2. Saint Palladius and the Dunlavin area

Chris Lawlor

Diversion 2. Happy St. Patrick’s Day To All. Today’s diversion is another reworked older article, which I thought suited the day that’s in it. St. Patrick may not have been active in the Dunlavin region, but St. Palladius certainly was. Here’s a little of his story…

The first Christians

Christianity arrived in Ireland during the fifth century A.D. Tradition has it that the new religion was introduced into this island by St. Patrick, who arrived on these shores in 432 A.D. Today, on 17 March, we celebrate his life and work. There is no doubt that St Patrick, a citizen of the Roman Empire who probably hailed from Britain, preached with enormous zeal and did much to establish the Christian religion throughout much of Ireland. There is also no doubt that he was not the first Christian missionary either to land on the Irish coast or to work within Ireland’s complex mix of Celtic kingdoms. That honour possibly fell to St. Palladius, a man who focussed much of his work in what is now County Wicklow and who established two churches near the site of the modern village of Dunlavin.


Very little is known about Palladius. He was born in Britain, probably c.400 A.D. However, the Palladii, were among the noblest families of France and several of them held high rank about this time in the Church of Gaul. The move from Gaul to Britain probably occurred under Julius the Apostate, when there was a Palladius holding prominent rank in the army of Gaul, who, for his fearless profession of the Christian faith, was exiled into Britain. It is reasonable to assume that a descendent of this Palladius, and a member of such a privileged Gaulo-British family, would attain the position of Deacon of Rome, would take much interest in the Church in Britain, and, would by his familiarity with the Celtic languages, be a natural choice to undertake the mission of becoming the first bishop of the Irish people.[1]

Struggle against the heretics

Palladius became a deacon of the Church. He first came to prominence at the time of the Pelagian Heresy. Based on the teachings of the British monk and theologian Pelagius (d. 420 A.D.?), Pelagianism involved the denial of the doctrine of original sin. Pelagians believed that all individuals could choose not to sin and could move toward salvation of the soul without the assistance of God. According to the Chronicle of Prosper of Aquitaine, in 429 A.D:

Agricola, a Pelagian, son of Severianus, a Pelagian bishop, corrupted the churches of Britain by the insinuation of his doctrine; but at the insistence of the Deacon Palladius, [Pope] Celestine sends Germanus, Bishop of Auxerre as his representative to root out heresy and direct the Britons to the Christian Faith.

The move against Agricola and the Pelagians was successful, and in 431 A.D. the teachings of Pelagius were officially condemned as heresy. Deacon Palladius had been a leading figure in the struggle against the heretics. Some writers suggest that Palladius was a deacon of St. Germanus of Auxerre, but it is more probable that he held the higher rank of Deacon of Rome. Palladius obviously had significant influence in Rome, as he would soon become a bishop. It is unlikely that a deacon of Auxerre would rise to such heights. The Chronicle of St. Prosper uses the word diaconus [which invariably refers to the deacons of Rome] to denote Palladius, and the Book of Armagh expressly styles Palladius ‘archdeacon of Pope Celestine, bishop of the city of Rome’.

A journey to Ireland, the ‘edge of the world’

The year 431 A.D. was an important one for Palladius. Not alone were the followers of Agricola and Pelagius declared heretics, Palladius himself was ordained a bishop by Pope Celestine and given his first mission. Palladius was sent to the edge of the known world – the island of Ireland. According to Prosper’s Chronicle in 431 A.D:

In the consulship of Bassus and Antiocus [431] Palladius was consecrated by Pope Celestine and sent to the Irish believing in Christ, as their first bishop. [2]

When Prosper was writing the Chronicle in 447 A.D., he noted that:

By ordaining a bishop for the Irish, whilst he [Pope Celestine] laboured to keep the Roman island Christian, he made also the barbarous island Christian.

The Annals of Ulster also state that:

To the Irish believing in Christ, Palladius ordained by Pope Celestine, was sent as their first bishop.

The wording of these sources is interesting, as it confirms that there were some Irish Christians who predated St. Patrick.[3]  Despite the fact that the Romans had never conquered Ireland, there was a flourishing trade between some of the Roman provinces, such as Gaul, and Ireland. Contacts with Britain were even closer, and as early as the fourth century, Britain was a Christian country with an advanced ecclesiastical organisation. Commerce and Christianity probably passed back and forth between Ireland and the continent, and Christianity infiltrated and penetrated slowly. Moreover, the lives of some of the Irish saints, such as Ciaran of Saigir and Declan of Ardmore, indicate that they predated St Patrick.[4] However, these lives were not written earlier than the twelfth century (or much later in some cases), and they cannot be taken as accurate evidence of a pre-Patrician church in Ireland.[5] Despite this, some pockets of Christianity were established in Ireland long before the 430s.

