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Discovering Saint Patrick

Author(s): Thomas OLoughlin

ISBN13: 9780232524987

ISBN10: 023252498X


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  • Superb popular history that undermines many of our preconceptions about Patrick and reveals several surprises. The search for the real Saint Patrick has puzzled and intrigued scholars for centuries. How much can we really know about the life and times of Patrick? Why and how was the Patrick myth built up in the seventh century, and what was its influence on the development of Irish Catholicism? This book examines the original sources and undermines many of our preconceptions about Patrick. It includes new translations of the Muirchó life of Patrick and Patricks own writings and other material from the seventh century relating to Patrick, as well as an extensive bibliography and resources for further reading.

  • Thomas OLoughlin

    Thomas O'Loughlin is professor of Historical Theology at the University of Wales, Lampeter. He has published extensively on how ancient texts can reveal the lives of Christians. His books include Discovering Saint Patrick; Celtic Theology: Humanity, World and God in Early lrish Writings; and Saint Patrick: The Man and His Works.

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    Where to start?
    Starting at the very beginning is, according to the song, a very good place to start. The problem for the historian is that it is much harder to know what and when is the very beginning of something. For more than a millennium the very beginning of the story of Patrick - and the story of the coming of Christianity to Ireland - was held to have occurred between AD 431 and 461. Patrick was believed to have arrived in 432, to have converted, with his few trusty companions, more or less the whole island, and to have died in 461. So the place to start was the fifth century and then work forwards from that point until whatever date was chosen as the end of the particular story. For those who started with Patricks arrival in 432, a popular ending point was 795 when the first Viking raid occurred; between those dates was the `Golden Age of the Island of Saints and Scholars This approach started to disappear from historical textbooks from the early 1960s, but it is still used in many popular accounts of the Celtic Saints, and in a number that claim to be more than popular.

    Another possible starting point is the seventh century, when the documents that provide most of the legends about Patrick were written, including the life of the saint by Muirchó and other writings in which Patrick is central, such as the Book of the Angel or the Collection made by Tirech?ín (1). It might seem strange to start with the seventh century rather than with the man from the closing period of Roman rule in Britain, but there is much to recommend this. First of all, most of the information that is associated with Patrick is not about a bishop working on the periphery of the Roman Empire, but about a saint who is seen as an `intercessor, a patron, and an apostle. These are not just interchangeable titles that can be used for Patrick, but very distinct roles that Christians bestowed on those who were dead yet revered in their memory, liturgy and private devotion as saints: while every saint is assumed to be an intercessor, only some are approached as patrons, and very few indeed are venerated as `apostles. Thus, most of what we say about Patrick , and, more importantly, the framework within which any facts relating to him are viewed , belongs to the cult of the saint. Such a cult of a saint always involves far more than what most people in the early twenty-first century would associate with the term history or `biography. The materials of a saints cult (by which I mean ancient documents, tombs, relics, customs, traditions about where he visited, and when her/his feast day falls) relate to the memory of the saint as perceived by a community of religious faith, who see not just the person someone in the fifth century might have met, but the significance of the person within a story of salvation of which they themselves are part. So the miracles of a saint, both while the saint was alive and after death, are far more important for someone writing documents relating to the cult than questions of accurate dates, the places visited, and who the saint met and why. In short, there is little in common between a writer of saints lives (a hagiographer) and a modern historian. However, the two professions are easily confused in that both write accounts of the life of someone in the past. In very broad terms the difference can be put like this: the historian is interested in what happened then, and from her modern vantage point seeing what were the most significant aspects of that past time; the hagiographer is looking at the saints importance right now , at the time the hagiographer is writing , and is only interested in the past in so far as it explains why the holy person is so significant to his community. Alas, ignoring the difference in perspectives between a medieval hagiographer and modern historian has bedevilled much that has been written about Patrick (2). The interesting thing is that between Patricks time (whenever that was, but it was most probably in the fifth century) and the seventh century there is almost no mention of Patrick! Therefore, one could say that the story of Saint Patrick begins in the seventh century, and everything before that is just the historical prologue.

