Irish Early Christians, Not So Christian After All?

Excavations at Caherconnell in the Burren region of county Clare on Ireland’s western coast are revealing some interesting practices undertaken by Ireland’s early Christians.

It is traditionally accepted that Christianity arrived in Ireland some time before the middle of the 5th century AD. You might be forgiven, then, for assuming that Christianity and Christian practices could be found throughout Ireland within a century or two of this date.

On a low rise to the side of a shallow valley in a place that later became known as Caherconnell in western Ireland an elderly woman and two babies were buried. Their remains were placed in two carefully constructed stone boxes called cists, both covered by a single low mound of earth and stone. This took place in the second half of the 6th century AD / first half of the 7th century AD.

Recent excavations by the Caherconnell Archaeology Field School are proving otherwise. It was discovered in the summer of 2013 that Caherconnell cashel or ‘caher’ (a circular drystone enclosure containing dwelling houses and other domestic structures) had been deliberately constructed over the top of an earlier burial mound.

This small mound covered two limestone cists. Although disturbed at one end, their contents were still present. The smaller of the two cists contained the remains of a young child, between one and two years of age, and the bones of a baby who was either stillborn or died shortly after birth. The larger cist was only partially present inside the cashel, the rest of it being buried beneath the 3m-wide cashel wall. It contained the skeleton of a woman, at least 45 years of age. She suffered from joint disease, probably as a result of much physical labour over the course of her lifetime.

Caherconnell cashel (photo: Michelle Comber)

Caherconnell cashel (photo: Michelle Comber)

The results of radiocarbon dating have just arrived, dating the human remains to 541-645 AD and 535-649 AD. This places them well within the chronological bounds of what was once termed ‘Early Christian Ireland’. Clearly, though, these people were not buried in a purely Christian fashion, rather in a mixture of traditional pagan and newer Christian burial practices.

Following the Christian tradition, the bodies were unaccompanied by grave goods and were laid out almost east-west. They were not, however, interred in a Christian cemetery. Instead, they were placed in slab-built cists beneath a low stony mound. Such cists and mounds are commonly found in the pre-Christian prehistoric past. These people appear to have combined their traditional belief system with elements of the ‘new’ religion – hedging their bets maybe?!

The story of these people does not end there. Several centuries after their deaths, in the 10th/11th century AD, the high status cashel settlement called Caherconnell (the caher or cashel of Conaill) was built at this location.

The builders of this new home did not clear this mound and its contents out of their way, nor did they site their enclosure so as to avoid the mound. Instead, they built the drystone wall of their enclosure directly over the top of the mound, leaving approximately half of the mound intact and visible inside the new enclosure. It seems probable that knowledge of the mound and what it contained survived into the 10th/11th century AD, and that the new occupants of the spot deliberately incorporated these ancestors into their settlement. Was this, perhaps, an attempt to legitimize their rule of the area? Like the earlier burials themselves, this practice also has pre-Christian associations.

It seems that being linked with the ancestors, whether by using the same burial method or by physically including them in your home, was a practice that survived the introduction and establishment of the Christian religion in Ireland. Some might say that an obsession with ancestors and where we come from is just as important to us today…

Summer 2014 will see the Caherconnell Archaeology Field School excavate the centre of Caherconnell cashel. The main dwelling house is typically located in this part of the settlement enclosure. With almost 700 artefacts recovered from ‘open’ space inside the enclosure entrance, hopes are high for a very rewarding season this year!

More information available on

Written by Michelle Comber

Director, Caherconnell Archaeology Field School

Header Image :  Adult skeleton from Caherconnell (photo: Michelle Comber)

Background of Project:

Caherconnell cashel is the largest of four drystone enclosures in the townland of the same name, in the Burren, Co. Clare. Cashels are the stone equivalent of the more numerous ringforts – typically enclosed farmsteads housing a single family with most built between the 7th and 10th centuries AD. Much as today, the larger settlements reflected wealth and status. Caherconnell is one such settlement. It is, however, exceptional in other ways also.

An international field school was established in 2010 to undertake research excavations at the cashel. Work to date has revealed that this cashel was built at the end of the traditionally accepted date range for ringforts, in the 10th/11th century AD, and that it continued to be lived in right up the start of the 17th century. It is uncertain who built the enclosure, but it was owned by an important branch of the local Gaelic rulers, the O’Loughlins, in medieval times.

They lost possession of Caherconnell right about the time that the archaeological evidence revealed occupation ended within the cashel. It is highly unusual to find a settlement of a Gaelic noble family from medieval times, even more unusual to discover that they were choosing to live as their ancestors (the people of the earlier ringforts) had before them. This may have been a deliberate choice, proclaiming their ancestry in a changing world where intrusive groups from outside (initially the Anglo-Normans, later their English descendants) were threatening the native way of life.




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  • Paul Nogbad Attard

    Not unsurprising perhaps. Back then ideas and beliefs could not be molded at the speed of the internet so cadres of peoples holding to their ancestral beliefs structures rather than embracing the (relatively) new one God is not at all surprising.

