Land of saints and scholars

Land of saints and scholars St. Brendan and his crew celebrating Mass on the back of a whale, from Nova typis transacta navigatio: Novi Orbis India Occidentalis by Honorius Philoponus pseud.
Irelands early saints are an inextricable part of our national identity, Greg Daly is told


Something said briefly, as Nietzsche once pointed out, can be the fruit of much long thought, and Fr John J. Ó Ríordáin’s Early Irish Saints is eloquent testimony to this. A slim book, drawing together 15 pen pictures of holy men and women from the era when Ireland was known as ‘the land of saints and scholars’, its brevity conceals an extraordinary depth of understanding.

Choosing which saints to write about was sometimes an obvious choice and sometimes required a bit more work, explains Fr Ó Ríordáin, a Limerick-based Redemptorist mission preacher who was born in Kiskeam, Co. Cork, in 1936.

“Especially for the earlier ones – Patrick, Brigid, Colmcille – there were some sources available, and Columbanus too and some others,” he says. “A lot depends on the sources available, because in the case of a lot of the early saints you have little more than a name and then you have to piece together some sort of a background from hagiography and folklore.”

Piecing the lives together from strictly historical texts and hagiographies – saints’ lives intended to provoke wonder and provide models for holy life – entails some thoughtful and creative work, Fr Ó Ríordáin continues.

“I’m eternally working in a kind of multidisciplinary world where I’m drawing on resources from all kinds of sources, whether it be history or theology or hagiography or a whole range of other things. So, I would set out to find out first of all what do we know historically, and very often I would dip into Thesaurus Paleohibernicus, which is kind of a collection of primary sources,” he says.

In addition, he says, he typically looks into a few other collections of sources, including Fr John O’Hanlon’s nine-volume 19th-Century The Lives of the Irish Saints. “That is largely hagiographical, but if I find anything there that would make an interesting little snippet I would draw on that as well,” he says.

There is, of course, an abundance of books out there about ‘Celtic spirituality’ that owe rather more to the ‘New Age’ beliefs and practices than the historical Church in these islands, but Fr Ó Ríordáin says it’s important to focus on the Christian character of the Irish saints.


“You always have to keep a focus on where does Christ fit into the picture, and the Christian way of life, so I would be looking out for anything that would be pointing in that direction, from whatever century is might be,” he says. “The ‘New Age’ stuff doesn’t do a lot for me, and I don’t pay a whole lot of attention to it. I know it goes on and it’s available and so on, but I don’t delve much into that world.”

The original texts from the early Irish Church contain “great riches”, he says, although he advises that it might be worth reading something introductory on Patrick and the early Irish Church to get a sense of the context in which the texts were written.

“Reading something like my little booklet on Patrick or a little chapter here and there on Patrick would give you the essence of things, because oftentimes I would maybe have distilled a considerable amount of information into a few sentences,” he says.

“I would recommend for anybody to read Patrick In His Own Words, [Bishop] Joe Duffy’s translation – that’s kind of a must in my book, annually at any rate to read that anyway. Because it’s so simple and at the same time there’s such riches in it,” he says.

There’s a great irony, of course, in how St Patrick’s Day has become a celebration of Irishness, whereas its historical purpose has been to celebrate the conversion of Ireland to Christianity, and Fr Ó Ríordáin says this makes going back to the sources and the inspirational example of Patrick and Ireland’s other early saints all the more important.

“The mood at the moment would be hostile to that world, but nevertheless you have to keep asserting it,” he says, explaining that St Patrick perennially matters because of how he homed in on the essence of Christianity.

“His relevance is really the heart of the Christian message, namely a personal relationship with Christ as distinct from knowing about Christ,” he says, noting that Irish as a language points to different levels of knowledge, where ‘aithne’ means a basic familiarity, but ‘eolas’ and ‘fios’ point to a deeper understanding and an actual relationship.

People have said to me many times ‘I know all about the Bible, I know all about St Patrick’. And they don’t!”

“Our received message today is largely ‘we know about’ – as people have said to me many times ‘I know all about the Bible, I know all about St Patrick’. And they don’t! But that’s a way of saying that they have ‘aithne’ – a certain kind of external knowledge,” Fr Ó Ríordáin says.

“Whereas, what is your relationship with someone like Jesus? Some of the martyrs in Egypt who were beheaded last year, and one of them muttering the name Jesus as they were about to take the head off him: he had relationship there.”