    A third possible starting point is to attempt to draw a clear line between material that can be placed in close proximity to Patrick the bishop and material that belongs to his cult as a saint, which is mainly the seventh-century writings just mentioned. This too, at first sight, seems a good strategy. Patrick did leave us two writings, one is a letter to the soldiers of a Christian brigand named Coroticus, the other is an apology for his own ministry in Ireland and is now known as his Confession. Because these are the very words of the man, they seem to get behind the wall of miraculous stories and the accretions of cult. In addition, we can add a few details relating to fifth-century Ireland that come from elsewhere (a couple of snippets from Prosper of Aquitaine (c. 390, c. 463) and Pope Leo the Great (d. 461)), and use whatever help the archaeologists can offer, and try to construct a plausible scenario for the missionary from Roman Britain while avoiding statements not well based in sources, hyperbole, the fanciful, and the downright daft. This approach would seem to offer the possibility of bringing us to the man behind the legends, the true Patrick, or to the real Patrick.

    This starting point seems both attractive and simple and, at present, it is by far the favourite approach among both academic and popular writers. Among popular presentations, for example, there have been at least half a dozen television documentaries about Patrick in recent years, and the real Patrick offers a new slant on the man who lies behind the festivities of St Patricks Day. One can use the shock angle in such a programme that the archetypal Irishman came from Britain (true, but only as a geographical fact) or even England (wrong, and anachronous) and that he never used a shamrock or threatened a snake. For academics it is attractive as it accords with a basic rule of historical evidence: use contemporary sources for each period, and do not use later interpretations as a basis for earlier times. Moreover, for both academics and popular writers, given that it is part of our culture that we are suspicious of the miraculous and make a fundamental distinction between an historical event and a miracle, it suggests that we can get to a set of facts (over which there would be little dispute), which could then be subtracted from the overall story/memory/cult. We would then have the man (somehow equivalent to the truth) and the myth (somehow equivalent to propaganda, the fanciful, and falsehood) in watertight compartments, and would be free to choose between them. We would have the reality as found in the fifth-century documents , and from which a real man of faith might emerge , and everything else would just belong to the background to a big party on March 17; after all, we have great fun with Santa Claus without worrying about St Nicholas of Myra.

    Unfortunately, this approach presents as many difficulties as attractions. First, the fifth-century evidence is not only sparse, but comes bristling with historical problems: where do we place Patricks writings in time, relative to our few sure dates; how do we interpret his references to people and places; do we assess what he tells us narrowly (information on one bishop working in Ireland) or as broadly in line with the seventh-century accounts (that he was the key player in converting the Irish); and what value can we lay on autobiographical material?

    Second, the past is a foreign country, they do things differently there: historical facts are always a perception and an abstraction, and the historian brings not only her/his prejudices to a topic, but a whole world of understandings and assumptions which give significance to the remnants that have survived over time. Each culture and each generation writes history anew, and while there is progress in the unearthing of discrete nuggets of information (for example, one might discover a new manuscript that allows one to provide a better text of what Patrick wrote, or an archaeologist might find a hoard of coins that can throw light on commerce at the time between islands of Britain and Ireland), since each generation comes with different questions and assumptions, each generation starts afresh and produces their real Patrick.

    Third, while we might be very clear on the distinction between facts (alias historical events) and religious interpretations (alias miracles), that was not a distinction shared by many prior to the eighteenth century. Patricks writings contain numerous miracles: the miracle of finding a place on the boat to escape from slavery in Ireland, miraculous food in a desert, and an angelic voice calling him to Ireland as a preacher, to mention but a few. So is the angel calling Patrick back to Ireland a fact , it is contained in a contemporary source: his own Confessio , or is it something we can discount? We might get around this by saying that it is a fact that Patrick thought it was a fact; consequently, it is a fact about his mentality and how he saw the world. But that response merely reinforces the assertion that the past is foreign, and reminds us that to study Patrick we have to be prepared to enter a world where religious questions and a religious perception of the universe were central. Not to take account of that religious dimension as a fundamental aspect of every source (whether fifth-century or later) connected with Patrick, is to denature the material, and reduce the study to what we have predetermined as the real.

    Lastly, the assumption that we can draw a line dividing the fifth-century material from all else supposes that people (apart from historians working on fifth-century Irish history) would still be interested in Patrick quite apart from the later legend which has ensured his fame and generated our interest.

