Nouissimis Diebus: St. Malachy the Irishman and the Last Days of Something or Other

The major news of the last day or so has been the surprise papal resignation announcement. Almost immediately, historic medieval precedents were being touted and referenced. The coming weeks will no doubt see a media surge of interest in medieval aspects of the modern-day Papacy/Vatican; and one of the more fanciful avenues will surely be the so-called ‘Prophecies of St. Malachy’. Allegedly penned by the twelfth century Irish reforming Bishop of Armagh, they purport to list over a hundred future popes with the current Pope occupying the second last position. The implication then, is that the coming Pope will be the last one.

mal brussels ms

St. Malachy, Brussels MS.II, 1167 (after Leclercq, 1959, 323)

As you can imagine, much ink and electronic typeface has already been spent on the subject, with a large majority of it occupying the very lowest level of armchair pseudo-historical quasi-mystical bovine excretia. In honour of the coming onslaught of idiotic internet babble concerning the Irish Malachy and his ‘prophecies’; I thought it would be appropriate to have a quick look at the figure of Malachy and what he actually represents in terms of Irish medieval history and archaeology.

Prophecy Schmophecy

Before going any further though, lets just get some things over with. The ‘Prophecies’ of St. Malachy were not written by Malachy. They were not written in the twelfth century. They are the product of sixteenth century papal power struggles. They are contained within a book known as Lignum Vitæ which was published in 1595 AD, only five years after the earliest reference to them at all. 1590 AD was an eventful  year for papal activity. The prophecies, in their earliest form, seem to have been created during events before and after the consecration of Pope Urban VII (who holds the record for being the shortest reigning pope in history). This is particularly evident by fairly precise details/suggestions of all the listed popes prior to 1590; and the rather more generic and oblique depictions for those that follow; which are naturally open to wide interpretation. Just like modern-day horoscopes.

Many commentators have had lots of fun over the centuries, playing around with the entries, trying to make them fit papal incumbents. As the end of the list has approached, however, they have taken on much more of an apocalyptical slant; with the advent of the internet resulting in an explosion of mass muddled musings and fanciful speculation. While its sixteenth century context is an interesting and amusing subject, it bears little relevance for medieval Irish Christianity; and perhaps the only halfway engaging footnote in the whole affair is that, for some reason, the creators of the list considered it entirely suitable to label a twelfth century Irishman and bishop as coming up with such a thing.


Maelmaedhog Ua Morgair, aka Malachy, of course, is a well-known Irish ecclesiastical figure, largely associated with the twelfth century church reform and credited with being one of the instigators for bringing the Cistercian order to Ireland. Mellifont Abbey, Co. Louth was the first such establishment; its ruins being one of the more famous Irish examples of new European ecclesiastical architectural styles in medieval Ireland. In terms of ecclesiastical reform, Malachy is also credited with being at the centre of forcing Armagh to come into the reforming fold. As an outsider, his naming as successor  to the archbishopric of Armagh in 1129 AD was a major challenge to the secular family who had traditionally controlled succession to the office for several generations. Following a period of intense squabbling, a compromise solution was apparently obtained; resulting in his resigning the primacy in favour of a candidate acceptable to both traditional and reforming parties.

For such an important person (the first Irish person to be officially canonised by a papal figure) it seems strange that only some Irish annals include his name in the main events surrounding reform and Armagh. There is no mention of his succession to the primacy in the Annals of Ulster; on the contrary, his ecclesiastical opponent is named instead. Within Bernard’s account, there is confusion of his previous bishopric, and when exactly he moved between Connor and Bangor; appearing to have both simultaneously. There is an extended stay at Lismore at one stage, where he apparently came into contact with the exiled Cormac Mac Cartaigh (of Romanesque Cormac’s Chapel fame); as well as three years of infighting over the Armagh succession above. Even after he had apparently been appointed in 1132 AD, he worked from outside Armagh for two more years, while his opponent operated within. Most frustratingly, all of this just happens to coincide with a gap in the Annals of Ulster between the years 1132 and 1155 AD.


Exterior: Cormac’s Chapel, Cashel (Image: Spinfly / Flickr / CC Licence)

Insular versus Reformer

Erring on the side of academic caution, let’s just say that a quick glance at the order of events as presented in the Annals of the Four Masters (problematic, at times) gives us some indication of what was likely going on behind the scenes:

AFM 1132.1: Maelmaedhog Ua Morgair (Malachy) sat in the successorship of Patrick, at the request of the clergy of Ireland.

