Armagh Diocesan Historical Society

Lecture on the Easter Controversy prompts consideration of a complex subject

The problematic evidence underlying our understanding of the history of the seventh-century Irish Easter controversy was a subject which generated a most interesting discussion in the latest lecture sponsored by Cumann Seanchais Ard Mhacha.

In opening the theme of the presentation at the Cardinal Tomás Ó Fiaich Memorial Library and Archive in Armagh, Dr Immo Warntjes, Lecturer in Irish Medieval History, Queen’s University Belfast, explained that the Easter controversy was ‘the most vibrant controversy in western Europe’, the lonest lasting (from 300 to 800) and certainly the best recorded of the theological disputes of Late Antiquity of the Early Middle ages.

Dr Warntjes’ exploration generally centred on the ‘Irish phase’ of the Easter controversy covering the period c.AD 620-720.’ It revolved around the different methods of determining Easter used in Rome, the east and western Europe, arising from the instruction that ‘Easter falls on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox’.Dr Immo Warntjes, with Dr Neil McGleenon, Hon. Treasurer, Cumann Seanchais Ard Mhacha.Dr Immo Warntjes, with Dr Neil McGleenon, Hon. Treasurer, Cumann Seanchais Ard Mhacha.

The speaker used a great range of illustrations to relate the story, including a manuscript of the Easter table. A map of the Roman Empire was used to show the audience the collapse of the Roman Empire, the conversion of Anglo Saxons from two different sources of influence and how ‘Ireland’ actually extended beyond the island of Ireland.

Our traditional view of the Easter controversy has been principally based on Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica, which described the sequence of conversion into Roman Christianity. Dr Warntjes took his listners on an amiable journey through the much more sparse and difficult alternative Irish sources, such as the various Annals which more often provide mere headlines and have gaps for the seventh century. The saints lives, such as  the life of St Brigid (c.AD 670s) and the life of St Columba (c700) do not mention the controversy. Therefore scholars, like himself, have been trawling continental libraries and discovering manuscripts including one he found in Witzerland which contains an ‘old Irish section – the first old Irish numerals – which represents the first witnesses of the Irish language.’

Dr Immo Warntjes set out to illustrate the problems surrounding the central native historical witness, the Irish annals and how a reliable narrative has to be extracted from less obvious and less straight-forward documents. He not only achieved his objective but did so in a most amiable manner of presentation which brought his audience along in a corresponding analysis of the various considerations within. The subsequent interesting discussion was chaired by Dr Eoin Magennis who also proposed the vote of thanks which was generously acclaimed.