9th April 2019 – Church Island, Ireland and Rome in the Early Middle Ages

By Dr Michael Ryan MRIA

Skerries Historical Society were delighted to welcome Michael Ryan, MRIA, former Keeper of Irish Antiquities at the National Museum of Ireland and Director of the Chester Beatty Library to give the April presentation. With a pedigree like that, the audience expected erudition and they got it in spades. There was so much packed into the talk, ‘Church Island, Ireland and Rome in the early Middle Ages’, that it could have filled an entire year of an undergraduate course. And it was fascinating.

Michael began with an overview of Ireland’s place in the Roman world: a strange, cold and inhospitable place that the Romans had no interest in conquering – they wouldn’t have been able to raise enough tax from the locals to make it worth their while. But they were happy to trade. Michael recalled field walking Drumanagh promontory with his brother in the mid 1970s after the owner had deep ploughed a large area which was in the preserved monument. They found, amongst other things, a sherd of a Roman amphora probably used for transporting wine and a bronze pin. Other finds of Roman brooches, coins and Iron Age fragments were found by less honest treasure hunters. One important find was spirited out of the country to sell in London. Fortunately the sale was stopped and the artefacts returned to their rightful home in the National Museum.

Michael noted that it was some 14 years since he had last addressed Skerries Historical Society when he offended a few sensibilities by debunking some of the myths surrounding St Patrick. And he pulled no punches this time either. We may be very proud of our holy footprint on Red Island – but apparently we copied the idea from the writings of 7th century Muirchu, who told of how an angel appeared to Patrick over thirty times in a place called Scirit where the angel’s footprint was burned into the rock. Unfortunately this rock is not on Red Island, but in the Sliabh Mis mountains in Co. Antrim.

I’m happy to report that Michael found no reason to doubt the saint’s close connection to Skerries. He showed that when Malachy called for the 1148 synod to be held on Church Island, it was precisely because that island was known from writings in the earliest texts about him, as the place where Patrick had first landed when he came as a missionary to Ireland.

Malachy was on his way to Rome to ask the Pope for the pallia – a a pallium is a kind of stole which was the symbol of archbishops for the newly reformed Irish church died at Clairvaux. Its famous abbott, Bernard, paid tribute to his friend at his burial and later wrote a ‘Life of Malachy’. In order to emphasise how saintly Malachy was, Bernard was not above exaggerating the barbarity of the Irish. In fact, he painted a picture of such depravity that Pope Adrian was inspired to back Henry II’s plan to invade Ireland. The fact that Adrian himself was English, was purely coincidental!


Report by Oona Roycroft