The Easter Controversy in Early Medieval Ireland

Easter is the  most  important feast day  of the Christian church. It  is a moveable feast and the methods  of calculation used to determine the date are very complex.  Easter  must always occur on a Sunday, as Sunday was the day of Christ’s resurrection. The date is calculated taking into account lunar and solar calendars.  In the early church there were several methodologies used at different points in time  to determine the date.

By  the 5th and 6th centuries there was  divergence within the church as to how to calculate Easter. In Ireland, northern and western Britain (an area which  had strong links to the Irish church, as Irish missionaries had converted this area), the  church used an eighty-four-year Easter cycle and assigned Easter to the Sunday that fell between the fourteenth and twentieth days of the  lunar month. This system of calculation was at odds with the Continental church and the church in southern Britain (that had strong links with Rome). These churches used a system devised by Victorius of Aquitaine (457 AD) and from 630’s the Alexandrian system to calculate Easter.

With two systems  for calculation in play   divergent dates for Easter often occurred.  This meant Easter could be celebrated at different times of the year  in different geographical locations. In the mid 7th century  Rome  began moves to  bring uniformity to the  Christian church. This uniformity extended to a standard date for Easter across the Christian World.

In 630 Pope Honorius wrote to the Irish threatening  excommunication if they did not conform to the Roman way of calculating Easter. As a result of the this letter the southern church in Ireland held a synod in 632  at Magh Lene or as it is  known today  Old Leighlin in Co Carlow. The synod probably took place at the site of Old Leighlin Cathedral which is built upon the ruins of an early monastic site founded by St Gobban in the early seventh century. At the time of the synod St Laserian  who was the successor of Gobban was the leader of the religious community here.

The synod  decided to send a delegation  to Rome. Tradition holds that  St Laserian  was among the delegation. Upon their return the southern church decided to conform to the Roman Easter,  however the northern  church didn’t conform until it was accepted by the archbishop of Armagh in third quarter of the 7th century .

In Britain the famous synod of Whitby 664 settled the question in favor of  Roman system but some clergy unhappy with the outcome  came to Ireland.  For example St Colmán the bishop of Lindisfarne  along with a group of   monks from Lindisfarne  came to Ireland and set up a monastery on Inishbofin Co Galway and later at Mayo.  It was not until 716 that the  Columban federation of churches   finally accepted Roman Easter and there was uniformity  throughout the Christian world concerning Easter.

© Louise Nugent 2013


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