It was the Egyptians, not the Romans and not even St. Patrick!
In my historical novel about early Christian Ireland: The Hare’s Vision, the story moves from Egypt to Ireland in the sixth century for a good reason. People have asked me: ‘Why Egypt?’ ‘Should it not be Rome?’ Click here.
No. The connection with Rome did not come until much later – in the late twelfth century in fact. When the Normans – at the behest of Rome – invaded and conquered Ireland removing the Celtic church and replacing it with the Roman or European system of Christian churches and monasteries.
The earliest influence on Ireland’s form of Christianity came from the Egyptian desert. In truth the connection between Ireland and Egypt goes back very much further to the time of the pharaohs when around 1700BC the daughter of Akhenaton and Nefertiti, and wife of Tutankhamen, Princess Scotia went to Ireland with one thousand followers to avenge the death of her husband in battle. She settled there and gave her name to Ireland – Ireland was known as Scotia by the Romans. It was transferred to Scotland after the Irish colonised Scotland from the seventh to tenth centuries. It is said Princess Scotia is buried near Tralee.
Then in early Christian times the Egyptian desert became the centre of the monastic tradition under the influence of an Egyptian monk, Anthony later St. Anthony, Father of the Monks. It was he that began the ascetic hermit tradition which flourished in the Egyptian desert, becoming known as the Desert Fathers. So much so that the area was regarded as the ‘Holy Land’ rather than Judea, especially as Jesus’ family fled to the Egyptian desert to escape Herod shortly after the boy’s birth and is held to be the place of his upbringing.
The early Irish monks modeled their lifestyle on the Desert Fathers. They too sought solitude and an ascetic lifestyle forgoing worldly comforts. For this reason several place names in Ireland carry the word ‘desert’ – Desertmartin, Desertcreat, Disert, Killadysert and many more.
In the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris there is still preserved a guidebook for the use of Irish monks travelling to Egypt in order to visit the Fathers of the desert.
The artistry in the Book of Kells
is very similar to the Coptic art..
There is similarity also in the design of the Coptic Cross (left) and the Celtic Cross (right).
Likewise with the Irish monastic round towers which originated in Egyptian monasteries as a means, it is thought, of anchoring divine or celestial energy in the earth.