The second of the great trinity of early Irish saints was St Brigid of Kildare, often described nowadays simply as a sanctimonious Christian recasting of a pagan goddess.    Fr Ó Ríordáin thinks it more likely, instead, that stories and attributes about the pagan Brig became linked with the historical Brigid

“I would see her as like many of those early saints: oftentimes they’re inheritors of a pre-Christian god or goddess,” he says. “In other words, you have a genuine article, a religious woman – and St Patrick talks about people becoming monks and virgins for Christ, so you have people in the next generation, like Brigid, who are doing just that, but in Brigid’s case she inherits as well the trappings of the goddess Brig.”

Other saints who would have inherited pagan attributes and anecdotes would have includes St Senan at Scattery Island, who would have acquired details originally linked with the pagan river-god Seanan, he says, adding that St Ailbhe in Emly would similarly have been an inheritor of a long pre-Christian tradition.

That prominent holy people should have become associated with older stories linked with pagan forerunners seems, in fairness, far more likely than folk becoming confused and thinking pagan deities were really Christian monks and nuns. One is reminded of how C.S. Lewis asked a friend who had recently read G.K. Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man whether he had got it into his head that the ancients had brains every bit as good as ours.


The celebration of St Brigid’s Day on February 1 – the pagan feast of Imbolc – was probably intended as a symbolic gesture, Fr Ó Ríordáin says, noting that with this being seen as a hinge of the year, with the worst of the winter being over, it was a fitting day to celebrate somebody who represented a new beginning for Ireland.

“I think that’s important – when you reflect on that it makes total sense, because you’re establishing a new tradition,” he says, recalling Chesterton’s line that pagans were wiser than paganism, which was why they became Christian. It strikes him as plausible too, he adds, that Brigid may have deliberately Christianised an earlier pagan shrine, as St Gregory the Great would later advise St Augustine to do in his mission to the English.

“It is on the cards that Bridget – this is only speculation but nevertheless it fits – could have actually inherited a whole druidic site and turned it into a monastery. She could have converted it,” he says.

The third member of Ireland’s trio of patron saints is, of course, St Colmcille, sometimes known as Columba, who Fr Ó Ríordáin describes as “one of those magnetic figures that kind of transcends time”.

The affection for this 6th-Century monk can be striking, he says, citing how a year or so ago he was talking to a woman at a parish in the Midlands. “She was talking about Colmcille and had I not known it I’d have got the impression that he had emigrated a few weeks ago,” he says.

“He kind of transcends all the centuries and that affection is there and has been there all the centuries,” he continues. “I can’t explain it otherwise, except that it is what it is. I suppose the whole thing of going into exile, with our most recent history of emigration has a lot of meaning for them.”

St Colmcille is famous, of course, as having pioneered the Irish missions to northern Britain, while St Columbanus led the way in mainland Europe and St Brendan of Clonfert became proverbial through the Middle Ages and beyond for his voyages to – it was believed – distant lands in the north and west. With St Patrick himself having come to Ireland from Britain or perhaps Gaul – modern France – one thing Fr Ó Ríordáin conveys is a clear sense that the early Irish Church was anything but insular, but instead was an integral part of a wider world.

There was something very strongly missionary about the Irish converts to Christianity”

“I would think there was something very strongly missionary about the Irish converts to Christianity,” Fr Ó Ríordáin says. “Now, part of it would be finding a desert, a desert in the ocean, somewhere to go and say their prayers, but when they got there there’d be people living about the place and they’d reach out to them in need – the good decent thing in an Irish situation where you look after the neighbours and if you find them in need you look after them.”

“In that way I’d say a lot of Christian Communities grow up around someone who might have set out to live on his own in the woods, but in fact was drawn into becoming missionary by the needs of those around him,” he says.

St Columbanus would be a classic instance of a monk who left Ireland with no expectation of ever returning, and his monastic legacy on mainland Europe was so profound that a 1950 conference marking 1400 years since his birth provided the backdrop for a political gathering where key Christian Democrat politicians laid the foundations for today’s European Union.

Curiously, though, the monastic rule by which Columbanus’ monasteries at Annegray, Luxeuil, Fontaine, Bregenz and Bobbio lived did not last into the later Middle Ages and has left little imprint in wider Christianity. Was it too rigorous, and was so rigorous a rule the norm in Celtic Christianity?