  • DebbieLee61

    Historically, Pagans were before Christianity, Natural using nature to heal, to seek wisdom . it wasnt until they were over ruled by the Noble who sought monetary wealth that Christians came about

  • CharlotteLomax1

    Syncretism is actually pretty common in general – perhaps it wasn’t so much a sign that people are ‘hedging their bets’, as a sign of a culture where theological distinctions between different soteriological systems aren’t so fiercely defended, even if actual identification with one people or another is itself defended very fiercely. I imagine this might be because a lot of cultures cultures lack a sophisticated description laying out the parameters of what can and cannot be true from their ontological vantage point – plus, in the case of large-scale illiteracy, it is hardly as if individuals can draw up a personal understanding of Biblical theology. I have a friend who lived in Cameroon, who noted that elements of Christianity were mixed with their ancestor worship, for instance.

  • CharlotteLomax1

    DebbieLee61  I’m afraid if you make inflammatory comments like that you’re bound to invite inflammatory responses. I’m not going to be the one to say “no they weren’t” and ask you to cite your sources, but some might…

  • Erica

    I believe that in [the region that later became] Scotland, long cist burials came into vogue right around the time of the introduction of Christianity and were one of several popular inhumation styles of the early Christian period, one that crossed cultures (Pictland, Goddodin…I’m not sure about the Govan region or Dal Riata). Burials in the region believed to be Christian were often east-west, had no grave goods, and were often (though far from always) long-cist burials. This article didn’t mention whether this was long-cist or short-cist, and I know even less about the history of cist burials in Ireland than I do in Scotland, but I’m not sure I see the non-Christian element. The lack of grave goods had a theological grounding for a change in practice; there is no theological reason against using cist burials in a Christian context.

  • MiMi

    Accept Christians who are weak in faith, and don’t argue with them about what they think is right or wrong. 2 For instance, one person believes it is all right to eat anything. But another believer who has a sensitive conscience will eat only vegetables. 3 Those who think it is all right to eat anything must not look down on those who won’t. And those who won’t eat certain foods must not condemn those who do, for God has accepted them. Romans 14:1-3
    Christianity is not a legalistic religion. Once Jesus paid for our sins, traditions and “rituals” became more of a cultural thing rather than a requirement.

  • CoreyOtfLake

    @Erica  Christianity has been in Ireland since the time of St. John.  Bede reports that these bishops followed an ancient practice—”the same which St. John the Evangelist, the disciple of our Lord, with all the churches over which he presided, is recorded to have observed” Indeed, many historical sources confirm that the apostles brought true Christianity to Ireland four centuries before Patrick’s visit. The story that Patrick was the first to bring Christianity to Ireland is a fable! By 590 AD, there was the influence of the Pope.

  • Nathan Woolford

    i think that is a rather poor article.

  • CynthiaGee

    The author of this article notes that the bodies were not buried in a Christian cemetery. This is not too surprising, because these bodies are dated to the late sixth/early seventh century AD, and the practice of burying people in consecrated ground did not become widespread UNTIL the seventh century. Ireland and Scotland were the hinterlands of Christendom, and were about 100-150 years behind the Continent in most things.

  • brando_slc

    Really not much substance to this article.

    “You might be forgiven, then, for assuming that Christianity and Christian practices could be found throughout Ireland within a century or two of this date.” Recent excavations “are proving otherwise”

    Then you discuss a burial, which, “Following the Christian tradition…  were unaccompanied by grave goods and were laid out almost east-west. ”

    So how is that proving otherwise? As another commentator points out, syncretism is common. The rest of the article is a bunch of easily challenged interpretations which do more to demonstrate the limits of archaeology in general than they do to make the author’s point. 

    That is, as is so often the case, archaeology can tell you alot about what someone did, but little about why.

  • Ian MacMillan

    When the first Christian hit Irish shores it would not have been a case of their touching the beach and instantaneously transforming the whole island to strictly Christian practices and rituals.  These things would have been disseminated over a long period of time unevenly in different remote parts of the countryside.  Even mainland Europe was not completely assimilated by Christianity and its practices until around the millennium in the countryside.

  • zackismetal

    @MiMi  You know how ridiculous you sound right? That’s called being a human. Humans were given the nature to judge, or to give a peace of their mind. If they want to be kind then they’re kind. Religion should not predict how a human should act. A human will act as they please, whether it’s violent, or very gentle. No one gave them the act to be good or evil, only themselves, and how they were raised. Christianity is blinding and brainwashing. People who believe in any faith are scared for the world, let alone, are afraid too die. That’s why this world has come to what it is now. Every one is afraid too die, so they kill others to save theirs. More over, no one wants do die, I don’t either, but people who believe in garbage like this, are seriously brainwashed. People way back thousands of years ago believed in all of this stuff because of fear, and something that would show peace. Religion can bring peace, but I don’t want to live off of a lie.

