Ireland in Late Antiquity: A Forgotten Frontier?
By Elva Johnston
Studies in Late Antiquity, Vol. 1:2 (2017)
Abstract: It is often assumed that Ireland entered recorded history with the emergence of organized Christianity on the island, at some point in the fourth or fifth century C.E. This assumption has meant that the histories of late antique and early medieval Ireland are primarily viewed through the lens of conversion. Religious identities, frequently imagined as a binary opposition of “Christian” and “pagan,” have been a dominant historiographical focus.
This paper argues that it is more fruitful to examine the relationship between Ireland and its neighbors from c. 150–c. 550 C.E., through a frontier dynamic, a dynamic in which religious identity was but one factor among many. By recasting the Irish experience in this way, a more comparative approach can be taken, one which cuts against the grain of Irish exceptionalism. Moreover, situating Ireland within the scholarly discourse of late antiquity allows for a new and nuanced understanding of the social and religious changes that characterized this period on the island.
Introduction: D. A. Binchy, one of the great scholars of early Ireland, noted that the writings and career of St Patrick presented the first problem in Irish history, one which he did much to illuminate. His ground-breaking article “Patrick and his Biographers: Ancient and Modern” remains essential reading and continues to inform the historiography. Scholars still debate the parameters of Patrick’s career and explore the relationship of his mission to that of Palladius, a bishop “sent to the Irish believing in Christ” by Pope Celestine in 431 C.E. This emphasis on establishing the conversion story of Ireland is not unexpected. It is, after all, directly inspired by some of the earliest extant sustained narrative sources from the island, including not only Patrick’s fifth-century writings but later writings about him.
Moreover, Patrick has trailed an immensely long literary cloak, winding through the confessional crises of Reformation and Counter-Reformation Ireland, right into the modern era. As a result, early Irish historical scholarship is greatly invested in analyzing conversion, Christianization and changing religious affiliations. Yet, it rarely emphasizes the period before 400 C.E. in its own right, despite its clear importance for understanding how Christianity took root in the first place.