Arrival in Wicklow – Inbher De and Teach an Romain

In 431 A.D. Palladius and some clerical companions set out for Ireland, in search of one of these pockets of Christianity. They landed at Inbher De, in the territory of the Hy-Garchon, where Wicklow harbour is now.[6]  At this time the area was occupied by the tribe of Cualann. This tribe gave their name to the territory of Cualu, which covered much of what is now east and central County Wicklow.[7] The chieftain of the district had no welcome for the missionaries, and Palladius encountered initial problems with the natives. One source informs us that:

Palladius, entering the land of the Irish, arrived at the territory of the men of Leinster where Nathi Mac Garchon was chief, who was opposed to him.[8]

However, some of the tribe seem to have welcomed the newcomers and Palladius and his followers established their first church at a place called Teach na Romain. This site was located in the Vale of Avoca, about half a mile from the famous Meeting of the Waters at the confluence of the Avonmore and the Avonbeg rivers. Having built a church at Teach na Romain (the townland of Tigroney in the parish of Castle Mac Adam near Avoca), Palladius and his missionaries moved inland, crossing the mountains and arriving in West Wicklow.[9]

Church Mountain in  West Wicklow

The second church founded by Palladius was at Domnacha Arda. This is reputed to be the burial place of the holy men and companions of Palladius, Sylvester and Sallonius. Indeed, some sources suggest that it was actually St. Sylvester, a disciple of Palladius, who founded this church. This name translates as ‘the church of the high field’ and is recognisable as an early form of the placename Donard. However, the church was probably not located in Donard village; the reference is likely to refer to the old church atop nearby Church Mountain.[10] The church that has given the mountain its name was built within and on top of a pre-existing cairn. [11] Cairns were prehistoric burial places and were often placed at the summits of high mountains or in other places with a commanding view of the landscape. There is no doubt that Church Mountain was a sacred place and may have had a ritual significance long before the church was built there.

The cairn on Church Mountain is approximately a hundred feet in diameter and about ten feet high at its highest point. The church within the cairn is ruined now, but it was rectangular in shape with internal measurements of about thirty feet by twenty feet. This church dates from a much later time than that of Saint Palladius, but it may have been built on the same site as Palladius’ earlier church.  Any church built by Palladius and his helpers would have probably been constructed from wood or wattle and daub. The stones of the church on Church Mountain have been dated to the twelfth century, and there was a long tradition of Christian pilgrimage associated with the site. In fact, George Petrie noted in 1808 that hundreds of people ascended the mountain on their knees and a priest read prayers from the altar on St. Lammas’ Day every year, but the practice stopped after the 1798 rebellion. The real symbolism of building a church on the pre-existing cairn was that the Christian religion supplanted the older pagan traditions, and the site of the church remained a place of pilgrimage for centuries. [12]

Colbinstown connection

The third church that St Palladius founded was called Cill Fine. The name means ‘the church of the septs’ and this site has been identified as the old burial place of Cillin Cormac [see picture], located at Colbinstown near Dunlavin.[13]  Once again, the site was a significant one. Cillin Cormac was known to be the burial place of Cormac Mac Art, who is reputed to have been high king of Ireland from 254 to 277 A.D. [14] Legend has it that Cormac died in battle and his body was placed on a cart drawn by two oxen. The king would be buried wherever the oxen stopped – and they stopped at Cillin Cormac. The story goes that the king’s men had taken his faithful hound away and placed him in a kennel in County Kildare. Different versions of the story place the kennel in Punchestown, on the Hill of Allen and at ‘Cnoc a Dubh’. Anyhow, during the burial, the anxious hound broke free and with a gigantic leap he descended right onto the king’s headstone, leaving the imprint of his paw, which can be seen to this day.

Palladius chose this important pagan burial place as the site of his third church, and again the symbolism is that of the Christian religion supplanting the older pagan traditions. The very name of the place indicates its Christianisation, as the pagan Cormac now rests in the Christian burial place, the Cillin or little churchyard. Today, Cillin Cormac contains both pre-Christian and Christian headstones.[15] Among the headstones of interest are an ogham stone, a stone with a carving of a monk and the ‘dog’s paw’ stone marking the grave of Cormac Mac Art mentioned above.

Arrival of St. Patrick

While Palladius was building his churches in this locality, another event was also taking place. St. Patrick arrived on these shores in 432 A.D. and his Christian mission was becoming established. Where Palladius ran into problems, Patrick met with unrivalled success and has become recognised as the man who converted Ireland to Christianity and as the patron saint of Ireland. The seventh century ‘Life of St. Patrick’ by Muircu Maccumachthenus in the Book of Armagh actually refers to the failure of Palladius’ mission:

Palladius was ordained and sent to covert this land lying under wintry cold, but God hindered him, for no man can receive anything from earth unless it be given to him from heaven; and neither did those fierce and cruel men receive his doctrine readily.[16]

The later life of Palladius is shrouded in mystery. The Book of Armagh tells us:

Nor did he himself wish to spend time in a strange land, but returned to him who sent him. On his return hence, however, having crossed the first sea and commenced his land journey, he died in the territory of the Britons.

