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


Clonmacnoise commemorated… Fuerty, Roscommon (Image: Author)


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.

A Matter of Record

Leaving aside the small matter of projecting a much later diocesan/parish structure onto an earlier  chronological period (a point clearly made in the history section of the diocese own website); the earliest version of the ‘diocesan record’ in question is contained within a seventh century text known to scholarship as the Collectanea. Written by a Bishop Tírechán between 664 and 684 AD, it presents a pseudo-historical itinerary of St. Patrick’s missionary journey throughout large areas of Leinster and Connacht.

Tírechán was a native of modern-day Co. Mayo who had grown up under ecclesiastical fosterage in Leinster. His primary reason for writing the text was to provide a quasi-legal framework to those dynasties and churches in Connacht who were open to establishing, or accepting, an alliance with Patrick’s paruchia. He did this by writing the ‘history’ of certain church foundations; bringing the saint into contact with the ancestors of local dynasties who granted rights, tribute and land in return for ecclesiastical favour, baptism and blessing. Quid pro quo: one legitimated the other in providing for the future by creating a fictional shared past.

Although spurious concerning anything to do with the historical Patrick, or indeed, the fifth/sixth centuries AD; the text itself is an invaluable document for understanding early Irish Christianity. Written at a very important juncture during the seventh century AD; it provides us with one of our earliest windows into the culture and climate of early medieval ecclesiastical organisation (or perhaps even, disorganisation!).

When you look at the document in its actual historical and landscape context, a picture emerges of a fast flowing and loose patchwork of ecclesiastical identities, monastic federations and secular dynasties; all of whom were plying for power and influence within Connacht. Patrick may have been well on his way to becoming the pre-eminent national saint, but the Columban and Clonmacnoise monastic federations were still potential regional players. As a native of the province and contemporary participant in such squabbles, Tírechán presents several examples of patrician churches which were apparently claimed by both rivals above.

Reading between the lines

It is against this background of conflicting claims and ecclesiastical rivalry, that the reference to Fuerty and the deacon occurs. Here is how it is written on a damaged page of the original manuscript:

[……..]abillis iostus [dia]conus qu[…]m
sanctus penepuer pusillus In […..]lic[.. .]
et tenuit fidarti et dedit illi patricius [lib]
ros babtismatis et babtitzauit nepo[tes] [….]
et Insenectute sua bona babtitzauit [ce]
ranum filium artificis quando se[nex] ac ple
nus dierum fuit…
…et babtitzatuest ceranus ex [lib]
ro patricii adiacono iusto populi [in]
conspectu //

(Fol. 12 v, Liber Ardmachanus; Gwynn, 1913, 24)

Which (more or less) translates as:

[left]  a certain Iostus, a deacon, a holy youth not more than a little boy, in…and he held fidarti, and Patrick gave him books of baptism and he baptised the sons of… (Uí Maine), and in fine old age, he baptised Ceranum (Ciaran), the son of the craftsman, when he was old and in the fullness of his days…

 …and Ceranus (Ciaran) was baptised out of the book of Patrick by deacon Iusto in the sight of the people.

From a surface reading then, the episode seems to confirm the original statements. Patrick left a young deacon named Iostus (Justus) in a certain place (the name of which is corrupted). This same Iostus went on to ‘hold’ (i.e. ‘take, possess’) a site called Fidarti (‘Fiadharta‘ > ‘Fíorta‘ > modern day ‘Fuerty’). After receiving books of baptism from the saint, Iostus then baptised the people of the region (the Uí Maine dynasty). Much later on, in old age, he went on to baptise Ciaran (of Clonmacnoise), himself also apparently old, out of the same patrician books; an act somewhat at odds with later medieval versions of his life which depict an early death in his thirties. However, when placed in its seventh century context, the above episode takes on significantly different meanings.

Landscape & Geographic Context

Seventh century Fidarti, or Fuerty, was situated in a border region of Connacht and the midlands, between the territory of Mag Aí and that of the Uí Maine. In Tírechan’s original text, the episode at Fuerty takes place after patrician activity in and around modern-day Castlereagh. Following on from it, the action moves back to modern-day Oran and Baslick, Co. Roscommon, as well as the River Suck; which seems to play a defining border role in other episodes within Tírechán’s text. It’s close proximity to Fuerty is not at all coincidental.

