Patrick and Columba: The Beginnings of Celtic Christianity


The names of Patrick and Columba are giants in the study of the spread of Christianity in Britain.

Patrick it was who came to Ireland in 432, bringing the teachings of Christianity with him. He established abbeys that were not only centers of faith but also centers of learning. Through the study of the Bible in Greek and Latin, the Irish learned both Christianity and classical languages and thought.

Patrick was very wise in his advancement of his beliefs. He didn’t preach fire and the sword. Rather, like his counterparts in Saxon England, he met the cultist leaders on their ground, in their own ceremonies, and told them of his own religion. When the people saw the similarities, they embraced the new faith, which allowed them to keep important elements of the old. Patrick also adopted deities, although he gave them demotions. A famous example of this last point is the goddess Bride’s becoming St. Bridgit. Through this remarkable combination of religious beliefs and practices, Patrick built the foundation of Celtic Christianity.

When the Romans left, of course, they took their protection of the Christian faith with them. The invading Saxons didn’t really have time for Christianity, preferring their own gods. (It has been seen, however, in previous columns, that Christianity eventually caught in Kent and elsewhere in Saxon England.) In the wake of the Roman withdrawal and the Saxon Advent, Christians retired to Ireland, there to continue the practice of what we will call Celtic Christianity.

In 563, Columba traveled to Scotland, specifically to the island of Iona, in the Kingdom of Dalriada. Within a few years, Columba’s message spread to the entire kingdom, which was one of the most powerful in Scotland at that time. The prestige of the colony on Iona grew so much that in 574, the King of Dalriada, Aedan mac Gabrain, was crowned on the island.

From these humble beginnings, Celtic Christianity spread far and wide, encompassing most of Ireland and Scotland and expanding south and east into Britain, where it ran head-on into Roman Christianity.