According to the Liber Hymnorum:

[Palladius] was not well received, but was forced to go round the coast of Ireland towards the north, until driven by a tempest he reached the extreme part of Mohaidh towards the south, where he founded the church of Fordun, and ‘Pledi’ is his name there.

The Vita Secunda, another Life of St. Patrick, tells us that:

After a short time Palladius died in the plain of Girgin in a place which is now called Fordun. but others say that he was crowned with martyrdom there.

The Vita Quinta maintains that:

St. Palladius, seeing that he could not do much good there, wishing to return to Rome, migrated to the Lord in the region of the Picts. Others, however, say that he was crowned with martyrdom in Ireland.



Scottish connection

It is possible that Palladius ended up in Scotland, but the Irish documents are the only sources to substantiate this claim, and they were written a long time after the events. Scottish manuscripts, including Fordun’s Chronicle and later writings, are regarded as purely mythical. One states that Palladius served in Scotland for twenty-three years; another makes him the tutor of St. Sevanus, and a contemporary of St. Adamnan, and of Brude, king of the Picts. However, Brude’s reign was c.697-706 A.D., so this certainly does not fit the Palladius who arrived in Ireland in 431 A.D. Nonetheless, St. Palladius is honoured with a feast day on 6 July in the Scottish calendar. The Aberdeen Breviary describes him as ‘both apostle and doctor’. In some ancient records he is styled a martyr, but it is uncertain whether he was actually killed for his faith. It is possible that the word martyr here is used in the sense of ‘white martyrdom’, probably because of the hardships he endured during his missionary career in Ireland. What is certain is that he encountered opposition during his Irish mission, and was never as successful as St. Patrick.[17] He and Patrick probably overlapped in their missionary work for a while, as (given the political structure of Celtic Ireland), there is every reason for believing that missionaries could have worked in different parts of the island without having contact.[18]

Palladius’ legacy

Despite this, Palladius did achieve some success in his own right. He founded three churches, in the face of stiff opposition. He consolidated a fledgling Christian Church in the County Wicklow area and he paved the way for others, including Patrick (who also landed in Wicklow when he arrived in Ireland) to follow. Ironically the success of Patrick as a missionary has meant that much of the groundwork done by Palladius has been forgotten, even in this area where he operated during his lifetime. Ultimately perhaps, Palladius’ life should not be measured by the success or failure of his mission, but by how much he endured and what he gave for his cause and his God. Perhaps on St. Patrick’s Day in this area, we could also remember ‘our’ St. Palladius!


[1] http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/11424a.htm (visited on 4/4/2008).
[2] The references from Prosper’s Chronicle are cited in Ludwig Bieler, ‘St Patrick and the coming of Christianity’, Patrick J. Corish, (ed.) A history of Irish Catholicism, i, 1 (Dublin, 1967), pp 4-7 and are also cited on http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/11424a.htm, which also cites The Book of Armagh reference.
[3] These references are cited in Bieler, ‘St Patrick and the coming of Christianity’, pp 4-8 and also on http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/11424a.htm. However, the Annals of Ulster excerpt may also be translated ‘To the Irish so they might believe in Christ…’ https://celt.ucc.ie//published/T100001A/index.html (visited on 22 Mar 2016).
[4] With Ibar and Ailbhe, Saints Ciarán and Declan of Ardmore were believed to pre-date the arrival of Saint Patrick. Stiofán Ó Cadhla, The holy well tradition: the pattern of St Declan, Ardmore, County Waterford, 1800-2000 (Dublin, 2002), p. 7.
[5] Bieler, ‘St Patrick and the coming of Christianity’, p. 3
[6] Nick Coy, ‘Missionaries to the Irish’, Africa Magazine, March, 1999, p. 16.
[7] Donncha Ó Corráin, Ireland before the Normans (Dublin, 1972), p. 24.
[8] Vita secunda [Life of St. Patrick], cited on http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/11424a.htm.
[9] Coy, ‘Missionaries to the Irish’, pp 16-7.
[10] Ibid, p. 17.
[11] Conleth Manning, ‘Church Mountain, County Wicklow’, Wicklow archaeology and history, ii, (2002), p. 61.
[12] Ibid, pp 62-4.
[13] Coy, ‘Missionaries to the Irish’, p. 17.
[14] Chris Lawlor, ‘Saint Palladius and the Dunlavin area’, Dunlavin Festival of Arts Brochure, xxiv (2006), p. 25.
[15] Mairéad Connellan, ‘Some archaeologically interesting places to visit near Dunlavin’, Dunlavin Arts Festival Brochure (1992) pp 21-3.
[16] Vita secunda [Life of St. Patrick], cited on http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/11424a.htm.
[17] References from the Book of Armagh, the Liber Hymnorum, the Vita Secunda, the Vita Quinta,

Fordun’s Chronicle and the Aberdeen Breviary in the foregoing section of the text are all cited on http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/11424a.htm.
[18] D. A. Binchy, ‘Patrick and his biographers: ancient and modern’, in Studia Hibernica 2 (1962), p. 145.

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