Celtic Christianity Tour

This reflection was written by Gerard Mannion, PhD, professor in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies and director of the Frances G. Harpst Center for Catholic Thought and Culture (CCTC) at the University of San Diego.

Each year the center takes a small group of inter-disciplinary USD faculty to a place connected with the Catholic intellectual and/or cultural and social traditions. In June this year, the CCTC organized and led a group of inter-disciplinary USD faculty on an immersion seminar around Ireland exploring ‘Celtic Christianity’ in Ireland which, from the time of St Patrick’s mission and the country’s embracing of Christianity in the 5th Century, soon came to be known a land of ‘saints and scholars’.

Christianity in medieval Ireland blended with the unique cultural and social traditions of that land and developed into a very distinctive and progressively inculturated form of the Christian faith, indeed into something quite distinctive from the character of ‘Roman Christianity’ of the era. The group explored Ireland’s history, archaeology, landscape and architecture, as well as its cultural, social and intellectual traditions from pre-Christian times onwards. In particular, they learned how the spiritual and religious life of the island is intertwined with its landscape in a multitude of ways. Following their completion of several hundred pages’ worth of preparatory historical and cultural background reading, along with a lengthy reading list about ancient Ireland and its religious, social and cultural traditions approached from a wide variety of differing academic disciplinary perspectives, the seminar included lectures and talks at various different sites and locations around the country from a range of expert facilitators. Highlights of our visit
Starting out from Dublin, the capital, the group headed though the midlands and onwards. Highlights included “A journey through the sacral landscapes of the Boyne valley and the Hill of Tara”, including the ancient burial chamber, Bru Na Boinne, some 5000 years old – older than Egypt’s pyramids.

Next we travelled to the beautiful west, pitching base on Galway Base and heading onto the Aran Islands on the very edge of Europe, exploring the life, traditions and ancient site and buildings of the island people.
Moving downwards along the west coast we also visited the breathtaking Cliffs of Moher, and had a Guided Walk through the stunning natural beauty of the Burren, where the interaction of flora, fauna, spirituality and poetry were blended together by our guide.
We learned of ancient monastic communities and the religious beliefs and practices of the Christians of County Kerry as we toured around the Dingle Peninsula, with highlights including the 1000 year old boat shaped (and weather-proof!) Gallurus Oratory and Kilmalkeador Church. The weather conditions that day helped us appreciate the resolve of the ancient saints in that south western part of the country!

We began to head back across the country, stopping first in Limerick for a talk on “Turning darkness into light: monks and manuscripts in medieval Ireland” at Glenstal Abbey and we met with the sisters of Solas Bhride, who keep alive the ancient traditions associated with Saint Brigid, who founded a famous university and was abbess over both male and female religious communities and who, legend has it, also served as a bishop. Our faculty took in the healing waters of her famous well – wishing for things that remain in their hearts alone! We took a short detour for lunch in Co. Offaly at Ollie Hayes’ bar – owned by President Obama’s cousin and where the President and his wife stooped off for a Guinness on their own recent Irish trip.

Finally we returned to Dublin where we were guests of the Vice-Provost (equivalent to a US Provost) of Trinity College Dublin (founded in 1592), who had kindly arranged a guided tour of this ancient seat of learning, with the highlight being special access to the fascinating exhibition on the ancient illuminated manuscript, the Book of Kells (dated from around the year 800). In the afternoon we took in a walking Tour of Historic Dublin City. The group were also happy to take in the other cultural traditions of Ireland as well – listening to traditional singing and music and sampling the dark porter, one brand of which has become renowned worldwide (Guinness).
On Sunday, our final day, we were taken on a Spiritual Journey by Fr Michael Rogers around and through the stunningly beautiful Glendalough (the Valley of the Two Lakes), site of the ancient ‘City of God’ – the place where a religious community was founded by Saint Kevin in the sixth century.

Background to this visit to Ireland

Each year the Frances G. Harpst Center for Catholic Thought and Culture takes a small group of inter-disciplinary USD Faculty to a place connected in a broad sense with the Catholic intellectual and/or cultural and social traditions. The program is set around a specific theme each year which brings past, present and future discourse into relation. The theme can embrace a wide variety of foci, such as historical, ethical, social, theological, cultural and aesthetic. 

The seminars are facilitated by experts in the field and involve a pre-seminar program of preparatory academic readings. The actual program consists of academic lectures, seminars and discussions with related cultural and immersion visits to sites, people and organizations. Each Faculty member selected to participate produces an academic paper upon return which is presented on campus in a series of follow-up presentations and additional collegial gatherings and discussions take place to continue the dialogue and strong links formed by the group during their trip. The program has a significant impact upon Faculty’s understanding of USD and its Catholic background and character, upon their teaching and research, and upon collegial relations.
The participants each be presented their reflective academic papers which they have written as a result of this trip to Ireland.