Skerries, St Patrick and Early Christianity

Published in Issue 3 (Autumn 2000), News, News, St Patrick, Volume 8

The Skerries Patrician Millennium Project hosted a conference of major international significance last May at the local Community School. Skerries and its islands were an important centre of the ancient Gaelic kingdom of Brega, which from the late Iron Age to the Norman intervention of 1169, approximately covered the same area of modern Fingal bounded by the Rivers Tolka (to the south) and Delvin (to the north). Such are St Patrick’s links to the area in local tradition that Skerries people proudly point out his ‘footprint’ in stone near the Captain’s Rock but less frequently to the legend of the saint devouring his pet goat!
Skerries and Church Island (Inis Pádraic) can justifiably lay claim to a central role in the history and archaeology of early Christianity in Ireland. There are several important written sources, some dating back as the sixth and seventh centuries, which suggest the areas as the location of St Patrick’s first landfall. In the eighth century, Church Island and its monastery had attracted the attention of Norse raiders and later important religious foundations grew and evolved until the early thirteenth century. As the site developed, it attracted the attention of local Irish chiefs and ecclesiastical rulers so that it became an important political focal point for the kingdom of Brega. The ecclesiastical site on Church Island had become so nationally significant that in 1127 it hosted a synod which preceded the reorganisation of Irish dioceses. It was here (Holmpatrick) that decisions were made to change from a largely Celtic style church to a Roman one encompassing administrative structures which have survived to the present day.
Opening the conference, Dean Robert McCarthy of St Patrick’s Cathedral remarked that as national attitudes harden towards asylum- seekers it is worthwhile to remember that St Patrick himself was a poor immigrant slave to Ireland. Keynote speaker Charles Thomas, Director of  the Institute of Cornish Studies, spoke on Palladius and the introduction of Christianity to Ireland. Palladius was a bishop sent by the pope to Ireland before St Patrick in the early fifth century. He had established Christian settlements along the east coast and Palladian Christianity was well established in Brega before the arrival of Patrick. Later, however the church at Armagh, the dominant one in pre-Norman Ireland, strongly identified with the cult of St Patrick so much so that the contribution of the original missionary work of Palladius was depreciated and ignored.
Edel Bhreathnach (Tara Research Fellow) lectured on  the geographical location of the kingdom of Brega, followed by a visual tour by slides of the remains of early Christian sites in Brega presented by Leo Swan (Archtech Archaeological Technology). Catherine Swift (University of Liverpool) cautioned that the study of accounts of St Patrick’s missionary work in Brega from ancient manuscripts and faulty translations demonstrated little to show that he had any connection with Brega during the fifth and sixth centuries. Cormac Bourke (Ulster Museum) delivered a fascinating paper on Irish pan-nationalism in the twentieth century and how its perceptions related to Irish ethnology during the early medieval period. Ireland in the early Celtic period was not just the island of Ireland in the Irish nationalist republican sense but an Ireland which included the ancient Scottish kingdom of Delriada, now the Scottish Western Isles; a concept which is now embodied  in the new Article 2 of the Irish Constitution and in the Council of the Isles as defined in the Good Friday Agreement (1998).
Peter Harbison (Royal Irish Academy) presented an illustrated account of the pictorial representations of St Patrick found in stained glass, tapestries and manuscripts throughout Europe from early Christian times to the modern day. Michael Ryan (Chester Beatty Library) outlined the progress on surveys carried out on behalf of the Committee on Inis Pádraic and remarked that it had come as a surprise just how extensive the earthworks were on the island. He presented a large map which outlined the detailed surveys carried out to date and hoped that in the future further geophysical studies (which are very costly) would be carried out prior to any archaeological activities. Donnchadh Ó Corráin (UCC) analysed the linguistic interpretations of ancient texts dealing with Brega, Tara and St Patrick.
Alan McGovern (Maynooth) spoke about the political background of Church Island and its relationship with Lusk. Howard Clarke (UCD) discussed the influence of Norse Dublin on the the development of Brega. He noted that the survey of Church Island which showed extensive earthworks may in time reveal a Norse settlement. Martin Holland (TCD) discussed the political and clerical ramifications for the Irish Church of the 1127 synod of Holmpatrick.
The conference closed with a tour of historical sites at Lusk, Swords and St Dulough’s, Malahide, conducted by Peter Harbison. In the evening an interdenominational service was held at Holmpatrick church in celebration of St Patrick and the Millennium.

Skerries Patrician Millennium Project homepage: http://gofree.indigo.ie/~ecoyle

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