Just two km to the south of Fuerty, along the same stretch of the River Suck, lies the magnificent carved boulder known as the Castlestrange Stone. The La Tene style of decoration has been interpreted as indicating an Iron Age date. Its presence in the landscape would seem to suggest an element of conspicuous display, something that would certainly fit the idea of the river being a tribal boundary in the late iron age/early medieval period.

The site of Fuerty (just across the River Suck) represents one of the most south-easterly ‘Connacht’ locations named within the entire text; while it and another unidentified nearby site are said to be ‘held/possessed’ by Patrick or his designates. The  language used by Tírechán (tenere: ‘held, captures/overtakes’) implies strong legal terminology, suggesting the Patrician sites in question were involved in rival ecclesiastical claims. Indeed, it has been noted that when Tírechán uses the same term in relation to other church sites elsewhere in his text, it is almost always connected to similar sites connected to, or claimed by, ecclesiastical rivals (Clonmacnoise, Clones, Devinish, Kildare).


Castlestrange Stone – Image: Sarah777 (wikimedia commons / used under a CC Licence)

Ecclesiastical and Political Context

Fuerty, in the seventh century AD, was therefore a contested site and landscape located in the border lands between Mag Aí (Patrician orientated) and Uí Maine (Clonmacnoise orientated) territories. In not having the saint go any further into Uí Maine country, Tírechán was acknowledging the seventh century liminal extent of Patrick’s paruchia; while simultaneously projecting the saint’s authority beyond the immediate  boundary through the actions of the deacon Iostus. All in all, it’s a cheeky contemporary statement on Tírechan’s part; dressed up to look like an innocent ‘historical’ background.[1]

Not only was he inserting a Patrician connection in an area claimed by Clonmacnoise; but he was deliberately undermining its very founder. By presenting Ciaran as being baptised by deacon Iostus, in the sight of his people, out of books originally presented by Patrick; Tírechán was engaging in a magnificent example of early medieval ecclesiastical one-upmanship. Such a claim would have undoubtedly been perceived by Clonmacnoise authorities as a scandalous insult in itself; yet Tírechán was not content with this mere slight and went even further.

Portraying the baptism event as taking place when Ciaran was an older man not only provided further insult (especially if the later medieval legends of an early death were already being cultivated by then); but also served to distance him from Patrick in terms of antiquated authority and legitimacy. Tírechán even went so far as to claim a chronological gap of 140 years in-between the death of Patrick and the baptism of Ciaran in his original manuscript! Indeed, this is why he explicitly specifies the extreme youth of Iostus and that of the fine old age of Ciaran; having the need to retrofit their potential lifespans into a semblance of plausibility.

Archaeological Context

All of the above, however, pales when compared with even deeper subtextual implications underlying Tírechán’s claims. For any such propaganda to have been effective, it must logically have made use of certain half-truths; and Tírechán’s version of past events  are likely to have been based on perceived contemporary (seventh century) realities. Reading the text through an archaeological lens, the church site of Fuerty, already considered old, seems to have been in possession of an ancient book, or books, apparently associated with a figure called Iostus and possibly already regarded as relics. Second to that, was undoubtedly some sort of past association with Ciaran and Clonmacnoise, which may reflect later medieval accounts of the saints dynastic association with the Roscommon area.

Any seventh century Uí Maine inheritors of the church of Fuerty who were already commemorating Iostus, his book, or a Clonmacnoise connection would have therefore been placed in an interesting situation. Renouncing any Patrician association in favour of Clonmacnoise would have not only entailed belittling an already valuable relic, but would also involve the denigration in importance of their perceived founding figure. On the other hand, accepting the Patrician association would have offered them a perceived authority and antiquated legitimacy beyond that of Clonmacnoise, as well as a ‘genuine’ Patrician relic with which to promote their unique position within both the Clonmacnoise sphere of influence and Ciaran’s pseudo-history.

