Brexit Stage Left: The Historical Patrick, ‘Britishness’ and Imperial Romanitas

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Image: William Warby / Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

I recently had the pleasure of reading an interesting article by Andrew Gardner which has just been published in the  Journal of Social Archaeology, entitled: Brexit, boundaries and imperial identities: A comparative view’ (January 17, 2017). The paper set out to explore the dynamics of imperial identity formation, both past and recent present, via the background of Brexit, Border Studies and frontier frameworks. In doing so, it draws upon several chronological examples, the most interesting to me of course being that of Insular Britain in the 4th and 5th centuries AD.

I have always been particularly interested in the creation, interplay and maintenance of multiple identities in the North Western Frontier Zone of Britain, South West Scotland and the Irish Sea during the same period – especially given the areas importance when it comes to Early Insular Christianity. Sites such as at Kirkmadrine, Whithorn, Maryport, Kirkliston et al, provide fleeting evidence for an early western regional Christian activity, commemoration and identity expression, not to mention the placing and effect of Hadrians Wall on peoples on both sides.

Indeed it is from this same area that the Historical Patrick  most likely hailed from, and within whose writings we can find a complex articulation and cognition of multiple religious and cultural identities – Irish, British, Pictish and Roman. Gardner’s interest in exploring the role and impact of ‘peripheral’ locations in the articulation, maintenance and transformation of larger imperial ‘core’ identities  is well placed and the  wider region’s geographic, political, economic and social interfaces in the 4th and 5th centuries provide an ideal vehicle for doing so.

Of course, we do not need to look very hard in the modern world to see that distinct cultural, religious and ethnic polities which border one another often result in a more visible and articulate ‘peripheral’ self expression/cognition of ‘core’ identity. Having a clearly defined and regular ‘other’ in plain sight provides ample social and political opportunities to develop cognitive and cultural distinctions of ‘Them’ and ‘Us’. And it was, naturally, no different in the past. The writings of the Historical Patrick provide a rare, but valuable, window on the same.

Imagine my surprise then, to find two rather strange, almost throwaway statements by Gardner (albeit referencing others) on the very subject of the Historical Patrick’s own sense of identity – namely, that “he appears to have abandoned the idea of being Roman’ and that “he did not associate his religious identity with ‘Romaness'”.

I quote both below, in context (with my bold for emphasis).  Although I suspect the second example may not have been intended by the author as a direct reference to Patrick, I include it for clarity anyway – mainly due to it echoing the original statement and also the fact that Gardiner references the same author’s book in both cases.

More clearly, there is actually evidence for the continuation of both ‘British’ and ‘tribal’ identities after the end of Roman administration in the early 5th century, particularly from some of the small number of insular written sources, such as inscribed stones (White, 2007: 154–176, 202–207), and the 5th/6th century writings of Patrick and Gildas. It is especially notable that both of these authors appear to have abandoned the idea of being Roman (even though they write in Latin), but do identify as Britons (Higham, 2002: 39–73; Jones, 1996: 121–130).

Gardner (2017), Brexit, boundaries and imperial identities

Whether such patterns fully provided the resources for a ‘British’, as opposed to regional, identity is difficult to judge, partly because few artefact types survive the economic changes following on from Roman administrative withdrawal, and partly because our later ‘British’ written sources do not clearly articulate this identity in material terms, but rather in terms of Christianity vis-à-vis the pagan Saxons, and indeed the role of the church in social relations at this time is probably very significant (Higham, 2002: 59–72). However, it is ironic – but quite telling – that these Christian writers do not associate their religious identity with ‘Romanness’.

Gardner (2017), Brexit, boundaries and imperial identities

While this is no doubt true of the likes of Gildas, such a statement concerning the Historical Patrick would not, in this decade, find much support among anyone with a passing familiarity with his two surviving 5th Century documents. In fact, not only  can such a view be shown to clash considerably with Patrick’s own words, in-text allusions and inferences; it fundamentally misunderstands the very motivation behind Patrick’s lesser known document, the Epistola, or ‘Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus’ – a document  which, while promoting a somewhat idealized Christian version of Insular British Romanitas, nevertheless rests on Patrick’s own sense of his privileged background, status and entitlement as an Imperial Roman citizen.

