Dublin Set To Gain Primacy of All Ireland Following Brexit

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Of the many potentially complicated effects of Brexit on Irish affairs to have been given an airing over the last few days, the implications for the historical leadership of the Irish Catholic Church is probably one which has received the least attention. Yet, it may well be one of the first to manifest itself in the short to medium term.

After having survived the twelfth century church reform, a reformation, a counter reformation and even modern Irish independence itself, it now seems likely that one of the more arcane results of Brexit on Ireland will be the transfer of ecclesiastical primacy of the island from Armagh to Dublin city. Ironically, the motivation for the move has rather more to do with modern day EU legislation concerning religious freedoms, than centuries of tradition and precedent.

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St. Patrick: The Man From Nowhere

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St. Patrick’s Window, Tuam Cathedral. Image: Andreas Borchert (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Introduction

If there’s one aspect of the Historical Patrick that really gets certain people agitated, its the academic issue of his ‘episcopal’ status. St. Patrick is not only a national icon, saintly superhero and patron saint – he is also a figure of much personal devotion.  For many Irish people, he represents a very important tenant of the early reception of their faith and the very foundation of their national ecclesiastical identity. To this day, Irish church hierarchies still maintain that their religious authority and legitimacy stretches right back to his very personage. To question such a long and entrenched tradition naturally runs the risk of offending modern religious sensibilities. One doesn’t do so lightly.

Nevertheless, its remains important to. For several reasons.

Firstly, because we can. Not so very long ago, such an endevour would have been seen as utterly scandalous and I would probably have been denounced from an altar, hosed down with holy water and/or run out of the country, for even daring to.

Secondly, because we should. Academically separating the original historical Patrick from the later mythical ‘Saint’ Patrick serves to clarify the historical context and importance of both the man himself and the later literary culture, dynasties and ecclesiastical federations who championed and embellished his cult, whilst simultaneously preserving his actual writings. Ironically, their efforts now enable professional heretics such as myself the opportunity to work with such wonderful source material.

Thirdly, because we must. Over the next year or so, ahead of the papal visit in 2018, we will surely be treated to increased ecclesiastical propaganda and PR spin concerning the early history of Irish Christianity and Rome – from those who naturally have a vested interest in maintaining certain narratives. St. Patrick will have a starring role. Much of it badly written, poorly researched and historically inaccurate. Almost all of it will be a travesty of the Historical Patrick’s own words, theology, actions and experiences.

And so, for the day that’s in it, I thought I would take a forensic look at the evidence of the Historical Patrick’s own words concerning his own episcopal status.

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17 Things You (Probably) Didn’t Know About The Historical (St) Patrick

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St. Patrick’s Day is almost upon us again. To celebrate, here’s an flagrantly shameless click-baity 17 point listicle (I like to think of it as a ‘histicle’) on aspects of the historical (St) Patrick which are not widely known or usually discussed in modern media. His two surviving documents (and their respective manuscript versions) can be read in a variety of languages here.

1 – Recorded Irish History Starts With Patrick

Before being grossly inflated to within an inch of his hagiographical life by early medieval authors, the man we call ‘Patrick’ was an actual historical person. He lived sometime in the late 4th/early 5thC AD. Copies of two documents written by him survive. They are the earliest known texts known to have been written within Ireland. As such, recorded Irish ‘history’ (the study of the written word) starts with Patrick. There’s absolutely nothing earlier. Nor indeed, anything after him, for more than a century. The very fact that his writings managed to survive at all is pretty feckin’ amazing.

2 – Growing Up, Patrick Was A Spoiled Little Shit

St. Patrick didn’t call himself ‘Patrick’. Or ‘Saint’. He identified himself as ‘Patricius. His father was both a deacon and a type of Roman Town Councillor. His grandfather was a priest. His family’s villa estate had servants. In modern day parlance, Patrick was a totally spoiled little shit. With a maid. Despite the families ecclesiastical connections, he didn’t have a very religious upbringing at all. He says himself that he didn’t pay much attention to priests in general. Too busy gallivanting and drinking Frappuccinos probably. There’s a good chance his father only took on the role of ecclesiastical deacon in order to help mitigate the families imperial tax liabilities. ‘Tax avoidance, your honour. Not evasion. That money was just resting in my account’.