    So if there is no obvious starting point, where do we start? I suspect the place to start is with a study of how memory works within communities as they hand on their traditions from generation to generation: if we can appreciate that process we might have a perspective on both the legends and the significance that has been given to Patrick. This requires that we begin by looking at what we expect from history, and the very different expectations of those who made Patrick famous, gave value to his writings so that they were preserved, and produced the interest that is still with us. Only when we can distinguish between the problems and perspectives of the hagiographer, on the one hand, and the historian, on the other, can we begin to approach Patrick.

    Hagiography and history
    The notion of hagiography, meaning writing intended to praise a saint or demonstrate her/his sanctity (from Greek hagios: a holy man/saint; grapho: I write), does not sit well with us. In a review of a book about a dead religious leader I recently saw the claim that it is not written as hagiography being used as a term of praise for the book and its author; hagiography is a genre we neither respect nor value. Our experience of heroes and saints is too bitter for us not to be suspicious of any work that praises someone and holds them up for our imitation. Any work that dishes out praise, and sets out deliberately to extol someone and make us admire her/him is seen by us as a whitewash, propaganda or simply an attempt to con us. Heroes have failed us and the following of heroes has led whole countries astray. We want to know our people warts and all. Moreover, hero-creators and personality-myth-makers are those who have promoted some of the greatest monsters of modern times. To suggest that Muirchó was to Patrick what Goebbels was to Hitler is to put Muirchó, and all like him, into the category of liars. Indeed, one of the tasks that fall to historians is to expose myths that the propagandists may have spread abroad. In the immediate aftermath of an event or person there are the praises or the denunciations of the media and then, in the longer term, the historians present a balanced view showing the good points and the bad points and, hopefully, presenting an assessment of the impact of a person or a movement, showing both surpluses and deficits. The historian with the benefit of hindsight is to be the final arbiter and we do not expect anyone to be wholly good or beyond criticism.

    The hagiographer works in a very different milieu; for him (I cannot think of a single woman hagiographer from the Middle Ages) the question of his subjects perfection is already beyond doubt , the person is a saint in heaven, enjoying the fullness of the vision of God, right now. So dwelling on imperfections is simply silly: the saint is at that exact point of perfection/happiness that every human desires. There may be a dark legacy in the saints life on earth , indeed the murkier the better , but that is now past for the saint has repented, possibly done penance, and converted to a new way of life. So the saint is a model in his/her present state of what Christians want to become, and in turning from a former sinful life, the saint is a model of what Christians should be doing. The new, reformed, penitent life sets the earlier/former life at nought. We have a splendid example of this standard pattern in hagiography in Muirchós Vita Patricii, in the story of Macc Cuill , who changes from being a murderer to being a monastic bishop and saint: the audience are intended to marvel at the new saintly bishop rather than ask whether ex-murderers should be given positions of responsibility in the Church (4).

    To appreciate this difference in viewing saints we must note a fundamental difference between how people today (including most Christians) view religion (even when they take part in it as active believers), and how Christians in the early Middle Ages viewed religion. In the early Middle Ages to be a Christian was not seen primarily in terms of personal conviction regarding a set of beliefs, but about being part of a society, a group, and a tradition , this was expressed by saying that one belonged to the Church. This was a body, in effect Christs body, scattered over every part of the earth and over every generation, and it would only become wholly visible and complete at a moment beyond history when Christ would be all and in all (Col. 3:11). Salvation consisted in being fully part of this interconnected network, which, through its union with Christ its head, was able to stand in the presence of the Father. Salvation was being part of the group, and being on ones own was tantamount to being lost. It was with that notion in peoples heads that the phrase there is no salvation outside the church (extra ecclesia nulla salus) was coined. Put another way, a man or woman was not saved as an individual in a series of private contracts between God and individuals, but rather it was the body of Christ that was saved, and the individual had to seek to belong within that group. Sin cut one off from the group, penance restored one to being fully within the group, and conversion was the decision to join the group, which was seen as literally joining Christ or being grafted into Christ It was in this way that they read the verse: Apart from me you can do nothing (John 15:5). Christ was the whole tree and individuals were branches or limbs. The language of Christianity was corporate , talking of bodies at every turn: the Church was the body of Christ; Jesus the Lord was the head; head and body made up the whole Christ (Christus totus); individuals were limbs, branches, members of the body; the Eucharist was the body of Christ , and so in it they participated and shared in the body, they prayed for the whole bodys health and the body prayed for the individuals which made it up.

