Land of Saints & Scholars

News: Commentary
by Samuel McCarthy  •  •  March 17, 2023   

How the Irish spread and preserved Catholicism throughout history

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Today, Catholics across the globe celebrate the feast of St. Patrick, as well as Irish heritage. While many (especially Americans) will enjoy a glass of Jameson and a corned beef sandwich, boast green-colored T-shirts and shamrock-shaped sunglasses and brag about their Irish heritage in the most offensive attempts at an Irish accent possible, it's easy to forget that Ireland's own heritage is inextricably intertwined with the Catholic Church and that Ireland's greatest contribution to the world wasn't Guinness or Riverdance; it was the teaching and the preserving of the Catholic faith.

Sts. Patrick, Columba and Brigid of Kildare

Saint Patrick is one of Ireland's three patron saints, the other two being Columba and Brigid of Kildare. Interestingly, the most well-known of Ireland's patron saints wasn't Irish; he was a Roman. The significance of this won't be lost on discerning Catholics: Ireland's identity is completely rooted in Catholicism — even though the man who brought Catholicism to the Emerald Isle wasn't himself Irish, he is honored as the nation's hero.

For centuries after Patrick, Ireland was a bastion of authentic Catholicism, almost ferociously so. The moniker "Land of Saints and Scholars" was well-earned. Ireland produced saints, priests and missionaries in abundance. When pagan invaders attempted to extinguish Christianity in Europe, Ireland preserved the faith, safeguarding both scripture and tradition for future generations. When English Protestantism tried to choke out Catholicism, the people of the Emerald Isle endured hardship, suffering and genocide for the sake of their faith. The Irish not only preserved Catholicism, they spread it across the globe — from America to Africa and even across Europe.

Irish Apostles

Ireland's formation as a Christian civilization can be traced to the fifth century. Saint Patrick is rightly credited with evangelizing Ireland, although records suggest St. Palladius of Gaul was the first bishop of Ireland. Most historians concur that Palladius was banished by the King of Leinster (whom Patrick later converted) and traveled instead to Scotland. According to the ninth-century Book of Armagh, after the Irish proved recalcitrant to his catechesis, Palladius didn't "wish to spend time in a strange land but returned to him who sent him." Saint Patrick's preaching was more successful, and he is credited with converting then-pagan Ireland to Christianity.

Ireland was never conquered by the Roman Empire, meaning that Emperor Constantine's fourth-century edict permitting Christianity had no bearing on Ireland. Instead, the Irish practiced Druidry, an ancient form of magical paganism. Druidry was a cruel religion, often making use of human sacrifice. According to ancient Greco-Roman historians, one of the most common methods of human sacrifice was immolation: burning a victim alive while trapped inside a wooden effigy called a "wicker man." Druidry held that the soul was immortal but only in terms of reincarnation. Druids themselves were the priests of this religion, and any sacrifice had to be presided over by a Druid. They also frequently served as judges or political advisors.

It was into this harsh and superstitious world that St. Patrick brought the light of Christ. Not much is known of Patrick's life with historical certainty, and much of what is known comes from three pieces of writing attributed to the saint: the autobiographical Confession of St. Patrick, his epistle to the soldiers of Coroticus and his breastplate prayer.

Patrick was born to a noble family of Roman descent, most likely situated in modern-day Wales. As a teenager, he was kidnapped by Irish raiders and sold as a slave. According to his Confession, Patrick wasn't particularly devout in his youth; it wasn't until he became a slave that he truly came to know and love his Catholic faith. After six years as a slave, he escaped Ireland and returned to mainland Europe, where he studied to become a priest. After having a dream in which the people of Ireland begged him to return and preach the Catholic faith to them, Patrick went back to Ireland as a missionary.

Saint of The Day: St. Patrick

Stories and legends about St. Patrick abound — some are historically verifiable, some are miraculous, some are unverified but credible, some are simply myths — but all point to one incontrovertible fact: Patrick converted Ireland from paganism to Christianity.