Dynastic Context

Naturally, this would have afforded Fuerty an elevated status within Ui Maine territory. With a foot firmly in both ecclesiastical camps, its local secular dynasty would have no doubt enjoyed potential benefits from either federations (perhaps grudgingly from one or the other at various times). An important aspect of any such antagonism, however, is the relative powerlessness with which either federation could bring to bear. If the association with Ciaran’s baptism and the books of Iostus had already been in place; then, as above, any renouncing of the same would have had more consequence for Clonmacnoise than Fuerty. If the Clonmacnoise/Ciaran connection was to be maintained, then it was to be within a firm Patrician framework, with the national saint enjoying a privileged position ‘in the past’.


High Cross, Clonmacnoise (Image: Author)

Later Medieval Context

The fact that the later medieval Life of Ciaran includes the figure of Justus (Iostus), Fuerty and Ciaran’s baptism within its re-imagined account, serves to not only illustrate that Clonmacnoise was forced to adapt the less than favourable tradition (albeit reversing certain details); but also that the tradition was firmly entrenched and strong enough to survive the intervening centuries of Clonmacnoise regional dominance. Most intriguingly, the twelfth century Life also includes a fantastical story of how Ciaran’s ‘writing tablet’ (the Pólaire Ciaráin), associated with his ‘teacher’ Justus, had been saved in antiquity and that it could still be seen in the church at that time.

Not only is this likely to be a re-working of Tírechán’s original account (conveniently removing the Patrick element) but it suggests the survival of a tradition of an ancient book/tablet, if not an actual relic, still being associated with Ciaran and Justus in the twelfth century. Even more interestingly, the old Irish term for the book, polaire, is a British Latin loan word which has attested early Christian usages of being part of the required equipment of bishops and priests. Even its description in the later life is an accurate archaeological portrayal of wooden tablets bound in leather straps known from the seventh century  (the earliest physical archaeological evidence of writing in Ireland is that of the Springmount Bog Tablets, c. 600 AD, on display in the National Musuem, Kildare Street).

Despite attempting to remove the ‘stain’ of Patrick’s alleged distant involvement in Ciaran’s baptism; the strength of the Iostus/Fuerty tradition seems to have been too strong for Clonmacnoise to overcome. The implication then, is that the tradition was employed by the Uí Maine in the seventh century and continually maintained by their secular inheritors in subsequent centuries. Through the power and presence of archaeological artefacts infused with ancient tradition and acting as ‘physical witnesses’ to the past; it was in fact the local authorities of Fuerty that retained an upper hand in ecclesiastical choice and opportunity – not those of either ecclesiastical federation. The long shadow of Clonmacnoise may have loomed large within the immediate ecclesiastical landscape; but local patrician commemoration seems to have never been completely left behind.

Hagiography V History

Therein lies the genius of early Irish hagiographers such as Tírechán. Engaging in creative ecclesiastical propaganda during the seventh century was not simply a matter of formulating a story and sticking with it. Such activity involved the manipulation of multiple levels of subtext. Contemporary political machinations and monastic identities, ancient chronological and archaeological authority, legal and ecclesiastical metaphor and symbolism; all of which needed to be facilitated within a temporal landscape framework. Above all, the hagiographer needed to make his version of history not only believable (in a medieval sense), but also attractive enough for local populations and churches to assume and adopt the same throughout subsequent generations.

In some ways, we could perhaps even say that Tírechán himself, in writing ‘the present’ into ‘the past’; was intentionally laying the groundwork for future audiences. If only he could have known that thirteen centuries later, his words would not only still be around but would actually be referenced as a historical ‘diocesan record’ by a modern deacon and fellow Bishop. Proof indeed, of the ultimate success of his entire enterprise regarding his depiction of Iostus and Fuerty.

A Shaggy Dog Story

I previously wrote that I imagined Tírechán committing such scandalous words to vellum with a wry smile on his face. Such a smile would have perhaps been even wider had he only known that it would be a future Bishop of Elphin recounting the story. Elphin and its associated dynasty of the time, the Corcu Chonluain, are also given some prominence in Tírechán’s text. But, as with Fuerty, one really needs to appreciate the underlying subtext to enjoy the full effect of Tírechán’s subtlety. Lets just say that, if one was to translate the linguistic components of the dynastic name Corcu Chonluain into colloquial language of the time, one would get something along the lines of:

‘The People with the Fragrant Smelling Odour of Trespassing Dogs’.

