Some Irish saints

Happy St Patrick’s Day! I commemorated the feast of the Apostle to Ireland with a post about the man himself a while back. Another year, I posted about his missionary predecessor, Palladius. This year, I’d like to commemorate St Patrick by mentioning some of those people who are his spiritual descendants, men and women who trod the ancient path of Jesus as a result of the conversion of Ireland.

St Brigid seems to be the only one here who didn’t leave Ireland …

St Columba (521-597) — One of the important missionaries to Scotland, St Columba operated in the north of that country. He founded the monastery of Iona as a monastic mission centre for Britain. I’ve posted about him here and here. I also posted about the Life of St Columba by Adomnan and about St Columba’s poetry.

St Aidan  of Lindisfarne (d. 651) — An important missionary to England, St Aidan was a monk from Iona and was instrumental in the conversion of Northumbria. I’ve posted about him here.

St Brigid of Kildare (c. 451 – c. 523) — St Brigid has occasionally been accused of not existing; recent scholarship says she did. She was an abbess and foundress of abbeys in Ireland. She also wrote some grand poetry.

St Brendan the Navigator (c. 484 – c. 577) — One tradition that arose in early mediaeval Irish Christianity was wandering as a spiritual exercise — similar to pilgrimage, but not with Jerusalem or any such place as a destination. St Brendan decided to sail West, and he met various wonders along the way, including sea monsters and an icy gateway to Hell. You can read the medieval account of his voyage here. He also founded abbeys and suchlike in Ireland.

St Columbanus (540-615) — St Columbanus was a monastic missionary to the Continent where his mission was more about founding monasteries and bringing renewal to the church than converting the heathen. He founded some very important monasteries in Italy and Gaul, and his Rule was used throughout the seventh century and into the eighth. I have discovered his SermonsLetters, and Rule online as well as his very interesting Boat Song. He was an important part of the Insular contact with the Continent, coming from Ireland and founding monasteries at Luxueil and Bobbio, both of which were important in the Merovingian and Carolingian age. You can read a seventh-century account of his life online as well, written by Jonas, who became a monk at Bobbio three years after Columbanus’ death.

John Scotus Eriugena (815-877) — Eriugena was a notable theologian and philosopher in the ninth century who helped establish the work of Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite in the western tradition. Some have found commonalities between him and Maximus the Confessor, others between him and Buddhist texts. Eriugena is not a canonised saint. You can read about him at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

So, since you probably can’t get out to the pub tonight, stay in with a Guinness or a whiskey, and read about an Irish saint or two!

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.

Saint of the Week: St. Patrick of Ireland

About ten years ago, one of the many unfunny For Better or for Worse cartoons at least had a bit of a kick to it. A group of Canadian students are sitting in a pub drinking the usual green beer, the pub decked in green with shamrocks for St. Patrick’s Day. One wonders what St. Patrick did; another quips that he drove the snakes out of Ireland. What else? Brought Christianity. An Irish friend of theirs approaches, and they ask him what St. Patrick did, besides bringing Christianity to Ireland. His response, ‘Isn’t that enough?’

Indeed. Isn’t bringing Christianity to a dark place enough and more than enough to be celebrated?

I have no doubt St. Patrick would be a bit disappointed at the booze fest his feast has turned into, with green beards and pagan leprechauns everywhere. Still, the bringing of the light of the Gospel into a pagan land is a good thing, is it not?

When we consider the polydaimonic/animist nature of much traditional pagan nature religion from Italy westwards, there is very often an element of fear. We like to romanticise this paganism, imagining these close-to-nature druids and bards who can speak with the very earth and commune with trees. Do not forget farmers who fear forests due to what lurks within, who have a very real fear of mounds due to the metaphysical beings who may dwell therein. If the surviving fairy stories from the period following Christianisation have any resemblance to pre-Christian beliefs, I’ve a feeling the supernatural was not something to be enjoyed but, rather, feared.

When the Inuit of the Central Arctic came to Christ, they found freedom from a world full of spirits seeking to be appeased, a harsh, hostile world with no Great Spirit of the southern First Nations of Canada and the USA. They found eternal security in the person and actions of Jesus Christ, and were thankful for the Anglican and Roman Catholic missionaries who brought this great Good News of freedom to them.

Considering how given over to Christ the Irish were to become following St. Patrick, no doubt they felt the same.

St. Patrick (c. 387-460/493) brought Christianity to Ireland in the early fifth century. He was born six years after the triumph of Nicene Christianity over Arianism at the First Council of Constantinople in 381 and one year after the conversion of St. Augustine of Hippo; he was enslaved seven years before the Roman legions left Britain; the earlier date for his death is one year before Pope Leo I, the later date is 17 years after the fall of the last Roman Emperor in the West. St. Patrick is patristic, a missionary of the Late Antique world.

Having read his Confession (hopefully this link will do the job, let me know if it fails), I’m of the opinion that he was of Romano-British stock; he was certainly from Roman Britain. When he was sixteen, he was captured and sold into slavery in Ireland. Although he made a daring escape, he made the decision to return thither later on and bring the light of Christ to the unconverted beyond the Empire’s borders.

This was the result of a dream:

I saw a man coming, as it were from Ireland. His name was Victoricus, and he carried many letters, and he gave me one of them. I read the heading: “The Voice of the Irish”. As I began the letter, I imagined in that moment that I heard the voice of those very people who were near the wood of Foclut, which is beside the western sea—and they cried out, as with one voice: “We appeal to you, holy servant boy, to come and walk among us. (from the Wikipedia entry)

(There may have been a few Christians lurking in Ireland before Patrick, but I’ve found conflicting dates for the other early Irish saints.)

Patrick went to Ireland and preached, converting and baptising many thousands. He refused all gifts, for salvation is the free gift of God to all who believe. One story that I read somewhere was of a pagan prince upon whose feet Patrick inadvertently leaned with his staff during the baptismal rite. The young man endured the pain and said nothing, believing it to be part of the ceremony — such was their zeal for incorporating themselves into the glorious freedom of Christ’s Gospel as proclaimed by Patrick.

There are also many tales of Patrick’s encounters with Irish priests (druids?), whom he outdid in miracles, and many people whom he exorcised.

His was a mission of preaching and miracles, much like our Lord’s. Much also like that of St. Columba, St. Aidan, and St. Cuthbert in Britain. The power of the Gospel was evident in the life of St. Patrick, saving the people of Ireland not only from captivity to the unclean spirits but also from captivity to the unclean spirit of each person’s own sinful soul.

Shall we bring this Gospel of love and light to our neighbours? Shall we help cleanse their lives from the snakes of sin and fear?