The Isle of Saints and Scholars

One of the nicknames of Ireland is “The Isle of Saints and Scholars”, due to its monastic culture and missionary work to spread Christianity to Britain and continental Europe in the Middle Ages. Which I had no idea was a thing that happened. This would be a trend for me throughout my trip to Ireland – I didn’t realize how little I knew about Irish history until I got there and started learning about it. Like how much the Catholics (and other non-Anglicans) were oppressed by the English under the penal laws – they couldn’t hold public office, own land, practice their religion, etc. So while we were in Ireland, we saw a lot more Church of Ireland (i.e., Anglican) churches and a lot fewer Catholic churches than I expected, but this was because for so long they couldn’t have Catholic churches. The penal laws were eventually repealed (although the last of them not until 1920) and about 87% of the population of the Republic of Ireland today is Catholic.

You definitely do see a lot of religious imagery and symbols around Ireland – for example, statues of Mary and the baby Jesus like this one are pretty common:


The High Cross is another thing you see a fair bit – it’s a mix of Christian, with the cross, and  Celtic designs:


One of the places we visited was the Tobernalt Holy Well:



Originally a place of celebration for ancient Celts, Tobernalt became a holy place for Christians. During the times of the penal laws in Ireland, when Catholics were forbidden to practice their religion and priests had to travel around and perform mass in secret because their was a price on their heads, Tobernalt was a site of one of these “mass rocks” where secret Catholic masses were performed.

Some of the other religious sites we saw include Kylemore Abbey, which was originally a castle home, but later was sold to Benedictine nuns:



St. Mary’s Cathedral in Killarney:




Daniel O’Connell Church, the only church in Ireland named after a layperson:



The Cathedral of Our Lady Assumed into Heaven and St Nicholas in Galway was spectacular. I appear not to have any photos from there, so it was probably one of the many times when my camera batteries died1. My aunts got some photos though, so I’ve stolen them off their Flickr accounts:





At Galway Cathedral, I bought this book because, well, I just couldn’t believe this was a book that they actually had for sale:


Christ Church Cathedral in Dublin:


We didn’t actually go into Christ Church, as they charge you money just to go in, and we’d already seen *a lot* of churches, so we figured we’d rather save our money for things like Irish coffees. Same went for St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin, which we did look at from the outside but which we don’t seem to have a single photo of.

Often you’ll see the old and the new intertwined. Like this 13th century ruin of a church in Waterford:


next to a newer, still functioning church:


And there’s crumbling ancient gravestones:


Next to new ones:


It seems like it must be strange to go visit a loved one’s grave only to see tourists milling about to look at the graves from hundreds and hundreds of years ago. Although perhaps this is just my bias of being used to cemeteries that don’t have graves from hundreds and hundreds of years ago.

Tying together the saintly and the scholarly, one of the most famous artifacts in all of Ireland is the Book of Kells. It is a manuscript from around the year 800  that contains the four gospels, plus some other texts, and it is lavishly illustrated with Celtic and Christian symbols.

Here’s a replica of it in the town of Kells, where the book originated:


And here’s the house in which St. Columba is said to have written and illustrated the book, though the origin of the book is disputed and most believe it was created after St. Columba had died:


The book was taken from the town of Kells in 1654 to Dublin for safekeeping, as Cromwell’s men were in Kells. Unfortunately for Kells, it was never returned. We could have gone to see the Book of Kells when we were in Dublin, but the line up was huge and we didn’t really feel like waiting hours to see it, especially since it is just one page of two of the 4 manuscripts of the book that you get to see. And besides, because you can look at the whole thing online.

Part of the line up for the Book of Kells:


I couldn’t get the whole line up in a photo – that’s how long the lineup was!

As for scholars, we saw the grave of poet and Nobel laureate William Butler Yeats in Drumcliffe, County Sligo:


And another well-known writer of Ireland – and one of my favourite writers – is Oscar Wilde, whose statue we visited in Dublin:



His statue has real leather shoes on, which are polished every day!

Also in Dublin was this statue of James Joyce:



So, yeah, I think that Ireland has earned its sobriquet!

  1. Until my Aunt Lynn got me a set of super expensive batteries that actually last more than half a day, like the regular batteries I had been using. []

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