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‘On Eagles Wings’ – Croagh Patrick: The Mount Sinai of Early Medieval Ireland

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“The people cannot come up Mount Sinai, because you yourself warned us, ‘Put limits around the mountain and set it apart as holy.'”
Exodus 19:23

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.

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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.

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Never Mind the Bullocks: There’s Something About St. Brigit

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Image: amandabhslater / photo on flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Another year, another February 1st. Another Imbolc, another St. Brigit’s Day. Another chance to revel in the avalanche of online ‘Celtic’ codswallop and pagan goddess gobbledygook. Such misunderstood musings are well-intentioned, harmless, and if truth be told, not a bad way at all to view the world. An idealized version of the distant past seen through an attractive prism of feminine attributes, influence and power. One could definitely do worse.

Of course, historically speaking, such views do not have a leg to stand on, let alone a sunbeam to hang a cloak off. There is even a certain irony in the fact that successive generations, in seeking to adopt, (re)create and promote a symbolic saintly/pagan figure of pseudo-history, have actually helped to obscure some of the very real and historically important attributes of the same.

It’s not so much that Brigit occupies an incredibly early position within Irish history and Early Irish Christianity itself; it is the fact that she represents the earliest surviving insular Irish hagiography, period. Almost a generation before Patrician hagiographers were sharpening their quills, a saintly Brigit was already being utilized for nothing less than all Ireland ecclesiastical primacy.

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Waking the Dead on the Slopes of Cruachu

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(Image: Author)

For the day that’s in it, here’s a little folk horror flavoured archeo-echtrai which happened to me a few years ago during a visit to Cruachu (aka Cruachán, aka Rathcroghan), a location dripping in early medieval dindsenchas. Its a ritual complex of barrows, mounds, avenues and enclosures –  a prehistoric palimpsest of generations of ‘the dead’ carved into a ‘living’ landscape and overlaid with early medieval meaning. Think late prehistoric burial, assembly, inauguration, oenach festivals, mass meetings, power performances, legitimacy, declarations, legal decisions, disputes, drinking, carousing, games, fighting – all on a regional scale – and anything else that may have caught their fancy at any given time.

Cruachu and its hinterlands loom large in early medieval myth, mayhem and pseudo-folk memory. It occupies a prime position as one of the so called ‘royal’ sites of early medieval Ireland. A western version of Tara, and Emhain Macha. It appears as a key symbolic location in early Irish literature, such as the Táin Bó Cúailnge and Echtra Nerai (The Strange Adventure of Nera) – the latter having samhain and the mounds of the dead as a key backdrop to portrayed events.

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Saints in Scottish Place-Names

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Image: Internet Archive Book Images / “The archaeology and prehistoric annals of Scotland” (1851) / Flickr (Public Domain)

Christmas has come early here at Vox Hib HQ with the very welcome and long awaited launch of the Database of Scottish Hagiotoponyms, aka Saints in Scottish Place-Names

This website is the result of a project, ‘Commemorations of Saints in Scottish Place-Names’, funded by a Research Project Grant from The Leverhulme Trust (2010-13), and undertaken by staff in the University of Glasgow’s School of Humanities (Celtic & Gaelic, and HATII).
Professor Thomas Owen Clancy (Principal Investigator)
Dr Rachel Butter and Gilbert Márkus (Researchers) & Matthew Barr (Systems Developer)
The database that has been assembled presents the fruits of our research. It contains over 5000 places, 13,000 place-names, and some 750 saints potentially commemorated in these names.

