Pagans and Paganism in the Writings of (St) Patrick [Part 2]

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Image: Author

…Continued from Part 1.

Welcome to Part 2 of an attempt to gauge how much, if anything, we can actually derive about authentic Irish paganism from within the fifth century writings of the Historical Patrick.  

The last time we left off, we had taken a look at some of the more (in)famous references to alleged pagan ritual within his texts; and how, when examined for biblical allusion and metaphor, it becomes readily apparent that the actions and events he depicts were firmly intended to be read and interpreted against a biblical background. As such, they cannot, and should not, be held up as being representative of any genuine elements of authentic Irish pagan ritual. However, there are further, lesser known, references to pagans in his writings, some of which have been utilized in the past to suggest a possible kernel of truth. And so, for the day that’s in it, lets take a deeper look.

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Pagans and Paganism in the Writings of (St) Patrick [Part 1]

A man in a goat mask, with hairy cloak holding a staff

Image: Billy Mag Fhloinn (Used with permission)

Introduction

The writings of the Historical Patrick are quite honestly remarkable.  As the earliest surviving documents known to have been written in Ireland, they represent the very start of recorded Irish History itself. As the only primary sources from either Ireland or Britain for the entirety of the fifth century AD, they contain the earliest historical articulation of a collective Irish Identity alongside a complex and fluid sense of Insular Romano-‘Britishiness’ and Imperial ‘Romanitas’.

Its not perhaps always appreciated, despite the obvious, that Patrick’s writings also represent the earliest – the only – contemporary historical source from a Christian actively engaging with Insular Irish Pagans in late prehistory. As someone who had spent several years as a slave in Ireland as a youth, and who then returned to evangelize as a missionary in later life, Patrick’s writings also represent a unique textual witness to the start of the end of Irish prehistory, and what I like to call: ‘honest to gods’ authentic Irish paganism.

Perhaps even more remarkable is that, unlike some other Christian sources, Patrick provides us with a profoundly respectful, and altogether realistic treatment of insular Irish pagans and their society. Patrick speaks of regularly going out of his way so as not to bring the new religion, or any of its practitioners, into disrepute among those pagans he was continually living and working alongside. He mentions paying over the odds to local judges to allow him access new territories in peace. He references entering into alliances with local pagan kings and the deliberate hiring of their sons as traveling bodyguards, for both physical (and perhaps more importantly, social) protection. As someone whose mission was perilously existing on the fringes of insular Irish society Patrick seems to have gone to great lengths in all his dealings with actual pagans, ever conscious of not offending them in any way, appearing to intrude on their territories, or causing them to react with hostility to his missionary activities. 

Over the years, some scholars have occasionally tuned their attention to this aspect of Patrick’s writings in order to seek out tidbits of information as to genuine pagan Irish beliefs and practices – all of them with varying levels of success. Some of this has even permeated into popular culture and consciousness and is occasionally regurgitated uncritically by modern authors, bloggers and journalists. Much of it, if not all, is complete and utter bullshit.

And so, for the day that’s in it, and in keeping with blog tradition, I thought I’d take a deep dive on the very same subject and ask the eternal question: How much, if anything, can we actually derive about authentic Irish paganism from the writings of the Historical Patrick?

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The Archaeology of Mammies

Sitting in a high chair in the kitchen as a raw infant. My mother trying to get me to focus so she could gently spoon some mashed potato into me. Trying to distract me by pointing up at a high shelf where the fancy crockery was. To a larger-than-life garishly-coloured monstrosity of a milk-jug in the shape of an Olde English Town Crier. White rolled wig. Big crooked nose. Mouth open wide and and in mid roar.

Maybe there was someone else there, or maybe she had the radio on – but for some reason she let out a large loud belly laugh, right in the middle of a mouthful. Startled and not knowing or expecting this, I thought it was coming from the Milk-Jug Monster and promptly burst into tears.

That was the end of the Milk Jug. Except its still at the back of the ‘good cabinet’.

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Scandalized Women in the Writings of St. Patrick

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Preface

A day late, but in keeping with time-honoured blog tradition, I nevertheless present my annual Patrician-themed rambling extravaganza – a deep forensic examination of lesser spotted aspects within the writings of the Historical Patrick. This year, I thought I’d take a look at one of the more neglected passages in his Confessio (Chapter 49) concerning women. Despite initial appearances and a lack of previous (male) scholarly attention over the years, Chapter 49 when fully appreciated, actually contains far more than meets the eye.

