PG 473 'Isle of Saints and Scholars’? The Literary Culture of Medieval Ireland (24 hours)

Module Level

9/10 MTh / PhD / STL seminar course

Time Allowance

24 hours. Second Semester: Wednesday evenings, 6pm – 8pm.


7,000 Word Essay 85% / Class Participation 15%

Module Aims

  • To introduce students to a wide range of early Irish ecclesiastical literature, and to offer training in the analysis and close reading of that literature as a source of evidence for the history of the Church in medieval Ireland
  • To guide students through important modern historiographical and interpretive issues connected with the key primary sources for the history of the Church in Ireland before c.1200.


This module will enable students to explore in some depth the ecclesiastical literature of early medieval Ireland (i.e. from c. 400 – c. 1200). A huge corpus of religious literature survives from medieval Ireland, including the largest corpus of vernacular literature of any early medieval European society. Using texts in English translation, students will analyse sources originally composed in Latin and in Irish, which range across biblical exegesis, theological speculation, hagiography, devotional verse, doctrinal literature and ecclesiastical law. Through a combination of close reading and analysis of primary sources during class hours, complemented by independent reading of the secondary literature, students will have the opportunity to engage deeply with the history and literary culture of the Church in pre-Norman Ireland. In this regard, this module will enable students to discard the myth of the ‘Celtic Church’ (the idea of a distinctive form of Christianity practised in the Celtic-speaking countries); and rather will be able to read the evidence of the early Irish Church within its proper European context.

Learning Outcomes

  • Students will develop skills in a range of key areas, including critical thinking, analytical skills, essay-writing and oral presentation skills
  • Students will develop their skills in the close reading and analysis of primary sources
  • Students will develop a critical approach to the modern secondary literature and will be aware of the key historiographical problems


  • Ludwig Bieler, The Patrician Texts in the Book of Armagh (Dublin, 1979)
  • John Carey, King of Mysteries: Early Irish Religious Writings (Dublin, 2000)
  • Thomas Owen Clancy and Gilbert Márkus, Iona: the Earliest Poetry of a Celtic Monastery (Edinburgh, 1995)
  • Colmán Etchingham, Church Organisation in Ireland, AD 650 to 1000 (Maynooth, 1999)
  • Westley Follett, Céli Dé in Ireland: Monastic Writing and Identity in the Early Middle Ages (Woodbridge, 2006)
  • Máire Herbert, Iona, Kells and Derry: the History and Hagiography of the Monastic Familia of Columba (Oxford, 1988; repr. Dublin, 1996)
  • Kim McCone, Pagan Past and Christian Present in Medieval Irish Literature (Maynooth, 1990)
  • Richard Sharpe, trans., Adomnán of Iona, Life of St Columba (London, 1995)


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