On the Edge of Europe
The story of Ireland and the Birth of Europe picks up a couple of hundred years after the fall of the Roman Empire in the fifth century CE. Back then, the Early Irish were often regarded as fierce barbarians, existing on the periphery of Europe on an island in a ‘monster-infested Ocean’. Although there is some evidence of trade with Ireland (known as Hibernia), effectively the Roman Empire had extended only as far as parts of Britain. As a result, relatively little was known about Ireland overseas (Jones, 1971), and thus the Irish were viewed with suspicion with their unusual customs and language. One of the earliest mentions of Hibernia was by the Greek philosopher Strabo who claimed that the island was barely habitable due to the cold, and that the inhabitants were ‘man-eaters’ as well as ‘heavy-eaters’. Another writer, the Roman geographer Pomponius Mela claimed that the Irish were more savage than any other race. As the Middle Ages progressed, the negative perception of the Irish as “barbarians” began to fade.
Island of Saints
Ireland has a rich history of Christian missionaries and saints who played a crucial role in spreading Christianity throughout the country and beyond its shores. Ireland rose to prominence as a centre of learning and monasticism during the early medieval period, between the 5th and the 9th centuries. There are 150 known Irish saints, and their lives are recorded in significant Irish manuscripts (Ganley, n.d.). Saint Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland, is perhaps the most famous of these figures. His work establishing monasteries and converting the Irish to Christianity laid the groundwork for Ireland’s reputation as a “Land of Saints”.
Island of Scholars
From the early medieval period onwards, Ireland became known for its vibrant scholarship and learning. Monasteries and other religious institutions served as hubs of learning and scholarship, drawing academics from all over Europe. Irish monks and scholars were renowned for their commitment to learning, and during the Dark Ages when much of Europe saw a decline in education and literacy, they were instrumental in preserving and transmitting classical knowledge and manuscripts. Irish scholars also made significant contributions to various fields, including theology, philosophy, history, poetry, and law. Ireland earned the moniker “Island of Scholars” thanks to its intellectual prowess and scholarly endeavours.
Island of Saints and Scholars
Thus, the combination of these two aspects—holiness associated with saints and intellectual pursuits associated with scholars—led to Ireland being fondly referred to as the “Island of Saints and Scholars.” It reflects the historical significance of Ireland as a place of both religious and academic excellence. This reputation has left a lasting impact on Ireland’s cultural heritage and continues to be celebrated and remembered to this day.
Ganley, E. (n.d.). Why medieval Ireland was known as the “island of saints.” Maynooth University. https://www.maynoothuniversity.ie/research/spotlight-research/why-medieval-ireland-was-known-island-saints
Jones, W.R. (1971) “The image of the Barbarian in Medieval Europe on JSTOR,” Comparative Studies in Society and History, 13 (4 Oct.), pp. 376–407. Available at: https://www.jstor.org/stable/178207.
Maxwell, N. (2013, February 21). Hibernia Romana? Ireland & the Roman empire. History Ireland. https://www.historyireland.com/hibernia-romana-ireland-the-roman-empire/
The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. (2017, August 4). Hibernia | History & Name Origin. Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/place/Hibernia