Before jumping in though, and for anyone approaching Patrick’s writings for the first time, there are a few things worth bearing in mind.

Patrick letters are a kind of open bulletin to multiple audiences and recipients. He was primarily writing for elite Christian audiences in Britain, but he sometimes changes focus within and addresses some of his Irish converts and supporters. Its helpful to be aware of whom he was addressing at any one time as certain themes or episodes would have made little sense to one or the other. His multiple audiences in Ireland and Britain, despite being under a shared umbrella of Christianity, knew little to nothing of each others daily cultural or political realities.

Patrick can be read via several layers of meaning. There are the actual words that he used; and there are the words/phrases within those words that are designed to hint or reference certain biblical passages that would resonate among an elite Christian audience. Throughout his writings, Patrick uses sub-textual references to reinforce his arguments, his sense of righteousness and sometimes, as an sub-qualifier or comment on his own text. A lot of the time, it is these biblical allusions, or expansions, which are key to understanding his underlying meaning.

With that, lets take a look at the matter at hand.

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St. Patrick: The Man From Nowhere

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St. Patrick’s Window, Tuam Cathedral. Image: Andreas Borchert (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Introduction

If there’s one aspect of the Historical Patrick that really gets certain people agitated, its the academic issue of his ‘episcopal’ status. St. Patrick is not only a national icon, saintly superhero and patron saint – he is also a figure of much personal devotion.  For many Irish people, he represents a very important tenant of the early reception of their faith and the very foundation of their national ecclesiastical identity. To this day, Irish church hierarchies still maintain that their religious authority and legitimacy stretches right back to his very personage. To question such a long and entrenched tradition naturally runs the risk of offending modern religious sensibilities. One doesn’t do so lightly.

Nevertheless, its remains important to. For several reasons.

Firstly, because we can. Not so very long ago, such an endevour would have been seen as utterly scandalous and I would probably have been denounced from an altar, hosed down with holy water and/or run out of the country, for even daring to.

Secondly, because we should. Academically separating the original historical Patrick from the later mythical ‘Saint’ Patrick serves to clarify the historical context and importance of both the man himself and the later literary culture, dynasties and ecclesiastical federations who championed and embellished his cult, whilst simultaneously preserving his actual writings. Ironically, their efforts now enable professional heretics such as myself the opportunity to work with such wonderful source material.

Thirdly, because we must. Over the next year or so, ahead of the papal visit in 2018, we will surely be treated to increased PR spin concerning the early history of Irish Christianity and Rome – from those who naturally have a vested interest in maintaining certain narratives. St. Patrick will have a starring role. Much of it will be badly written, poorly researched and historically inaccurate. Almost all of it will be a travesty of the Historical Patrick’s own words, theology, actions and experiences.

And so, for the day that’s in it, I thought I would take a forensic look at the evidence of the Historical Patrick’s own words concerning his own episcopal status.

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17 Things You (Probably) Didn’t Know About The Historical (St) Patrick

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St. Patrick’s Day is almost upon us again. To celebrate, here’s an flagrantly shameless click-baity 17 point listicle (I like to think of it as a ‘histicle’) on aspects of the historical (St) Patrick which are not widely known or usually discussed in modern media. His two surviving documents (and their respective manuscript versions) can be read in a variety of languages here.

1 – Recorded Irish History Starts With Patrick

Before being grossly inflated to within an inch of his hagiographical life by early medieval authors, the man we call ‘Patrick’ was an actual historical person. He lived sometime in the late 4th/early 5thC AD. Copies of two documents written by him survive. They are the earliest surviving texts known to have been written within Ireland. As such, recorded insular Irish ‘history’ (the study of the written word) starts with Patrick. There’s absolutely nothing earlier. Nor indeed, anything after him, for more than a century. The very fact that his writings managed to survive at all is pretty feckin’ amazing.

2 – Growing Up, Patrick Was A Spoiled Little Shit

St. Patrick didn’t call himself ‘Patrick’. Or ‘Saint’. He identified himself as ‘Patricius. His father was both a deacon and a type of Roman Town Councillor. His grandfather was a priest. His family’s villa estate had servants. In modern day parlance, Patrick was a spoiled little shit. With a maid. Despite the families ecclesiastical connections, he didn’t have a very religious upbringing at all. He says himself that he didn’t pay much attention to priests in general. Too busy gallivanting and drinking Frappuccinos probably. There’s a good chance his father only took on the role of ecclesiastical deacon in order to help mitigate the families imperial tax liabilities. ‘Tax avoidance, your honour. Not evasion. That money was just resting in my account’.