One of the most famous stories is Patrick's face-off against the Druids. Before the king of Leinster, the bishop and the sorcerers had a sort of contest to prove whose God or gods were real. The Druids summoned a horde of snakes to crawl from the earth, and Patrick promptly commanded the snakes to slither into the sea, never to enter Ireland again. A lesser-known story involves the king of Leinster's baptism: While baptizing the king, Patrick accidentally stabbed the king's foot with his crozier. He didn't realize what he'd done until after baptizing the king. Patrick asked why the king didn't cry out in pain or point out his foot had just been stabbed. The king simply responded that he thought it was part of being baptized, and if that's what it took to become a Christian, then he'd just suffer through it.

According to his Confession, Patrick "baptized thousands of people." Among those he baptized was a female slave who would later give birth to another of Ireland's patron saints: Brigid of Kildare.

Patrick 'baptized thousands of people.'

Like Patrick, stories about Brigid abound. What is factually known is that she became a consecrated virgin and founded an abbey in Kildare. She also founded a monastery for men and helped to organize consecrated life in Ireland. In establishing her houses of religious life, Brigid enlisted the help of St. Conleth, a hermit who copied the Holy Scriptures and later became the first bishop of Kildare.

St. Brigid

(Photo: via Celtic Mysteries)

Saint Brigid was also close friends with St. Patrick and accompanied him in his travels across Ireland. The Book of Armagh records, "Between St. Patrick and St. Brigid, the pillars of the Irish people, there was so great a friendship of charity that they had but one heart and one mind. Through him and through her, Christ performed many great works."

The third and perhaps least-known of Ireland's patron saints is Columba, also called Colmcille. Known as a scholar, St. Columba is credited with writing several hymns and transcribing over 300 books, including an illustrated manuscript of the Psalms. He established churches and monasteries across Ireland before traveling to Scotland with several other priests, where he preached and established more churches and monasteries, most notably on the island of Iona. Columba and his companions are also credited with establishing Christianity in the Frankish Empire.

Ireland's three patron saints exemplify the life of Catholicism in Ireland: Saint Patrick brought the faith, St. Brigid kept the faith, and St. Columba spread the faith.

Keeping & Sharing the Faith

Christianity spread quickly in Ireland, but it had to be preserved too. From the late 700s to the mid-1100s, Viking raiders would pillage the Emerald Isle.


'Battle of Clontarf'

(Photo: Oil on canvas painting by Hugh Frazer, 1826)

The pagan Norsemen often targeted monasteries, which prompted the monks to build defensive towers. Although the Vikings were after gold and silver, the monks held an even greater treasure: books. Irish monks famously perfected what are called illuminated manuscripts. These beautiful transcriptions of Scripture and the lives of the saints, as well as works of literature and history, were intricately detailed and brightly colored — handwritten and illustrated in painstaking detail using ink made from berries, leaves, bones and animal fat.

While much of Europe fell to the Norse invaders, Ireland managed to preserve most of what we now consider the basis of Western knowledge. Irish monks worked hard to safeguard scripture, philosophy, history and art, while Vikings burned, pillaged and slaughtered their way through England, Wales, Scotland, France and much of Christian Europe. The Norse invaders were noted for their hatred of Christianity, often brutally torturing and slaughtering Christians or selling them into slavery. The High King Brian Boru is credited with ending the Viking invasion of Ireland at the Battle of Clontarf in 1014.

The Book of Kells is an important, and famous, example of the role of the Irish in preserving Christianity. Crafted in a Columban monastery in Ireland, the Book of Kells contains the four Gospels, handwritten in beautiful calligraphy and illustrated in a unique style combining elements of Celtic art and culture with Eastern-based iconography. Countless such books were kept safe by the Irish faithful, thus preserving Christian truth, goodness and beauty.

