Catholicism has had a long history in Ireland. St. Patrick, patron saint of Ireland, helped to convert Ireland to Christianity in the fifth century. Monasteries, which became centers of learning and manuscript illumination, were founded throughout the land; and traces of this time of saints and scholars can still be seen in Ireland today.
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FOOTSTEPS OF ST. PATRICK
According to tradition, many sites throughout Ireland can be linked to St. Patrick. He was born in Britain around 400 AD. As a young man, he was kidnapped by raiders from Ireland and forced to work as a shepherd. After six years, he was encouraged in a vision to escape. He returned home to train as a priest and later returned to Ireland and converted many souls.
He built a church on a hill named Druim Saileach (Sallow Ridge) in 455. This is the site of the current Church of Ireland Cathedral in Armagh County. Armagh Abbey developed here and became one of the most famous of the great Irish monastic schools. Students came from all over Europe to study in Armagh. The church has been destroyed seventeen times but has always been restored.
The Roman Catholic Armagh Cathedral stands on another hilltop called Tealach na Licci (Sandy Hill). It is said that St. Patrick saved a young deer from hunters and carried it to safety on this hill. Work began on the church building on March 17, 1840, but was suspended during the worst years of The Great Famine (1845-1848). The building has been recently renovated.
Croagh Patrick in County Mayo was a sacred place before Christianity arrived there. Ancient Celts considered it one of the principal sites for the harvest festival of Lughnasa. According to tradition, St. Patrick spent 40 days and nights on the summit banishing snakes, dragons and demons. Today almost one million pilgrims climb to the summit each year.
St. Patrick visited the area of County Down many times and tradition has it that he died here. It is said that St. Patrick was buried in the graveyard of Down Cathedral, which had been built on the ancient hill of Down in 1183 for Benedictine monks from Chester. It is also thought that the graveyard contains relics of St. Brigid and St. Columba. Today, ever increasing numbers of pilgrims visit Downpatrick to see the large granite stone that reputedly marks the grave of St. Patrick, especially during March when they leave wreaths to honor St. Patrick.
The ruins on the top of the Hill of Slane in County Meath date mainly from the sixteenth century. However, the site is also associated with St. Patrick from an even earlier date. It is there that St. Patrick and his followers lit a fire in 433 AD. There was a strict ruling at the time that no one could light a fire before the High King's fire at Tara, so Patrick knew that his action would lead to him being brought before the king. Once before the king, Patrick so impressed him with his bravery that the king promised his protection while Patrick preached his new religion.
Station Island in Lough Derg, County Donegal, has been a place of pilgrimage since at least the twelfth century. Pilgrims still visit the church on the island and follow penitential stations while fasting and praying over a three day period. There was a cave, traditionally used by St. Patrick, which was the focal point of pilgrimages until it was filled in the seventeenth century. In 1780, a small chapel was built for pilgrims' use. The church has expanded over the years to accommodate more and more pilgrims.
Rock of Cashel in County Tipperary is one of Ireland's great historical sites. It was once the seat of the Kings of Munster. St. Patrick preached there in 450 at the royal fort and converted Aengus, King of Munster. During the twelfth century, the Rock became the seat of the Archbishop.
St. Patrick is said to have passed through Dublin. In a well close to where St. Patrick's Cathedral now stands, it is said that he baptized converts from paganism to Christianity. A small wooden church was first built on this site. Later, in 1191, St. Patrick's was built and raised to the status of cathedral. The present church, the largest in the country, was built between 1200 and 1270. It fell into disrepair but was restored based on its original design between 1860 and 1900 and remains a working church today.
OUR LADY OF KNOCK
On Thursday, August 21, 1879, in the village of Cnoc Mhuire (County of Mayo), forty-five year old Mary McLoughlin and twenty-nine year old Margaret O’Beirne saw a strange brightness over their parish church. Surprised, the two women approached the church and saw some figures standing there. They believed one of the figures was an apparition of the Virgin Mary and ran to alert their neighbors. Thirteen others came with them and saw a beautiful woman, clothed in white garments, wearing a brilliant crown. The Blessed Virgin hovered between two figures above the ground and her hands were raised as if in prayer. On her right stood Saint Joseph, with his head inclined towards her and on her left stood Saint John the Evangelist, dressed as a bishop. Some witnesses claim they saw an “altar” on which stood a “lamb and a cross” surrounded by angels. No message accompanied the silent apparition, but cures have been reported to have taken place there. In 1976, a new church was built and consecrated; and today crowds of pilgrims visit Our Lady of Knock Shrine.
MORE IRISH SAINTS
Men and women who followed in the footsteps of St. Patrick set up schools both at home and overseas. These people, who were responsible for keeping alive Christianity during the Dark Ages, earned Ireland the name, "The Island of Saints and Scholars." The stories of some of these notable men and women are as follows:
St. Brigid of Kildare, who was a contemporary of St. Patrick, grew up in the Faughart area. She was in charge of the dairy at her home and she made sure that poor local people were fed. She later became a nun and, though it was unusual, she was given the orders of an abbot and founded a monastery where monks and nuns worked together.