AFM 1133.5: Muircheartach, (His Rival) successor of Patrick, made a visitation of Tir-Eoghain; and he received his tribute of cows and horses, and imparted his blessing.

AFM 1134.7: Maelmaedhog Ua Morgair made a visitation of Munster, and obtained his tribute.

AFM 1134.14: Muircheartach, son of Domhnall, son of Amhalghaidh, successor of Patrick, died, after the victory of martyrdom and penance, on the 17th of September.

AFM 1134.15: Niall, son of Aedh, was installed in the successorship of Patrick.

AFM 1134.16: A change of abbots at Ard-Macha, i.e. Maelmaedhog Ua Morgair (Malachy) in the place of Niall.

AFM 1134.17: Maelmaedhog afterwards made his visitation of Munster, and obtained his tribute.

AFM 1135.10: Maelmaedhog Ua Morgair, successor of Patrick, purchased the Bachall-Isa, and took it from its cave on the seventh day of the month of July.

AFM 1136.21: The visitation of Munster was made by Maelmaedhog Ua Morgair, successor of Patrick.

AFM 1136.22: A change of abbots at Ard-Macha, i.e. Niall, son of Aedh, in place of Maelmaedhog.

AFM 1136.25: Maelmaedhog Ua Morgair resigned the successorship of Patrick for the sake of God.

AFM 1137.6: A change of abbots at Ard-Macha, i.e. the airchinneach of Doire Choluim Chille in place of Niall, son of Aedh.

One hardly needs to know the detailed ins and outs in order to deduce signs of good old medieval Irish ecclesiastical shenanigans.  The constant change of abbots are indications of ongoing negotiations, forced and otherwise; while Malachy’s ‘buying’ of the Bachall-Iosa (one of the insignia of the office he supposedly held) and the details of rival visitations (i.e. tribute gathering) in Munster and Ulster by both parties, suggest a picture of two factions actively seeking support and legitimacy. All in all, we get a fair indication of contemporary ecclesiastical conflict between traditional and reforming parties over the seat of Armagh.

Bernard of Clairvaux

Almost everything we know about Malachy, comes from the pen of Bernard of Clairvaux, who had met him several times and who was apparently present at Malachy’s death at Clairvaux (on route to Rome) in 1148. The Life of St. Malachy was written the following year, at the request of an Abbot Congan (a mutual friend) who supplied the basic information on Bernard. A few other letters, sermons and miscellaneous texts concerning Malachy are also attributed to Bernard.

Bernard’s Life of St. Malachy is a product of twelfth century hagiography and is written from a literary European perspective. Bernard was primarily interested in presenting Malachy as a hagiographical model of the ideal reforming bishop. It is firmly set against the backdrop of twelfth century church reform and contemporary issues of church governance and episcopal authority. From his perspective, presenting Malachy as an ecclesiastical saviour and episcopal knight in shining armour served a wider European papal agenda. (This would of course have been the perfect place to champion any list of papal ‘prophecies’ from the man himself; and Bernard’s silence on the subject is particularly telling.)

The life is full of hagiographical symbolism and many Irish opponents of Malachy come to sticky ends in ever inventive ways. Particular gems are the discovery of the bodies of people who disagreed with him burnt and clinging to trees, having been struck by heavenly thunderbolts. Or indeed, the infected tongue of another opponent, filled with putrefying worms, who is made to vomit for a week, before being permitted to die. Malachy was apparently a man not to be spoken ill of. Or rather, what he ‘stood for’ was something not to be trifled with.


Mellifont, Co. Louth (Image: Nigel Judson / Flickr / CC licence)

The Last Days of Something or Other

What we see in the life of Malachy and such insular records that survive is, in some ways, the symbolic nouissimis diebus of insular Irish Christianity; not as an institutional entity of course, but in terms of insular ecclesiastical identity and expression. The twelfth century reform and Europeanisation of the Irish church had been ongoing throughout the decades beforehand; and resulted in organisational changes, boundaries and practices, many of which are still with us today. The diocese and parish structures codified and laid down during the great synods (Ráth Breasail, Kells-Mellifont, Cashel) remain remarkably intact also; providing us with crucial indicators of late medieval dynastic boundaries and smaller local political units. But it is perhaps the architectural expression of such reforms that is most visible in the landscape today.