Faithful Catholic and Irish Freedom Party Chairman Michael Leahy told Church Militant of the evangelization efforts of the Irish during this time:

The Irish efforts to spread Christianity throughout the world had two particular periods of note. The first was in the early medieval period, immediately after the collapse of the Roman Empire and, indeed, the collapse of European civilisation. At that time, Ireland remained a last remnant of Christianity and learning, being remote from the wars and tribulations that affected the rest of the continent. This enabled Irish missionaries to bring the Christian religion back to Europe, particularly during the sixth and seventh centuries. Learning, the arts of manuscript writing and philosophy were maintained in Ireland, and this formed the basis for a re-evangelisation of Europe.

Irish monks trained by Brigid and Columba converted the pagan Picts in Scotland and many Saxons in modern-day England, especially the northernmost kingdom of Northumbria and the Cornish Briton, as well as the crucial Frankish Empire. Because Ireland was never conquered by Rome, Irish Christianity was largely preserved from the pagan barbarians who felled the Roman Empire. This allowed the devout Irish to bring Christianity back to Europe.

Edmund Burke

Hundreds of years later, after the English King Henry VIII broke away from Rome and formed the Anglican Church, he decided to conquer Ireland, and for centuries, the English Protestants visited inhumane brutalities upon generations of Irish Catholics for remaining faithful to Rome.

Initially, these brutalities took the form of penal laws, targeting the faithful Irish. Catholics were forbidden from holding public office and were taxed for attending Mass, instead of the new Anglican services. Soon, Catholics were also forbidden from owning land and even from living within cities. Eventually, even the celebration of Masses was banned, forcing the Irish faithful to congregate in secluded areas of the countryside, where priests would celebrate Mass on altars made of stacked stones, commonly called "Mass rocks." Priests were banished from Ireland too, and those who remained risked death.

In 1992, Pope St. John Paul II beatified a number of Irish Catholic martyrs, executed by the English Protestants between the mid-1500s and mid-1600s.

Anglo-Irish philosopher and statesman Edmund Burke, broadly considered one of the founders of modern Western conservatism, described the Irish penal laws as "a machine of wise and elaborate contrivance, as well fitted for the oppression, impoverishment and degradation of a people, and the debasement in them of human nature itself, as ever proceeded from the perverted ingenuity of man."

Sadly, most Irish bishops quickly converted to the new Anglican state religion. But priests and laity remained faithful to Rome, no matter how hard things became — and they became brutally hard indeed. One of the bloodiest periods of Ireland's history came about in the mid-1600s, when English military commander Oliver Cromwell used military force to suppress Catholic rebellions (which were supported by the Vatican) and attempted to force the Irish to convert to Anglicanism. Some historians estimate that Cromwell butchered and enslaved over 80% of the Irish population. His brutalities also resulted in widespread famine. Most of the anti-Catholic laws weren't repealed until 1829, but the Irish remained faithful throughout.

Once Catholicism was legally permitted in Ireland again, vocations started booming. During the 19th and 20th centuries, Ireland found itself with a surplus of priests, many of whom became missionaries to Africa, Asia, Britain and the United States.

The New World

The Irish were heavily involved in the spread of Catholicism in the United States. Many Irish Catholics fled the Emerald Isle during the period of Anglican oppression. They often sailed to America, where they established churches and preached the Catholic faith to their adopted countrymen.

Michael Leahy noted the influence of the Irish abroad: "In this capacity, they brought education, healthcare and the civilising effects of Christianity throughout these areas. In large measure, this missionary effort accounts for much of the goodwill felt towards Ireland among [Americans] today."

Fellow Catholic and Irish Freedom Party President Hermann Kelly told Church Militant the Irish missionary spirit "flagged a national obedience to go spread the gospel and knowledge of Christ."

In America, Irish Catholics adhered to their faith just as staunchly as they had back in the old country. Early on, most Irish Catholics settled in Maryland, where Catholicism was legal. Others stayed in New England, where puritan "nativists" oppressed the Catholics, especially in major port cities like New York and Boston.

Exclusive Interview: The Irish 'Lesson'

In 1842, the Irish-born John "Dagger" Hughes became the first archbishop of New York, where he organized Irish Catholics to defend their heritage against anti-Catholic Protestants. Hughes famously threatened to burn down the city of New York if the Protestant-led government allowed an anti-Catholic riot.

