Christianity and the Latin tradition in early Medieval Ireland
Joseph F.T. Kelly (John Carroll University, Cleveland Ohio
Bulletin of the John Rylands Library: Vol. 68:2 (1986)
Christianity stands behind the introduction of literacy and a literate culture among several ancient peoples who were in contact with Rome, such as the Armenians and the Visigoths,and also among the ancient Irish, the first barbarian people to be converted outside a Roman framework. The pre-Christian Irish did have a form of writing called ogham, incised, usually linear, writing on lapidary monuments, which developed “in southern Ireland, probably in the fourth century, as a result of contact with Roman Christian civilization and the Roman alphabet”, but incised stones are a far cry from books. True literacy, that is, the use of writing and books as a normal and indispensable part of life, awaited the Christianisation of the island in the fifth and sixth centuries.
That last sentence may seem too bold to some, since, prima facie, the link between Christianity and literacy may not have been decisive; that is, could not Christianity have been merely the conduit for literacy and, once the Irish discovered it, literacy per se attracted them? The answer to this would be Yes if the adoption of literacy were a necessary consequence-or even an historically verifiable commonplace-of contact between literate and non- literate societies, but it is not. For centuries, in such diverse places as Brazil and the Philippines, non-literate societies have existed alongside literate ones but have not availed themselves of the benefits of literacy. Indeed, ancient Ireland is itself an example of this phenomenon.