First Year: Early Christian Ireland

The Castledermot High Cross, Co. Kildare
In primary school, you learned about Saint Patrick. You know that he brought Christianity to Ireland, but what happened then? How did Christianity grow? In this chapter you learn about how Ireland turned away from the old pagan religions and how Christianity influenced Irish society.

Saint Patrick isn't the only saint associated with Christianity in Ireland. There were many others, who each set up monasteries throughout the island. In primary school you might have learned about the monastery at Clonmacnoise, Co. Offaly. In this chapter you learn about the different buildings of the monastery, and the jobs that the monks there had.

This chapter is different from the others in that you focus on the life and work of the monks rather than any larger civilisation. It is also the last chapter to be all about Ireland in First Year.

Continue to Ancient Rome.

Go back to First Year. 

  • How Christianity spread through Ireland.
  • The names of some Irish monks and the monasteries associated with them.
  • The buildings in an early Irish monastery.
  • Life in the monastery.
  • The work monks did.

Click here for tips and advice in answering exam questions


1. Explain two of the following terms relating to the Early Christian monastery: High Cross, Beehive
    Cell, Round Tower. (2014 HL)

1. Mention two important functions of the round tower in the Early Christian monastery. (2012 HL)

2. What language did the early Christian monks use to write manuscripts such as the Book of Kells?
    (2010 HL)

3. Name one Early Irish monastery and one monk associated with that monastery. (2008 HL, 2015 OL)

4. Name one service which early Christian monasteries provided in Ireland. (2012 OL, 2010 OL)

5. Name a work of art produced by Early Christian Irish monks. (2015 OL, 2012 OL, 2011 OL) 


    The ruins of the Glendalough monastery in Co. Wicklow.
    A monk in an early Christian monastery in Ireland

    There are two types of monk you could be asked to write about in a People in History question. The first is a monk from early Christian Ireland, the second is a monk from the Middle Ages. Always read the question carefully to make sure which one you're supposed to write about.

    Early Christian Irish monks came up as a People in History option in the 2011, 2009, and 2007 Higher Level papers. They haven't appeared as an option in the Ordinary Level papers for some time, but that could always change.

    So, what do you need to talk about?

    • Start by explaining how Christianity was introduced to Ireland. Who built the first monasteries? What is a monastery? Where are they?
      • Explain that you are a monk, and talk about your monastery. Who's in charge? What buildings does it have? What do you use those buildings for? You might focus here on the round tower.
        • What jobs do the monks do? You'll talk about praying, of course, but you also farm. Don't forget to mention that.
          • When you're not praying or farming, you might be writing manuscripts. Describe what it is you write down and how you write it. Give some examples of famous manuscripts.
            • Once you've finished talking about manuscripts, describe the kind of art that monks create. Metalworking, stone crosses... the more you can talk about, the better.
              • Finally, you could say that some of the monks in your monastery - maybe even yourself - are going abroad to found new monasteries in Europe. Some famous monks have done this before you, so be sure to mention them!

                So, in short...

                1. Explain how Christianity came to Ireland and what a monastery is.
                2. Describe your monastery, the abbot's job and the buildings.
                3. Talk about the jobs monks do in the monastery.
                4. Talk about manuscripts.
                5. Describe the different kinds of art and craft produced by monks.
                6. Mention the work of monks going abroad

                • spend too long talking about how long prayers take
                • talk about being bored!
                • include too much irrelevant (unimportant) information. Keep to the points, and keep aiming for marks. 
                The Glendalough ruins are open to the public. This is the ruin of the monastery's church. The slabs on the ground are gravestones.


                Ask About Ireland: Brendan the Navigator
                Ask About Ireland tells the story of Brendan the Navigator, one of the many monks who went abroad to found new monasteries. Click through to find information on stone crosses and round towers.

                Early Christian Sites in Ireland Database
                The ruins of many monastic sites can still be seen and visited today. This database has a link to every county in Ireland. Click on your county to find your nearest surviving monastic site. There are pictures and information about each one.