On a Wing and De Paor: Saint Patrick’s World

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Cover: Jarlath Hayes/Garry Jordan (Four Courts Press)

Int. Lecture Hall – Day

It was just another wet day in a wet week (in a wetter Ireland) but I remember it well. Crowded lecture hall filling up with babbling undergraduates. Messy desks, discarded papers and empty coffee cups from the previous lecture (the type of subject that produces students with hungover frowns and disaffected scarves). The white noise of several hundred history students shoving their way in – past those exiting – talking over each other whilst looking for pens and refill pads down the bottom of soggy bags. The smell of wet canvas runners. The smell of socks just beginning to turn a dryer shade of kale.

I was one of them. It was probably my own feet.

We sat there, idly watching the lecturer set up for the class, part of a general introduction to Medieval Europe. The topic was the Conversion of Ireland. Or something. Up came a pretty awful stereotypical picture of the national saint in bright green and then a single sentence: ‘Would the real St. Patrick please stand up?’ People started to take notice. Some even wrote it down, blindly.  What followed over the next 40 minutes or so was the stuff of movies of what university should be like, but rarely is.

A hitherto national symbol of political and ecclesiastical identity was dented. Centuries of myth, legend and ecclesiastical propaganda exposed. Decades of Irish national school childishness drowned. Brains expanded. Heads melted. We heard of bodyguards and bribes, a mad bad rebel, a self appointed bishop, a mission under fire, accusations of moral dubiousness, wrong doings, financial irregularities and severe general disdain from fifth century ecclesiastical authorities outside Ireland.  A mature student down the front tutted furiously and shook his head repeatedly. Another stood up halfway through and stormed out: ‘Thats not that I was taught!’

Woah. We’re halfway there…

It was great stuff. I watched people around me struggle to reconcile what they were hearing with their preconceptions of what many had taken as a sacred cow. It made us stop in our tracks. It made us re-evaluate ourselves and ‘history’; as a discipline, as a subject, as a powerful nationalist tool in the hands of anyone. Most of all though, it ‘made’ me. I had no inkling at the time of what was being planted in my head – what I would go on to do and read and study. All I knew is that I wanted to know more. A lot more.

So I went to the library straight after the lecture. The reading list had several books, all of which had been snapped up previously. I noticed one entry near the bottom which had 14 copies in the Short Loan Collection. Must be a good book, I thought. Still no luck there – all gone. I finally chanced the second hand student bookshop and eventually excavated a solitary copy from a pile near the door. That book was ”Saint Patrick’s World’, by Liam De Paor.

I inhaled every page of it and went on to use it in one of my earliest (and excruciatingly awful) attempts at essay assignments on the subject. I can’t remember what grade I got for it, but I do remember the tutors comment handing it back: ‘You really, really, like this shit, don’t you’. Reading over the essay now is a cringing, wincing, ordeal. Its the dreadful, turgid, error-ridden forced prose of a struggling student still learning the ropes and trying to use big words in bad ways – and yet, its my earliest attempt at engaging with the subject. My own personal (digital) archaeology of a fledgling patrician scholar. Jumping off a ledge. On a wing and De Paor.

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Fast forward a decade or so to last weekend and I found myself on RTE Radio 1’s ‘The History Show’ discussing the historical Patrick. We were supposed to talk more about De Paor’s Book, but time and distractions seem to have gotten the better of all. Given the programme subject, the book being out of print and the approaching festivities of March 17th – Fourt Courts Press announced that they would have a limited number of newly reprinted paperback copies of ‘Saint Patrick’s World’. As I didn’t get the chance to talk about how much the book means to me, I figured I would do it here.

We’ll give it a shot…

De Paor’s Saint Patrick World has been a staple on my shelf, on my reading lists and in my bibliographies ever since that day. Its one of those book that one genuinely reads again and again. It contains my favorite popular translation of Patrick’s writings (amongst others) written in a clean, clear accessible style that succeeds very well in providing Patrick’s original ‘sense for sense, if not quite word for word’ meaning and intent.

But its not just about him. Its about early Irish Christianity in general; how it managed to transplant itself to these shores; in what form, content and shape it came in. Its about what happened after that; the creative expression of early Christian pseudo-origins and the early medieval Irish hagiographical tradition. You can read Patrick’s own writings alongside those which show the invention and development of his cult. You can read non-specialist commentaries on, and translations of, a variety of other documentary excerpts –  from early church councils, laws, annals and letters to other early Irish Saints and their cults – each one an important milestone in the transformation of an entire society, culture and landscape.

As such, it remains to my mind, one of the best introductions to the subject for students and otherwise interested readers (alongside that of the RIA’s Confessio HyperStack Project). Its modern uncluttered style brings a level of closeness to the sources that one sometimes loses track of in more academic tomes. Although I wasn’t around on the scene in the 1990s when it was first published, it must have really been a breath of fresh air. Some minor aspects of it are slightly outdated of course, not surprising given the intervening decades, but it still remains quite fresh in most parts. In some ways, De Paor was relatively ahead of his time, for example, his highlighting of female figures in hagiography – women church founders – and the lack of attention they had received.

Perhaps my favorite aspect, given his archaeological background, is that the relevant landscapes to which many of the texts pertain is kept firmly in sight. Peppered throughout the book are De Paor’s own line sketches of certain views, features, artefacts and sites mentioned – a wonderfully personal touch illustrative of his own visits and travels. Photographs would have been clearer, yes – but to have the authors very penmanship in front of you is a rare treat and one which really adds a presence and character to his accompanying text. In a way, it is a perfect modern example of medieval scribal practice – visual aides and squiggles designed to ‘gloss’ the text itself. A textual landscape seen through an authors eyes, articulated with his hands, acting as a gentle waypoint to others.

I’ve been following in De Paor’s fingerprints ever since.

Looking back now, it almost seems that I was following him before I even knew where I was going myself.

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De Paor, Liam (1993) Saint Patrick’s World. Four Courts Press, Dublin.

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*Disclaimer: Author received no contact, request or remuneration from the relevant publisher regarding any the above*

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5 thoughts on “On a Wing and De Paor: Saint Patrick’s World

  1. Reblogged. I’ve just being reading Confessio Hyperstack Project recently, as usual before 17 Maarch. Asked FourCourtPress for the book w paypal. (Too much time myself out of Ireland, ñts!)

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  2. This is the reason I look to read blogs. Thank you. I am but learning myself and have only come across DePaor’s “Introduction to Archaeology” but it was what displayed the profession in a practical way and lead to my taking up this muddy path. I know a student who would like this book. I will give him this link.

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