Sometime during the seventh decade of the seventh century AD (c.670s) an Irishman approached the mountain in modern day Co. Mayo known as Croagh Patrick. He was an ecclesiastical academic type, something of a ‘a wise man’ or ‘sapiens’ in the early Irish Christian tradition. Although he had been fostered and trained in a monastery in Co. Meath, on the east coast of Ireland, he was in fact, a local – originally hailing from the north coast of modern day County Mayo, around the western shore of Kilalla Bay.
It was probably not his first time seeing the mountain. He would surely have heard stories about it in his earlier youth; maybe caught glimpses of it at times and certainly would have been aware of its imposing presence in the landscape. Indeed, almost as soon as he crossed the River Shannon, traveling from Leinster, he would have caught sight of it several times in the distance.
The man probably traveled out along the lowland plain of modern day Murrisk, between the mountain and the southern shore of Clew bay, along the same route that the modern day road takes today. He would have passed an early church site at Umhall, now known as Cloonpatrick graveyard at Oughaval. He would have passed a few standing stones and the remains of prehistoric stone alignments on his way. He would passed the future site of Murrisk Abbey, then just a coastal bluff sticking out into the sea. He would have passed the future site of the modern day car park at the foot of ‘the Reek’ as it is now called. And he would have kept on going.
He was looking for something in the landscape. Something conspicuously imposing and already ancient. A few miles up the road, at a point where the highest stream from the mountain summit flows down into Clew Bay – linking the summit and the foot of the mountain – he apparently found what he was looking for. A late prehistoric stone cairn or ring barrow mound – part of, or adjacent, an older communal burial place still in use – reflecting an even older dynastic, or territorial boundary.
Statue of St. Patrick, Foghill, Co. Mayo (Image: Author)
“I am a slave of a foreign people…”
Some time ago, I was kindly invited by Abarta Audio Guides to write a little something on the ‘Historical Patrick”. I jumped at the chance.
Abarta are an Irish company who specialise in audiobooks and audioguides concerning history, heritage, archaeology, culture and folklore. It also happens to be owned and run by archaeologists. There’s something special about heritage material produced by people who have researched, excavated, visited, surveyed and physically held such subject matter in their own hands. It’s comes across in their approach and work. Detail and perspective. I’d like to think it might occasionally come across in mine.
The medium of audio is something which I have been interested in exploring for a while. I’m a podcast and radio fiend who inhales historical media. Abarta gave me the absolute freedom to do what I wanted. The brief was to come up with something engaging for people interested in learning more about the Historical Patrick – something which would explore the real life person underpinning his later saintly namesake.
We wanted to give an idea of his overall background within Ireland and Britain of the time, the landscape he would have witnessed and to give a flavour of what is known about the physical, social and cultural realities. We wanted to let his own story, his own words from his own hands, take centre stage whilst also retaining a wider academic framework informing the narrative. We wanted something which would reflect the rich details, issues and complexities involved in studying Patrick and his works alongside his importance and place in the development of later Irish identity and tradition.
Old times, old manners, old books, old wine…. ‘The Armagh’ – Image: Jonathan Caves / Flickr / (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
A fascinating historical tidbit of early medieval myth and ritual in the news today concerning the (long-expected) retirement of the current Archbishop of Armagh and the official appointment of his successor.
‘Archbishop Eamon Martin… today becomes Archbishop of Armagh, Primate of All Ireland and Coarb Phadraic.’
For those unfamiliar with the historical and modern ecclesiastical landscape of Ireland, the holder of the office of the Armagh archbishopric is considered the ecclesiastical head of the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland. An archiepiscopacy since the twelfth century church reform, it replaced an older insular system where the abbots, or leaders, of the Armagh church were long considered the coarbae (‘heir/successor’) of St. Patrick and the de facto leaders of the medieval Irish church – a status and authority which can be traced back to the seventh century AD.
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.
Which brings us (finally!) to the matter at hand. In the light of all the above considerations – what does the historical Patrick actually say about his origins in his own writings? As previously noted, Patrick uses the term ‘Britanniis’ a total of three times. One of those examples is not entirely specific as to his origins, although it does infer the location of his clerical background in later life, and the location where his family apparently pleaded with him not to leave – just prior to his setting off for Ireland. I include here anyway:
A recent exchange in the letters page of the Irish Times concerning the historical (St) Patrick’s origins has compelled me to wade into the mire of modern-day Patriciana. Quapropter olim cogitaui scribere, sed et usque nunc haesitaui…
The exchange originated between Rev. Marcus Losack, a pilgrimage leader and spiritual guide, and Dr Elva Johnston of the School of History & Archives, UCD, Dublin. Rev. Losack, who has been promoting a book on the subject for a while now, took exception to a letter by Dr. Johnston in which she noted flaws within his recent rehashing of an old argument – Patrick being a Breton, from Brittany – as opposed to the historically attested view of his being a Romano-Briton.
‘Ooh La La’
The response by Rev Losack is a tour de force in historical misinterpretation, misappropriation and selective ‘reasoning’. In it, he expresses (in an impressively accomplished display of vaudevillian histrionics) a misplaced ‘sense of dismay and disappointment at the tone of Dr Johnston’s letter’ and castigates her as taking an ‘extremist position’ by ‘refusing to countenance any alternative theory’. He asserts that such a view ‘reflects a certain academic arrogance and authoritarianism which does not do justice to the complexity of the subject’. After then implying that the Royal Irish Academy’s current rendition of a key linguistic term is influential enough to lend favour in some way towards a quasi-national (dare I suggest, illuminati inspired?) academic plot designed to hide the original meaning – he then finishes by channelling the words of that world-renowned heroic denizen of historical accuracy & wisdom, Dan Brown, towards the possibility of the ‘experts in Dublin’ being in error.
The townland of Boheh, Co. Mayo contains one of my favourite examples of outdoor prehistoric rock art in Ireland. Along a narrow side road, hidden away behind derelict housing and high hedgerows, lies a large natural outcrop of rock flecked with quartz strains, known as ‘St. Patrick’s Chair’. Upon its surface (spread out over 4 m2 ) over 250 individual petroglyphs are carved. They take the form of isolated ‘cup’, ‘cup and rings’ and ‘keyhole’ motifs (archaeological designations); and altogether form quite an impressive sight when viewed in the right seasonal and lighting conditions.
Both April 18th and August 24th are two such occasions.
Should you ever chance to find yourself at the site on either the above dates (weather permitting) you may be treated to the prehistoric equivalent of a ‘light show’. Standing at Boheh Rock/St. Patrick’s Chair on the dates above, looking west, the sun appears to set right on the peak of Croagh Patrick itself. Not only that, but it then subsequently appears, to an observer standing at Boheh ‘rock’, that the sun ‘rolls’ down the north side of the conical peak itself.
My last post examined a recent reference to early medieval hagiographical material by modern ecclesiastical figures. Divorced from its original setting and ecclesiastical milieu, the episode in question ended up losing much of its intended meaning by being ‘lost in translation’ on many levels. A particular irony was that, in attempting to emphasize the historical nature of a recent ordination, the uncritical use of hagiography as ‘history’ inadvertently served to underplay the actual historical and archaeological importance of the original ecclesiastical site of Fuerty, Co. Roscommon.
So what we can say or surmise from the seventh century reference to Fuerty by Tírechán? Continue reading →