The Irish had never been part of the Roman empire, and the missionaries
who brought Christianity to Ireland in the 5th century found a highly developed Celtic
culture which was to survive in the form of Celtic Christianity for another 500 years.
Christianity provided a central and powerful belief system
around which the diverse facets of pagan art could be unified and redirected. As a Church,
Irish Christianity developed independently and vigorously. The Irish monasteries, at first
humble and primitive, flourished into seats of learning and art, sending monks to found
monasteries in Northern Britain, and thence throughout Europe.
The structure of the Celtic society in Ireland at that time was such
that it assimilated Christianity with ease. Throughout the many kingdoms a strict
hierarchy prevailed from aristocracy through the warrior caste to the common people.
But apart from the aristocracy was a special professional elite whose
skills gave them status regardless of their birth. These were called Aes Dana, men of art
- poets, historians, musicians, lawyers, artist, priests - and they had powerful voice as
well as high status. The social structure fostered highly specialised schools of artistic
apprenticeship, in which is the root of that perfection and technical adroitness which
characterized Irish art in the Golden Age. In Irish literature we find persons are
distinguished in terms of individual accomplishment, or specialization.