3 –  Rude Britannia

Many people, past and present, have laid several modern nationalist claims on Patrick’s ethnicity; despite the fact that Patrick clearly identified himself and his family as being Britons from the island of Britain. This means he would have considered himself British (in the late antiquity sense of the word). His native language would have been Brythonic. Despite this language being the precursor of Welsh, he would not have considered himself as such. He couldn’t have. A coherent welsh identity didn’t yet exist.  They still had all their own vowels for fecks sake. His (unidentified) home town was, in all likelihood, somewhere in North West Britain, not far from the Hadrians Wall frontier zone. Despite living near the (modern day) Scottish border, he did not identify with the inhabitants there either. In fact, he expresses a particular hatred for the insular peoples of Scotland, i.e. ‘The Picts’, essentially calling them worthless, unworthy, blood thirsty, evil thieving bastards. Seriously. He couldn’t stand them blue arsed pagan feckers.

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Brexit Stage Left: The Historical Patrick, ‘Britishness’ and Imperial Romanitas

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Image: William Warby / Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

I recently had the pleasure of reading an interesting article by Andrew Gardner which has just been published in the  Journal of Social Archaeology, entitled: Brexit, boundaries and imperial identities: A comparative view’ (January 17, 2017). The paper set out to explore the dynamics of imperial identity formation, both past and recent present, via the background of Brexit, Border Studies and frontier frameworks. In doing so, it draws upon several chronological examples, the most interesting to me of course being that of Insular Britain in the 4th and 5th centuries AD.

I have always been particularly interested in the creation, interplay and maintenance of multiple identities in the North Western Frontier Zone of Britain, South West Scotland and the Irish Sea during the same period – especially given the areas importance when it comes to Early Insular Christianity. Sites such as at Kirkmadrine, Whithorn, Maryport, Kirkliston et al, provide fleeting evidence for an early western regional Christian activity, commemoration and identity expression, not to mention the placing and effect of Hadrians Wall on peoples on both sides.

Indeed it is from this same area that the Historical Patrick  most likely hailed from, and within whose writings we can find a complex articulation and cognition of multiple religious and cultural identities – Irish, British, Pictish and Roman. Gardner’s interest in exploring the role and impact of ‘peripheral’ locations in the articulation, maintenance and transformation of larger imperial ‘core’ identities  is well placed and the  wider region’s geographic, political, economic and social interfaces in the 4th and 5th centuries provide an ideal vehicle for doing so.

Of course, we do not need to look very hard in the modern world to see that distinct cultural, religious and ethnic polities which border one another often result in a more visible and articulate ‘peripheral’ self expression/cognition of ‘core’ identity. Having a clearly defined and regular ‘other’ in plain sight provides ample social and political opportunities to develop cognitive and cultural distinctions of ‘Them’ and ‘Us’. And it was, naturally, no different in the past. The writings of the Historical Patrick provide a rare, but valuable, window on the same.

Imagine my surprise then, to find two rather strange, almost throwaway statements by Gardner (albeit referencing others) on the very subject of the Historical Patrick’s own sense of identity – namely, that “he appears to have abandoned the idea of being Roman’ and that “he did not associate his religious identity with ‘Romaness'”.

I quote both below, in context (with my bold for emphasis).  Although I suspect the second example may not have been intended by the author as a direct reference to Patrick, I include it for clarity anyway – mainly due to it echoing the original statement and also the fact that Gardiner references the same author’s book in both cases.

More clearly, there is actually evidence for the continuation of both ‘British’ and ‘tribal’ identities after the end of Roman administration in the early 5th century, particularly from some of the small number of insular written sources, such as inscribed stones (White, 2007: 154–176, 202–207), and the 5th/6th century writings of Patrick and Gildas. It is especially notable that both of these authors appear to have abandoned the idea of being Roman (even though they write in Latin), but do identify as Britons (Higham, 2002: 39–73; Jones, 1996: 121–130).

Gardner (2017), Brexit, boundaries and imperial identities

Whether such patterns fully provided the resources for a ‘British’, as opposed to regional, identity is difficult to judge, partly because few artefact types survive the economic changes following on from Roman administrative withdrawal, and partly because our later ‘British’ written sources do not clearly articulate this identity in material terms, but rather in terms of Christianity vis-à-vis the pagan Saxons, and indeed the role of the church in social relations at this time is probably very significant (Higham, 2002: 59–72). However, it is ironic – but quite telling – that these Christian writers do not associate their religious identity with ‘Romanness’.

