O’Loughlin’s Celtic Theology

Thomas O’Loughlin’s Celtic Theology: Humanity, World, and God in Early Irish Writings, Continuum, 2000.

Going through my backlog of drafts and I just realized that I never came back and finished this book review. Better late than never!

This really is quite a valuable book that dispels some common myths and gives you a real sense for what we know of the Irish church. I know my book will be used until it is dog-eared. This book should be a must read for anyone interested in early medieval theology.

This book covers such a wide range of topics that the only way I can think to review is fully is chapter by chapter.


  1. Celtic Theology?: Discusses the concept of Celtic theology and more importantly what it is not. O’Loughlin’s attitude is that celtic theology is a type of local theology.
  2. Patrick the Missionary: Analyzes Patrick’s work through the two documents that are genuinely accepted as being written by Patrick, notably his Confessio and the Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus. His discussion of Patrick’s world view and personal theology is very interesting.
  3. The Penitentials: The Human Dilemma: He discusses the development and rationale behind the penitentials, and pays special attention to the Penitential of Finnian (Uinniau) and the penitential of Cummean,
  4. Adomnan: A Theologian at Work: O’Loughlin is best known for his work on Adomnan and this chapter does not disappoint. Adomnan was very much on par with Bede as an influential churchman and this chapter highlights all of Adomnan’s other accomplishments other than writing the Life of Columba. I think you would be hard pressed to find a more influential churchman anywhere in the British Isles in the 7-8th century than Adomnan, Abbot of Iona. His three main works, the Cain Adomnan / Law of the Innocents, On the Holy Places, and the Life of Columba are just now really becoming appreciated for the skill and depth of knowledge they reflect.
  5. Muirchu: Dramatist or Theologian? Muirchu is the author of the First Life of Patrick. He notes that Muirchu was skilled at narrative theology, and this is what the Life of Patrick really is. Narrative theology, teaching theology through a story, is fairly rare today but this is the form taken by Scripture itself. The different narrative theologies of the four evangelists acccounts for much of the differences between the four gospels. O’Loughlin also discusses Muirchu’s biblical models for Patrick, such as Daniel.
  6. The Collectio canonum hibernensis: Marriage and Sexuality Ireland had a well developed legal system that was independent of Roman law and this legal system influenced the Irish canons. He shows that contrary to popular opinion that Ireland was a female friendly, Augustine-free zone, the canons were quite the opposite and influenced by the theology of Augustine. (Just to back this up, read the 9th century treatise on Cain Adomnan and you’ll see how anti-female it could be!)
  7. The Stowe Missal: The Eucharist as Refreshment: The Stowe Missal is one of the only liturgical sources we have for the rites of the Celtic church dating to c. 800, probably at Tallaght. While the Eucharistic rite was Roman, other aspects of the celebration differed more modern practices. Attitudes toward community and communion of the saints was more intense that any we experience today. They really felt strongly in communion with the saints how have already departed this life, especially those of their community, and this is reflected in their liturgy. For example, they stressed that all present must share one loaf of bread at the Eucharist and in the prayers chanted by the congregation while the priest breaks the loaf into as many as 65 pieces arranging them in special patterns on the patten.
  8. The Litanies: Petition, Procession, Protection: This is a specialized section on the differences between early medieval litanies and modern litanies in text, form and function. He particularly focuses on how medieval litanies were processions, such as the litany Augustine of Canterbury led as he approached Æthelberht, King of Kent, for the first time. I would add that we also see these processional litanies occurring in times of pestilence when processions would snake through large communities in an effort to end the plague. Gregory the Great led such a procession in Rome to end the Plague of Justinian. Although not often mentioned in insular sources, we must imagine that frequent processional litanies must have occurred during the plague of 664 and other plagues.
  9. The Cycles of Prayer: This chapter focuses the calendar and daily office among the Irish. He spends some time talking about alternative perceptions of time and how ordinary and festal time was viewed. There is a short discussion of how the daily office is reflected in Adomnan’s Life of Columba and in the Navigatio Sancti Brendani, and on the Teachings of Mael Ruain.
  10. Jerusalem: Our Mother and Home Above This last chapter is a part of a departure from the rest of the book because this chapter focuses on eschatology. O’Loughlin takes Jerusalem as his theme as a “taster” of Irish eschatology. What did Jerusalem mean to the Irish and what symbolism did they invest in it? O’Loughlin focuses on the presentation of Jerusalem in three different works: Jerusalem in Adomnan’s De Locus Sanctus (On the Holy Places), Barrand’s Island in the Navigiatio Sancti Brendani, and the plan of New Jerusalem in the Book of Armagh.
  11. Conclusions

