On the links between Ireland and Egypt – By Sinead

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The first dated mention of Ireland in Roman mandate is found in the Chronicle by Prosper of Aquitaine, 431AD, he mentions ……….. ‘ Palladius was ordained by Pope Celestine, and sent to the Irish believers in Christ’ (ad Scotos, in Christum credentes) ‘as the first bishop’ .

Please note that up until the 12th Century Ireland was known as Scotia and the Irish as Scotti, to Irish and continental writers. The Irish Gaels gave their name to current day Scotland, then Caledonia, with the formation of the Kingdom of Scotland, along with the Picts in and around 490AD, Ireland thereafter became known then as Scotia Major and Caledonia as Scotia Minor. In the bureaucratic world of the Roman Catholic Church, Pope Leo X (1550) eventually granted Caledonia exclusive right over the word Scotland, and this led to Anglo-Scottish takeovers of continental Gaelic monasteries. (Benedict’s Fitzpatrick’s Ireland and the Foundations of Europe).

[Editor’s Note: Scotia was said to be the name of an Egyptian Princess who fled to Ireland from Africa]

According to Muirchu, who lived two centuries after Palladius, in the Book of Armagh it is said……. God hindered Palladius, and neither did those fierce and cruel men receive his doctrine readily, nor did he himself wish to spend time in a strange land, but returned to him who sent him

I suggest that the original Christian Church in Ireland and henceforth its educational achievements, owes its foundations to the Egyptian desert fathers and not Rome.

The link between the Irish Celtic Church and the monastic tradition of the Middle East is supported by a number of scholars, De Lacy states:

“The formation and development of monasticism did not take place in Alexandria which was Greek-speaking and participated in Greek culture, but amongst the native Coptic-speaking Christians of Egypt, which strictly denotes the Delta, and Thebais or Upper Egypt, the whole area watered by the Nile between Aswân and the Mediterranean coast. The formation of monasticism took place in two stages: first came the solitaries, some, but by no means all, of whom were hermits or ‘desert men’; then came the formation of coenobia or monastic communities, at first simply groups of disciples gathered round some well-known and revered teacher.…The monastic life of Egypt became famous throughout the whole Christian Church, and for a long time Egypt was regarded as the ‘Holy Land’ in preference to Palestine, because there could be seen the multitudes of saintly ascetes, and Christians came as pilgrims from all parts to see and hear them. Amongst these were St. Basil the Great, the founder of Greek monasticism, Hilarion, who introduced monasticism into Palestine, Rufinus and a Roman lady named Melania who spent six months in Egypt in 373. In due course monasticism spread abroad and was copied in other lands; indeed one of the most striking features in its history is the rapidity with which it developed and then spread. As the movement passed westward along the Mediterranean various settlements were founded in some of the islands, the most secluded places available where there were no deserts. One of these was founded about 400 at Lerins (St. Honorat) and became a great centre of monastic activity, sending out missionaries and founding monastic colonies in other lands. ………………. the presence of several Egyptian details in the Celtic Church of Ireland, for the monastery of Lerins was organized and conducted on Egyptian models. Thus it came about that the Irish Church was monastic rather than diocesan. There were a few diocesan bishops, but the ruling dignitaries of the Celtic Church in Ireland were abbots who kept a bishop in their monastery ready for use at ordinations and consecrations, but otherwise living as an ordinary monk. The old Celtic monasteries of Ireland did not resemble the medieval abbeys of England: like the Egyptian coenobia they were simply villages where the huts of the ascetes were gathered round a modest oratory used for the week-end Eucharist. There were no deserts in Ireland, but it was the fashion to call the place where a monastery stood a desert, and so we find the term ‘Disert’ or ‘Desert’ in many Irish place-names, as Disertmartin, Disert in Westmeath, Killadysert in Clare, and many others….In spite of its remoteness the Celtic Church of Ireland retained direct contact with the monasteries of Egypt. In the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris there is still preserved a guidebook for the use of Irish monks travelling to Egypt in order to visit the Fathers of the desert. As late as 1320 Simon FitzSimon and Hugh, Franciscans of Dublin, made the pilgrimage to Egypt and left us a record of their journey.”