  • CharlotteLomax1

    zackismetal  Nor do I want to live off a lie, zack. I’m really sorry if you’ve been hurt by people who claimed to be acting in Jesus’ name, and have blinded or brainwashed you. But I’m intellectually convinced that the man called Jesus of Nazareth was crucified under Pontius Pilate and rose from the dead, and that this culturally- and socially-situated event carried soteriological elements with it; namely in that it developed commonly-held beliefs of the time, that God required a penalty for human sin and that the Messiah would provide that with his blood. I’m satisfied that, although socially-constructed, these beliefs carry real metaphysical weight because they have been authenticated by fulfilled prophecies, supernatural phenomena, the witness of everyday lives, and a body of historical support, with some archeological evidence also. I’m always amazed at the variety of religious expression that has served as an outlet for these phenomenon – but the phenomenon themselves, in my view, do not constitute “religion”; they are just phenomenon that require a response. It’s a fascinating thing to look into if you have the time and will to do so. Apart from that, I’m really sorry if religions have hurt you or made you angry about the Jesus question. If it’s any consolation, know that Jesus never taught us to “kill others to save ours”.  He told us to let others kill us to save them. He told Christians not to fear the world, but to expect the world to give us Christians the worst it’s got and to embrace that without a fight, because the world hates Jesus, and if we are for him, then it should hate us too. People who claim to love Jesus have abused everything he said. I am very sorry if they have abused you too. Peace out, man.

  • VirgilTMorant

    Archaeologyeu Claire_M But the most shocking discovery? Their graves also contained Christmas trees! And chocolate bunnies! The pagans!

  • VivienneC

    CharlotteLomax1 DebbieLee61  @CharlotteLomax1, I see inflammatory remarks made by DebbieLee61.  She stated fact.  Pagans WERE before Christianity, whether you as a Christian wish to believe it or not.  Christianity wasn’t here since the beginning of time.  
    Christians have been brainwashed for years on what their beliefs should be.  Instead of using their own brain and doing the necessary research, they wished to be lazy and accept what their elders were brainwashed to believe.  Sad really.
    The Christian religion was a great ploy to take control over the people.  What better way to “cage” everyone up under one ruler?  Religion.  Oh, and threats of death if they didn’t convert…
    If Jesus Christ is real Charlotte, why is it that all the Christian holidays, mirror the Pagan holidays?  Why is it that Jesus’ birthday isn’t celebrated ON HIS BIRTHDAY?  Hmmm?  Why, when he was born in March, is his birthday celebrated within a few days of Winter Solstice?  Why?  It made converting everyone much easier.  That’s why.  
    Here’s a decent site to read.  We have evidence found in burial sites.

    What have you?  A story book, that took many, many, MANY years before it was written, in old Hebrew I might add, just for it to be translated or should I say, the scholars found to be translated incorrectly.  *covers my mouth in shock*  What was that?  It was translated incorrectly.  The scholars have admitted to this.  

    Have you ever played the gossip game?  Circle of 10 people, the first one whispers to the second one, something like, “The brown dog peed on the red fire hydrant”.  By the time it gets to the last person, JUST 5 minutes later, what the first person whispered to the second has changed drastically.  Now, take generations of people and many, many times told and re-told, the stories of the bible and all the years that had passed before these stories were written.  And you honestly believe everything that was written in that story book?  *shakes my head in utter disbelief that anyone can be so naive*

    What I have written here, isn’t inflammatory in any way, shape or form.  It is truth.  Again, whether you like it or not.  Debbie appears to be a nice person by her post.  I’m not.  I tell it like it is.  I won’t spare feelings.  If you don’t like what I’ve posted, grow up, do some research of your own.

  • brando_slc

    “Here’s my oversimplified, condescending, bitter rant passed on as undeniable fact, but its not inflammatory and if you don’t like it, you need to grow up and stop being so naive.” – You don’t lack irony, I’ll give you that.

  • CharlotteLomax1

    VivienneC CharlotteLomax1 DebbieLee61  
    I am very sorry if someone has made you angry about Christianity, VivienneC. As I’ve said before, syncretism is a natural part of the cultural development of religions, and it is a really great thing that we have science and forms of higher criticism to find out where it is. I’m sure Jesus doesn’t mind that we don’t know when he was born :). I’m glad you’ve brought the translation issue up; I did a masters degree in Translation and Interpreting Studies last year and I find Bible translation a really interesting area. I agree that there are always errors in translation – although by and large, although I’ve read a lot of Bible translations I haven’t yet found one that I’d say posed a barrier to faith in Jesus himself. Also, while I was going through a period of uncertainty I did some research into the manuscript tradition of the Bible and I think it’s really interesting – not what one would expect at all; if 1st century culture were like today’s culture then it probably would have just been a game of chinese whispers. However, the rabbinical-school culture at the time was unbelievably sophisticated – and such as we don’t do ’em anymore. It was designed by and for a culture in which they had had centuries of experience finding solutions enabling the Jews to be “the people of the Book” whilst  being mostly illiterate. If manuscript tradition is something that interests you, why don’t you have a look too? I can recommend ‘The Historical Reliability of the Gospels’ by Craig L. Blomberg; it was in my university library and I had a good look through it and found it quite impressive. Again, no disrespect – I am very sorry if  you are angry. But actually looking into these issues is fascinating; I can really recommend it. Peace to you.

  • VickyOwen

    CynthiaGee  Thank you! Was just about to mention this myself…