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In Search of Ancient Ireland
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Geographic Reference

A century after St. Patrick's death, the monastery in Armagh began to dominate the Irish church.

Clues from the past

Stone circles found in Ireland are believed to be religious monuments centered around the movements of the sun.

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Religious painting
Conversion to Christianity in Ireland was a gradual process.
by Carmel McCaffrey and Leo Eaton

Around 3500 B.C., the Irish began raising great stone temple tombs, covered with mounds of earth and built on hilltops to emphasize their size. Archeologists suggest these were more than just burial mounds. Probably sacred to the earth goddess, their positioning shows how the dead could look down on the living while the living looked up to the ancestors who provided protection for the tribe. Many are precisely aligned with the rising or setting sun. Since similar temple mounds exist across Northern Europe, Ireland may have shared a common ritual culture for thousands of years.

By 2000 B.C., stone circles were built in Ireland and elsewhere in Europe. A population concerned with birth and fertility, the Irish included movements of the sun in their religious monuments. The circles were temples for a solar religion. In 1159 B.C., there are indications that the weather got much worse and the gods and goddesses of water, in streams and lakes, took on greater importance. Material possessions, animals, and even people were sacrificed, probably to appease these gods.

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Much of what is known about St. Patrick comes from his own writings.

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During the final period before the coming of Christianity to Ireland in the 5th century A.D., religion in Ireland was still concerned with the forces of nature so important to farming populations. Druids were the priests or soothsayers of this Celtic world, intermediaries between human existence and the Otherworld.

Stories written down centuries later by Christian monks provide clues to this Celtic religion, as do descriptions by Roman writers who witnessed European Celtic rituals. Human sacrifice existed, but only in times of great need. Worship was more celebrational than liturgical, with people gathering on the Quarter Days -- February 1 (Imbolg), May 1 (Beltine), August 1 (Lunasa), and November 1 (Samain, our Halloween) -- to celebrate the cycle of the seasons. Rome's conquest of most of Europe, and later adoption of Christianity, suppressed such Celtic rituals, but in Ireland, beyond Rome's influence, the old religion continued.

Christian missionaries like Patrick arrived in Ireland in the 5th century A.D., settling close to royal centers of power and targeting local kings and their families. Conversion was a piecemeal operation, but Christianity spread from the top down. Missionaries like Patrick understood that much of the sophisticated religious system already in place fitted in with Christianity. There was convergence and accommodation as many pagan practices were absorbed into the Celtic Irish church, making the new religion easier to accept. Compared to Christianity's spread elsewhere, conversion was gradual and non-violent.

Armagh Cathedral
The monastery in Armagh is believed to have been founded by St. Patrick.
Legends portray Patrick as the primary force behind Ireland's peaceful conversion, but he was one of many early missionaries, unimportant in his own lifetime. A century after his death, the monastery in Armagh -- supposedly founded by Patrick -- began its campaign to dominate the Irish church. As its power grew, so too did the cult of its founder. Christianity's spread across Ireland was accelerated in the 6th century by climate disaster and plague, the result, according to church leaders, of pagan wickedness. Since writing only came to Ireland with Christianity, the church also controlled literacy and thus the primary means of education.

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