Gardner (2017), Brexit, boundaries and imperial identities

While this is no doubt true of the likes of Gildas, such a statement concerning the Historical Patrick would not, in this decade, find much support among anyone with a passing familiarity with his two surviving 5th Century documents. In fact, not only  can such a view be shown to clash considerably with Patrick’s own words, in-text allusions and inferences; it fundamentally misunderstands the very motivation behind Patrick’s lesser known document, the Epistola, or ‘Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus’ – a document  which, while promoting a somewhat idealized Christian version of Insular British Romanitas, nevertheless rests on Patrick’s own sense of his privileged background, status and entitlement as an Imperial Roman citizen.

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Winter Solstice In Ireland, They Said…

 

Be Grand, They Said…

 

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Image: Annie West

 

Made for me this very day, by the wonderful and illuminating Annie West who specializes in Historical Irish Funnies.  I have it on good authority that in a previous life, she was responsible for all those feckin cats in the Book of Kells.

Happy Solstice.

A Tomb With A View: Further Archaeo Adventures in Folk Horror 

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Image: Author

Our arms are waving our lips are apart;
And if any gaze on our rushing band,
We come between him and the deed of his hand,
We come between him and the hope of his heart.
W. B. Yeats, The Hosting of the Sidhe

* * *

Following on from last years folk horror flavoured adventure on the Slopes of Rathcroghan, I thought I’d take the opportunity of the weekend that’s in it to present you with another. The time: a few years ago. The place: an apparently nondescript rural graveyard somewhere in Middle Ireland. The unwitting (mis)adventurer: yours truly.

* * *

It was the first day of a week of archaeo-field survey and I was supposed to be in the far west of Ireland following in the footsteps of a seventh century bishop, seeking out some of the earliest historically attested Christian sites associated with the cult of St. Patrick. Yet, here I was, walking down a grass rutted country lane, searching for a gate that led toward a half-forgotten graveyard. The location wasn’t even on my official list of sites to visit, but I had been nearby and decided to stop off for a quick poke around. During a previous desktop survey, I had noted several interesting archaeo aspects about the place:

  • A late medieval church ruin
  • A much earlier medieval looking curvilinear shaped graveyard
  • A couple of suspiciously prehistoric looking standing stones in hinterlands
  • An abandoned holy well – and most of all –
  • A strange looking natural feature on a nearby drumlin that my eyes had been drawn to whilst looking at aerial photography.

Truth be told, it was actually a combination of all the above occurring within a placename containing the Old Irish word túaim; i.e. ‘a mound, bank, knap, tump, or hillock’, but more frequently, in placename terms, ‘a mound, tomb, grave or sepulchre‘ (in the sense of Latin tumulus).

This alone would have made anyone’s archaeological antennae stand up on end. But what really sealed the deal for me was the small matter of there being no record whatsoever of anything resembling a prehistoric mound or tomb in the vicinity.

Coupled with that, somewhere in this particular area, my seventh century bishop had made reference to an early church site. Alas, the full (Hiberno-Latin) placename is now illegible in the only surviving manuscript and as a result has never been identified with any certainty. Later medieval vernacular sources do include an Irish placename for the same area however, also unidentified, yet containing a similar letter or two with that of the first example. More importantly, the Irish placename is qualified by the word Sídh.

(Image: Author)

In onomastic terms this descriptor is generally associated with Sídh Mounds, aka Fairy Mounds. Denuded prehistoric tombs, cairns, mounds or tumuli, often situated on lumps, bumps and hills – many of which were later re-imagined and depicted in Irish myth and folklore as being the underground homes of supernatural beings or fairies known as the Áes Síde.

To have all this whirling around together in one place in an almost perfect archaeological, historical, onomastic storm? To be faced with the prospect of a forgotten prehistoric Tumulus, Síde Mound, or Ferta adjacent an early medieval church site? Perhaps even, the very reason for its initial establishment, reflecting Early Irish Christian agency, engagement and renegotiation with an ancestral past? How could anyone resist?

Long story short, that is how I came to be walking down a lane in the nowhere middle of Middle Ireland. On the off chance of catching a whispered echo of long silenced folk memory. Trespassing across time and space. Waking the dead. Looking for the ghost of a grave in an already ancient graveyard. A ‘túaim’ with a view.

What could possibly go wrong?

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