Patrick and the Origins of Christianity in Ireland

Ken Thompson’s wonderful statue of the young St Patrick at Westport, County Mayo. (photo by Vanderkrogt.net)

 

Poor St Patrick! The famous national patron saint of Ireland, one of the most famous national patrons, has had his feastday, 17th March, cancelled in 2020! Ireland’s churches are closed to public gatherings – by the country’s bishops at the request of the public health authorities due to what he would have called a ‘plague’ sweeping not just the country but the whole world! What did he do to deserve this?

It’s bad enough that Patrick had his feastday cancelled but, throughout much of modern history, Patrick himself has been the subject of often vicious academic debate among scholars. Happily these debates had not really impinged on the popular Irish imagination.  It’s worth examining some recent scholarship to explore a different vision of Patrick’s mission in Ireland and why he really can be considered the founder of Christianity in Ireland.

We won’t go back to the infamous ‘two Patricks’ problem that emerged in the 1940s although we well consider some scholarly efforts to resolve the problem. We must start with two clear facts: first, since about 600 AD Ireland has been Christian, and, secondly, there are two writings (the Confession and the scathing Letter to Coroticus) which are clearly the work of one author.  These latter are found in later copies but they are clearly accepted (after much study) as the two earliest works of literature from Ireland (as opposed to oral myths and legends written down from oral sources later).

The traditional date of Patrick’s arrival in Ireland as a missionary is 432 AD. This date is important because in Gaul (now France) the writer Prosper of Aquitaine wrote that in the previous year 431 AD Pope Celestine sent a man called Palladius as a bishop to ‘the Irish believing in Christ.’ This statements suggests that there were Christians in Ireland, although it may not have been an organised Christian community. Palladius was the spanner in the works for Patrician scholars – who wa he? what did he do? are there any relics of Palladius in Ireland? Oh, and why was he written out of Irish history, even by the early writers?

That wonderful scholar of old Irish documentation, Mario Esposito, wrote an interesting article addressing the Patrick/Palladius problem in Irish Historical Studies in 1956.  He makes the important point that it wasn’t until the seventh century (about 650 AD) that Irish writers like Tirechan began to write about Patrick who had flourished in the earlier fifth century (before 450 AD) two centuries earlier.

There’s no point here in rehashing Esposito’s land and detailed scholarly argument but it does help to recount the conclusion of his argument. Esposito suggests that the man who wrote the Confession and the Letter, – the ‘Patricius peccator rusticissimus et contemptibilibus’ (Patrick, a rustic and contemptible sinner)- actually came to Ireland long BEFORE 432 AD.  This then allows Palladius to be sent from Rome to become Patrick’s successor as ‘bishop to the Irish believing in Christ.’ In other words, the Patrick who wrote the Confession had probably died by 432 AD but only after converting large numbers of the Irish to Christianity. – a detail that Prosper of Aquitaine refers to when he says that Christianity had spread to lands that were never under the Roman Empire – surely a reference to the Irish mission.

 

Mosaic of St Ambrose of Milan, an older contemporary of St Patrick who was chosen as Bishop of Milan by popular acclamation durng a dispute with the emperor.

If we accept Esposito’s chronology that Patrick had converted many of the Irish to Christianity by the time he died about 430 AD, then Palladius of Rome was sent by the pope to be the first OFFICIAL bishop in Ireland, while Patrick,  considered himself a bishop by divine appointment – exactly like St Ambrose of Milan (died 397 AD). Nobody doubted then or doubts now that Ambrose was the formidable Bishop of Milan before he died. Patrick says that he was ‘appointed by God’ and in Milan the vox populi (voice of the poeple) was deemed to be vox Dei (voice of God). So Esposito’s version resolves a lot of issues and gives both Patrick and Palladius their proper place in Irish history.