    To convert an individual was to make sure that she or he was no longer a loner outside the body or poorly connected to the body; to convert a group was to graft a new interconnected group (a family or a tribe) into the final body that would exist at the Last Judgement when all else would have passed away. In short, to become a Christian was not spoken of in terms of a lifestyle decision, but in terms of joining fully in the whole sweep of history, for at the eschaton (the final shakedown of the whole of creation) only those who were within Christ would survive and have that happiness they desired. It was as part of this view of history that Augustine wrote the opening lines of his Confessiones: You have made us, O Lord, for yourself, and our heart is unsettled until it rests in you. And, it was within this view of history that Patrick worked in Ireland, and Muirchó later created the story of the islands conversion.

    This community of Christians believed its full identity would not be known until the end of time, but it was bonded together now in a whole variety of ways which gave it its self-image, its beliefs, and its agenda for activity. The group began to exist long before Christ, but was given its perfect form when Jesus gathered his disciples and set it on its path through his death and resurrection. Since that time it had gained new members in each generation, preserved its memory through its books (5) and interacted not only with God but with all its deceased members through the liturgy. The liturgy brought the assembled group not only into the presence of Christ, but through him into the presence of the whole court of heaven: the saints of the time before Christ brought into heaven on the first Holy Saturday; the saints of the time of Jesus (the Virgin Mary, John the Baptist, the apostles); all the saints since then; and all the choirs of angels, for it was with this group that they sang out Holy, holy, holy Lord at their Eucharists. This whole transhistorical community acted as one: the Christians on earth asked for help and offered praise; those in heaven (the saints) interceded, protected, and intervened with their acts of power; those en route from earth to heaven sought to hasten along with help from both sides; while the Lord looked on his people as parts of his own body. Recalling the saints, expressing their identity, all their worship, and their final destiny as a Church were intertwined realities. The hagiographer, through fostering the links between the visible church community around him and the larger Christian community of the saints and angels, was supplying an important service to his own community. He helped it appreciate the rock from which they were hewn (Isa. 51:1), recalled those in whom they could glory, and reminded them where their destiny lay by showing them proven examples of how to get to that destination. From this perspective, a saints life that did not show how the saint-members of the Church intervened right now in the lives of the not-yet-saint-members would be of little worth to those people. Put another way, a saints life must record the saints miracles in relation to those who look to him or her as a saint. This is what we see well exemplified in the lives of Patrick: he is the one in heaven who has been given a special care of those members of the whole Church who are Irish: he is their intercessor, their patron, and will look after them now and at the end , hence it behoves the Irish not to forget him!

    Lastly, most Christians today look to saints as examples of moral behaviour and right living. This is a view of sanctity that first came to prominence at the Reformation, when many Christians rejected the notion of a cult of the saints or the notion that they had intercessory power. However, the saints were held to be models of how to lead a good Christian life and, as such, a saints memory was godliness: teaching through example. So a holy Christian might be worth recalling as a model of what discipleship means or costs, but without any hint that you might ask them to help you. So today many Christians look back, rightly in my opinion, to Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) as a teacher, an example of discipleship and a reminder in his own death of the demands that a decision to follow Christ might make. And, following from that theme, I have heard people call him a modern saint That is fine in terms of contemporary Christianity, where even the Catholic Church has modified its manner of presenting the value of saints: Father ... you give the Church this feast in honour of Saint X; you inspire us by his holy life, instruct us by his preaching, and give us your protection in answer to his prayers (6). However, we must not project this image of a saint as model Christian backwards to the early Middle Ages. One way to note the difference is to ask whether someone who has praised Bonhoeffer or Martin Luther King (1929-1968) has ever thought of adding pray for us after their names in what is the simplest of prayers to a saint , usually the answer is a look of bafflement. Equally, many Christians still pray to St Anthony of Padua (1195-1231) to help find lost keys, but would they promise to build a roadside statue to him or offer 20 kilograms of wax candles at his tomb , typical medieval promises of one member of the Church to another? Or would someone who held up Martin Luther King , who after all has a secular feast day in the United States (7) , as an example of peaceful protest want to present him as someone looking after him or her from heaven? In reality, these are two very different notions of what saint means, and we must recall this when we read earlier material relating to saints. Muirchó rejoices that Patrick can destroy the army of the High King and can bring death upon those who oppose his work in Ireland, but this is a statement about Patricks power and it is irrelevant that the stories are blood-curdling. Today, if we heard that a nineteenth-century missionary to a group with an organised military force, for example the Zulus, had begun his missionary work by slaughtering their army, we would stand aghast that such an act could be carried out in the name of religion, the missionarys memory would be pilloried, and the notion that he might become the hero of that people would be viewed as a sick joke. Yet, this is exactly the sort of tale that is central to the whole Patrick cult.