(To be continued…)



Charles-Edwards, T. (2000) Early Christian Ireland. Cambridge

Etchingham, C. (1993) ‘The Implications of Paruchia’, Ériu 44, 139-162.

Mac Neill, E. (1932) ‘The Vita Tripartita of St. Patrick’, Ériu 11, 1-41

McDonagh, M. “Historic ordination of deacons in Sligo”, Irish Times, December 10, 2012

Ó Riain, P. (2005) ‘St. Ciarán of Clonmacnoise’ In: Sean Duffy (eds). Medieval Ireland: An Encyclopedia, Routledge: New York & London, 86.

Plummer, C., (ed.) (1922) Bethada Náem nÉrenn. Lives of Irish Saints. 2 vols. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Stokes, W. (ed.) (1890) Lives of saints, from the Book of Lismore. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Swift, C. (1994) ‘The Social and Ecclesiastical Background to Tírechán’s Treatment of the Connachta in the Seventh-Century Collectanea’ (unpublished DPhil dissertation, Oxford).

Swift, C. (1994) ‘Tírechán’s Motives in Compiling the Collectanea: An Alternative Interpretation’, Ériu 45, 53–82.

Walsh, P. (1940) ‘Connacht in the Book of Rights’, Journal of the Galway Archaeological and Historical Society 19, pp. 1-15

[1] Elsewhere in the text, Tírechán depicts the pagan ancestors of the Uí Maine in a less then flattering light also. In a later, unconnected (and likely dislocated) section he again presents the saint as traveling through the regionibus nepotum maini: ‘the regions of the sons of maini’ i.e. Uí Maine. There, the saint encounters two recently dug graves, one marked by a cross and one unmarked. They turn out to be the graves of a Christian and a pagan who have been confused with each other; and the cross has been mistakenly erected over the grave of the pagan. The saint miraculously speaks to the dead pagan to ascertain how such a thing has happened and then removes the cross and places it above the Christian. When asked by his charioteer, as to why he didn’t baptise the pagan in his grave, the saint remains suspiciously silent. Which is then followed by one of the more unusual personal interjections by Tírechan into the narrative:

puto enim ideo eum reliquit quia deus eum saluare noluit

(Liber Ardmachanus; Gwynn, 1913, 27)

‘I suspect/suppose he abandoned him so beacuse God was unwilling to save him’.


Such harsh treatment by the saint towards the pagan can therefore be seen as another damning indictment on the Uí Maine and their ancestors, i.e. represented by someone buried within their territory. And just to rub it in, Tírechán adds the early medieval equivalent of a kick in the nether-regions by elucidating his opinion that God himself was unwilling to save him. Taken together with the Fuerty episode and Tírechán’s ‘disrespectful’ attitude towards Clonmacnoise and Ciaran; one certainly gets the impression that he had little love for the Uí Maine dynasty.

4 thoughts on “A Quirky Case of Early Medieval Ecclesiastical Propaganda [Part 1]

  1. what can one say, as a young lad i spent all my spare time recording the grave stone inscriptions on that old monastic site, fascinating article,i look at your ability ,with awe and envy- to read between the lines,fascinating-often looked upon the story of fuerty with some reluctant doubt- may be some thing of myth- jestus living to 140, be the jasus it would be hard to convince the people in DALTONS pub of that one, i think it would result in an early trip to St Pats ………….. my silence is now forever broken. – Thanks TIMOTHY DUKE


    • Many thanks for your for your kind words, Timothy… made all the more special coming from a local. I hope I did the auld place proud. What a wonderful place to have been a young lad.

      I trust you found part 2?


  2. Pingback: The Week That Was: Indulgent Patriciana | vox hiberionacum

  3. Pingback: Old Fuerty Church, Roscommon, Ireland | Visions Of The Past

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s