Old Books and Old Wine: Armagh and the Comarba Patrick


Old times, old manners, old books, old wine…. ‘The Armagh’ – Image: Jonathan Caves / Flickr / (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

A fascinating historical tidbit of early medieval myth and ritual in the news today concerning the (long-expected) retirement of the current Archbishop of Armagh and the official appointment of his successor.

‘Archbishop Eamon Martin… today becomes Archbishop of Armagh, Primate of All Ireland and Coarb Phadraic.’

Remarks by Cardinal Seán Brady

For those unfamiliar with the historical and modern ecclesiastical landscape of Ireland, the holder of the office of the Armagh archbishopric is considered the ecclesiastical head of the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland. An archiepiscopacy since the twelfth century church reform, it replaced an older insular system where the abbots, or leaders, of the Armagh church were long considered the coarbae (‘heir/successor’) of St. Patrick and the de facto leaders of the medieval Irish church – a status and authority which can be traced back to the seventh century AD.

When originally advancing claims of all island primacy in the early medieval period, the Armagh authorities went to great lengths to create for themselves a pseudo-historical narrative which portrayed their church as that founded by Patrick himself. There is, of course, no historical basis for this whatsoever. The historical Patrick’s own surviving documents make no mention of any such matters, nor indeed do they suggest that he was active in that part of Ireland.

Ironically, it was their curation, adaptation and transmission of his very words (or non-words)  – utilized to bolster its claims for primacy – which helped to preserve our earliest surviving copy of his text. The Book of Armagh, originally a private devotional book of an abbot of Armagh and containing the earliest ‘Patrician Dossier’ – eventually became one of the very insignias of the medieval office of Comarba Patraic: the Successor of Patrick. i.e. Armagh.

That ancient title remains vitally important for continued legitimacy – something which the church claims to this day – with the incumbent being considered ‘the 116th Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland in succession to Saint Patrick’. While the claim itself has a venerable tradition going back thirteen hundred years,  it is just that – a claim. Nevertheless, I find it fascinating that we can still see early medieval political and ecclesiastical machinations in action in the modern world.


Book of Armagh, Folio 14 (Image: Wiki Commons/ PD)

What particularly struck me was the new Archbishops reference to another medieval Irish text – although not in the manner he probably intended:

‘I feel humbled to be following in the footsteps of St Patrick, and like him, I pray for ‘God’s strength to pilot me, God’s wisdom to guide me, God’s shield to protect me’.

Remarks by Archbishop Eamon Martin

Not only do we see the ongoing reinforcement of a pseudo-historical concept of an unbroken chain of legitimacy going back to Patrick, but also the small matter of alluding to his own words (‘like him’) through the use quotation marks in the official press release. The quoted text will no doubt be familiar to some as those taken from the ‘Lorica of St. Patrick’… aka ‘St. Patricks Breastplate’… a well-known hymn in many churches. But they are not those of the historical Patrick.

The modern hymn/poem/prayer was only translated and printed in the 19th century and originally comes from the 11th century Lyber Hymnorum – a collection of hymns in Old Irish and Latin, with the former viewed as being of eight century in origin. As such, like the claim of primacy itself, it has no firm association or connection to the historical Patrick, nor does it even rival the antiquity of Armagh’s original claim – which is at least a century older than its composition.

Considering the debt of gratitude we owe to the sapiens or wise men of the medieval Irish Church (and Armagh in particular) for preserving much of our earliest historical texts – it is surprising that the modern equivalent do not seem to have the same interest or expertise on hand. Surely if one intends to propagate a pseudo-historical claim upon which ones singular authority is based,  one could at least select textual material which is historically possible (i.e the original Patrician texts), if not chronologically correct, in order to do so. Despite having ample words from the historical Patrick available, it seems the modern successor to that medieval office would rather use material dating from centuries afterwards.

All in all, it demonstrates a very interesting echo from early medieval Ireland – one which is still reverberating today. The church founded in his name was, and is, a church founded on a medieval metaphor – the mythical and legendary figure of ‘Saint’ Patrick – continually (re)created and reworked by Armagh and others from the seventh century onwards. Although ancient, noble and of extreme historical importance, it is nevertheless a product of its time and place. The historical Patrick, hidden underneath the layers of later ecclesiastical politics and propaganda, has little to do with any of the above.

Of course, for the vast majority of modern-day believers who are even remotely interested – such a thing does not, and probably should not, matter at all. And yet, I can’t help noting the historical serendipity involved in the whole enterprise. The obscuring of a real personage (via medieval myth and legend) and the resulting modern championing of the same which makes no historical sense – precisely because of the survival and modern textual criticism of the original effort.

+ + +


Bernard, J. H., & R. Atkinson (ed. &tr.) (1898) The Irish Liber Hymnorum, [2 vols], Henry Bradshaw Society 13/14, London: Henry Bradshaw Society.

Bhreathnach, B. (2006) ‘In Retrospect: Introduction to George Pétrie’s On the History and Antiquities of Tara Hill’, Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy 106C, 409-416.

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

O Lochlainn, C. (1961) Lúireach Phádraic: St. Patrick’s Breastplate, Irish Quarterly Review, Vol. 50, No. 197, 1-4.

Sharpe, R. (1982) ‘Palaeographical Considerations in the Study of the Patrician Documents in the Book of Armagh’, Scriptorium 36, 3–28.

8 thoughts on “Old Books and Old Wine: Armagh and the Comarba Patrick

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  2. More than once it occurred to me that the very creative ghost of Patrick is invoked, not to fill a void, but to literally overwrite something unwanted. And as you pointed out, the association with the saint to a place lends a greater weight to it, ensuring at the same time the ‘right’ circumstances of its importance. The clergy has been too comfortable for too long with their creations and any changes in their attitude are not likely to surface in the foreseeable future. What is more difficult to swallow is that some historians and academics still insist on 9th century ( and later) fabrications of Patrick having been at a certain place, performing a baptism or miracle, founding a church, despite no proof and no account of it in the oldest available version of his life at all.


    • Well…if anyone nowadays is somehow still ascribing 9thC+ evidence as earlier proof, it is nothing more than what was going on in the 7thC, when all such material was being ‘collated’. Thing is: I’d almost settle for a modern day effort at same, particularly modern ecclesiastics – if they even knew of/stuck to actual 9thc sources… 😉

      I think you’re right about ‘unwanted’, but perhaps not in the way you may envisage. The more I look at early hagiography, the more I see a ‘an inconvenient truth’ being whitewashed. Not the usual arguments of stuff ‘before’ Patrick, but stuff being found ‘after’ he was being championed. Either way, it remains somewhat ironic that modern scholarship knows of such things thanks to the conservative nature of 9thC Armagh scribes – something 20th/21st C equivalents know little or nothing of. Go figure.


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