3 –  Rude Britannia

Many people, past and present, have laid several modern nationalist claims on Patrick’s ethnicity; despite the fact that Patrick clearly identified himself and his family as being Britons from the island of Britain. This means he would have considered himself British (in the late antiquity sense of the word). His native language would have been Brythonic. Despite this language being the precursor of Welsh, he would not have considered himself as such. He couldn’t have. A coherent welsh identity didn’t yet exist.  They still had all their own vowels for fecks sake. His (unidentified) home town was, in all likelihood, somewhere in North West Britain, not far from the Hadrians Wall frontier zone. Despite living near the (modern day) Scottish border, he did not identify with the inhabitants there either. In fact, he expresses a particular hatred for the insular peoples of Scotland, i.e. ‘The Picts’, essentially calling them worthless, unworthy, blood thirsty, evil thieving bastards. Seriously. He couldn’t stand them blue arsed pagan feckers.

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Hear the story of Saint Patrick. In his own words.

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Some time ago, I was kindly invited by Abarta Heritage to write a little something on the ‘Historical Patrick”. I jumped at the chance.

Abarta is the leading Irish company specializing in Irish digital audio guides, heritage interpretation and visitor service solutions to communities, cultural sites and institutions. 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.

The resulting audiobook, ‘Patrick; Six Years A Slave’, is available here.

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A Tomb With A View: Further Archaeo Adventures in Folk Horror 

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Image: Author

Our arms are waving our lips are apart;
And if any gaze on our rushing band,
We come between him and the deed of his hand,
We come between him and the hope of his heart.
W. B. Yeats, The Hosting of the Sidhe

* * *

Following on from last years folk horror flavoured adventure on the Slopes of Rathcroghan, I thought I’d take the opportunity of the weekend that’s in it to present you with another. The time: a few years ago. The place: an apparently nondescript rural graveyard somewhere in Middle Ireland. The unwitting (mis)adventurer: yours truly.

* * *

It was the first day of a week of archaeo-field survey and I was supposed to be in the far west of Ireland following in the footsteps of a seventh century bishop, seeking out some of the earliest historically attested Christian sites associated with the cult of St. Patrick. Yet, here I was, walking down a grass rutted country lane, searching for a gate that led toward a half-forgotten graveyard. The location wasn’t even on my official list of sites to visit, but I had been nearby and decided to stop off for a quick poke around. During a previous desktop survey, I had noted several interesting archaeo aspects about the place:

  • A late medieval church ruin
  • A much earlier medieval looking curvilinear shaped graveyard
  • A couple of suspiciously prehistoric looking standing stones in hinterlands
  • An abandoned holy well – and most of all –
  • A strange looking natural feature on a nearby drumlin that my eyes had been drawn to whilst looking at aerial photography.

Truth be told, it was actually a combination of all the above occurring within a placename containing the Old Irish word túaim; i.e. ‘a mound, bank, knap, tump, or hillock’, but more frequently, in placename terms, ‘a mound, tomb, grave or sepulchre‘ (in the sense of Latin tumulus).

This alone would have made anyone’s archaeological antennae stand up on end. But what really sealed the deal for me was the small matter of there being no record whatsoever of anything resembling a prehistoric mound or tomb in the vicinity.

Coupled with that, somewhere in this particular area, my seventh century bishop had made reference to an early church site. Alas, the full (Hiberno-Latin) placename is now illegible in the only surviving manuscript and as a result has never been identified with any certainty. Later medieval vernacular sources do include an Irish placename for the same area however, also unidentified, yet containing a similar letter or two with that of the first example. More importantly, the Irish placename is qualified by the word Sídh.

(Image: Author)

In onomastic terms this descriptor is generally associated with Sídh Mounds, aka Fairy Mounds. Denuded prehistoric tombs, cairns, mounds or tumuli, often situated on lumps, bumps and hills – many of which were later re-imagined and depicted in Irish myth and folklore as being the underground homes of supernatural beings or fairies known as the Áes Síde.

To have all this whirling around together in one place in an almost perfect archaeological, historical, onomastic storm? To be faced with the prospect of a forgotten prehistoric Tumulus, Síde Mound, or Ferta adjacent an early medieval church site? Perhaps even, the very reason for its initial establishment, reflecting Early Irish Christian agency, engagement and renegotiation with an ancestral past? How could anyone resist?

Long story short, that is how I came to be walking down a lane in the nowhere middle of Middle Ireland. On the off chance of catching a whispered echo of long silenced folk memory. Trespassing across time and space. Waking the dead. Looking for the ghost of a grave in an already ancient graveyard. A ‘túaim’ with a view.

What could possibly go wrong?

