Keith Williamson is a History and Politics teacher in County Down
Saint Patrick has (possibly) been subjected to more makeovers than any other historical figure born within these islands. For fifteen centuries he has been refashioned by monks, kings, archbishops, politicians and expats. The endless rebranding is, however, hugely interesting in terms of Ireland’s evolving storyboard.
In truth, all we know for certain about Patrick is what he revealed in his own writings. Hagiographers and propagandists, who wrote centuries later, have adulterated and embellished him beyond recognition. But this aggrandising process tells us much about who we were and who we have become.
The considerable scope for reinvention is aided by the gaps within Patrick’s backstory. We do not know when he arrived in Ireland, when he died or how widely he roamed. The associations of Patrick with Saul, Armagh, Lough Derg and the Hill of Tara are all contestable to a greater or lesser degree. Tradition has settled on March 17th as the anniversary of his death, but this may owe more to ancient Celtic beliefs surrounding the Spring Equinox and rebirth.
There is no surviving contemporaneous evidence to corroborate Patrick’s mission to Ireland. In fact, the renowned Latin Church chronicler, Prosper of Aquitaine, makes no mention of Patrick and records that in 431, Pope Celestine I sent Palladius to Ireland to minister to the believers in Christ and possibly to put down the Pelagian ‘heresy’. Thus, pockets of Christian witness existed in Ireland before Patrick arrived; some Irish converts were ‘off message’ in rejecting the then ascendant belief in Predestination; and Patrick’s mission to Ireland was not sanctioned by Rome.
Today, many parishes across Ireland claim their favourite wells and glens were personally blessed by Patrick. The extent of this is of course highly questionable. In Late Antiquity, travel across the Irish interior was both ponderous and dangerous. Religious conversion was also largely a top down affair, requiring the agreement of local kings who were often wedded to the older religion. But springs and glens were revered by pagans and Christian missionaries had to expropriate these sacred places. Being creative with the truth was a small price to pay for winning souls. The Patrician story therefore reminds us that our ancestors were reluctant to give up the older religion and Christian evangelists made local accommodations that were mostly omitted from the monks’ annals.
Sabhall (Saul) and Slemish mountain were amongst the first sites linked in oral tradition to Saint Patrick. Historians are somewhat more comfortable with such earlier locations that emerged in the century after Patrick’s death as opposed to the mushrooming of later candidates. But definitive pronouncements about Saul becoming Patrick’s first church in 432 and the location of his repose in 461 or 493 are unproven. What this did do is position the kingdom of Dál Fiatach in the vanguard of the emergent Cult of Patrick.
The first full-blown assault on the real Patrick was carried out by 7th century hagiographers, writing some two centuries after his death. Monks like Muirchú and Tírechán had their ulterior motives. They were working for House Armagh against House Kildare and they also wanted to banish the stubborn residue of pagan polytheism.
Armagh was grafted onto an inventive biography that featured a more martial Patrick who possessed miraculous demon-fighting powers and became the first Archbishop of Ireland, building his cathedral on the pagan fortress mound of Ard Mhacha. Down was not entirely sidelined by Muirchú who proclaimed that the oxen pulling the saint’s remains from Saul to Armagh experienced a divine intervention that immobilised them as they passed the pagan shrine of Dún Lethglaise Hill (a tale contradicted by Muirchú’s associate, Tirechán); and Patrick’s disciples exorcised this drumlin and buried Patrick in its soil. This was in some ways the genesis of Patrick’s association with Downpatrick and Cathedral Hill. Historical veracity was sacrificed to champion the political ambitions of the Uí Néill and Airgíalla, with a diplomatic nod to Dál Fiatach. Armagh mainly and Lecale to a lesser degree reaped the resultant ecclesiastical bounty. The cause was sacred and eternal. The end would justify the means.
In the centuries that followed, it suited Catholic and Anglican prelates not to look too closely into this chicanery. It mattered little that Patrick may or may not have visited Armagh. Championing the very questionable primatial claims of Ard Mhacha was much more important than historical truth. And looking further South, who cared if poetic licence was deployed to place Patrick on the Hill of Tara battling against druids in a recreation of Elijah vanquishing the prophets of Baal. The adulterations that were codified in the 9th century Book of Armagh have been endlessly repeated in pulpit, print and classroom and are deeply embedded.
A second major onslaught on Patrick came with the Anglo-Norman invasion of Ulaid. The Catholic invaders from England, blessed by Pope Adrian IV, harnessed the Cult of Patrick in an attempt to legitimise their land grab. John de Courcy had slaughtered the local Irish around the Quoile drumlins and burned Erenagh Abbey. He made his atonement by building the Cistercian Abbey at Inch.
