Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Saint Patrick, the Irish Druids, and the Conversion of Pagan Ireland to Christianity: Part III

Some scholars give a good explanation of what this conversion may have looked like. They suggest that this conversion is not what we would consider conversion by today's standards. Indeed, just because some pagans decided to accept Patrick's gods does not necessarily mean that they abandoned their own. Because pagans were used to accepting a number of different gods into their pantheon, it would follow that when they were introduced to this new god, it probably meant that they included him in their worship, not that they limited their worship to him (Hopkin 21).

So, unlike in Muirchu's account of the conversion of Ireland, no one found Patrick so threatening as to warrant a call to arms over Christianity. There was never a recorded act of violence between Christian and pagan, nor was there a single martyrdom in Ireland over the conversion to Christianity (Hopkin 21).

Although Patrick began the process of introducing the Irish to Christianity, it does not appear that he had nearly the phenomenal success that later writers would attribute to him. In fact, Patrick himself died in obscurity. Far from being the arrogant miracle-worker who made disbelievers pay for their skepticism, the historical Patrick "was not remembered as an enormously successful missionary—because he was not enormously successful. At the time of his death Ireland was still predominantly pagan, aggressively pagan" (Thompson 158).

Why, then, does Muirchu go out of his way to describe Patrick as being singlehandedly responsible for the submission of pagan religion to Christian belief, or for the annihilation of the Irish druids? What exactly were the circumstances surrounding the conversion of Ireland to Christianity, if Patrick himself had little impact on the Irish? And how did the Irish druids react to this conversion?

It would not be out of the question to assume that in the years Muirchu was writing, around the late 600s, a large part of the Irish population was Christian and not pagan. At least, the pagans and druids who remained were not "aggressively pagan" as they had been immediately after Patrick's death. Otherwise, how could Muirchu get away with his harsh portrayal of pagan and druid alike? If Patrick could not get away with such hubris in the fifth century AD, it would follow that Muirchu could not do so either among an "aggressively pagan" society. So what happened during these two hundred years that brought pagans over to Christianity? Historical Saint Patrick did introduce the island to Christianity, but we know that his success was small. What brought the majority of Irish over to Christian belief enough to tolerate such a negative portrayal of paganism and the keepers of paganism, the druids? And what was the point of Muirchu writing such an untruthful hagiography of Patrick?

Most scholars agree that Muirchu was successful in reintroducing the Irish to the accomplishment and life of Patrick (Hopkin 36). In the seventh century AD, few in Ireland knew who Patrick was (Thompson 156). He obviously did not have a huge impact on their collective consciousness, and so writers like Muirchu were allowed to reinvent Patrick to suit their own purposes.

These purposes are not in doubt. We know that Muirchu belonged to the monastery of Armagh near the Hill of Tara. The clergy claimed this monastery was founded by Patrick. At the time Muirchu was writing, there was a divide between the northern church and the southern church on the island. It appears that the northern church of Armagh needed propaganda to promote the position that their church should reign supreme in Ireland. So Muirchu's stories of Patrick being the primary force behind the conversion of Ireland to Christianity helped their goal in their "campaign to dominate the Irish church. As its power grew, so too did the cult of its founder" (Eaton, McCaffrey).

It is also clear that the church leaders in Ireland wanted very much to convert the remaining pagans to Christianity. By the seventh century AD, they were in a far better position to do so, for it is known that the majority of pagans had already turned to Christianity en masse. The exact reason for this change of religion is debated.

Some say that the majority of pagans turned to this new religion for reasons unflattering to the church. They argue that this conversion came as a result of the natural disasters and massive plague that killed off half of the population one century earlier in the sixth century AD. It appears that church leaders attempted to convince the people that such tragedies stemmed from the worship of pagan gods. "Christianity's spread across Ireland was accelerated in the sixth century by climate disaster and plague, the result, according to church leaders, of pagan wickedness" (Eaton, McCaffrey).

In addition, "Scholarly monks in the seventh century AD reinvented Ireland's heroic, mythical past—the stories known today—in order to convert its pagan people" (Eaton, McCaffrey). "Since writing only came to Ireland with Christianity, the church also controlled literacy and thus the primary means of education." (Eaton, McCaffrey) Hence the vitriolic stories of the pagans and druids that writers like Muirchu espoused. Another method Christians used to convert pagans was to take over traditional druidic sites of worship, usually holy wells, and give them Christian names (Ellis 19). The takeover also extended to various holidays, as illustrated when Muirchu's Patrick proved the superiority of Easter over the pagan Beltane feast.

Other scholars say that the conversion of pagans between the fifth and seventh centuries was a result of less sinister motives. They suggest that Christianity offered pagans values not embraced by the pagan theology, such as forgiveness and redemption. The renaming of wells, then, does not necessarily demonstrate a threatening behavior, but instead showed the willingness of Christians to adopt and welcome the pagan beliefs that had come before (Sellner 21).

Scholars know very little about the druids as a group, so it is no surprise that we have no recorded reactions from the Irish druids about the methods of conversion. Since druidic beliefs were exactly what Christians wanted to replace, some historians argue that one way they did that was through devaluing the worth of the druid in society. druids still existed at that time, as they were still mentioned in the law books as having a place in Celtic society (Ellis 20). But it appears that by the time Muirchu came along, they were far fewer in number.

The re-characterization of druids as sorcerers seems to have played a large part in the Christian propaganda of the seventh century AD, when Muirchu wrote the Life of St. Patrick. Muirchu was not unusual in his portrayal of druids as magicians. This was effective in downplaying their importance. Some argue that Christians replaced them as the intellectual class.