The nexus between the early Irish Church and the monastic tradition of the Middle East has also been noted by the Rev. John Stirton, in which he relates:
“The illuminations of those splendid manuscripts the Book of Kells (seventh century), now in Dublin, and of the Gospels of Lindisfarne (seventh century) are all Eastern in character. In these, and in the Book of Deer, the figures of the Evangelists reflect the Eastern type, and the Egypto-Greek title o agios is attached to some of them. A Roman origin is impossible, because not a single Italian MSS can be produced, older than the ninth century, having a close resemblance to those of this country. The illuminations resemble Assyrian or Egyptian work. Much of the Celtic ornamentation is similar to that found in early Syriac, Egyptian, and Ethiopic MSS by a resemblance in the delineation of birds and animals to Egyptian fresco painting, in the manner of drawing the wings, in the conventional representations of eagles, lions, and calves, also in the swathed mummy-like figures of Christ. The theory of such an origin is facilitated by the early commercial intercourse which is known to have existed, and to which reference has been made, between this country and the East, and by the frequent expeditions recorded to have been made by early Christian pilgrims of the Irish Celtic Church to the Holy Land, and by the immigration of foreign ecclesiastics.”

The Rev. John Stirton further says: “No church is known to have existed in Ireland before the Norman Conquest that can be called a basilica, none of them being divided into aisles either by stone or wooden pillars, or possessing an apse, and no circular church has yet been found; there is nothing, in short, that would lead us to believe that Ireland obtained her architecture direct from Rome. Everything, on the contrary, tends to confirm the belief of an intimate connection with the further East. In Greece and Ireland and in the Hebrides of Scotland the smallness of the churches is remarkable. They never were, in fact, basilicas for the assembly of large congregations of worshippers, but oratories, where the priest could celebrate the divine mysteries for the benefit of the laity. It is not only at Mount Athos, and other places in Europe, but also in Asia Minor, that we find the method of grouping a large number of small churches together, seven being the favourite number and one often attained. The circular domical dwellings—which are older than the churches, and which are, in the western islands, constructed of loose stones, in horizontal layers, approaching one another till they meet at the apex, like the old so-called treasuries of the Greeks, or the domes of the Jains in India—are also traceable to the East. Similar Christian architectural remains have been found in Cornwall, and in the remote Highlands and Islands of Scotland….The earliest type of monumental cross in Scotland (brought by the Gaels) is an Egyptian or Coptic wheel cross. It appears on several stones at Kirkmadrine in Wigtonshire, along with the Alpha and Omega….The Crux Ansata, the emblem of life in Egyptian hieroglyphics, is found on a stone at Nigg in Ross-shire, and on another at Ardboe, in Ireland. There are many symbols on the Celtic stones of Scotland and Ireland which are still unexplained….The Crescent, the Serpent, and the Elephant must all be Eastern in origin, and these are commonly met with on the Celtic symbol-bearing stones.”

..There are still many Celtic monuments in the north of Africa, over many hundreds of miles, and these contend for the existence of an original Celtic people in Egypt, or, in modern language, that the Irish were once in Egypt.”

One of the ways the Irish Monks sought to separate themselves from the Roman Monks was the shaving of the head. Irish monks shaved the front of the head to distinguish them from the Roman monks who shaved the head in the form of a corona. The Irish haircut was known as the Eastern or St. Paul tonsure.

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6 thoughts on “On the links between Ireland and Egypt – By Sinead”

  1. Interesting. i would just say though, using evidence of connections between Ireland and Egypt in 1320 does not necessarily tell us much about the Celtic church as by this date the church in ireland had been absorbed into mainstream Catholicism (Dublin was of course the part of the country that was most under English control, ‘FitzSimon’ is a quintessentially Norman name, and the Franciscans were a mainstream Catholic order.)

    1. I think that most of Egypt’s influence on Irish culture described by Sinead extended far beyond the Celtic Church, right into the aristocratic families, the rulers, and their advisors, the druids. The date mentioned, 1320, was the end of a 900 year era begun at Lerins monastery in about A.D.400, well thats how I read it.

  2. The church at Kilmochedar in County Kerry has very early Tau gravestones, suggesting Coptic bishops burials. The Dingle Peninsula is rich in Voptic and Byzantine crosses and art. There is a stylised dove and a flabellum on a 4th century gravestone at Caherlihillen, near Glenbeigh.

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