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‘All the Rabble Rout’: Swimming With Saints at Lahinch, Co. Clare

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Image: Andrew Miller / Flickr / (CC BY-NC 2.0)

I love me an auld folklore mystery. Especially when it involves the folklore of the west coast of Ireland. Throw in the possibility that it may contain enshrined elements of past ritual activity associated with surviving archaeology and I’m all yours. So when DrBeachcombing of Beachcombing’s Bizarre History Blog recently sent notice of a fantastic nugget of folklore concerning an 1830s Bathing Mystery at Lahinch (Co. Clare) which was classified by stuffy antiquarians as a ‘Pagan Observance on the West Coast of Ireland’… needless to say, he had me at ‘WTF’.

For the main event and details you should read the original post by DrB, which involves anonymous nineteenth century correspondence, a presidential address to the Folklore Society and the mysterious and scandalous bathing habits of the local population of nineteenth century Lahinch. These appear to have involved naked males, wooden implements of mass destruction, ceremonial procession, obscured rituals shielded from profane eyes and wild pagan delight along the lines of the Wicker Man afterwards. What are you still doing here? Read it.

“A sort of horror seemed to hang over everything until the bathing ceremony was completed, and everyone, particularly the women, seemed anxious to keep out of the line of procession, while the ceremony was strictly guarded from the observation of the ‘profane’. As soon as it was over, all the rabble rout, both male and female, of the village flocked about the performers, and for some time kept up loud shouts.”

Laurence Gomme, Presidential address to the Folklore Society, 1892

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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.

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St. Attracta’s Well: A Postcard From Early Medieval Ireland

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Wakeman’s 1895 sketch of St. Attracta’s Well, Clogher (Copyright Sligo County Library)

Seeing as today the feast day of a certain Irish St. Attracta, here’s a little something about her from Tírechán’s Collectanea which contains the earliest contemporary reference to her cult, a church site dedicated to her and a particular piece of geological info that amazingly still exists today…

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Review: Saint Columba: His Life & Legacy

Columba Life & Legacy

Cover: Shaun Gallagher / The Columba Press

Brian Lacey, Saint Columba: His Life & Legacy. Dublin: The Columba Press. June, 2013. ISBN: 9781-85607-879-5.  7 + 224 pp.

Introduction

There is hardly need to stress the historical importance of the figure & cult of St. Columba, long renowned as one of the three patron saints of Ireland who, alongside Brigid and Patrick, was elevated to such a position in the late seventh century AD. Like his co-patrons, his religious and cultural legacy continues to the present day. Brian Lacey, author of the latest book on the subject notes that of the three however, Columba offers us something almost unique. Patrick, whilst also a historical person nevertheless hailed from outside Ireland and the historical figure of Brigid, if there ever was a real person behind the myths and motifs remains out of reach in hazy obscurity. Columba (aka Colm Cille), the later of all three, offers us one of the earliest detectable insular Irish historical personages.

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Nouissimis Diebus: St. Malachy the Irishman and the Last Days of Something or Other

The major news of the last day or so has been the surprise papal resignation announcement. Almost immediately, historic medieval precedents were being touted and referenced. The coming weeks will no doubt see a media surge of interest in medieval aspects of the modern-day Papacy/Vatican; and one of the more fanciful avenues will surely be the so-called ‘Prophecies of St. Malachy’. Allegedly penned by the twelfth century Irish reforming Bishop of Armagh, they purport to list over a hundred future popes with the current Pope occupying the second last position. The implication then, is that the coming Pope will be the last one.

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St. Malachy, Brussels MS.II, 1167 (after Leclercq, 1959, 323)

As you can imagine, much ink and electronic typeface has already been spent on the subject, with a large majority of it occupying the very lowest level of armchair pseudo-historical quasi-mystical bovine excretia. In honour of the coming onslaught of idiotic internet babble concerning the Irish Malachy and his ‘prophecies’; I thought it would be appropriate to have a quick look at the figure of Malachy and what he actually represents in terms of Irish medieval history and archaeology. Continue reading