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Navigatio Hiberionacum: A Modern Day Immram in Ireland

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I have taken my little talent – a boy’s paddle-boat, as it were – out on this deep and perilous sea of sacred narrative, where waves boldly swell to towering heights among rocky reefs in unknown waters, (a sea) on which so far no boat has ventured…

Muirchú, Prologus, Life of Patrick, (7thC)

There’s something deliciously ‘early medieval’ about rowing wooden boats. No matter how much modern gear you happen to pack inside, there’s nothing ‘modern’ about the act of rowing itself. Of propelling a craft through the water by sheer power of human strength alone. Of pushing backwards from your legs a sweeping oar and seeing it catch and glide through the water, feeling a little surge forward in tandem with the others. Of riding into and cresting waves on the open sea. Of slinking through flat rivers. Of sitting in the bow, bobbing up and down, face forward to the horizon with hands on each side, feeling the wood hum and vibrate.

Wooden boats are most alive when they are moving. No really. You can hear them breathing, whalelike, an excited gurgling sound underneath, like a cistern, as water bubbles flow down the hull in transit. You can literally feel its synchronized heartbeat between the reach and return of the oars twisting and sliding between two thole pins – hard and soft wooden arteries – producing a dull ‘thud-dum’, ‘thud-dum’, ‘thud-dum’. A leathery wooden pulse pumping through the boat. The work of human hands.

It can, at times, get strangely hypnotic. Especially when on the board chatter had died down and people have settled into a good rhythm. The cox has little need to correct or instruct and the only thing left – is the open sea, the repetitive wooden heartbeat and ones own thoughts. My archaeo-imagination being what it is, I am usually transported back in time, to early medieval Ireland – not that hard when one is traversing the eastern Irish coastline in a clinker built craft, passing entire counties and landmarks once viewed in the same manner by seafarers from the north and still enshrined – despite anglicization – with Old Norse placenames.

Or perhaps, even further back, to Sixth and Seventh Century Ireland, when little boats and big seas occupied Early Christian literary imaginations as well as daily realities. Immrama. Navigatio. Peregrinatio. Exiles for God, adrift in the sea, seeking a retreat from the world. Romantic figures like Columba. Adómnan. Brendan. Island hermitages like Iona. Lindisfarne. Inishbofin.

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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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Saints & Scholars: Tweeting Saints in Medieval Irish Martyrologies

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The Irish martyrologies are an incredibly important historical source – textual witnesses to many things: Saints cults, both famous and obscure, both female and male; individual church sites, ecclesiastical foundations, hermitages, and any number of halfway houses in between; personal names; place names; regional names; dynastic names. They provides several stratified snapshots of a competing and free flowing ecclesiastical landscape of loyalties, allegiances, bias, memory and commemoration. A measure of importance for those communities and dynasties doing the ‘celebrating’, as much as those being ‘celebrated’.

For those who may not be aware, Dr. Elva Johnston, one of the foremost authorities on Early Medieval Ireland and Early Irish Christianity, has been tweeting daily Saints from Early Irish Martyrologies for some months now. Essentially, the Martyrology of Óengus (Félire Óengusso) and the Martyrology of Gorman. She has also been storyifing them for posterity.

Aside from having a handy reference of feast days, the whole enterprise is a wonderful 21st Century experimental clone of Early Medieval Irish Scribal activity. Ironically, the medium of Twitter lends itself naturally to what monks and scribes were essentially doing within manuscripts over a thousand years ago i.e. small notes, highlights, marginalia glosses, annal entries, short commentaries…

Every day, Dr. Johnston tweets the relevant feast day/saint(s) included in the Martyrologies, and often other experts and scholars chime in with short notes, etymological elements and/or historical tidbits. If you have ever wanted to know what it may have felt to be a medieval scribe, or a student gazing over their shoulder as they wrote, this is the perfect opportunity to follow along. In real time. Day by day. Month by month.

Basically, putting the original #MedievalTwitter into… ehh… #MedievalTwitter.

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Disney To Enforce Star Wars Copyright of Skellig Michael For Next Ten Years

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Image: TechnoHippyBiker / Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Skellig Michael, the early medieval monastic island and UNESCO World Heritage Site off the Co. Kerry coast has been experiencing a surge in popularity and interest after having been used as a key location for two of the three installments of the new Star Wars Trilogy i.e. Episode VII: The Force Awakens (released December 2015) and the, as yet untitled, Episode VIII (Expected release: 2017).

As expected, this months opening of the regular Skellig Michael tourist season is being highly anticipated by locals and tourism authorities seeking to capitalize on the films association  – although fears that normal access may be curtailed by recent storm damage to some of the visitor paths has certainly dampened some expectations.

In a startling move, however, it now seems that the operators of the Star Wars movie franchise (The Walt Disney Company) have invoked – and are to begin enforcing – digital copyright of ‘Skellig Michael’ itself.

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