Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Oriental Influences in the Early Irish Church

Ballycotton Brooch, 8th cent.

Back in 1875 in Ballycotton in Co. Cork, Ireland, a silver brooch was unearthed from a bog. It was dated to the eighth century AD. It was clearly a Christian cross, but what was strange about it was the inscription in the center. It was in Arabic and contained the word Allah. The rest of the inscription is unclear, it is thought either to read, "we have repented to God" or "If God wills". Either way, it is striking to consider the possibility of Arabic speaking Christians in Ireland at this time.

The evidence for oriental Christians in Ireland is fragmentary but there are several fascinating mentions of Egyptian and even Armenian Christians in Ireland from around the same time as the Ballycotton brooch.

In an early Irish litany attributed to Óengus of Tallaght (fl. 800) there is mention of seven Egyptian monks (manchaib Egipt)
buried in Uilaigh, Co. Antrim. The discovery in 2006 of an Egyptian style book binding (with papyrus lining) with the Faddan More psalter in a Tipperary bog has given support to the theory of Egyptian Christians in Ireland around the year 800.
Litany of Óengus mentioning Egyptian Monks in Ireland
Literary sources in the early Irish church do make occasional reference to the Egyptian Church. The famous Stowe Missal (c.750) invokes the Egyptian desert Father Anthony and the other hermits of the Scetis valley in Egypt (Antoni et ceterorum partum heremi Sciti). But there is nothing unusual in this per se, as the fame of St. Anthony was widespread in the west through the Latin translation of Athanasius' 'Life of Anthony' and the writings of John Cassian. More unusual is the curious account of the origin of the Irish liturgy. There is preserved in a manuscript in the British library (Nero A II), an account written in the eighth century claiming to trace the different origins for the Gallic, Roman, Oriental and Irish liturgies. The manuscript claims that the Irish liturgy was derived from the liturgy used in Egypt. The account is certainly an embellishment of an early tradition relating to Ireland and Egypt but as Warren has noted it still may preserve "a solid foundation" for such a link.

The arrival of Christians from Ummayad Spain or Egypt does open up some interesting questions relating to the character and theology of the early Irish church. Telepneff has suggested that certain Irish ascetic practices once thought to be exclusively Irish can actually be traced back to Egyptian sources. One example is the so called crux-vigilia. This ascetic practice involved praying for hours on end with your arms extended in the form of a cross. Verkerk mistakenly asserted that the cross vigil was exclusive to Irish monasticism, but as Telepneff has correctly shown the practice was followed by Egyptian monks like Pachomios as early as the fourth century. 


Flabellum as depicted
in the Book of Kells
Another oriental influence in the Irish church can be seen in the use of flabella, which were long hand held fans used in the liturgy of eastern churches to keep flies off the eucharist. The use of these fans in Ireland is attested in both liturgical texts and also in the Book of Kells, which contains several depictions of angels holding flabellum. These fans are still used in the Coptic Church in Egypt today.


Discoveries like the Ballycotton brooch and the papyrus fragments in the Faddan More psalter have highlighted the role that oriental Christians, like the Copts, once played in the development of the early Irish church.

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