‘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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On Your Own, With No Direction Home: (St) Patrick’s Journey Across Ireland

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Image: Emmet Ó hInnéirghe (Used with Permission)

Introduction

It’s Thursday. It’s March 17th. If you’re a regular, you know what that means. To celebrate the day that’s in it and in keeping with time-honoured blog tradition, I hereby present my annual Patrician-themed rambling extravaganza – a forensic examination of a lesser spotted feature within the writings of the historical Patrick himself. This year, I thought I’d take a look at what appears to be a fleeting throwaway line from the Confessio concerning Patrick’s escape from captivity and subsequent two hundred mile journey across Ireland to an unknown port.

I have actually touched on it before, ever so slightly. Previously, I wrote a short audio book for Abarta Heritage on Patrick’s six years in captivity; and towards the end of the section dealing with the young Patrick’s decision to make a break for freedom, I concluded with the following line:

If there was one thing that Patrick would have known after six years under Irish skies – it was the direction home. Towards the rising sun.

Aside the fact that it reads like an over-dramatic hollywood-esque voice-over (it sounds much better in the book, honestly!), its both over-exaggerated and simplified. For one thing, the sun doesn’t rise or set directly east/west, except for the equinoxes. In Patrick’s time as a slave in western Ireland on the shores of Killala Bay, it actually would have risen North East over the sea from his perspective during the summer months. Nevertheless, it was my little way of acknowledging a single line in the text of the Confessio and suggesting that there may be more than meets the eye to it.

The particular line centres on the youthful Patrick’s decision to leave his captor and head 200 miles across Ireland to a waiting ship/port – without knowing anybody or where he was going. Why is it important and worthy of examination? Well, I would suggest that it carries several implications. Celestial symbolism and biblical frameworks aside, Patrick did escape from captivity and he must have crossed Ireland somehow and I think a closer look hints at just how he may have done so. In addition, it opens up several other aspects:

a) its a further inference (other than his own words) to his youthful captivity being on the western Irish coast – something which continues to be questioned by certain sectors, despite modern Patrician scholarship being widely agreed on the matter

b) it forms a crucial event horizon (quite literally) in Patrick’s later theological framework and motivation for his mission

c) it potentially offers an indication of how he may have come to be there in the first place – as in, the manner in which he was transported to Ireland from Western Roman Britain.

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In the Name of Progress: The Last Post

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Image: insert_token (CC BY-NC 2.0)

I note news today of the formal signing of contracts on behalf of the Irish government and the relevant company concerning the rollout and implementation of a new National Postcode System. This will involve the adoption of a 7-character code in alpha numeric format for every individual address in the country – which will presumably, in time, replace the need to know or include the local townland or area name of an address.

“Ireland has inherited a rich  tapestry of geographical names dating from all periods of the last two millennia at least. The whole country, including Northern Ireland, is divided into some 67,000 administrative units, in an historical, hierarchical structure of four provinces, 32 counties, 327 baronies, 2,428 civil parishes and some 60,462 townlands, all bearing their own names.

The vast majority of the place names of Ireland have their origin in the Irish language, particularly the names of the administrative units and those of major geographical features. Most of these names were coined before the 17th century and a significant number are at least a thousand years older. Literary and historical sources in Irish from the 8th century onwards contain many thousands of place names, many of which can be identified with present-day names”

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Less DA Binchy Code, Please… St Patrick’s Origins: In His Own Words (2)

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Vox Hiberniae flying over Glendalough, Co. Wicklow. Image: Europeanstamps.net / Public Domain

(…continued from Part 1)

Patricks Origins: In His Own Words

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:

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OMG: Ogam in 3D – Exciting New Database from Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies

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Ogham, Aghadoe, County Kerry.
Image: Jeremy Keith/Flickr Commons
(Used under a CC Licence)

A long-awaited and very exciting resource: the new online database ‘Ogham in 3D’ from Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies is coming shortly. Its already online with a small selection (50+) of individual stones. The site is going to offer 3D scans of Irish Ogham stones, alongside their associated historical, etymological and archaeological data; ‘bringing all of the available information together in a single searchable archive’.

In other words, a GOLDMINE for researchers. Really. You have no idea how disparate a lot of this information has previously been.

Ogham stones are crucial to understanding the development of Early Irish Christianity. Not only are the inscriptions the earliest recorded efforts at replicating the aural sounds of primitive Irish; but as formulaic monumental inscriptions involving named ancestral figures, they are quite possibly the earliest archaeological evidence for Insular Irish Christianity itself. Continue reading

A Quirky Case of Early Medieval Ecclesiastical Propaganda [Part 1]

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Clonmacnoise commemorated… Fuerty, Roscommon (Image: Author)

Introduction

A few weeks ago, a short article in the Irish Times caught my eye. Entitled ‘Historic’ ordination of deacons in Sligo, it was a brief notice concerning newly ordained permanent deacons in the modern Irish diocese of Elphin. Two comments were of particular interest to me:

Bishop of Elphin, Christopher Jones described the occasion as “truly joyous” and historic, pointing out that it was almost 1,500 years “almost back to the time of St Patrick himself” since a similar ordination had taken place in the diocese.

Newly ordained William Gacquin said the last recorded reference to a deacon in diocesan records was when one baptised St Ciaran in the parish of Fuerty, Co Roscommon, in the sixth century.

(McDonagh, M. Irish Times, December 10, 2012)
 

Such comments provide a fascinating example of the extent to which early Irish hagiography is still influencing modern ecclesiastical identity and ‘history’. Whilst no doubt wishing to stress the historical nature  of the proceedings, the referencing of the above episode in such a manner relies on an uncritical acceptance of antiquarian translations of later medieval Lives of St. Patrick. Divorced from its original setting, the episode is not only portrayed by modern-day ecclesiastics as historical fact, but also attempts to equate the modern-day concept of a permanent deacon with that of the early medieval ecclesiastical grade. In doing so, it not only fails to appreciate the original ecclesiastical milieu in which it was written; but inadvertently underplays the actual historical and archaeological importance of the original ecclesiastical site of Fuerty, Co. Roscommon. Continue reading