Ireland is often called the ‘Isle of Saints and Scholars’. The reason for this is Celtic Orthodoxy. During the dark ages, and the 5th Century in particular, civil systems in Europe broke down. The Roman Empire fragmented under the migrations of Goths, Vandals, Alans, Suebi, Burgundians, Franks, Huns, Lombards etc. The Christian Church in the West lost cohesion and direction in this period. Heresies flourished in the vacuum of central control.
Continental reformists tried to hold it together, the most famous being St Augustine (who resolved the Faith Vs Belief dichotomy and established the “City of God” as an ideal that could withstand the loss of place) and St Benedict (who gave the best known of the Monastic rules). Benedict died in 543 AD, the year in which St Columbanus was born.
Columbanus is the monk who most represents what people mean when they talk of the isle of saints and scholars. Columbanus brought Celtic Orthodoxy to Europe. The Irish Monks began a pagan conversion mission with Germanic tribes that can be argued to have persisted in one form or another until the Eastern and Western Churches met in the Baltic States in the 14th Century Northern Crusades.
The story goes like this. Christianity came to Ireland in the early 5th Century, when Europe was in turmoil. A strong Celtic monastic tradition was founded and the monasteries were the dominant clerical force in Ireland. The Irish Monasteries were insulated from the turmoil in Europe, and the invasions of pagan Angles, Saxons and Jutes experienced in England. They acted as a reservoir for orthodox Christianity. They also served as a well of education. Nobles from all over Western Europe sent children to Irish Monasteries for an education in a safe environment. Many of these children returned to their own lands as educated Christians. They were a cohesive force for the development of Christian cooperation, and paved the way for the ascent of Christian kings in Europe such as Clovis and the Merovingian dynasty.
Arianism was more pervasive than Catholicism in the Frankish courts when Clovis came to power. His alignment with Catholicism was controversial and may have lost him some military support. Ultimately it gained him allies from non-Frankish races, such as the Britons and the remaining Gallo-Roman aristocracy.
Without Clovis we would not have had a unified Frankish kingdom in the West. Without the Franks Charles Martell could not have risen to power. The Armies of Islam could have smashed Europe unopposed in the 8th Century. We would never have had Charlemagne and the Holy Roman Empire. The Irish Monastic Education system was the little acorn from which the Holy Roman Empire grew.
From Ireland St Columba established missions to Britain from his Monastery in Iona in Scotland, seeking to convert the pagan Picts of Scotland and the Anglo-Saxon tribes of England.
At the same time St Columbanus took Irish missions to mainland Europe. The significance of his mission might be suggested by the fact that he took 12 companions or ‘apostles’ with him. Of these two Columbanus can be seen to have had the more significant effect on the wider stage. In Europe he established Celtic monasteries in France and in Italy. He challenged the emergence of heresies such as Arianism and Nestorianism. In doing so he was criticizing Papal Authority, because he questioned why the Papacy was allowing the dilution of orthodoxy. He established an Irish monastic tradition on the European mainland which demanded a response from Rome.
Many Celtic practices differed from those in Rome. The rule of Columbanus was stricter than the rule of Benedict. The tonsure was visibly different, the Celtic monks shaving the front of the head and the Romans shaving the crown. The date of Easter was calculated differently also. All of these things brought the Irish monks on a collision course with Rome.
Columbanus, by coincidence, was born in the year Benedict died, and died on this day in the year 615AD. Over the following decades the Papacy rebuilt its influence and Roman practices replaced those of the Irish. It was 50 years before the clash between the Celts and Rome was fully and finally resolved by the Synod of Whitby in the Jute Kingdom of Northumbria, in England.
The legend of Ireland, as an isle of Saints and Scholars, was attributable to actions that happened largely in a period of only 50 years but had impacts over thousands of years.