Egypt to Ireland

Gregory Telepneff The Egyptian Desert in the Irish Bogs: The Byzantine Character of Early Celtic Monasticism [Center for Traditionalist Orthodox Studies, 2002]
Egyptian Deserts in Irish Bogshr
“Celtic Christianity is a subject which currently enjoys a general popularity. […]For the Eastern Orthodox, in particular, Celtic Christianity holds a special appeal, but not because it is somehow ‘exotic’; rather, the Faith of the ancient Irish has an air of familiarity for an Orthodox, a certain quality which he intuitively identifies with his own Faith. This statement will no doubt sound odd to those who might imagine that Eastern Orthodoxy and Celtic Christianity are about as incongruous as the Egyptian desert and the Irish bogs.”
—“Chapter 1: Introduction”

Chapter 1
Chapter 2
The Era of Saint Patrick
Chapter 3
Eastern Forms of Monasticism
Chapter 4
Daily Monastic Life
Chapter 5
Travel and Language
Chapter 6
Art and Architecture
Chapter 7
Chapter 8
Particulars of the Celtic Eucharist
Chapter 9

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.

“The Egyptian Desert in the Irish Bogs: The Byzantine Character of Early Celtic Monasticism” by Fr. Gregory Telepneff is a lengthy essay that discusses the topic of the Irish Church, founded by the noted Orthodox luminary, Saint Patrick.
What differentiates the Celtic Church (in Ireland and Scotland) was the Church’s center of gravity were the monastic Abbots/Bishops and the strict ascetic nature of Celtic monasticism. Fr. Telepneff begins his analysis by differentiating the different strains of monastic practice that originated in the Middle East during the early period of the Church. Palestinian-Syrian monks practiced a semi-coenobitic life, with an emphasis on study, as exemplified by the Latin Saint Jerome who was well versed in Hebrew and Greek and traveled to the Holy Land. The monks of Cappadocia, personified by St. Basil the Great placed the most stress on learning and a coenobitic/communal life. The most ascetic of monastic groups, however, arose in Egypt (the Copts) following the Desert Father, St. Anthony the Great. These monks were the most concerned with total renunciation of the world, many of them becoming anchorites, or hermits living in total isolation and prayer in the sterile desert. Telepneff notes the system of different types of martyrdom recognized in the traditions of the Orthodox Church. White martyrdom consists of renouncing the things of the world, including family ties for the sake of Christ. Green martyrdom takes the otherworldliness a step further and seeks salvation in living in total isolation from the world, they way of solitary hermits. Red martyrdom is of course where one goes down in blood in witness to Christ and partakes in His sufferings. Celtic monasticism follows the model of the Coptic Fathers, and maintained a strong tradition of “Green Martyrdom.”

Numerous eastern, including Egyptian texts were found in the possession of Celtic monasteries. St. Patrick, the Irish monk/bishop who converted the Celts in Ireland in particular was influenced by the monasticism of the East. There are similarities between Celtic artwork and illuminated manuscripts and those found in Egypt and Byzantium as well. There are some legends of monks traveling from the Eastern Mediterranean all the way to Ireland in the West and Irish ascetics traveling to Egypt, Byzantium and the Middle East. Fr. Telepneff speculates to great length that the Eastern influences in the Celtic Church were derived from Gaul, the obvious conduit, although Gaul was nowhere as similar to the Christian East in its traditions. He concludes that the Celtic Church formed from direct contact and reciprocation between Celtic and Coptic monks and the numerous writings of the Eastern Fathers circulating in Ireland. “

The Reverend Gregory Telepneff is a Senior Scholar at the Center for Traditionalist Orthodox Studies. A Yale University graduate, he received his doctorate in Patristics at the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley. He is Pastor of the St. John Chrysostomos Church in Saugus (Boston), Massachusetts, and teaches Theology and Religious Studies on an adjunct basis at Anna Maria College. He is at present a Visiting Scholar at the Harvard Divinity School. Father Gregory is the author of a number of scholarly studies and a groundbreaking historical work on early Irish monasticism, The Egyptian Desert in the Irish Bogs: The Byzantine Character of Early Celtic Monasticism (Etna, CA: C.T.O.S., 2001).

See also Abba Seraphim “On the Trail of the Seven Coptic Monks in Ireland”:

“The Coptic Orthodox Church has long known of the historic links between the British Isles and Christian Egypt, but documentation and solid evidence is thin on the ground for these early centuries of church history. There are learned articles by Monique Blanc-Ortolan of the Musee des Arts decoratifs, Paris, and Pierre du Bourguet of the Louvre on ‘Coptic and Irish Art’ and by Joseph F.T. Kelly of John Carroll University, Cleveland, Ohio, on ‘Coptic Influences in the British Isles’ in the Coptic Encyclopedia which are worth consulting. Other works, like Shirley Toulson’s The Celtic Year, which asserts that “rather than adhere to the ruling of the Council [of Chalcedon], some of the most dedicated adherents of Monophysitism fled from Egypt, and some of them most surely travelled west and north to Ireland”, in their enthusiasm to establish a link, make up what is lacking in hard evidence with sheer conjecture and fantasy.