The scholar Raymond Keogh suggested in 2005 that Patrick and Palladius were the one and the same person! This is not an unusual suggestion – Palladius was a problem to Tirechan and Muirchu in the 600s. They got rid of him by asserting that he was murdered by pagan Irish opponents. However, Keogh does offer some interesting material that suggests that Patrick may have come to Ireland as a slave before 409 AD. The following year (410 AD), the  the citizens of Roman Britannia received a letter from the Emperor advising them to look to themselves for their own defence because the Roman army had been withdrawn to deal with the Visigoths who had sacked Rome that year.  Christianity continued in Britain long after this although it retreated to the fastnesses of Wales.

Fresco of St Augustine of Hippo in St John Lateran baslica. He was an almost exact contemporary of St Patrick.

If we combine Esposito’s chronology and Keogh’s dates, we find that Patrick would have been an almost exact contemporary of St Augustine of Hippo. who died in 430 AD, about the same time that Patrick died, if we accept the Esposito chronology. It was around this time (the early 400s) that the Ui Liathain spread out from what is now eastern County Cork to colonise parts of south west Wales. This area was a heartland of British Christianity at the time and it is perfectly possible that either Christian captives or converts moved in the other direction, from south-west Wales to Munster. So perhaps Christianity was introduced into south Munster (East Cork and West Waterford) by a non-Patrician route (Declan of Ardmore or Ultan of Caherultan) and perhaps by St Ailbe of Emly, whose name is celebrated in Welsh as St Elvis!

Ironically, the ancient dedication of the parish of Carrigtwohill was to St David of Wales, a dedication introduced by the Barrys from south Wales in the 1180s! With the arrival of the Barrys the territory of Ui Liathain became Barrymore. Origins of Christianity in Ireland are not easily resolved but we can have no doubt that Patrick was the main figure but other parts of the country must have had and influence form the remnants of the Roman Empire.

St Elvis and Christianity in Ireland before St Patrick.

Patrick baptizes King of Cashel

Propaganda by the scribes of Armagh gives us the story of St Patrick baptizing the King of Cashel. Patrick’s crozier pierced the foot of the king, who thought it was part of the ritual, so he didn’t cry out. This tale was designed to claim that Armagh had primacy over Cashel and the province of Munster.

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

Window depicting St Ailbe in the Honan Chapel in University College Cork. Each of the windows depicts a saint from Munster.

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.

Elvis Presley

They call him the king, but he’s named after a saint! And an Irish saint at that!

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's Church Killeagh

The now disused church of St Abban in Killeagh in east Cork. What is baffling is that Killeagh is named after a local woman, St Ia (known as St Ive in Cornwall). Nobody knows how Killeagh got a church dedicated to a Leinster saint. Killeagh lies on the main road from Midleton to Youghal.

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.

Ardmore

The lovely ruined cathedral and superb round tower at Ardmore, a site dedicated to St Declan. The man had an eye for good scenery. Ardmore is still a popular holiday resort and remains a virtually unspoiled village in County Waterford. The twelfth century sculpture cycle on the west gable of the cathedral is one of the most important in Ireland.

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.

St Declan's Well Ardmore

Early twentieth century pilgrims at St Declan’s Well in Ardmore. People still go there to take the water. ‘Doing the rounds’ of the holy sites was a way of imitating the pilgrims Rome who visited the seven basilicas there – not everybody could go to Rome on pilgrimage.

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!

Palladius

Palladius was appointed the first bishop to the Irish believing in Christ in 431 – clearly there were enough Christians in Ireland by this date to warrant the appointment of a bishop. St Patrick is traditionally said to have arrived in 432, but modern scholars reckon he came later and that 432 marked the arrival of Palladius. The scribes of Armagh may have appropriated details from the life of Palladius and attributed them to Patrickd whilst at the same time ‘disappearing’ Palladius from Irish history.

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.

St Declan's Way

Modern pilgrimage in Ireland. There is now a walking trail from Ardmore to Cashel, linking St Declan to St Ailbe. It’s a sort of secular Camino – Irish style. Instead of sun, sangria and tapas, you get rain, Guinness and Tayto crisps!

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!

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