Book Series Studies in the Early Middle Ages, vol. 43

The Cult of Relics in Early Medieval Ireland

Niamh Wycherley

  • Pages: xi + 254 p.
  • Size:156 x 234 mm
  • Language(s):English
  • Publication Year:2016

  • ISBN: 978-2-503-55184-5
  • Hardback
  • Available
  • ISBN: 978-2-503-55920-9
  • E-book
  • Available

This book explores how the Christian phenomenon of relic veneration became manifest in early Ireland and evaluates the continuity between Irish practice and that on the continent.

Winner of the National University of Ireland (NUI) Publication Prize in Irish History


"Die Studie, die mit der Absicht angetreten war, 'an overall assessment of the role of relics in the Irish Church' (181) zu liefern , um so 'a more rounded understanding of their function in the Church and its interaction with society' (191), darf als gelungen gelten." (Ralf Lützelschwab, in: Mediaevistik 29, 2016, p.430-433)

"It is a well-argued, insightful book about religious things and their uses in early medieval Ireland. Experts on the topic will profit from Wycherley's philological investigations. Non-specialists will appreciate the book as an accessible introduction to yet another of the countless Christianities of early medieval Europe." (Lisa Bitel, in The Medieval Review, 13.05.2017)

“This book provides many interesting insights into relics in Irish society (…) provides an interesting context to much of what we know of medieval Ireland and is an excellent addition to your library.” (Newsletter Ulster Archaeological Society, 2017)

“The Cult of Relics in Early Medieval Ireland offers much food for thought and opens up significant avenues for future research.” (Elizabeth Boyle, in Studia Celtica, 51, 2017, p. 194)

“(…) this book is an important contribution to understanding the cult of relics in Ireland and can certainly be built upon and should be consulted for further studies in this field. Wycherley’s approaches to using both archaeological and historical evidence and her comparisons with practices outside of Ireland are both admirable and necessary for addressing this topic and make this contribution significant in its own right.” (Sarah Waidler, in Early Medieval Europe, 26/2, 2018, p. 255)

“It is a very good book, and a very thorough examination of the material, using a combination of history, language and archaeology to build up a picture of how the importance of relics grew as the early centuries of Christianity in Ireland progressed.” (Peter Harbison, in the Journal of Ecclesiastical History, 68, 2018, p. 398)

 “This wide-ranging and thoughtful work is the first dedicated study of the cult of relics in medieval Ireland. It addresses a long-standing gap in the study of early Christian Ireland (…) Readers from various backgrounds can learn much from this work and its interdisciplinary approach to a subject that, like many aspects of early Ireland, is often indirectly evidenced.” (Shane Lordan, in Óenach, 10, 2020, p. 21-24)


As the cult of saints became increasingly important to the Christian religion during the latter centuries of the Roman Empire, so too the veneration of relics became a central element of Christian piety. The relics of holy men and women — the very tangibility of which ensured their lasting appeal — could be used to heal the sick, improve the weather, ensure victory in battle, and represent power and authority. Even today, in an era of declining church attendance, famous relics such as the head of St Catherine of Siena or the tongue of St Anthony of Padua continue to draw hundreds of thousands of pilgrims; the need to preserve and venerate objects associated with the important and the famous is a well-established human trait.

This book is the first to explore the historical roots of the cult of relics in early medieval Ireland, deepening our understanding of how the pagan Irish adapted to the new religion. Examining the cult of relics from the earliest Irish sources up to the ninth century, it provides insights into the role of relics and the culture and people to whom they were so significant. The volume investigates how the Christian phenomenon of relic veneration developed in early Ireland and it evaluates the continuity between Irish practice and that on the continent. By offering a new model of how the cult of relics evolved and by exploring the extent to which it helped forge early Irish Christianity, the arguments presented here have the potential to reshape views of the entire period.





Chapter 1. Relics and the Late Antique World

Chapter 2. Origins and Early Cult in Ireland

Chapter 3. Translatio

Chapter 4. Leachta, Sepulcri, and the Role of Relics in Church Consecration

Chapter 5. The Formal Use of Relics in Early Ireland

Chapter 6. Relics and Identity — Power and Control in Early Medieval Ireland


Appendix. Terminology of the Cult of Relics in Early Medieval Ireland