oratory (prayer chapel) Dingle Peninsula

St. Patrick, Apostle to the Irish

St. Patrick, Apostle to the Irish

Chi Rho page from the Book of Kells

Chi Rho page from the Book of Kells

High Cross of the Scriptures, Clonmacnoise Monastery

High Cross of the Scriptures, Clonmacnoise Monastery

by Jeff Ritchie

When you think of Ireland, what comes to mind? Leprechauns, shamrocks, St. Patrick’s Day, Guinness Stout, the Blarney Stone, no snakes? How about “Land of Saints and Scholars?” 

After a recent trip to Ireland, what comes to my mind when I think of Ireland are names of saints like Patrick, Brigid, Columba (Columcille), Ciarán, Kevin, and Brendan. I also have been to Glendalough and Clonmacnoise – monasteries where some of these saints lived and have learned about others such as Skellig Michael, Kildare, and Kells. The early Irish Christians have become heroes to me, and I’d like to share some of their contributions in this blog.

When St. Patrick was appointed missionary bishop to Ireland in AD 432, there were few Christians on the island. The people of Ireland were Celts, who had come there centuries earlier. Their religion was that of the Druids whose priests had great power alongside the kings. So how did Patrick and other missionaries to the Emerald Isle lead the Celtic peoples to Christ?

In the tradition of the great heroes of Irish folklore, Patrick went face to face with Druid religious leaders and kings, both great and small. At Tara, the hill where the high kings of Ireland were crowned, he proclaimed Christ, the Lord of nature, who was more powerful than all the powers of darkness. This prayer is attributed to Patrick in one of those “power encounters.”

At Tara today in this fateful hour I place all heaven within its power
And the sun with its brightness and the snow with its whiteness
And the fire with all the strength it hath, and lightning with its rapid wrate,
And the winds with their swiftness along their path, 
And the sea with its deepness, and the earth with its starkness:
All these I place by God’s almighty grace,
Between myself and the powers of darkness.
— –from David Adam, The Edge of Glory, p. 87

Patrick and other missionaries proclaimed such good news to the Irish that they adopted the faith wholeheartedly. The Celtic peoples of Ireland then proceeded to take all that was best in their culture and put it in the service of the Gospel. Celtic art forms were woven into the beautifully carved “High Crosses” in many monasteries and in the wonderfully illustrated Christian scriptures such as the Book of Kells. 

Monasteries and abbeys became the centers of Christianity in 5th-9th century Ireland. There the monks preserved learning from Graeco-Roman times that had been in danger of being lost following the Germanic invasions that toppled the Western Roman Empire. They painstakingly copied the ancient classic texts and Christian scriptures, and they put in writing native Irish sagas thus creating the first Irish literature. Their legacy, in the words of Thomas Cahill, was nothing less than the preserving of Western Civilization (See Cahill, How the Irish Saved Civilization.)

Irish monks did not remain sequestered in their monasteries. They went out and formed new ones. Columba, for example, left Ireland in 565 to found a community on the island of Iona in present-day Scotland. Iona, in turn founded Lindisfarne in present-day England. From these two monasteries and others in Ireland, Irish or Celtic monks embarked in small boats, or curraghs, on missionary journeys to the continent of Europe, establishing the church in areas beyond the former Roman Empire. 

Celtic Christian spirituality was the well-spring of its missionary vitality. These monastic missionary bands took with them a deep faith and piety that we see most vividly in their hymns and prayers. Let me offer a couple of examples of this Trinitarian-shaped, Christ-centered Celtic piety as I close.

My favorite Irish hymn is “Be Thou My Vision.” In its current form it is from the early 20th century, but the prayer dates back to the 10th century or even earlier. When we sing this hymn today, we join with Celtic Christians 1,000 years ago in praise of Christ who is our “best thought by day or by night.”

Be thou my vision, O Lord of my heart; 
Naught be all else to me save that thou art;
Thou my best thought, by day or by night, 
Waking or sleeping thy presence my light.

To the missionary monk Columba this hymn is attributed:

Alone with none but Thee, my God,
I journey on my way;
What need I fear when Thou art near,
Oh King of night and day?
More safe am I within Thy hand
Than if a host did round me stand.

Perhaps the most celebrated prayer-hymn of Celtic Christian Ireland is the “Lorica,” or “St. Patrick’s Breastplate.” David Adam says in The Edge of Glory: Prayers in the Celtic Tradition, “The last verse of St. Patrick’s hymn is worth a daily meditation” (p. 2). May God bless your reflection on this prayer and on your life with God this day as you, like the Celtic saints of old, find Christ everywhere you turn.

Christ be with me, Christ within me,
Christ behind me, Christ before me,
Christ beside me, Christ to win me,
Christ to comfort and restore me,
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of all that love me,
Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.

Jeff Ritchie
Mission Advocate

Sources of hymns: 

1.    “Be Thou My Vision,” Glory to God, Presbyterian Church (USA) hymnal, #450
2.    Hymn attributed to St. Columcille/St. Columba, http://www.irishcultureandcustoms.com/ASaints/Columcille.html 
3.    “St. Patrick’s Breastplate,” David Adam, The Edge of Glory, p. 99