    However, before we dismiss all those who fostered the memory of Patrick in the early Middle Ages (and without their interest we would know nothing about Patrick) as bigots, zealots, primitives, or religious tyrants, we should not forget that their examples came from the fate of Pharaohs chariot army in Exodus 14 and 15; the fate of the prophets of Baal at the hands of Elijah in 1 Kings 18; and the fate of Ananias and Sapphira before Peter in Acts 5; and indeed many Christians still sing the Song of Moses (Exod. 15), which thanks God for drowning the Egyptians, as part of their celebration of Christs resurrection at the Easter Vigil.

    In writing about Patrick, Muirchó saw himself in continuity with these biblical writers and sought to cast Patrick as a contemporary version of those biblical characters. Indeed, ultimately the hagiographers saw themselves doing for their subjects, who were members of Christ, what the evangelists did for Jesus to show he was the Christ. The evangelist John concluded his gospel by saying that he had written the book that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name (20:31), and so we make a distinction between the genre of gospel writing and the genre of biography. The hagiographer echoes Johns words: he wrote that people might believe that someone was a saint and so might be moved to link their own life with that of the saint through entering into that saints cult. Hagiographers lived in a different world from ours, and even for contemporary Christians, to enter that world requires a leap of imagination and sympathy with religious difference. This stress on the gulf of understanding that separates us from the past is itself part of our very modernity: for most of Christian history it was the continuity with the past that was stressed. Each culture and period imagined their society as having the same understanding as that of earlier Christians: hence the message of the Gospel related directly to their situation, the events of the gospels were pictured as occurring in their landscape and fashions, and they attributed to the earlier period their own beliefs and hang-ups. So, for example, Muirchó imagined that the situation and events of the Book of Daniel and the situation at the court of the Irish High King at Tara were virtually the same apart from the obvious difference in date, location and language. Alternatively, some modern Christians live in a situation where miracles are viewed as childish superstitions and so, to preserve continuity with the desired past, the milieu of Jesus, Jesus is reconstructed without any hint of the miraculous. One myth of continuity makes a seventh-century Irishman into an ancient Babylonian (8), while the other makes a first-century Jew from Palestine into a twenty-first-century social reformer (9). In short, continuity is the lifeblood of a community, and so it is a central plank in the worldview of a hagiographer, but it is dangerous for the historian, and problematic in a culture that notes its differences from the past.

    Saints, heroes, relics
    While we must not try to disguise the differences between our worlds and those of the past, we should also note that there are continuities, and while the cult of saints may mean less within the Christian churches, the human dynamics that are at play in saints cults seem to be as active as ever. These human dynamics do seem to form a real continuity with the past and serve to remind us that with some imaginative sympathy we can enter into a foreign world, and at the very least experience it through a cultural translation.