De Courcy saw political mileage in the long established association of Patrick with Lecale. Pádraig, Brigit and Columcille had been dead for over six centuries but their bodies, apparently brought together and hidden from marauding Vikings, were miraculously revealed to the Sassanach invaders. De Courcy exhumed the bodies and translated the relics into a new tomb on Cathedral Hill. Dún Lethglaise became Dún Padraig, a centre of pilgrimage, and Downpatrick has benefitted from the coin of pilgrims ever since.
The Reformation intensified the frontal assault and Saint Patrick was weaponised by his quarrelsome heirs. Catholics and Protestants claimed exclusive ownership rights, disregarding the fact that they both came out of the same Latin (Western) Church and that the Protestant Churches were set up by rebellious Catholic monks, priests and monarchs. In truth, Patrick’s Christianity was forged in a very different maelstrom where the Roman Empire was on its last legs, Hibernia was on the very edge of the known world, demons lurked around every corner and the Last Days of an Earth-centred universe were nigh.
Protestants laid claim to Patrick’s biblical Christianity and Augustinian belief in Predestination, revelling in his quarrels with his clerical superiors. In Patrick’s day, the Bishop of Rome had not yet gained the strident authority of the High Middle Ages, adult baptism was common and some priests continued to marry. James Ussher, the Church of Ireland Archbishop of Armagh, spearheaded a partisan crusade to detach Patrick from the Church of Rome.
Rome viewed the ‘protestari’ as a more dangerous enemy than the pagans – the former were forsaking the Light whereas the latter could be persuaded out of their partial Darkness – and the hagiographical accounts of Patrick’s life and miracles became unquestionable authorities. Reformers were denounced for burning Saint Patrick’s Crozier outside Dublin’s Christ Church Cathedral, in 1538. Some Catholics believed that this staff had made its way across Europe with instructions from Christ Himself to pass it down to Patrick. Other relics and reliquaries, including supposed bone fragments, were hidden away from the iconoclastic grasp of the ‘New English’ Protestant ‘heretics’.
Unionists have long sought to press Patrick into the service of Crown and Empire. Saint Patrick’s Saltire was incorporated into the Union Flag; the established Church of Ireland proclaimed that it was the true custodian of Patrick’s Celtic Christianity; and Saint Patrick’s Day traditions became established practice amongst the disproportionate number of Irish officers and ranks who conquered and defended the British Empire. To this day, prominent Royals present the shamrock to those Irish regiments that pledge to defend King and Country.
The Orange Order also celebrates the Ascendancy version of Patrick, a British missionary who seemed to reject the papally approved mission of Palladius and who was ‘unsullied’ by the later medieval departures of Thomism and Plenary Indulgences. Orangeism has no serious beef with the four great ecumenical councils of the Early Church, the Church of Augustine and Patrick. It is less keen on Jerome’s Latin Vulgate and the Mass, both very familiar to Ireland’s preeminent patron saint.
Irish nationalism further reconfigured the real Patrick. The hagiographical ‘Apostle of Ireland’ was redrawn in strongly Catholic and nationalist hues, resplendent in an emerald green cassock and often sporting a ginger beard. Such rebranding served a useful purpose and mattered to a small island emerging from the grasp of a dominant neighbour. It also breathed some pride and belonging into impoverished and disorientated Irish immigrants, arriving in the New World and fleeing the poverty and famine of the Old. The construction of the majestic Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in Midtown Manhattan, serving a Catholic immigrant community swollen by An Gorta Mór, was a case in point. Patrick was unapologetically linked to Faith, Fatherland and the Irish Diaspora.
In 21st century Ireland, Saint Patrick will be further reimagined. The 800,000 ‘New Irish’ have very different reference points. Islam, Pentecostalism and Orthodox Christianity are now the fastest growing faith communities. Ireland is also becoming much more secular. Traditional excesses of unchecked clerical power and cherry-picked biblical literalism will continue to lose favour. But there is a danger that Saint Patrick could be hijacked as part of an anti-immigrant backlash, not uncommon amongst progressive Northern European countries that are struggling to adjust to high levels of immigration.
Patrick’s writings are the oldest written documents found in Ireland. This is the real key to his elevated prominence and remarkable endurance. A return to source reveals a beautiful, defiant and assured Celtic Christianity. But the way in which Saint Patrick has been endlessly reimagined and reinvented is an invaluable portal into our rich and multi-layered past. It reveals an age-old contest and quest to define what it means to be Irish. Whet the shamrock and marvel in the journey.
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