The late Archdale King noted the links between Celtic Ireland and Coptic Egypt. He suggests that much of the contact took place before the Muslim Conquest of 640. There exists evidence of a Mediterranean trade in a single passage in the life of St. John the Almsgiver (Ioannes III Eleemon), Greek Patriarch of Alexandria between 610-621, in which reference is made to a vessel sailing to Alexandria from Britain with a cargo of tin, doubtless come from Cornwall or Somerset.

King observes that the kind of asceticism associated with the Desert Fathers was especially congenial to the Irish but refers to Dom Henri Leclercq’s suggestion that Celtic monasticism was directly derived from Egypt, as an “unsubstantiated hypothesis”. No serious historian, however, would deny that first-hand knowledge of the Desert Fathers was brought directly to the South of Gaul by St. John Cassian and that the links between the British and Gallican churches were especially strong at this period. King nevertheless admits that the grouping together of several small churches within a cashel or fortified enclosure seems to support Leclercq’s view.

King mentions an Ogham inscription on a stone near St. Olan’s Well in the parish of Aghabulloge, County Cork, which scholars interpret as reading: ‘Pray for Olan the Egyptian.’ Professor Stokes tells us about the Irish monk Dicuil, who around 825 wrote his Liber de Mensure orbis terre describing the pyramids as well as an ancient precursor of the Suez Canal. It would seem that Egypt was often visited by pilgrims to the Holy Land. Stokes instances the Saltair Na Rann, an anthology of biblical poems attributed to Oengus the Culdee, but containing the sixth or seventh century Book of Adam and Eve, composed in Egypt and known in no other European country except Ireland.

King also notes that one of the commonest names for townlands or parishes is Disert or ‘Desert’: a solitary place in which anchorites were established. Presumably the same etymology gives us the Scottish Dysart, just north of Kirkcaldy, and the Welsh Dyserth, to the south of Prestatyn? This would then present a consistent picture common to Celtic Christianity. 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].
Page from Félire Óengusso (“The Martyrology of Óengus”) – see

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 …”

Providence undoubtedly put me in touch with Fr. Feargal Patrick McGrady, priest of Ballymena, County Antrim in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Down and Connor. As well as being a native of Downpatrick (the burial place of St. Patrick), Father Feargal is enthusiastic about the Eastern churches and holds His Holiness Pope Shenouda in high esteem. He was delighted to assist with my enquiries and very soon made contacts with local historians, who are the real source of the information we need.

Dr. Cahal Dallat, Genealogist and Historical Consultant, of Ballycastle, County Antrim, identified Disert Ilidh or Uilaigh with Dundesert, near Crumlin, county Antrim, which is to the north-west of Belfast, the capital of Northern Ireland, between Belfast International Airport and Templepatrick.

Mr. Bobbie Burns, a local historian living in Crumlin, was another link in the chain. He produced a report in the Belfast Telegraph of 13th July 1936 under the headline “Unique Once Famous Ulster Church: Neglected Crumlin Ruins”, which showed the ruins of the medieval church built on the site of an earlier shrine. The local historical group is taking a renewed interest in the site and the local Protestant landowner has given permission for them to come and go freely to the site. It is hoped that they might obtain a grant to restore the dilapidated ruins but they are excited by its more ancient and possible Coptic connections. The site is approached by a path along the side of a grazing field 200-300 metres from Poplar Road. It is on the steep bank of the Crumlin River, which is a large free-flowing river, but is more than 100 metres from the water. Access is easy in dry weather, but not pleasant after heavy rain. The terrain inside the enclosure is very rough. The ground is strewn with boulders which have either fallen or been removed from the medieval walls. Parts of the medieval walls, in places three feet thick and covered in ivy, survive on the east (or gable) and south sides. The east wall contains two arched recesses or sedilia, now only about four feet in height but probably much higher if their foundations were cleared of the extensive in-fill of stones and earth. The gable rises to around thirty feet in height but a number of stones have already been removed and were any more to go it would be undermined and likely to collapse. What remains of the wall at the other end is much lower. It is likely that the whole structure would have been removed long ago but for the difficulties of dislodging stone from the walls and the problem of transportation to the road.
Seven Coptic Monks in Ireland
We are grateful for the efforts of these local enthusiasts for having preserved these ancient ruins and look forward to making further discoveries about the last resting place of the seven monks of Egypt.”
irish hermit
See also “The Orthodox Link Between Ancient Britain and Egypt” – Excerpts from: “From The Holy Mountain” by William Dalrymple [Flamingo Press; London, 1998]:

“Art, Coptic and Irish” in “The Claremont Coptic Encyclopedia” at

Valerie Cuthbert “Ireland’s ancient legacy from Egypt” in “The Catholic Herald” 12th July 1991 available at

“The Celtic Church and the Monastic Tradition of the Middle East”


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