Some of those Irish Catholics formed the Ancient Order of Hibernians, an Irish-American Catholic fraternal organization still around today. The Hibernians uphold Catholic moral teaching and work tirelessly to promote Catholic thought through charitable works. Neil Cosgrove, the Director of Political Education for the Hibernians, told Church Militant about the influence of Irish Catholics on the United States:

[O]ne of the first things any community of Irish immigrants did was build a Catholic Church and a parochial school, often staffed with Irish and Irish American nuns and brothers who helped the Irish scale the social ladder. There are many examples of those Irish and Irish Americans who have "made it," not through the "luck of the Irish" but hard work and skill, who were known for their acts of charity to the Catholic Church and to the broader community. The Irish community has been instrumental in spreading the Catholic Church in America, breaking down the walls of prejudice through their success in all areas of endeavor and unswerving loyalty in the military and as first responders. Sadly, that work must continue as we see an increasing wave of attacks against Catholic institutions and some elected representatives perpetuating "test acts" when confirming Catholic appointees. The Ancient Order of Hibernians remain as committed today to defend the Catholic and Irish community as they were at their founding.

The Catholic heritage of Irish Americans is, indeed, under attack — seemingly from all sides. Earlier this year, the FBI published a memo detailing plans to infiltrate and spy on traditional Catholic communities, classified by the FBI as potential extremist threats. Catholic public figures like Supreme Court Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Amy Coney Barrett and Brett Kavanaugh have all been targeted for their Catholic beliefs, especially on the subject of abortion. And on ideological grounds, the LGBT agenda clearly sees Catholicism as its worst enemy — and rightly so. Sadly, even the famous St. Patrick's Day parade in New York City has given up its Catholic identity and permitted pro-sodomy groups to march under their rainbow banners.

The Old Country

The Ireland of today hasn't fared much better — it's actually fared even worse. The Church in Ireland has been decimated by a still-unfolding series of sex abuse and cover-up scandals, compounded by the Irish bishops' caving to the homosexual mafia. Vocations have plummeted, and though most Irish still identify nominally as Catholic, abysmal Mass attendance demonstrates nobody practices the Faith.

Éamon de Valera and Michael Collins

Ireland fought long and hard to achieve independence from England and form its own Republic, but even that Republic — formed by staunch Catholics like Éamon de Valera and Michael Collins — has succumbed to anti-Catholic secularism. The homosexual and transsexual agendas have taken control of Ireland's ruling class. Islamic immigrants — both legal and illegal — are running rampant and replacing the Irish population just as effectively, though a little more slowly than Anglican insurgents. And today's St. Patrick's Day festival in Dublin will prominently feature drag queens and gay nightclub culture. Abortion and gay so-called marriage were approved by referendum, explicating just how severed the Irish population is from its Catholic roots.

Michael Leahy lamented, "Regrettably, in the anti-Christian milieu which exists in Irish government circles today, [the Catholic nature] of Ireland's history is conveniently forgotten."

Hermann Kelly added a note of encouragement:

As a people now, we are like pygmies standing on the shoulders of giants. Our context and the type of battles we currently face are very different to those of Irish in centuries past, but with God's help, we too will fight to overcome the enemies and odds against us. The Irish language is a wonderfully Christian language loaded with phrases showing our deep Catholic faith. Our culture, our joie de vivre, our language and faith are great gifts we will continue to gladly share with the rest of the world as we celebrate on this day, especially, the fervent faith of St. Patrick, the apostle of Ireland.

Ireland's identity is inextricably Catholic. Make no mistake, the present secular crisis — both in Ireland and in the nations Ireland evangelized — is due to a severing of the people from their Catholic roots. No tree can live, much less drink deeply and grow, without its roots.

The land St. Patrick, St. Brigid and St. Columba so loved may seem lost, but there is hope yet — through God's grace. So today, as you enjoy a Guinness, feast on your fish and chips and sing an off-key Irish classic at the karaoke bar, remember to offer a prayer to St. Patrick, begging him, as the Irish once did, to come bring Christianity to the Emerald Isle once again.

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