“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 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].
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 Translanted from Egypt …”…
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.”
From Metropolitan Seraphim “On the Trail of the Seven Coptic Monks in Ireland” – full text available at: http://britishorthodox.org/miscellaneous/on-the-trail-of-seven-coptic-monks-in-ireland/
“Egypt and its holy men were to attract visitors from all around the Christian world, indeed it attained a status as a centre for Christian worship that was greater than that of the Holy Land, for the high regard and vast number of inspired teachers in these coenobia. Amongst the visitors to these communities included St. Jerome, who wrote an account in one of his Epistles telling of such a visit he made.
The Egyptian monasteries tended to be found in isolated, remote locations, and were built in the desert for its seclusion. Another reason for the selection of Ireland must have been its isolation, being effectively separated from the rest of the Roman Empire. However, in Ireland, as in the rest of Western Europe, no deserts are to be found. It appears that, prior to monastic settlements being established in Ireland that the Egyptian church, a different entity from the Roman church, set up and built centres of learning in parts of mainland Europe; these included a centre at Lérins in Gaul, where St. Patrick is supposed to have been educated and would have doubtless learnt the tenets and doctrine of the Egyptian Church. The monastery at Lérins appears to have been based upon an Egyptian model and ideology, and which might explain how some of the motifs, ideas and approach to Christianity that was prevalent in the Celtic church for many years, if not centuries. However, owing to the absence of physical deserts in the British Isles, it became fashionable to name the locations in which the monasteries were established with being in a “desert.” Therefore, the term “Desert”, “Disert”, and “dysert” can be found in a significant number of the place names where these ecclesiastical settlements were built; names such as Disertmartin, Dysert O’Dea, and Killadysert. This influence equally seems to have spread into Scotland, again with similar sounding place names. Certainly most of these monasteries seemed to have a “disert” in close proximity. An eighth century Irish litany exists, the Litany of Pilgrim Saints, includes an invocation to the ‘Seven monks of Egypt in Diseart Uiliag’…
There seems to have been a direct exchange between Egypt and Ireland, with mention of monks from Egypt being in Ireland and vice versa. A guidebook written for Irish monks travelling to Egypt, detailing the Pyramids, and for visiting the desert fathers, was written, and a copy survives to this day, located in the Bibliotheque Nationale, in Paris. Egypt became a centre for pilgrimage by the Irish monks, with one of the latest records we have of such a “pilgrimage” having been made in the thirteenth century.”
“A growing body of evidence suggests that contact between the Mediterranean and early Christian Britain was surprisingly frequent. Egyptian pottery—perhaps originally containing wine or olive oil—has been found during excavations at Tintagel Castle in Cornwall, the supposed birthplace of King Arthur, while the Irish Litany of Saints remembers “the seven monks of Egypt [who lived] in Disert Uilaig” on the west coast of Ireland. Travel guides in circulation in early Christian Britain gave accounts of the Egyptian monasteries. Indeed so common did pilgrimages around the Mediterranean become that Saint Boniface wrote to the archbishop of Canterbury asking that he “forbid matrons and nuns from making” such journeys as “a great part of them perish and few keep their virtue. There are many towns in Lombardy and Gaul where there is not a courtesan or harlot but is of English stock.” There was also traffic in the opposite direction: one of the earliest leaders of the Anglo-Saxon church was the Byzantine Theodore of Tarsus, sent to be archbishop of Canterbury from his home in what is now southern Turkey.
Contrary to the impression given by earlier generations of scholars such as Henri Pirenne, the Islamic conquest of the Near East does not seem to have brought an end to this contact. The Anglo-Saxon Saint Willibald left an account of his visit in the 720s to the monastery of Mar Saba in Palestine where Saint John Damascene was then writing his refutation of heresies entitled “The Fount of Knowledge”. This contains a detailed critique of Islam, the first ever written by a Christian, in which Damascene regarded Islam essentially as Christian heresy related to Arianism and Monothelitism, which the Ruthwell sculptor was so concerned to avoid.”
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, see: http://www.ctosonline.org/sample/ED.pdf
See: Robert K Ritner “Egyptians in Ireland: A Question of Coptic Peregrinations” “Rice University Studies” – on-line at: https://scholarship.rice.edu/bitstream/handle/1911/63225/article_RIP622_part6.pdf?sequence=1