Saint of the Week: Palladius of Ireland

This is partly an attempt to get the Saint of the Week off the ground, partly a commemoration of St Patrick’s Day.

Palladius looks oddly Victorian here …

Today I (sort of) read the fifth-century Chronicle of Prosper of Aquitaine. In the year 431, he tells us:

Palladius, having been ordained by Pope Celestine, was the first bishop sent to the Scots believing in Christ. (trans. A. C. Murray, From Roman to Merovingian Gaul, p. 68)

Now, if you’re not really paying attention (especially to dates), you are likely to take that as a reference to missionaries to Scotland. But it’s not. It’s a reference to a missionary to the Scots, who, at this stage, would have been a people group living in Ireland.

The Chronicle of Ireland gives us much the same thing for 431 (as do most [all?] other chronicles that touch on Palladius):

The kalends of January. In the 431st year from the Incarnation of the Lord, Palladius was ordained bishop by Celestine, bishop of the city of Rome, when Aetius and Valerius were consuls, and was the first to be sent to Ireland so that they might believe in Christ, in the eighth year of Theodosius [II]. (trans. T. M. Charles-Edwards, p. 63)

One would hope that the next year would be more informative about this not-so-famous bishop for the Irish. We get:

The kalends of January, AD 432. Patrick, i.e. the archbishop, came to Ireland and began to baptize the Irish in the ninth year of Theodosius II, in the first year of the episcopacy of Xistus, 42nd bishop of the Roman Church, in the fourth year of the reign of Lóegaire son of Niall . (This is the reckoning of Bede, Marcellinus and Isidore in their chronicles.) (trans. T. M. Charles-Edwards, pp. 63-4)

In its ensuing chapters, The Chronicle of Ireland gives us information about St Patrick’s mission. But the first we hear of Palladius is also the last.

My well of primary sources for early Irish history having now run dry, I turn to the Oxford Dictionary of Saints by David Hugh Farmer, a trusty book if ever there was one; it comes complete with a bibliography for each entry, after all. According to this source:

Palladius seems to have landed and worked mainly in Wicklow, where three places, Tigroney, Donard, and Cilleen Cormac (near Dunlavin), claim to be churches founded by him. His apostolate was not of long duration and was soon forgotten; it was in the interest of those emphasizing the role of Patrick that it should be. It seems likely that Palladius went from Ireland to Scotland, whether from distaste for his task or from the hostility which he encountered, or both, is not clear. He died there and the place of his death is claimed to be Forddun and there is still a cult of him in Aberdeen. It seems certain that Palladius and not Patrick was the first bishop to work in Ireland, that he is not to be identified with Patrick, that the evidence for a papal mission of Palladius is stronger than that for Patrick, and that a Scottish tradition that he preached in Scotland for twenty-three years is unreliable.

So there are the rest of the details we know about Palladius. What I think is most important, regardless of the task of sorting out the Palladius-Patrick chronology (which would require getting a hold of some other chronicles), is that Patrick is not the first missionary in Ireland. Not only that, neither Patrick nor Palladius is the first Christian in Ireland. Our earliest reference to Palladius is contemporary, and according to it, there were already Irish believing in Christ.

Palladius’ job was to go and be their pastor, their shepherd, to oversee the work and life of the Christians there, and to help link them with the wider Christian world. He seems to have given up on the Irish and gone to Scotland, but his little entry in Prosper is still of great significance for students of Christianity in Ireland.

His feast is July 7, so maybe you should drink a green beer in Palladius’ honour this July.

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3 thoughts on “Saint of the Week: Palladius of Ireland

  1. You have misrepresented the primary sources. The Irish annals are worthless, consciously attempting to reconcile Prosper’s propaganda notices giving credit to papal initiative with the reality on the ground of a British missionary, like Patrick, and others perhaps from the Continent.

    • Hi Tom! I think that it’s all propaganda, in fact. Prosper for Rome, and the annals for Patrick. And I see nothing wrong with there being Palladius before Patrick, and then Patrick alongside some unknown continental missionaries outside any Roman episcopal oversight.

      Since I wrote this piece in 2014, I’ve read Burgess & Kulikowski, Mosaics of Time, Vol. 1 which is an up-to-date study of the Latin chronicle tradition from its origins to the High Middle Ages, and it has a long section dealing with how the Irish annals deal with the fact that Prosper gives us this sparse reference to Palladius who seems to come before Patrick, but Patrick having the reputation of being the first missionary. So, even if the Irish annals are ‘useless’, as you say, that has absolutely no bearing whatsoever on the presence of Palladius in Ireland. I see no reason to doubt Prosper on this point. Furthermore, Prosper is not simply propaganda, but is a good source for continental history from where Jerome breaks off up to 455, to be used alongside Hydatius and the Gallic Chronicle of 452.

  2. Actually the Irish Annals have a core that goes back to the sixth century, so they aren’t ‘useless’; you just have to understand their history and know how to handle them. (I really hope I live long enough to my book on them finished). Prosper is simply reporting what he has read or heard. He’s a big fan of the papacy for sure, but he has no agenda and he’s not trying to put anything over on anyone. He wrote the first edition of his chronicle in 433 and so if he says that Celestine sent Palladius to Ireland in 431, you can be pretty sure (as much as you can be about anything in the fifth century) that Celestine did just that , give or take a year. Prosper is a historian, not a propagandist. Sure he hates heretics, but who didn’t?

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