    [T]he general Christian attitude to the druids was inimical. They were obviously portrayed as opponents of Christianity, upholders of the ancient religion, and thereby were relegated to the role of shamans, magicians . . . although this prejudice varied from writer to writer. (Ellis 70)

With all these negative assessments of the importance of druids in Irish society, is it any wonder that the druids turned to Christianity as a way to fulfill the functions their ancestors had filled in the past? Christians were the new intellectual class. It seems that if one wanted to be a respected member of the learned class, one did not go into the woods to learn "oak knowledge" as in the past, but rather to the nearest monastery. Being a part of the clergy was respected, while being a druid was not anymore. As Ellis argues, "With the arrival of Christianity, the druids began to merge totally with the new culture, some even becoming priests of the new religion and continuing as an intellectual class in much the same way as their forefathers had done for over a thousand years previously" (18). Other scholars argue that the young Irish were attracted to the new values advocated by Christians, such as forgiveness and redemption.

There is a story that illustrates the decline in druidic religion better than any research paper could ever do. In this story, the druid preferred to die with his faith rather than convert. Two hundred years after Muirchu wrote Patrick's hagiography, a man named Wrdistan wrote a hagiography of the sixth-century Saint Guenole, who lived in Brittany, a Celtic region of modern-day France. In this land, the druids were considered "elderly adherents to a dead religion" (Ellis 89). When the king of Brittany was dying, he called the saint over, and there the saint saw the druid. The king warned St. Guenole not to treat the druid poorly because the druid had endured much already. The king said the druid "has lost his gods! What sorrow can compare with this sorrow? Once he was a druid; now he mourns a dead religion" (Ellis 90). The druid and the monk buried the king, and in that spot the druid asked Guenole to build a monastery, admitting that that spot used to be a sacred site for his kind. He insisted that it be done anyway, and said, "[I]t is my wish, the wish of one conquered but resigned to the changing order of the times, one who feels neither bitterness nor hatred" (Ellis 90). The druid handled the loss of his religion, and thus of his connection to his ancestors, gracefully. When the monk suggested that the druid take up Christianity in place of his dying faith, the druid kindly refused by pointing to the sky and telling the monk that when they died, maybe they would come to realize that all their different faiths were in vain for "perchance there is nothing but a great mistake" (Ellis 90). When Guenole became outraged at this and again urged the druid to come with him back to the monastery, the druid once again gently refused. He would rather dwell in the woods as he had always done. Besides, he told Guenole on his way toward the forest, "Do not all tracks lead to the same great centre?" (Ellis 90).

In conclusion, the historical Saint Patrick did not banish the druids or the pagan faith by sheer force of will as Muirchu suggested. The saint's pilgrimage to Ireland brought about the changes in that island that would eventually come to replace the old ways. Some pagans may have converted because they were attracted to new Christian values such as forgiveness, while others may have responded to more manipulative methods of conversion. Muirchu was not unusual in typifying the Irish druids as superstitious workers of magic. This seems to have been one of a number of tactics for converting the pagan Irish people to Christianity. These included appropriating Druidic sites for Christian worship and taking advantage of the natural disasters that befell the Irish people in the sixth century AD by saying that these were the result of pagan beliefs.


[1] Presumably, the prominence of snakes in Irish Celtic spirituality is a holdover from the Celts' earlier ancestors, who did not originate in Ireland but instead migrated from mainland Europe. Additionally, Irish Celts had frequent interaction with their British neighbors to the east, and certainly would have known of snake species abroad.

[2] It is likely that the church's views on the Celts were influenced by earlier Roman accounts of Celtic customs, which were overwhelmingly negative and described such practices as headhunting and human sacrifice. The validity of ancient Roman sources has since been called into question by modern scholars. Whether such practices occurred or not is better left to a separate article, but as far as Roman scholars were concerned, descriptions such as these served the function of painting the Celts as uncivilized. Modern scholars suspect that most Roman accounts of Celtic activity can be traced back to one source: Posidonios, a Greek ambassador of Rhodes, who set out to study barbarism as an exercise in stoic philosophy (Ellis, 50). Though Posidonius's works survive only in fragments, he is known to have been a friend of Pompey, and seems to have taken an amicable view of Roman expansionism (Franklin). Contemporaneously, when Julius Caesar wrote about the Celts, he was in the process of subjugating various Celtic strongholds to Roman rule. He had a vested interest in portraying the Celts as barbarous and in need of a civilizing presence such as Rome (Ellis 53).

Works Cited

Bieler, Ludwig. The Patrician Texts in the Book of Armagh. Dublin, Dublin Inst. Adv. Studies, 1979.

Bonwick, James. Irish Druids And Old Irish Religions. 1894.

Eaton, Leo and McCaffrey, Carmel. "In Search of Ancient Ireland: Religion." PBS.

Ellis, Peter Berresford. The Druids. Grand Rapids: William Eerdmans Pub. Comp., 1994.

Franklin, Claire. "To what extent did Posidonius and Theophanes record Pompeian ideology?"   Digressus Sup. 1 (2003): 99-110.

Hanson, R. P. C. The Life and Writings of the Historical Saint Patrick. New York: Seabury Press, 1983.

Hopkin, Alannah. The Living Legend of St. Patrick. New York: St. Martin's, 1989.

Piggot, Stuart. The Druids. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1975.

Sellner, Ed. The Celtic Soul Friend: A Trusted Guide for Today. Notre Dame: Ave Maria, 2002.

Thompson, E. A. Who was Saint Patrick?. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1985.

Bridgette Da Silva is still pursuing her dream of taking over the world with her husband Notah and two mischievous rabbits. She is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate from St. Catherine University (formerly the College of St. Catherine) and continues to write historical and speculative fiction as well as nonfiction. She has another Strange Horizons article entitled "Medieval Mindsets: Narrative Theory and The Mists of Avalon." Updates on her writing can be found on her blog, or feel free to email her at


No comments:

Post a Comment