Archives For Celtic Christianity


Two Books on Christian Ireland

A Review by Mike Bowling.

Empty Pulpits: Ireland’s Retreat from Religion.
Malachi O’Doherty
Gill & Macmillan, 2008
Buy now: [ Amazon ]

Sun Dancing
Geoffrey Moorhouse.
Paperback: Harcourt, 1997.
Buy now:  [ Amazon ]

As Belfast based journalist and broadcaster Malachi O’Doherty reflects on the present state of affairs regarding religion in Ireland, one sentence captures both his mood and his assessment. This statement comes from the Introduction of his book Empty Pulpits: Ireland’s Retreat from Religion (Gill & Macmillan, 2008): “Where England appears to have lost its faith in two generations, we have done it in one.” O’Doherty does not write as a theologian, or clergy, or a lay leader; he writes as a keen observer of both culture and politics. Throughout the book, countless interviews and multitudes of examples create a mood of confidence for O’Doherty’s pessimistic assertions regarding Ireland’s religious climate. But there is more to this book than just doom and gloom; in very accessible language, the reader is led down the path which has resulted in a secularized Ireland. The first part (chapters 1 through 9) tells the story of a society whose dominant faith was Christian (and mostly Catholic), but one which by the 1950’s began to set their faith aside as if it were a toy of their childhood…cherished only as a fond remembrance. The second part (chapters 10 through 14) outlines the current debate in Ireland as both government leaders and officials within the Catholic Church try to understand the influence of “a la carte” Catholics, the growing element of liberalization and the crisis within the priesthood which has erased the traditional role of faith in Irish communities. Part Three (chapters 15, 16 and a conclusion) reminds the reader that there has been no triumph for atheism in all of this, just a growing apathy toward all things religious. O’Doherty concludes by suggesting there are possibilities for a comeback of religion in Ireland, but that it is highly unlikely. By the end of the book, it is abundantly clear that the author has little to no confidence in a sovereign God calling out a revived Church. Having made numerous trips to the Emerald Isle, I would suggest that only a sovereign move by God can save Ireland from the sure grip of its present secularization.

All of the above is made more puzzling by remembering the rich Christian heritage of Ireland. Celtic spirituality may be all but dead in Ireland, however in many other parts of the world it continues to inspire many on the frontiers of re-imagining Christian spirituality. Let me suggest for consideration a wonderful book published about 13 years ago entitled Sun Dancing (Harcourt Inc., 1997). The author, Geoffrey Moorhouse, tells the story behind the story of how Irish monks saved western civilization during the Middle Ages. Thomas Cahill’s How the Irish Saved Civilization is entertaining history, but Moorhouse takes the well-known penciled sketches and fills them with captivating detail and spectacular color. Part One is an odd combination of historical fiction and spiritual meditations set in the saga of life on Skellig Michael, a Christian monastic community, from AD 588 to AD 1222. Skellig Michael is a severe piece of rock which rises dramatically out of the Atlantic Ocean a few miles out from the southwest coast of Ireland. The 44 acre island was home to a handful of monks who lived out an austere monastic vision which is both curious and inspiring. Part Two is the offer of historical evidence supporting the rich storytelling found in the first part. This work is masterfully done with 49 short chapters which are numbered according to the page numbers in Part One which they further illuminate. The effect is a deepening of understanding and an expansion of the imagination.

[As someone who loves Ireland, its history and its people, it fills me with sadness every time I consider the spiritual lethargy and aimlessness of the Irish people surrounded by the ruins of a once vibrant Christian faith. I cannot help but think that deep in the memory of Ireland’s sacred sites are the seeds of a spiritual revival rooted in devotion to God and the love of Christ. May God raise up a visible and peaceful community in the midst of that enchanted land.]

Other Excellent Ireland-related books from CBD…

013249: Celtic Daily Prayer: Prayers and Readings from the Northumbria Community Celtic Daily Prayer:
Prayers and Readings from
the Northumbria Community

By HarperOne

255570: Ireland"s Saint: The Essential Biography of St. Patrick Ireland’s Saint:
The Essential Biography of St. Patrick

By J.B. Bury, edited by Jon M. Sweeney / Paraclete Press

18493: How the Irish Saved Civilization How the Irish Saved Civilization

By Thomas Cahill / Random House, Inc

85853: The Celtic Way of Evangelism The Celtic Way of Evangelism

By George Hunter / Abingdon Press

1806X: Every Earthly Blessing: Resdiscovering the Celtic   Tradition Every Earthly Blessing:
Resdiscovering the Celtic Tradition

By Esther de Waal / Morehouse Publishing


A Review

(Christian Encounters Series)
Jonathan Rogers.
Paperback: Thomas Nelson, 2010.
Buy now: [ ]

Reviewed by Chris Smith.

ST Patrick by Jonathan RogersOver the centuries, there have been a multitude of biographies of Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland.  And now as part of the first installment of their biography series “Christian Encounters,” Thomas Nelson has released a new biography of St. Patrick by Jonathan Rogers.  Although this is not the most extensive biography of Patrick’s life and work, Rogers does a good job of introducing Ireland’s saint.  Relying heavily on the two extant works that can most reliably be attributed to Patrick (The Confession and The Letter Sent to the Soldiers of Coroticus – both of which are included as appendices in this volume), Rogers focuses on sorting out the reality of the historical Patrick from the many Irish legends that have surrounded his life over the centuries.  The book’s first chapter does a fine job of describing the historical context in which Patrick’s life unfolded, i.e., the close of the Roman Empire. The final chapter of the book explores the theological significance of St. Patrick for the Church today as “A Witness to All Nations,” and the chapters between explore the unfolding of Patrick’s life in chronological order.  One of Roger’s recurring themes throughout the book is the parallels between the apostolic ministry of St. Paul and that of St. Patrick.  Most of Rogers’ work sticks pretty close to the realm of the factual, and one wishes at times he would have gone deeper in his historical and especially in his theological reflections.  However, this volume excels at what it is intended to be, an introductory biography, and Rogers writes with language that is clear and accessible for most readers.  If your knowledge of St. Patrick is limited to shamrocks, leprechauns and green beer, then I highly recommend that you take a few hours in this holiday season to enjoy Jonathan Rogers’ retelling of the story of St. Patrick’s life and works.


With St. Patrick’s Day coming up next week, we a presented with a wonderful opportunity to reflect on the history of Ireland and the Irish people.

There are a number of striking issues that come to mind, when I think about the Church and Ireland.  For instance:

  • The lives and work of saints like Patrick and Brendan.
  • Celtic Christianity and its distinction from Roman Christianity.
  • Celtic Monasticism.
  • Irish Immigration to the United States.
  • The deep conflict between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism.
  • And more…

So, we want to know what interests you most (of the above issues or others) about Irish Christianity, and what books have you read in reflecting on these issues?

Please use the comments below to discuss.  Note: We do get hit with a good deal of spam, so we have to moderate your comments.  We ask your patience, as we try to get your comments moderated as quickly as possible.