Unravelling and presenting a plausible and coherent narrative of any historical event not only demands a great deal of caution and astute evaluation from the historian, but also an unsettling divorce from the sheltered confines of historical mythology. Our past is littered with the corpses of so-called historical truths, the erroneous attribution of ‘let them eat cake’ to Marie-Antoinette, the emotive corruption of the ‘glorious massacre’ of Custer at Little Bighorn and the misplaced titling of the ‘Battle of Hastings’ to name but a few.
But when dealing with the period directly following the fall of Rome, that uncertain blur of intermingled fact and legend loosely entitled ‘The Dark Ages’, the historian must adhere to a greater deal of scholarly caution than anywhere else in post-recorded history. Here is an era of rumour, scant records and destructive human interaction; a time characterised by movement, disruption and frequent redefinition.
Within such confines, addressing but one small aspect of an overall uncertain field of study, that of Saint Patrick and his role in Ireland, is a task that is far from straightforward in spite or perhaps because of primary sources such as The Confessio, written by the man himself, which is both understandably bias and frustratingly vague. Records are tenuous, to say the least and the influence of myth, strong. And while Patrick is credited with bringing Christianity to Ireland, contemporary testimony strongly suggests otherwise.
Modern studies of the historical Patrick are based around a variant of T.F O’Rahilly’s Two Patrick’s Theory, suggesting that a great deal of what has traditionally been attributed to Patrick was rather the work of Palladius and his followers who preceded him in Ireland. Palladius was sent to Ireland in 431 by Pope Celestine I in what we can safely interpret as an attempt to check the ever-growing Pelagain Heresy. In turn, Palladius was charged with consolidating the work of Saint Ciaran Saighir the Elder through active interaction with the island’s existing, and distinctly burgeoning Christian community. Palladius was mostly active in Leinster, reinvigorating Christian ideals to the extent that he became Ireland’s first bishop as well as a saint. Further fusing the men together is a contemporary confusion of names, a relative chronological proximity, and the mistaken idea that Patrick was active across Ireland, whereas in fact he was most likely confined to Ulster and parts of Connacht. It was Secundinus, for example, a colleague of Palladius, who founded the famous Dunshughlin near Tara. It was also Secundinus who wrote the contemporary work known as the Tripartite Life of Saint Patrick. Adding to the confusion and entangled interactions is a host of imbalanced histories. Prosper’s Chronicle does not even mention Patrick, but instead Palladius. By contrast, the Annals of Ulster radiates with uncertainty as more than one Patrick appears to be recorded.
457: ‘Repose of the elder Patrick, as some books state.’
461: ‘Here some record the repose of Patrick’
492: ‘The Irish state here that Patrick the Archbishop died.’
493: ‘Patrick... apostle of the Irish, rested on the 16th day before the Kalends of April...’
In time, the confusion over who did what, and the irritating evidence that Patrick had not, in fact, brought Christianity to Ireland became a bit a problem for Patrick's hagiographers. Men such as Muirchu moccu Machtheni opted to downplay Palladius with false testimony, writing ‘[n]o one can receive from earth what has not been given by heaven: Palladius was denied success... and he himself did not wish to spend a long time in a foreign country.’ With the die cast, Muirchu builds upon Palladius’s apparent lack of staying power by disregarding his consecration as a mere Vatican procedure. Readers of the Life of Saint Patrick will also be misinformed that Palladius was appointed Ireland in 431, Patrick in 432. In 432, as will be presented below, Patrick was only beginning to forge his presence in Ireland. Muirchu also conveniently negotiates away from Palladius’s seniority to Patrick.
But it is essential to note that Palladius and Patrick had, for all intents and purposes, different objectives in Ireland. While Palladius was there first, he had gone to Ireland to work with the already-converted. Patrick, by contrast, took his work to those still relatively untouched by the Christian doctrine. And while Palladius’s role in Irish history deserves further recognition, this most singularly important of distinctions is what allows Patrick to stride past Palladius in the annals of Christian history.
Slemish, Co. Antrim where Patrick is said
to have tended sheep as a slave
Taking it as a sign to flee, Patrick escaped back to England to enter the seminary, before crossing the Irish Sea for a third time as a fully ordained man of the Christian faith. He cited his motive as a vision in which the native Irish had issued him with a plea for religious awakening. While clear of spiritual conscience, Patrick faced with a career that was both testing and frequently dangerous. Patrick was criticised on the manner of his faith by his followers, was placed under curse and suspicion by druids – the same people he prescribed as having little direction or coherence within native religion – and at times was imprisoned and bound, facing execution. He was even put on trial by his elders for what he vaguely describes as an ‘arduous escapa[d]e’ during his bishophood.
Despite the difficulties that defined his existence, Patrick was a prolific institutionalist and champion of Christian dogma, criss-crossing the northern part of the island to spread, establish and maintain his chosen religion. And while he is famed for sending the snakes from Ireland (albeit the product of legend as archaeological findings show that snakes have not existed in Ireland since before the last Ice Age) and illustrating the Holy Trinity by the leaves of the shamrock (an attribution first recorded in 1726 by Englishman Caleb Threlkeld), it is Patrick’s edificial record that is the most tangible indicator of his influence. With little external help, Patrick was granted land in Saul, County Down in 432 by a local chieftain, Dichu, building his first church on the site before moving onto consolidate Armagh’s place as the centre of Irish Christianity by 445. Here he built a grand cathedral that still stands to this day, and developed a town at its base. In 457, the Annals of the Four Masters records that,
‘Ard Mhacha was founded by Saint Patrick, it having been granted to him by Daire, son of Finnchadh,
son of Eoghan, son of Niallan. Twelve men were appointed by him for building the town. He ordered
them, in the first place, to erect an archbishop's city there, and a church for monks, for nuns, and for the
other orders in general, for he perceived that it would be the head and chief of the churches of Ireland
Patrick did not bring Christianity to Ireland, rather dismantled traditional religious practice and vigorously fostered his own. While a cynical scholar might point to his strengthening of Christian foundations as a fertile plot for later sectarianism, they would also miss the point. What Patrick did for Ireland, if unintentionally, was to lay the foundation for what has become a celebration of pan-Irish identity that was already being observed by the Irish in the tenth century. The eighteenth century saw the rise of green as a national icon, as well as a more widespread adoption of the shamrock. This tradition became more vigorous after 1903 when his feast day became a public holiday, and today has spread to become a global phenomenon.
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