First published 17 March 2022
It is widely held that St. Patrick converted the Irish to Christianty, en masse, by himself almost overnight, but this is part of the legendary saintly history or hagiography of Patrick, rather than anything based in truth.
For a start, we can be confident that Ireland had interactions with Christianity before the arrival of the adult St. Patrick (supposedly a former child slave in Ireland). This is widely attributed to Palladius, but Britain the closest neighbour of Ireland had been home to Christians for hundreds of years, long before the official uptake of Christianity in 325CE throughout the Roman Empire. Of course, Britain did not become entirely Christian, particularly the northern kingdoms where Rome struggled to have influence, and indeed it slipped back into Paganism to a large extent with the exit of the Romans and the arrival of the Saxons.
In Ireland, the old order, that of Druidry, had persisted for centuries, perhaps millennia before Christianity arrived and of course it did not vanish almost over-night as Roman Catholic tradition would have us believe. Archeological evidence would suggest that a complex religious structure, with religious centres and temples already existed across Ireland, however Christianity lays claim to many sites that predate it. Examples of sites that were almost certainly or extremely likely to be pre-Christian are Clonmacnoise, Glendalough and Skellig Michael.
The stonework to be found in these places include clearly non-Christian symbols and iconography and often massive differences in the age of the stone structures. A perfect example of this is Skellig Michael that has a small graveyard for the monks, however, some of the buildings within the monastic enclosure and the stairs itself may well be of much eariler date, but as with all stone, it is difficult to prove the age without distinguishing features. Also outside the main monsastic enclosure is a stone that bears clearly Pagan symbolism, including the circled cross – a Pagan symbol that long pre-dates the crucifix that came into fashion after the earlier Christian symbols such as alpha and omega or the fish symbol. Finally Skellig Michael is mentioned in the Pagan lore of Ireland as a place of the god Don and also in accounts of the arrival of the Milesians, an event that happened many hundreds of years before Christianity arrived in Ireland.
Common understanding is that the ancient Irish were illiterate but it is clear from The Annals of The Four Masters that King Cormac Mac Art was literate and ordered the writing down of all the knowledge of Ireland in around 200AD, his own wisdom is preserved in a codex that bears his name. Another ancient tome claims that St. Patrick burned over 400 Pagan books – which immediately undermines the notion that the pre-Christian Irish were uneducated and illiterate savages. If there were no books why would Patrick need a fire upon which to burn the knowledge and histories of the Pagan order he sought to suppress?
St. Patrick may well have been responsible for the sea-change that saw Ireland transformed from Pagan to Christian, as taught to all Irish school-chidren, but this transformation was far from immediate. Ireland’s own history proves this, with accounts of Pagan conversion reaching 200 years or more after Patrick had arrived in 432AD. One good example is the supposed trip of a somewhat elderly St. Brendan (died approx. 577AD) to Valentia island, where he is said to have converted two elderly Pagans on their death bed. St. Brendans’ Well (Tobar Olla Bhreanain) features several crosses from probably the 7th or 8th century, but the main structure appears to be much older, with a modern well superimposed on it. Also surrounding the site are many large stones, some of which may have once been upright, although that is difficult to prove. Given the story, I imagine that this place was a holy well before it became a Christian holy well, and it was most likely appropriated by St. Brendan on behalf of the Church, as was the case with so many places across Ireland.
Another example would be St. Columba or Colmcille, who was thought to have lived 521-597CE, a missionary but often stated as a former Druid who converted. Clearly, if this story has any truth, then the Druids were still a force to be reckoned with perhaps 100 years after St. Patrick arrived, even longer maybe.
The strongest evidence of the survival of Paganism is to be found in the land of Ireland itself – in the soil of Éire, through the archaeological record of burials. There is very strong evidence of Pagan style burials continuing along side Christian style burials for hundreds of years after St. Patrick arrived in Ireland. The grave goods accompanying Pagan burials often make it easier to place the time frame and there is strong evidence of some Pagan burial persisting as late as 800AD in Ireland.
What is clear to me is that the Christian hagiography surrounding St. Patrick and the conversion of Ireland is mostly, if not entirely fictitious. Not only did the country fail to convert within St. Patrick’s own lifetime, but it clearly took centuries after for that conversion to be completed or at least officially completed, outside of persistent underground Pagans. It is clear that an extensive religious structure existed long before Christianity arrived and that much of it was taken over and appropriated by the Christian Church, with its former history and legacy erased completely.
One must also question the notion of a peaceful conversion – indeed St Patrick’s battles with the Druids were violent and are perhaps indicative of a less than peaceful conversion of the population. Can we name any other country with a claim to an entirely peaceful conversion to Christianity? I cannot think of one and in most cases, the baptism into Christianity is one of fire and blood and cruel murder of those who would not yield – throughout Europe, North Africa, Asia and the New World of the Americas. Christianity is a religion soaked in the blood of conversion by the sword, and I very much doubt that violence was not used in Ireland, as it has been throughout the Christian world.
I have nothing against St. Patrick, or the existence of Christianity, in Ireland or anywhere else. However, I think it’s about time we had an honest re-evaluation of the life and deeds of this man and the pseudo-history that surrounds him. The Pagan past of Ireland is far from being shameful, just as the Christian history of Ireland is not without shame, particularly in the last 100 years. No religion is perfect, but the erasure of one religion to be replaced by another is one that has not been told in this country with any degree of honesty – that is something that badly needs to change.