St. Ciaran of Clonmacnois spent most of his life after serving his novitiate going from one great monastic school to another with St. Finnian. He then put what he learned into designing Clonmacnois, which became one of the most important monasteries in Ireland. Its remains, including a round tower, a number of churches, stone crosses, grave slabs and the magnificent Cross of Scriptures, are visited by thousands of pilgrims each year.
St. Columba, known to the Irish as Colm Cille (Dove of the Church), was born into an aristocratic clan but renounced his right to be a secular leader when becoming ordained. However, he became involved in a dispute which led to a battle in which 3000 people were killed. After the battle, in 563, he left Ireland, vowing to never return again and to convert as many souls to Christianity as had been lost in the battle. He set up the monastic settlement in Iona which led to spinoffs and back to Ireland. He is Ireland's first great native saint; and each year, there is a walk around 15 stations in Glencolumbkille in Donegal to honor him.
St. Kevin of Glendalough first went to the Wicklow Mountains to live as a hermit. However, his holiness attracted many followers so it was necessary to build a monastic city to house them. Many of these structures from the Middle Ages still remain and this is a place of pilgrimage.
Many great religious monasteries were built in peaceful and beautiful places. These remain to be enjoyed by visitors to Ireland today:
Ballintubber Abbey in County Mayo dates back to only the thirteenth century, but it has ties to St. Patrick. Its name means "the town of Patrick's Well" and it was a waystation for those traveling to and from Croagh Patrick. The abbey is known as "the abbey which never died since it has been in use for more than 750 years.
Clonmacnois in County Offaly is one of the best preserved monasteries in Ireland. It was founded on the banks of the Shannon River by St. Ciaran in the sixth century and is most famous for its High Crosses, especially the Cross of the Scriptures, which gets its name from the many biblical scenes carved on its faces.
Holycross Abbey in County Tipperary held one of the first relics of the True Cross in Ireland. It was presented to monks at the abbey in the 12th century. After the abbey closed around 1538, the relic was preserved elsewhere. The abbey has now been restored and the relic returned to the abbey. Veneration of the True Cross continues there today.
Kylemore Abbey in Connemara, County Galway, is located just one hour from Galway and is one of Ireland’s top tourist attractions. It was established on the grounds of Kylemore Castle, which was built in the late 1800s by Mitchell Henry MP, a wealthy businessman, and liberal politician. A vocal advocate of the Irish people, Henry poured his life’s energy into creating an estate that would showcase what could be achieved in the remote wilds of Connemara. The community of Benedictine nuns, who have resided at Kylmore Abbey since 1920 have a long history stretching back almost three hundred and forty years. Founded in Ypres, Belgium, in 1665, the purpose of their abbey at Ypres was to provide an education and religious community for Irish women during times of persecution in Ireland. Down through the centuries, Ypres Abbey attracted the daughters of the Irish nobility, both as students and postulants, and enjoyed the patronage of influential Irish families living in exile.
At the request of King James II the nuns moved to Dublin in 1688. However, they returned to Ypres following James’s defeat in battle in 1690. The community finally left Ypres after their abbey was destroyed in the early days of World War I. The community first took refuge in England and, eventually settled in Kylemore. In past years the nuns operated an international boarding school .and a day school, and they also ran a farm and a guesthouse. The schools and guesthouse have closed and the nuns have since been developing new education and retreat activities.
MANUSCIPTS, ARTIFACTS & SCULPTURES
Early Irish monasteries are known for the work of their scriptoria where manuscripts were written showing a depth of knowledge about the Bible and other writings. These manuscripts did much to help keep alive Western civilization at a time when vandals were ravaging much of Europe. Among the remaining manuscripts, the most famous are The Cathach, now in the Royal Irish Academy in Dublin; and the Books of Durrow and Kells, both of which are in the library of Trinity College in Dublin. A smaller volume, The Book of Armagh is also housed at Trinity College. It is important in the history of the Irish language because it is one of the first documents to contain writing in old-Irish, or Gaelic (although it is mainly in Latin); and it also contains the earliest writings we have relating to St. Patrick.
Also at work in monastic settlements were goldsmiths and bronze smiths, who created impressive religious objects such as the Derrynaflan and Ardagh Chalices, both now in the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin. Other important examples also in the National Museum include St. Patrick's Bell Shrine (made in Armagh about in the year 1100) and the Cross of Cong (designed in the 1120s to hold a fragment of the true cross). These treasures were among the manuscripts and religious art preserved by the Church of Ireland following the Reformation of the 1540s.
Ireland's greatest contribution to European sculpture of the early Middle Ages is the High Cross. Cut from sandstone or granite, a typical high cross was constructed as a boundary marker of territorially significant or sacred land. As decorative points of interest on the site of monasteries, their carvings were later also used for religious educational purposes. Early examples carried only geometric Irish Celtic symbols and patterns; however, in the 9th and 10th centuries, scenes from the Bible began to be sculpted. These crosses were designed to be used to teach people about the Bible and doctrines of the Church.