One of the areas that O’Loughlin left out was a discussion of the literature on St Bridget and is generally light on female topics. Likewise he did not really treat Irish Marian theology which is surely present. It has been suggested that Adomnan’s attitudes toward the the Virgin Mary influenced Cain Adomnan, the first law for the protection of women from violence in Ireland. Marian theology has also influenced the literature and traditions about St Bridget. While Bridget is a fairly common topic in Irish scholarship, we still await a systematic survey and Marian scholarship for this period, is even further behind. Given the breadth of topics he did cover, this is not a major detraction.

Do not look to this book for a history of monastic families or even of monastic movements. O’Loughlin’s purpose here is the study of theology more than history. He chooses examples that fit his topic, but makes no attempt to be systematic surveying all possible examples. Hagiography is also not a major topic outside of chapter 5. Here, as in the chapter on Adomnan, he is more concerned with examining the author than his work. His basic question is how was theology done in early medieval Ireland? What was the personal theology of Patrick, Adomnan and Muirchu? How was theology put into practice? I believe that you will find his answers fascinating.

8 thoughts on “O’Loughlin’s Celtic Theology

  1. Great review, thanks– I will have to get hold of this one!

    The one loaf divided in many pieces is still the Eastern Orthodox practice today. And I haven’t looked into these processional liturgies, but it sounds as if it may have a connection with the origins of the Eastern Orthodox kontakion.

    1. These processional liturgies go back to a time before the Great Schism when East and West were still one church, or at least in communion with each other. The Easter Orthodox seem to be growing in England, and I don’t know why… or maybe they just have a greater presence online?

      1. coming back belatedly to reply to this! Yes, the Orthodox are growing in England. I think some is immigration (particularly the Coptic Orthodox) and some is due to conversion mostly from the Anglican church in the wake of the upheavals of recent years. I don’t however know too much detail about the current state of Orthodoxy in the UK.

        again thanks for completing the review, I had entirely forgotten about the book…must make a point of searching for it.

  2. Hi,
    Just discovered your blog Michelle – very nice work! And a very good review of a book that perked my interest. The lengthy processionals and breaking of the bread on the paten is most certainly of orthodox origin; let us not forget that early irish monks had correspondence (and travel) with the egyptian monastics and probably incorporated liturgical particulars as well. I’ve marvelled that the liturgy was never called the ‘mass’ (until the irish church was assumed by Rome), but coined the ‘worship of the very true lamb.’ Great blog, keep it up! Thanks!

  3. Hi,

    Just discovered this blog by accident – and its nice to see that people read and appreciate the book. However, what I said in the foreword I meant: I barely picked the surface of this topic!!! Before this area will be truly known, it will need at least a hundred PhDs written on it. The sad thing is that there is a load of people doing PhDs in theology on well-worn topics that are ‘done to death’: here is an area ready for research (as as the gospels would say: yam ad messam!).
    So if your interested, get in touch with me – I am Professor of Historical Theology at the University of Nottingham, UK – as I am always trying to encourage new PhD talent; or if you know of someone rooting round for a PhD topic, point them towards this area!

    Tom O’Loughlin

    1. Tom,
      I’ve been thinking of doing some post -grad work on Celtic Theology here in the U.S. Having a Master’s degree (ascetical theology), i’d like to pursue some ‘new ground’ on different topics within the celtic theological ethos – any suggestions??……………..it seems like i haven’t read much on the Marian influence (if there was one); it surprises me too, since the Celtic ‘women friendly’ culture prevailed. Perhaps the study of just one saint, or the influence of celtic theology in Gaul….or…or
      Anyway, your the professor: what area do you deem would benefit from pursuit…???
      Thanks! Joe

      1. Joe,

        I would be surprised if Prof. O’Loughlin is a regular reader here (though I’d like to be wrong on that!). I would suggest trying to contact him at the U. of Nottingham. I think his contact information can be found on their website.


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