“It was certainly quite common in the Celtic world,” says Fr Ó Ríordáin. “What happened to the Columban rule is that it was too strict for the continentals, with the result that they moved towards the Benedictine rule,  which was more benign.  As a result nearly all the Columban monasteries on the continent became Benedictine abbeys.

“It was that bit more benign,” he continues. “Columbanus’ rule was tough, no questions about it, and he expected it from his monks, and wouldn’t expect anything more than he’d put up with himself.”

Given how strict Celtic monasticism could be, it’s striking that in the development of penitential books and personal Confession it took major steps towards realising the Church’s capacity to be a channel of God’s mercy.

“Things had reached a very constricted pitch in the 2nd, 3rd and 4th Centuries in terms of how you had one opportunity of repenting after baptism, and if you blew that you were gone,” he says. “The Irish come along then, when they’re going to the continent, and they had this notion of the ‘anam cara’, the soul friend or spiritual director, and they would hear, if you like, the confession of a fellow monk, people admitting their faults and failings, and then gradually the tradition coming in of letting it go, and going ahead and living your life.

“The absolution side of it was something that developed from the spiritual direction of a person,” he adds.


St Ciarán of Clonmacnois is another saint who left a profound legacy on early medieval Europe, with scribes from his monastery on the Shannon – as from elsewhere in Ireland – going on to have a deep impact on learning in Britain and mainland Europe, establishing Ireland as being as much an island of scholars as of saints.

“The basic tradition with that you entered a monastery, illiterate, presumably, and the first thing is you got a slate to scribble on or a bit of wax that you could write on, and you learned the alphabet,” Fr Ó Ríordáin says. “And then from the alphabet they learned the psalms in Latin, and it seems that they probably learned the whole psalm book off by heart –  a number of them did, anyway.”

Everything the Irish monks did was built on that, he says.

Their iterary output in the Middle Ages wasn’t very great, in terms of how their commentaries on the Bible were utterly boring”

“Now, their literary output in the Middle Ages wasn’t very great, in terms of how their commentaries on the Bible were utterly boring,” he says. “They weren’t developing, if you like, they were just repeating. Whereas on the poetry they had some lovely little poems – a limited number, but nonetheless still lovely in terms of love of nature and so forth.”

It didn’t take long, in any case, before the country as a whole was liberally dotted with monastic sites, with these being especially common around north Leinster and along the river Erne. The country seems to have been replete with saints, with there hardly being a county in Ireland that can’t lay claim to at least a handful of them. It’s perhaps all the more remarkable then hardly anyone in Ireland would be able to name any Irish saints – with the notable exception of St Laurence O’Toole – between roughly 800 and 1600AD.

“After the 8th Century the Church here went into a period of decline that lasted up to about the 12th Century,  which was a natural decline because if you have the early Irish Church pumping energy for hundreds of years,  you’re bound to run out of steam sooner or later,” Fr Ó Ríordáin says.

“Then in the 12th Century you had the reform of the Church which meant the transition from a monastic church to a diocesan structure,” he continues. “That’s basically the Norman Church – even though they had reform before the Normans came but that’s another matter, but from about the 12th century onwards you didn’t have the same approach towards the canonisation of saints.”

This seems to have been key to why so few of Ireland’s holiest people from the later Middle Ages and even since are familiar to us, he explains

“They were popularly canonised in the early church, where a person who was recognised as walking with God was a saint, but that kind of transferred in the later Middle Ages into being a more formal thing, namely something that had to go to the bishop or go to the Pope,” he says.

“The Irish never took too much to that, in the sense that even as I sit here in the monastery garden now I’m looking down at the graveyard and I know several fellows who I pray to as saints but there’d be no question of them ever being canonised,” Fr Ó Ríordáin says, before adding with a laugh: “Whereas if they were in Italy they’d probably be universally known at this stage!”

Increasingly, of course, even those saints who remain housegold names are little more than names, so an obvious question is why the Irish of today, and especially the young Irish of today, should care about them.

“I would say they are part of what we are the part of a legacy,” he says. “Liam de Paor in one of his books says that no matter what happens in Ireland today, or what people in the future do, one thing that cannot be denied or changed is that we are people who have had 1500 years of Christianity. Whether we like it or not, that’s us.

“We can deny it all we want, but that’s who we are and that’s what we’ve come from: 1500 years of Christian living.”

Early Irish Saints is available from Columba Books for €9.99 at