Upon This Rock…

Much of the stone ecclesiastical architecture at major church sites all over the country dates from during, or after, the period. Stone had of course been utilised for ecclesiastical expression for centuries prior to this; but had mostly been in the form of cross slabs, bullauns, leachts, high crosses etc. Stone churches start to get mentioned in annals from the late eight century onwards, with an increasing frequency in the ninth/tenth centuries; and construction/references from about the 1050s AD seem to be the end products of a long insular conservative tradition in wood. The sweeping increase in size and decoration of what can still be seen at the likes of Clonmacnoise, Glendalough, Cashel, Monasterboice, Mellifont etc are products of the Romanesque or later. Equally, surviving examples of the iconic Irish Round Tower are thought to date to more or less the same period; and are in themselves insular monumental expressions influenced by Europe.

Petras Romanus: Everybody Must Get Stone…

So if there are any ‘prophecies’ of nouissimis diebus to be shoe-horned/associated with the figure and symbol of Malachy, it could perhaps be the hagiographical portrayal of elements of the above (albeit over-simplified and greatly exaggerated) conveniently contained within Bernard’s writings (with which, I will leave you):

It seemed good to Malachy that a stone oratory should be erected at Bangor like those which he had seen constructed in other regions. And when he began to lay the foundations the natives wondered, because in that land no such buildings were yet to be found. But that worthless fellow, presumptuous and arrogant as he was, not only wondered but was indignant. And from that indignation he conceived grief and brought forth iniquity. And he became a talebearer among the peoples, now disparaging secretly, now speaking evil openly; drawing attention to Malachy’s frivolity, shuddering at the novelty, exaggerating the expense. With such poisonous words as these he was urging and inducing many to put a stop to it…

“Good sir, why have you thought good to introduce this novelty into our regions? We are Scots, not Gauls. What is this frivolity? What need was there for a work so superfluous, so proud? Where will you, a poor and needy man, find the means to finish it? Who will see it finished? What sort of presumption is this, to begin, I say not what you cannot finish, but what you cannot even see finished? Though indeed it is the act of a maniac rather than of a presumptuous man to attempt what is beyond his measure, what exceeds his strength, what baffles his abilities. Cease, cease, desist from this madness. If not, we shall not permit it, we shall not tolerate it.”

And to him the holy man spoke quite freely: “Wretched man, the work which you see begun, and on which you look askance, shall undoubtedly be finished: many shall see it finished. But you, because you do not wish it, will not see it and that which you wish not shall be yours—to die: take heed that you do not die in your sins.” So it happened: he died, and the work was finished; but he saw it not, for, as we have said already, he died the same year.

St. Bernard of Clairvaux’s Life of St. Malachy of Armagh (61-62: 109-112)



Africa, D.C. (1985) ‘St. Malachy the Irishman: Kinship, Clan, and Reform’, Proceedings of the Harvard Celtic Colloquium Vol. 5, 103-127

Corlett, C. (1998) ‘Interpretation of Round Towers: Public Appeal or Professional Opinion?’, Archaeology Ireland , Vol. 12, No. 2, 24-27.

Holland, M. (2005) ‘Malachy (Máel-Máedóic)’, in Duffy, Seán (ed.)Medieval Ireland: An Encyclopedia. Routledge..

Leclercq, J. (1959) ‘Documents on the Cult of St. Malachy’, Seanchas Ardmhacha: Journal of the Armagh Diocesan Historical Society, Vol. 3, 318-332

McDonnell, H. (1994) ‘Margaret Stokes and the Irish Round Tower: A Reappraisal’, Ulster Journal of Archaeology Vol. 57, 70-80.

Ó. Carragáin, T (2005) ‘Habitual Masonry Styles and the Local Organisation of Church Building in Early Medieval Ireland’, Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy Vol. 105C, No. 3, 99-149.

O’Dwyer, B.W (1978) ‘St Bernard as an Historian: The ‘Life of St Malachy of Armagh’, Journal of Religious History 10, 128–141.

Ó Riain, P. (2011) A Dictionary of Irish Saints. Four Courts Press; Dublin.

One thought on “Nouissimis Diebus: St. Malachy the Irishman and the Last Days of Something or Other

  1. Pingback: Dublin Set To Gain Primacy of All Ireland Following Brexit | vox hiberionacum

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