A spiritual dimension to human existence is deeply rooted in most civilisations, and in Ireland it is a feature of the earliest settlers. The Neolithic or New Stone Age people were our first farmers who occupied the country from about 4,000 BC to 2,500 BC, replacing the hunter-gatherers who existed prior to that time. This new method of organising society revolutionised the way people lived: forests were now cleared to grow wheat and barley and to raise domesticated animals, and most importantly permanent settlements were established. In time this society flourished and had the resources to build its most enduring legacy, megalithic monuments – one has but to visit the passage tombs in the Boyne Valley in order to appreciate the intricate skills of the people who planned and built them. It is with a sense of wonder that we view the sophisticated stone art with which the monuments are adorned, and to realise that their purpose was to honour the dead and make a statement of belief in an afterlife. Monuments built by the Neolithic people were often situated on the summits of high places and in west Wicklow we have fine examples in the passage tomb on Seefin Mountain close to Manor Kilbride and on Baltinglass Hill. Another passage tomb, on Church Mountain close to Donard, was later modified by early Christians who built a small church within the original structure.
The Bronze Age people who lived about 2,500-800 BC have also left evidence of their belief in the spiritual, which can be seen in the ritualistic site at Athgreany under Church Mountain, known as the Piper’s Stones. A spiritual dimension can also be seen in the Iron Age that followed (c800 BC), druidic priest were central to the religious practices of that society, but we are told in some of the Irish sagas that initially they were deeply opposed to the arrival of the new religion. Further examples of the spiritual awareness of our ancestry are ancient royal sites like that at Dún Ailinne, close to Kilcullen and Tara in Meath.
Passage tomb on Seefin Mountain
Coming of Christianity
The coming of Christianity to Ireland in the 5th century AD is traditionally associated with St Patrick, but it is now known that there were already some Christian communities in the country before that time, especially traders who had come in contact with the new religion in Britain or mainland Europe. In 431 AD, a bishop named Palladius was sent by Pope Celestine to minister to these communities. He is said to have landed on the Wicklow coast and founded three churches, two of which were in west Wicklow – the first, Domnec Ardec, the little church built within the cairn on Church mountain close to Donard; the second, Cill Fine, said to be located at Colbinstown near Dunlavin.
Patrick came later in the 5th century and was in fact returning to the country in which as a youth he had spent six years in slavery. This time he came freely as a missionary bishop, with the desire to convert the Irish to Christianity. He was highly successful, the country becoming one of the first outside the Roman empire to be converted to the new religion. Many of the legends associated with Patrick and later with Irish saints such as Brigid and Columcille, show that there was a struggle with the old druidic beliefs and the new religion initially but in time the old order merged peacefully with the new.
A significant feature of the early church in Ireland was the number of holy men and women, who wishing to devote themselves to the spiritual life, went to remote parts of the country to live lives of solitude and prayer – we have only to think of Kevin of Glendalough, Kieran of Clonmacnoise and Enda of Aran. From small beginnings many of these early Christian churches grew into large monasteries and in time became important seats of learning and culture and their influence spread internationally.
Patrick developed his church on a hierarchical model based on dioceses and parishes, the same structure that was used in the early Christian Church, which in turn followed the administrative lines of the Roman empire. This model came to be used generally in all the Christian churches of the West. In the early Irish church, however, within a century or two of Patrick’s death a different pattern emerged, organised not on diocesan lines but based on monastic foundations. The monasteries were ruled by abbots (and in some cases, it is said, abbesses) and tended to amalgamate the smaller churches in their vicinity. This structure was particularly suited to the Gaelic landholding system of the time as found in the Brehon Laws, and was the norm until about the 12th century.
Piper’s Stones at Athgreaney with in background right Church Mountain
Early Christian Sites in the Blessington Area
Reminders of Patrick’s fledgling communities are plentiful in the Blessington area, for instance, Kilmalum just outside the town of Blessington, is a site associated with St. Molomma, one of Patrick’s contemporaries. Within living memory an old burial ground called the Riligeen (little graveyard), was still discernible in the townland while close by an area known as Bóithrin na gCró (road of the huts), recalled the monastic site itself. A more tangible early Christian site, situated a short distance away at Burgage on the banks of the Liffey, is Domhnach Imlech (church in the marsh), founded most likely by one of Molomma’s monks. The granite high cross known as St Mark’s Cross, which stood on the site and which is the symbol of the present-day Our Lady’s parish, possible dates from the 8th century and points to the fact that Domhnach Imlech was a foundation of some wealth. The cross was relocated to the new Blessington graveyard when Poulaphuca Reservoir was created. Also in the graveyard can be seen a medieval ring-headed cross from the same monastic foundation. Two other early Christian sites in the area are a Patrician foundation at Kilpatrick thought to have been situated in the present-day Baltyboys graveyard, and Templeboden at Lacken, which was associated with St Boden, said to be a contemporary of Kevin of Glendalough.
In the Manor Kilbride area, the townland names Shankill (old church, and sometimes known locally as Chapel Seefin), and Kilbride (church of St Brigid), point to foundations from an early period. In the case of the former all physical evidence has long disappeared, but the latter gives a different picture. The present graveyard in Kilbride is the site of a church associated with St Brigid of Kildare and probably replaced the one at Shankill. The first church in Kilbride, like most pre-12th century churches in Ireland, would have been a wooden construction but was replaced by a medieval stone building, the outline of which can be seen in the old section of Manor Kilbride graveyard.
For nearly four centuries following the coming of Patrick, Irish monasteries were centres of a golden age of learning, culture and art. One has but to think of the skill of the artists and scribes who produced the illuminated books of the gospels such as the Book of Kells and the Book of Durrow, or the workers in metal and precious stones who created the Ardagh Chalice and the Derrnaflan Paten, or the master masons who chiselled in stone to make high crosses like that at Moone or Monasterboice. The two Blessington high crosses stand in the same tradition. Monasteries, such as Glendalough and Clonmacnoise, attracted scholars from abroad, and links were forged with several European cities – Irish monks were to be found, for example, at St Gall in Switzerland, and Vienna and Salzburg in Austria. But the peace and tranquillity of the monasteries, many of whom were situated in isolated areas of the country or on remote islands, was rudely shattered by the arrival of the next wave of visitors to our shores, the Vikings, who were initially attracted by the wealth to be plundered from these sites.
St Mark’s Cross
de Paor, L. (1993), Saint Patrick’s World, Dublin: Four Courts Press.
Hannigan, K. and W. Nolan (eds.) (1994), Wicklow: History and Society, Dublin: Geography Publications.
Jones, C. (2007), Temples of Stone: Exploring the Megalithic Tombs of Ireland, Cork: Collins Press.
Ó Maitiú, S. (2011), Lacken and its Church down the Years, self published.
Price, L. (1953) The Place-Names of Co Wicklow, Dublin: Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies.
Trant, K. (2004), The Blessington Estate 1667-1908, Dublin: Anvil Books.
© Kathy Trant, July 2013