Down here in the deep south of Ireland we celebrate St Patrick’s Day like all Irish people around the world….including elsewhere in Ireland. But there is a very strong tradition in Munster that four saints introduced Christianity to the province before St Patrick arrived. These four were St Ailbe of Emly, St Ciaran of Saigir, St Abban of Moyarny and St Declan of Ardmore. Saint Ibar or Iberius in Latin is sometimes included as a pre-Patrician saint.
St Ailbe, considered the most important of these, is known in Pembrokeshire as St Eilfyw or Eilfw. The smallest parish in Britain, just four miles north west of St Davids is named after him. He is credited with founding the monastery of Emly, which was later erected into a diocese at the Synod of Rath Breasail in 1111. In the eighteenth century the see of Emly was united with the Diocese of Cashel, the see of the Archbishop of Cashel. Ailbe is said to have been a Irish foundling taken back to Wales by some Britons who raised him as a Christian. On a journey to Rome he was ordained by St Hilary, the pope at the time. Ailbe is said to have baptized St David of Wales and then returned to Ireland to set up his monastery. It is ironic that his name is so well known worldwide for the Latin version of Ailbe is…..Elvis! So you now know that the king of rock and roll was named after an Irish saint! But I have no idea if the saint was as good as the king with a guitar.
Ciaran of Saigir was a nobleman who converted to Christianity and went to Rome on pilgrimage, where he was ordained a bishop by the pope. Returning to Ireland he became bishop of Ossory – a diocese that didn’t exist in the fifth/six/seventh century. He’s called Ciaran the Elder to distinguish him from the St Ciaran who founded Clonmacnoise.
St Abban was from the area around New Ross in Wexford – a town that was founded in the early 1200s by William Marshal. Abban’s claim to fame is his sister – St Gobnait of Ballyvourney. Abban is said to be buried in Ballyvourney which marks the western outpost of the diocese of Cloyne. The abbey of Abingdon in England claimed to be named after him, but I suspect they were simply making that claim in the hope of acquiring relics. They actually had nothing to do with Abban. Come to think of it, the village of Killeagh in east Cork – on the road from Midleton to Youghal has a redundant Anglican church dedicated to St Abban – despite the fact that the village takes its name from St Ia (a woman) who gives her name to St Ives in Cornwall. We’re still baffled by the St Abban connection.
St Declan of Ardmore had the best eye for scenery – Ardmore is a lovely seaside village in the western part of County Waterford which still preserves its tiny ruined Cathedral and its complete round tower. Declan too went to Rome and was ordained by the pope – and met St Ailbe there. St Declan was considered the patron saint of the Deisi – the people who inhabited western County Waterford. In the modern Catholic parish of Midleton there is a site called Caherultan – said to be the church of St Ultan, a pupil of St Declan. There was certainly a parish church there in the medieval period, but the parish was abolished after the Reformation and the church has vanished.
Now I don’t expect you to believe all the above stories, for many of them originate as anti-Patrician propaganda written to counter the claims of the church in Armagh to primacy over the whole of Ireland in the 7th and 8th centuries. But there is an interesting grain of truth in several of them. However, the most important detail to remember is that the south of Ireland had a lot of connections with Britain, especially Wales and with Gaul (now France). The evidence for this comes from both ancient Irish sources and ancient Welsh sources, as well as the presence of Irish inscriptions in ogham script on stones in Wales and Cornwall. Indeed the Ui Liathain and their neighbours to the east, the Deisi even colonised parts of South Wales as the Roman Empire began to contract in the late 300s and early 400s. The Ui Liathain ruled the area that corresponds to south-east County Cork from the Blackwater to the sea and from the Glanmire River to the lower Blackwater. It is ironic that their lands were later settled by Milo de Cogan and Robert FitzStephen and their followers from Wales – the Barrys, the Carews and the FitzGeralds. The Deisi territory in Waterford was colonized by the Powers and the FitzGeralds.
What these stories of the saints suggests is that there was much interchange of goods,persons (including slaves) and ideas between the south coast of Ireland and Wales. Christianity was one of the imports into Ireland – it survived in Wales after the collapse of the Roman Empire and the colonization of England by the Angles and Saxons.
Indeed, when we consider that the Laigin (or peoples of Leinster) even colonized the Lleyn peninsula in north-west Wales, giving their name to the place, we must wonder if the southern half of Ireland was heavily Christianized before the arrival of St Patrick. Modern scholars now believe that Patrick operated north of a line from Galway in the west to Dublin in the east. He didn’t come south of that line because Christianity was already well established in the south, with bishops supervising the church there. A stray bishop would NOT have been welcomed by the southern bishops!
And then there is the reference in Prosper of Aquitaine’s Chronicle: in 431 Pope Celestine sent Palladius as bishop to the Irish believing in Christ. The crucial thing about Prosper was that he was a contemporary of the two men mentioned in that statement. He was an eyewitness to these events. Prosper wrote his Chronicle to tell the story of how the Pelagian heresy was put down by St Germanus of Auxerre, and others. This heresy had flourished in Britain, alarming the Catholic Church and it probably prompted the decision to appoint Palladius to minister to the Irish Christians as their first bishop. This was an extraordinary decision because Palladius had to leave the jurisdiction of the Roman Empire to take up his new post. It is very likely that Palladius (a Gallo-Roman) was indeed the first bishop in Ireland, preceding St Patrick by several years.
Poor Palladius! He was condemned as a failure and almost entirely written out of Irish history centuries later when the scribes of Armagh were trying to claim for St Patrick the credit for converting the Irish to Christianity. The real goal of these scribes was to make Armagh the paramount church in Ireland. But you have got to hand it to them – it was brilliant propaganda! Now the whole world believes that Patrick was Irish and nobody has heard about Palladius, who probably did much to consolidate Christianity in the south of Ireland. Even Stalin, with his retouched photos during the purges, was a mere amateur by comparison. And at least nobody died in Ireland!
Ah well, A Happy St Patrick’s Day to you!