Pope Gregory the Great and the Irish
By John R C Martyn
Journal of the Australian Early Medieval Association, Vol. 1 (2005)
Abstract: Pope Gregory the Great’s apparently close links with Columban and the Irish clergy between 592 and 601 are revealed through five of his letters: 2.43 (July 592), an encyclical sent to the Irish clergy, almost certainly including Columban; 4.18 (March 594) about an Irish priest valuable to the Pope in Rome; 5.17 (November 594) about Columban’s reception of Gregory’s ‘Pastoral Care’; 9.11 (October 600) praising Columban; and 11.52 (July 601) about an Irish Bishop Quiritus. My version of Columban’s letter to the Pope follows, with brief analysis of his irony, word-play and literary style. It shows how the Irishman’s erudite and very rhetorical letter would have tickled the Pope’s fancy rather than offend him.
Introduction: Gregory the Great was born in about 540 into a wealthy family, and was very well educated in the Classics and in rhetoric. He rose in the Senate to become Prefect of Rome, the city’s most important secular post. But at his father’s death, he became a monk and converted his family’s mansion in Rome and large estates in Sicily into seven self-supporting monasteries. After about six years as Papal emissary in Constantinople, he was chosen as Pope, and reluctantly took over the See in September 590, aged 50. Besides his many scholarly works, he wrote fourteen books of letters, used to unite and reform the Christian empire, with plenty of tact, humour and legal expertise, until his longed-for release from crippling diseases, in March 604. Using these letters, I hope to provide a new picture of the Pope’s relationship with the Irish Church, and especially Columban, its leading representative in Europe at this time.