St. Patrick, St. Columbanus and the advent of Irish spirituality




A propitious moment of great importance for medieval spirituality is crystallised in two Irish monks: St. Patrick and St. Columbanus (Columban). St. Patrick, patron of Ireland (d. 461), having been shaped, essentially, by a monastic environment in Roman Gaul, came back to Ireland as bishop. He encouraged the development of monasticism, as well as a secular priesthood, and instituted communities of monks and nuns who functioned as missionaries under his supervision. Through the tireless work of this bishop and his collaborators, a strong Catholic faith was planted in Ireland – one which has characterised the people of the Irish republic to this day. The radical choices and rapid success of St. Patrick’s mission and that of his followers was to have therefore, consequences of the greatest importance for the future history of Eire, with clashes and wars marking the subsequent encounter between Catholic Ireland and the English Anglican mainland – conflicts which are still focused today on the British and ‘Protestant’ province of Ulster - the six northern counties of the island.

St. Columbanus (b. ca. 563) was trained in the rigidly observant community of Bangor (Co. Down). In around 591 he was transferred to Gaul, where he preached at the court of Childebert, king of Austrasia). He later went to the Vosges, where he founded a monastic community for which he wrote his monastic Rule, along with a Rule for the community and two Penitentials. His powerful call for total submission to Christ, involving an identification with and sharing of His suffering by means of Penance created conflicts with bishops and powerful local magnates. He was forced into exile. He went first to Switzerland, where he founded the monastery of St. Gall, then to Bobbio in Lombardy, where he died in 615.  The strength of Columban and his disciples’ spiritual influence in Europe has led scholars to speak of a veritable ‘Irish spiritual invasion’ during this specific period between the decline of Antiquity and the later Middle Ages.

Irish Spirituality – The Fallen and declining state of the world, and the perfection of the monastic life are the two main preoccupations of Irish spirituality. Life, in the eyes of St. Colombanus, is uncertain and fleeting, and the pretensions of knowledge and intellect are vain and deluded. The only safe refuge is in God, through prayer and through the ascent to him of soul and body alike.  For Irish Christians the monastic ideal was of exceptional importance here, so much so as to make the monastic life seem preferable to that of the ‘secular’ priest, even if in truth they were very similar. But in Irish Christianity, the monk was akin to a warrior, belonging to Christ’s militia and called to the service of penitence, embracing it even as far as the ultimate service of martyrdom. In effect, Irish monasticism is the mould of penitent life: an enrolment in the order of penitence. Seen in this perspective, vital factors include private (or ‘secret’) confession, regular and repeatable,  and with this comes the emergence of the figure of the Spiritual Father. Thus a specific literary genre, the Penitential, is born. Irish spirituality is also characterised by assiduous attendance at frequent masses, the sacrament of Holy Communion, and the reciting of the Psalter or of long litanies sung during the night, called loricae (cuirasses, or armour generally). In this sense, the famous prayer called “St. Patrick’s breastplate” is a surviving remnant of the devotion.



Return to the summary                       back               ahead                Bibliography