    Many of the same cultural phenomena that in the past were linked to the cult of saints can be found today in the interest we take in celebrities , people, as someone remarked, who are famous for being famous. The devotion given to some pop singers , often referred to using religious terms such as pop idol or pop icon , or internationally famous football players is a modern secular form of saints cult. The simplest proof of this is that marketers know that these cult images are financially valuable and so place images of these idols where they can influence our behaviour in terms of our use of money, not with reference to either making music or playing sport. A famous footballer can sponsor any product and many of us are moved to buy it: it is as if he becomes the products patron saint and each advert hoarding showing him with the product is another wayside shrine to his excellence, goodness or prowess in the eyes of his devotees. Equally, the cult of relics is alive and well, as witness the desire for celebrity memorabilia. The seriousness of this cult, and its organisation, can be gauged by the amounts of money people are prepared to spend on these relics (or as Jesus is reported as saying in Matt. 6:21: For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also), the involvement of famous auction houses in the trade, and the coverage such sales attract in the media. The musical instrument of a pop icon, the dress of a celebrity worn on a particular occasion, or some other personal item will fetch the highest price (equivalent to the older Roman Catholic category of first-class relic: that which belongs properly to the saint), while signed pictures or autographs are next in order of value (a second-class relic: that which was associated with the saint), while programmes from a famous concert or event have least monetary value (third-class relics: material objects which have touched higher relics). Material objects bring us close to our heroes! Other human instincts also seem to be still at work when fans gather to hear or see their hero live when they could more comfortably (and more economically) see an event on TV or listen to a recording: there is just no substitute for being there. The sentiment that one must go to the place and be there with the group and be in the very presence of the hero is something that any medieval pilgrim to a saints shrine would have understood. The modern pop concert or great sports tournament functions in a very similar way to the feast-day gatherings at the special cult centres of medieval saints. Moreover, this pilgrimage instinct even survives the live experience of the heroes presence: the houses where the Beatles grew up in Liverpool and the home of Elvis Presley are still attracting devotees.

    Devotion to the saints was a group phenomenon and so attaching oneself to the group was a primary task: to become part of the group was seen as attaching ones self to the saint and thus sharing in his/her glory. The same instinct can be seen today in the followers of football clubs, where the club and its fortunes on the field become part of a persons identity: they wear the colours, gather the memorabilia, travel together to the sacred moments of the cult, and seek to move ever closer to the club through their demonstrations of loyalty. In the early Middle Ages the highest form of such loyalty was the desire to be with that saint at the final Day of Resurrection , literally to rest with him in his place so as to rise with him. It is for this reason that sites connected with saints in Ireland are still cluttered up as graveyards: to be buried in a monastery is a definitive statement of attachment to that place made holy by the saint. For that reason Adomn?ín can tell a story of St Columba telling a monk he must move to another monastery because he foresees that he should be buried elsewhere. However, even this has a modern parallel: several football clubs have scattered the ashes of famous deceased players or a manager on the pitch, while some supporters express the opinion that this would be their preferred resting place if only they too could persuade the club to scatter their ashes at the sacred centre of their cult. I know that only a tiny proportion of supporters go that far in their desire for proximity to their heroes but, equally, only a tiny proportion of early medieval Christians engaged in subterfuge to get their grave that bit closer to the bones of the saint. The instincts of both groups of followers seem to be the same.

    As we read a medieval hagiographer we must keep in mind that his religious landscape is as different from ours as his physical landscape is. But we should also note the opposite phenomenon. A medieval writer will tell of massive outpourings of grief at the moment the saint dies , now recall the crowds and the flowers at Princess Dianas funeral in 1997 and the shrine erected as her tomb. When we read of wayside shrines and markers to those who died alongside the road , note the flowers that are left, often renewed for years after the event, where there has been a fatal road accident , and when we read of the desire for relics and to touch the very spot of some wonder , then lets not forget that fulfilling peoples desires to get to specific famous spots is a key aspect of the tourist industry and most of those who go there will carry a special relic-collector to link them to that spot: a camera.

    The dossier of a saint
    So in looking back at someone whom Christians have venerated as a saint we do not encounter historical artefacts together with the interpretations of earlier historians (as we might if we were to pursue the life and times of an early Irish king), but something far more complex. We find the strands of historical fact intermingled with the cult as it evolved over time, all set within the larger parameters of how that society and period perceived its universe religiously and adapted the Christian traditions about saints. This whole complex of surviving bits and pieces has been given a label by the Bollandists , a group of Jesuits in Be

Discovering Saint Patrick

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