The book is based in the sixth century, a pivotal time in Christianity. The Roman Empire had collapsed and the Christian Church had split into the four patriarchies of Alexandria, Antioch, Constantinople and Rome. The church in the east was threatened by the Sassanid Empire which overran Alexandria, Antioch and Constantinople in the seventh century and Rome was still in a chaotic state following the fall of the empire with successive invasions by Goths and Lombards. At this time the Church of Rome had not yet gained its hegemony over Europe.
So it was against this back drop that ‘the Word’ was removed from Alexandria (before it was overrun by the Sassanids in 613 A.D.) and brought to Ireland for safe-keeping.
Ireland was one of the few Christian countries that had a degree of stability and had an established church through its unique monastic system. Ireland’s relative isolation meant that the island had never been invaded by Rome and alone in Europe retained a common language and a sophisticated legal system.
However Ireland was devastated in the mid sixth century by famine and plague which some believe resulted in the growth of the monastic system. It was the monasteries that provided a sanctuary to many destitute communities resulting in the rapid expansion of the monastic movement throughout Ireland in the latter half of the sixth century led by men like Colum Cille. Many monasteries became self-sufficient communities supported by married monks who farmed the surrounding land. Each monastery was headed by an abbot who ruled with the consent of his or her monks. These abbots were independent of any central authority.
This was a time well before rational and scientific thought when belief and imagination were indistinguishable from perceived ‘reality’. Religious and spiritual belief was at the heart of daily life. So the book reflects this close connection with the non-human world as well as the world of the imagination.
The book suggests that the presence of ‘the Word’ in Ireland led to the flowering of Celtic Christianity during what is known as the ‘Golden Age’ (sixth to ninth century), when the Irish monasteries became seats of learning attracting students from all over Europe and Irish monks went out across Europe to found monasteries.
During the sixth century Ireland was still making its transition from paganism to Christianity. This was done without violence and with considerable tolerance of differing beliefs and ancient traditions. Pagan worship and Christianity continued to function side by side for many centuries and in many cases practices were interwoven up to modern times.
The Celtic Church in Ireland was independent of Rome at this time, although it had strong connections with the Alexandrian Church and the monastic movement of the desert fathers in Egypt. However from the ninth century onwards the Celtic Church suffered at the hands of marauding Vikings and Rome continued to seek dominance. Eventually Rome succeeded when the Normans invaded Ireland in the twelfth century and brought with them the European monastic sects such as the Cistercians and Benedictines. Soon after this the independently minded Celtic monasteries ceased to exist in Ireland.
The book is a work of fiction, but uses many historical figures and actual settings from the beginning of the ‘Golden Age’ when ‘the Word’ was brought to Ireland. I believe there is much to be learnt from this period about the development of the Christian Church, of religious and political tolerance and the role of imagination in everyday life.