Desert in Egypt and Ireland

“The evidence for oriental Christians in Ireland is fragmentary but there are several fascinating mentions of Egyptian and even Armenian Christians in Ireland from around the same time as the Ballycotton brooch. [9th century]

In an early Irish litany attributed to Óengus of Tallaght (fl. 800) there is mention of seven Egyptian monks (manchaib Egipt) buried in Uilaigh, Co. Antrim. The discovery in 2006 of an Egyptian style book binding (with papyrus lining) with the Faddan More psalter in a Tipperary bog has given support to the theory of Egyptian Christians in Ireland around the year 800.
Litany of Óengus
Literary sources in the early Irish church do make occasional reference to the Egyptian Church. The famous Stowe Missal (c.750) invokes the Egyptian desert Father Anthony and the other hermits of the Scetis valley in Egypt (Antoni et ceterorum partum heremi Sciti). But there is nothing unusual in this per se, as the fame of St. Anthony was widespread in the west through the Latin translation of Athanasius’ ‘Life of Anthony’ and the writings of John Cassian. More unusual is the curious account of the origin of the Irish liturgy. There is preserved in a manuscript in the British library (Nero A II), an account written in the eighth century claiming to trace the different origins for the Gallic, Roman, Oriental and Irish liturgies. The manuscript claims that the Irish liturgy was derived from the liturgy used in Egypt. The account is certainly an embellishment of an early tradition relating to Ireland and Egypt but as Warren has noted it still may preserve “a solid foundation” for such a link.

The arrival of Christians from Ummayad Spain or Egypt does open up some interesting questions relating to the character and theology of the early Irish church. Telepneff has suggested that certain Irish ascetic practices once thought to be exclusively Irish can actually be traced back to Egyptian sources. One example is the so called crux-vigilia. This ascetic practice involved praying for hours on end with your arms extended in the form of a cross. Verkerk mistakenly asserted that the cross vigil was exclusive to Irish monasticism, but as Telepneff has correctly shown the practice was followed by Egyptian monks like Pachomios as early as the fourth century.

Another oriental influence in the Irish church can be seen in the use of flabella, which were long hand held fans used in the liturgy of eastern churches to keep flies off the eucharist. The use of these fans in Ireland is attested in both liturgical texts and also in the Book of Kells, which contains several depictions of angels holding flabellum. These fans are still used in the Coptic Church in Egypt today.
coptic hermit 2
irish hermit
The Coptic monks lived in the desert. The Irish had no desert, but they did have the Atlantic Ocean. Like the Egyptian desert, it was vast and even waterless, since one cannot drink seawater. To the Irish, the wild, empty ocean appeared as lonely and forbidding as the desert had to the Egyptians. The connection was more than psychological; Irish texts, for example, spoke of the ocean as a desertum. The most widely read Irish book of this period was the Voyage of Saint Brendan. It tells the story of the abbot Brendan’s departure from his homeland and his voyage on the ocean in search of the Blessed Isles, an obvious reenactment of the Egyptians’ withdrawal to the desert in search of a heavenly life. Brendan
wanders, meets fabulous creatures, wins contests with demons, and reaches his destination. To stress the Egyptian parallels, the anonymous author even has Brendan meet Paul the Hermit.

Claremont Coptic Encyclopedia: “British Isles, Coptic Influences in the”:

Fr Gregory Telepneff in “The Egyptian Desert in the Irish Bogs. The Byzantine Character of Early Celtic Monasticism” (Center for Traditionalist Orthodox Studies, Etna CA, 2001) explores these links further. Basing his arguments on monastic rules, lives of Saints, manuscript illuminations, ecclesiastical architecture, and liturgical texts, Father Gregory presents a convincing case for the Eastern origins of the distinctively Celtic form of monastic life. He uncovers many striking similarities between the world of the Desert Fathers and the now lost world of Irish Orthodox Christianity, which was so deeply permeated by the monastic ideal.
For a sample chapter:

“The Martyrology of Oengus the Culdee, an early ninth century monastic bishop of Clonenagh (Co. Offaly) and later of Tallaght, has a litany invoking ‘Seven monks of Egypt in Disert Uilaig, I invoke unto my aid, through Jesus Christ.’ [Morfesseor do manchaib Egipr(e) in disiurt Uilaig]. The Antiphonary of Bangor (dating from between 680-691) also contains the text:
” … Domus deliciis plena Super petram constructa Necnon vinea vera Ex Aegypto transducta …”
which is translated as:
” … House full of delight Built on the rock And indeed true vine Transplanted from Egypt …””


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