Churches in Early Medieval Ireland

So I’m reading this book at the moment:

I will probably will be reading it for months.  It’s vast.  But I’ve learned some seriously interesting stuff so far.

From the very first page:  the high, pointy roof construction of most early medieval Irish churches means that the height difference between the churches and round towers beside them would be much less noticeable originally than it seems now, when in many cases the round tower is intact but the church is gone.

From chapter 1:  Written and art sources suggest that many early Irish churches were wooden, but of course wood churches are considerably less permanent than stone ones.  O Carragain mentions a recent excavation, though, at Balriggan, County Louth, which probably is the remains of one.  This is of course nifty both for itself and for being in my favorite county in Ireland.  For both the wooden churches and high-gabled stone ones, the pitch of the roof is so steep that the church ends up being as high as they were long.

There’s more in chapter one, but the next bit is so awesome I think I’ll save it for its own post.

How Did Ireland Become Christian? The New Evidence of the Fadden More Psalter

Although we often talk about Saint Patrick evangelizing Ireland, it’s almost certainly the case that missionaries had already made significant inroads before he arrived.

There were enough Christians in Ireland to get the attention of Pope Celestine, who in 431 sent Palladius to shepherd them as bishop.  We know this from an entry in Prosper of Aquitaine’s Chronicle (composed c 433–see Daibhi O Croinin’s Early Medieval Ireland:  400-1200, page 14).  

Although Palladius is the first recorded evidence of Christians in Ireland, the new faith must have arrived earlier.  After all, Palladius was sent to be bishop to an existing group of Christians large enough to need a bishop.

The Fadden More Psalter was unearthed in July 2006 from the Fadden More Bog, discovered by Eddie Fogarty as he was harvesting peat with an excavator.  (We should pause here for a moment of thanks to Mr. Fogarty, for noticing the book in his excavator’s bucket and recognizing it was an important object.  How many of us would recognize this muddy mess as a book?)

The book itself, alas, was in pretty bad shape (one is reminded of Yoda’s “When 900 years old you reach, look as good, you will not.”)  Two elements of the book were especially exciting.

  1.  The book cover.  Not a binding–the leaves of the psalter weren’t sewn to it.  It’s more like an early medieval Trapper Keeper (an entirely different historical reference–the 1980s.)  Not a lot of these have been found.  Even more intriguing, the cover/folder shows considerable wear, but the book does not, and they’re not the same size, suggesting that the cover wasn’t made for this book but was being reused.  And it’s been used as scratch paper–there are trial sequences (practice designs) etched into the leather.  Sometimes, we wish books could talk, but in this case, we’d really like to hear what the cover has to say.  It appears to have had a long and interesting life.
  2. THE PAPYRUS.  The cover is lined with papyrus.  Holy smokes, Batman!  Papyrus, like from Egypt papyrus, similar to papyrus used in Coptic manuscripts.  Does that mean Ireland had contact with Coptic churches?  That Ireland was originally evangelized by Coptic churches?  It might.  It’s certainly intriguing.  It’s not enough to make definitive claim (come on, now, did you really expect a bunch of academics to make a definitive claim?  That’s not how we roll) but it’s certainly very, very interesting.  The date of the Fadden More Psalter itself does not prove contact with Coptic churches pre-Palladian; the Psalter is late 8 or early 9th century.  But the presence of papyrus hints at a connection that was not well understood previously and may, may, be the origin of those Christians already in Ireland when Palladius arrived in the 5th century.