Is this the reason Ireland converted to christianity?
Halley’s Comet is one of the most famous comets ever to have graced the skies. It has stunned humans throughout history, its first known observation having taken place in 239 BC, when, according to the European Space Agency, Chinese astronomers recorded its passage in the Shih Chi and Wen Hsien Thung Khao chronicles. Another study pushes that date back, suggesting the first observation actually happened in 466 BC, making it visible to the ancient Greeks.
Halley’s returned in 164 BC and 87 BC, and has done the rounds every 75 years since.
Its presence in the night sky has been linked to a number of events on Earth: it was credited with inspiring Genghis Khan to dispatch his Mongols on an invasion of Europe; its return in 1456 famously overlapped with the Ottoman Empire’s invasion of the Balkans, among other things.
Researchers now suggest that its passing could also be linked to Ireland’s conversion to Christianity, an idea explored during the Smithsonian Channel’s documentary, ‘Sacred Sites: Ireland’.
Traditionally, it is thought that a man named Patrick visited Ireland from Roman Britain in the 5th century AD, managing to convert a Pagan population to the religion of Christ during his travels.
Archaeology: Researchers believe Halley’s Comet could have played a part in Ireland’s conversion
Halley’s Comet: Senator Giovanni Celoria observing Halley’s Comet in Milan, 1910
But for years researchers have questioned the legitimacy of this story.
Dr Patrick McCafferty, a Celtic Scholar, said: “The reality wasn’t like that, Saint Patrick did not travel all over Ireland, he was confined mainly to the northern part of Ireland.
“Also, we know that other people were teaching at the same time, and we also know that even by a century after his death, paganism still survived in Ireland.”
Scientists have since delved further into why Ireland may have eventually transitioned from its native religion, drawing a link between Halley’s Comet and extreme weather events that occurred at the same time.
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Ice stores: Dr Dallas Abbott has looked into the ice stores from the time of the weather events
They say the comet had an “extraordinary” effect on the climate.
In around 540 AD, a massive dust cloud appeared in the Earth’s atmosphere.
Dr Dallas Abbott, a geophysicist, has studied ancient ice stores from the period, aligning the dates of the dust cloud with other historical events at that time.
Analysing the particles and air bubbles trapped in the ice, she found that the two events appear to be interlinked.
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Night sky: Halley’s is one of the, if not the most famous comets in history
Saint Patrick: He is said to have converted Ireland from Druidism to Christianity
She explained: “The Greenland ice core samples tell us there was extraterrestrial dust coming into the Earth’s atmosphere from 533 until 539, 540 AD.
“Back then, they described the stars as dancing, and that’s basically due to their being a lot of dust.”
Dr Abbott believes that this trail of celestial dust came from Halley’s, which appeared in the skies in 530 AD, and left a significant trail of debris in its wake.
She explained: “Some places in the cometary dust trail were bigger than the comet.
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“One of those hit the Earth near the equator and that produced most of the profound darkness between 536 and 537 AD.”
The scientific evidence appears to be backed up by accounts from history.
One medieval historian described “a comet so vast that the entire sky seemed to be on fire”, while the Romans also observed a bizarre change in the landscape, a pale Sun that had lost its heat and vigour.
And ancient Irish annals report catastrophic food shortages.
Ancient Ireland: He said he believed the famine and plague were enough to convert the ancient people
Dr McCafferty said: “We have a famine, we had the plague, and we also have references to the stars falling and comets in the sky from the 530s into 540s.
“Now, together, I suspect that these were enough to convince people that the religion they used to believe in wasn’t working anymore and that they needed to leave for something new.
“And in a sense, Christianity would have brought this message that these are symbols of the world ending, and now was the time to switch religion.
“To change from Druidism to Christianity.”