On the Trail of the Seven Coptic Monks in Ireland

The Coptic Orthodox Church has long known of the historic links between the British Isles and Christian Egypt, but documentation and solid evidence is thin on the ground for these early centuries of church history. There are learned articles by Monique Blanc-Ortolan of the Musee des Arts dE9coratifs, Paris, and Pierre du Bourguet of the Louvre on ‘Coptic and Irish Art’ and by Joseph F.T. Kelly of John Carroll University, Cleveland, Ohio, on ‘Coptic Influences in the British Isles’ in the Coptic Encyclopedia which are worth consulting. Other works, like Shirley Toulson’s The Celtic Year, which asserts that “rather than adhere to the ruling of the Council [of Chalcedon], some of the most dedicated adherents of Monophysitism fled from Egypt, and some of them most surely travelled west and north to Ireland”, in their enthusiasm to establish a link, make up what is lacking in hard evidence with sheer conjecture and fantasy.

The late Archdale King noted the links between Celtic Ireland and Coptic Egypt. He suggests that much of the contact took place before the Muslim Conquest of 640. There exists evidence of a Mediterranean trade in a single passage in the life of St. John the Almsgiver (Ioannes III Eleemon), Greek Patriarch of Alexandria between 610-621, in which reference is made to a vessel sailing to Alexandria from Britain with a cargo of tin, doubtless come from Cornwall or Somerset.

King observes that the kind of asceticism associated with the Desert Fathers was especially congenial to the Irish but refers to Dom Henri Leclercq’s suggestion that Celtic monasticism was directly derived from Egypt, as an “unsubstantiated hypothesis”. No serious historian, however, would deny that first-hand knowledge of the Desert Fathers was brought directly to the South of Gaul by St. John Cassian and that the links between the British and Gallican churches were especially strong at this period. King nevertheless admits that the grouping together of several small churches within a cashel or fortified enclosure seems to support Leclercq’s view.

King mentions an Ogham inscription on a stone near St. Olan’s Well in the parish of Aghabulloge, County Cork, which scholars interpret as reading: ‘Pray for Olan the Egyptian.’ Professor Stokes tells us5 about the Irish monk Dicuil, who around 825 wrote his Liber de Mensure orbis terre describing the pyramids as well as an ancient precursor of the Suez Canal. It would seem that Egypt was often visited by pilgrims to the Holy Land. Stokes instances the Saltair Na Rann, an anthology of biblical poems attributed to Oengus the Culdee, but containing the sixth or seventh century Book of Adam and Eve, composed in Egypt and known in no other European country except Ireland.

King also notes that one of the commonest names for townlands or parishes is Disert or ‘Desert’: a solitary place in which anchorites were established. Presumably the same etymology gives us the Scottish Dysart, just north of Kirkcaldy, and the Welsh Dyserth, to the south of Prestatyn ? This would then present a consistent picture common to Celtic Christianity. The Martyrology of Oengus the Culdee, an early ninth century monastic bishop of Clonenagh (Co. Offaly) and later of Tallaght, has a litany invoking ‘Seven monks of Egypt in Disert Uilaig, I invoke unto my aid, through Jesus Christ.’ [Morfesseor do manchaib Egipr(e) in disiurt Uilaig]. The Antiphonary of Bangor (dating from between 680-691) also contains the text:

” … Domus deliciis plena Super petram constructa Necnon vinea vera Ex Aegypto transducta …”

which is translated as:

” … House full of delight Built on the rock And indeed true vine Translanted from Egypt …”

Providence undoubtedly put me in touch with Fr. Feargal Patrick McGrady, priest of Ballymena, County Antrim in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Down and Connor. As well as being a native of Downpatrick (the burial place of St. Patrick), Father Feargal is enthusiastic about the Eastern churches and holds His Holiness Pope Shenouda in high esteem. He was delighted to assist with my enquiries and very soon made contacts with local historians, who are the real source of the information we need.

Dr. Cahal Dallat, Genealogist and Historical Consultant, of Ballycastle, County Antrim, identified Disert Ilidh or Uilaigh with Dundesert, near Crumlin, county Antrim, which is to the north-west of Belfast, the capital of Northern Ireland, between Belfast International Airport and Templepatrick.

Mr. Bobbie Burns, a local historian living in Crumlin, was another link in the chain. He produced a report in the Belfast Telegraph of 13th July 1936 under the headline “Unique Once Famous Ulster Church: Neglected Crumlin Ruins”, which showed the ruins of the medieval church built on the site of an earlier shrine. The local historical group is taking a renewed interest in the site and the local Protestant landowner has given permission for them to come and go freely to the site. It is hoped that they might obtain a grant to restore the dilapidated ruins but they are excited by its more ancient and possible Coptic connections. The site is approached by a path along the side of a grazing field 200-300 metres from Poplar Road. It is on the steep bank of the Crumlin River, which is a large free-flowing river, but is more than 100 metres from the water. Access is easy in dry weather, but not pleasant after heavy rain. The terrain inside the enclosure is very rough. The ground is strewn with boulders which have either fallen or been removed from the medieval walls. Parts of the medieval walls, in places three feet thick and covered in ivy, survive on the east (or gable) and south sides. The east wall contains two arched recesses or sedilia, now only about four feet in height but probably much higher if their foundations were cleared of the extensive in-fill of stones and earth. The gable rises to around thirty feet in height but a number of stones have already been removed and were any more to go it would be undermined and likely to collapse. What remains of the wall at the other end is much lower. It is likely that the whole structure would have been removed long ago but for the difficulties of dislodging stone from the walls and the problem of transportation to the road.

We are grateful for the efforts of these local enthusiasts for having preserved these ancient ruins and look forward to making further discoveries about the last resting place of the seven monks of Egypt.

Abba Seraphim

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