Ireland: Top Saints

(These pages are an ongoing work in progress)

Window, St Patrick’s Cathedral (CoI), Armagh

The best known Saints associated with Ireland are listed in alphabetical order (pages A-EF-J / K-W), followed by special pages on The First Christians in Ireland, the Patron Saints of Ireland, the 12 Apostles of Erin, Saint Brendan the Navigator, Saintly FamiliesTop Irish MissionariesLater Irish Saints and Foreign Saints Admired in Ireland.

 The first historical / legendary figures to be acclaimed as Saints in Ireland were C5th AD missionaries who brought Christianity, the Latin language and literacy to what the non-natives no doubt regarded as a barbarian land beyond the  northwestern fringes of the then failing Roman Empire.

The most famous has long been Saint Patrick, who established Armagh as the ecclesiastical capital. But he was not the first, and it is thought that many of the stories associated with him actually relate to one or other of the so-called Pre-Patricians, notably Palladius.

Christian beliefs inspired many men and women to leave their families and live as hermits or in spartan monastic settlements. Some sought gnosis on barren Atlantic islands, the most famous  being Saint Colmcille / Columba of Iona, while others included Saint Finion (the Skelligs), Saint Enda (the Aran Islands) and Saint Leo (Inishark).

Ruled by charismatic abbots / abbesses / bishops like Saint Bridget, Saint Finian and Saint Kevin, several monastic communities grew into major centres of spirituality and erudition. Graduates soon spread the reputations of learning centres such as of Clonard, Clonmacnoise and Glendalough gained Ireland renown throughout Christendom, and foreigners came in their hundreds to study on the Isle of Saints And Scholars.

As the “Celtic Church” reached its zenith from the C6th – C9th AD, some Irish monks  exiled themselves to inhospitable climes far from home, reaching the Faroe Islands and Iceland, while a few may have gone even further. Of these, by far the best known for many centuries was Saint Brendan the Navigator.

Others travelled to Britain and the European mainland to re-ignite the guttering flame of Christianity, with varying degrees of success. A few, such as Saint Aidan of Lindisfarne or Saint Columbanus, became hugely influential, while others were killed for their pains, but sometimes achieved posthumous glory, like Saint Killian of Würzburg or Saint Abel of Rheims.

For information on the Three Orders of early Irish Saints, see here.

Most of the first missionaries and many of the later monks, nuns, priests and bishops became acclaimed as Saints, semi-legendary figures enmeshed in a web of stories extolling their bravery, piety, self-mortification, spectacular triumphs and / or gruesome martyrdoms. They either joined or replaced heroes of pre-Christian tales in popular folklore, both in the oral tradition of storytelling and in many of the texts penned by assiduous scribes in monastic scriptoria, ranging from Annals (supposed histories, genealogies and dynastic rolls) to hagiographies. In the same spirit, many of these Saints were ecclesiastically recognised by inclusion in Martyrologies and Liturgical Calendars.

Their Feast Days were celebrated for many generations by holding ritualistic gatherings called Patterns, ostensibly pious occasions of prayer and devotion, frequently involving Holy Wells with ancient pre-Christian undertones, and not infrequently accompanied by fairs, which by the late C18th were often characterised by drunken revelry and even vicious faction fighting.

It was not until the late C13th that Rome reserved the right to canonise saints to the Pontiff. Perhaps ironically, the first Irish Saint to be formally Canonised by a Pope was Saint Malachy of Armagh, the cleric most responsible for bringing the “Celtic Church” into the Western mainstream. He has since been joined by three other Later Irish Saints, most notably the martyred Primate, Saint Oliver Plunkett.

The Feast of All Irish Saints, expressly including the far more numerous “unofficial” ones dating from before the C11th, has been celebrated on the first Sunday in August in Roman Catholic churches since c.1920.

The Church of Ireland (Anglican) and some other Protestant denominations occasionally draw attention to their honouring of the Saints of the “Celtic Church”, on the grounds that these figures represent the true spirit of Ireland’s own home-grown spirituality, held to have been contaminated and corrupted in the medieval period by Papism, like England’s, and then rescued by King Henry VIII on his break with Rome. It is difficult to know how many people take this view seriously.

What is interesting is the degree to which early Irish Christianity was apparently influenced by traditions far more prevalent in the Eastern Mediterranean region than in Western Europe. The strict ascetic nature of Irish monasticism suggests a connection with Egyptian Copts, and is still reflected by the number of Irish Saints venerated by the Orthodox faiths, despite their tiny modern presence in Ireland.

Early Hiberno-Romanesque Entrance Portal, St Brendan’s Cathedral, Clonfert, Co. Galway

The information on these pages is collated from a number of sources, both on and off line. No attempt is made to be scientific, objective or comprehensive. Enjoy!