Scandalized Women in the Writings of St. Patrick

Image: Author

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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Navigatio Hiberionacum: A Modern Day Immram in Ireland

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I have taken my little talent – a boy’s paddle-boat, as it were – out on this deep and perilous sea of sacred narrative, where waves boldly swell to towering heights among rocky reefs in unknown waters, (a sea) on which so far no boat has ventured…

Muirchú, Prologus, Life of Patrick, (7thC)

There’s something deliciously ‘early medieval’ about rowing wooden boats. No matter how much modern gear you happen to pack inside, there’s nothing ‘modern’ about the act of rowing itself. Of propelling a craft through the water by sheer power of human strength alone. Of pushing backwards from your legs a sweeping oar and seeing it catch and glide through the water, feeling a little surge forward in tandem with the others. Of riding into and cresting waves on the open sea. Of slinking through flat rivers. Of sitting in the bow, bobbing up and down, face forward to the horizon with hands on each side, feeling the wood hum and vibrate.

Wooden boats are most alive when they are moving. No really. You can hear them breathing, whalelike, an excited gurgling sound underneath, like a cistern, as water bubbles flow down the hull in transit. You can literally feel its synchronized heartbeat between the reach and return of the oars twisting and sliding between two thole pins – hard and soft wooden arteries – producing a dull ‘thud-dum’, ‘thud-dum’, ‘thud-dum’. A leathery wooden pulse pumping through the boat. The work of human hands.

It can, at times, get strangely hypnotic. Especially when on the board chatter had died down and people have settled into a good rhythm. The cox has little need to correct or instruct and the only thing left – is the open sea, the repetitive wooden heartbeat and ones own thoughts. My archaeo-imagination being what it is, I am usually transported back in time, to early medieval Ireland – not that hard when one is traversing the eastern Irish coastline in a clinker built craft, passing entire counties and landmarks once viewed in the same manner by seafarers from the north and still enshrined – despite anglicization – with Old Norse placenames.

Or perhaps, even further back, to Sixth and Seventh Century Ireland, when little boats and big seas occupied Early Christian literary imaginations as well as daily realities. Immrama. Navigatio. Peregrinatio. Exiles for God, adrift in the sea, seeking a retreat from the world. Romantic figures like Columba. Adómnan. Brendan. Island hermitages like Iona. Lindisfarne. Inishbofin.

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‘On Eagles Wings’ – Croagh Patrick: The Mount Sinai of Early Medieval Ireland

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“The people cannot come up Mount Sinai, because you yourself warned us, ‘Put limits around the mountain and set it apart as holy.'”
Exodus 19:23

Preface

Sometime during the seventh decade of the seventh century AD (c.670s) an Irishman approached the mountain in modern day Co. Mayo known as Croagh Patrick. He was an ecclesiastical academic type, something of a ‘a wise man’ or ‘sapiens’ in the early Irish Christian tradition.  Although he had been fostered and trained in a monastery in Co. Meath, on the east coast of Ireland, he was in fact, a local – originally hailing from the north coast of modern day County Mayo, around the western shore of Kilalla Bay.

It was probably not his first time seeing the mountain. He would surely have heard stories about it in his earlier youth; maybe caught glimpses of it at times and certainly would have been aware of its imposing presence in the landscape. Indeed, almost as soon as he crossed the River Shannon, traveling from Leinster, he would have caught sight of it several times in the distance.

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The man probably traveled out along the lowland plain of modern day Murrisk, between the mountain and the southern shore of Clew bay, along the same route that the modern day road takes today. He would have passed an early church site at Umhall, now known as Cloonpatrick graveyard at Oughaval. He would have passed a few standing stones and the remains of prehistoric stone alignments on his way. He would passed the future site of Murrisk Abbey, then just a coastal bluff sticking out into the sea. He would have passed the future site of the modern day car park at the foot of ‘the Reek’ as it is now called. And he would have kept on going.

He was looking for something in the landscape. Something conspicuously imposing and already ancient. A few miles up the road, at a point where the highest stream from the mountain summit flows down into Clew Bay – linking the summit and the foot of the mountain – he apparently found what he was looking for. A late prehistoric stone cairn or ring barrow mound – part of, or adjacent, an older communal burial place still in use – reflecting an even older dynastic, or territorial boundary.

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Saints & Scholars: Tweeting Saints in Medieval Irish Martyrologies

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Image: Author

The Irish martyrologies are an incredibly important historical source – textual witnesses to many things: Saints cults, both famous and obscure, both female and male; individual church sites, ecclesiastical foundations, hermitages, and any number of halfway houses in between; personal names; place names; regional names; dynastic names. They provides several stratified snapshots of a competing and free flowing ecclesiastical landscape of loyalties, allegiances, bias, memory and commemoration. A measure of importance for those communities and dynasties doing the ‘celebrating’, as much as those being ‘celebrated’.

For those who may not be aware, Dr. Elva Johnston, one of the foremost authorities on Early Medieval Ireland and Early Irish Christianity, has been tweeting daily Saints from Early Irish Martyrologies for some months now. Essentially, the Martyrology of Óengus (Félire Óengusso) and the Martyrology of Gorman. She has also been storyifing them for posterity.

Aside from having a handy reference of feast days, the whole enterprise is a wonderful 21st Century experimental clone of Early Medieval Irish Scribal activity. Ironically, the medium of Twitter lends itself naturally to what monks and scribes were essentially doing within manuscripts over a thousand years ago i.e. small notes, highlights, marginalia glosses, annal entries, short commentaries…

Every day, Dr. Johnston tweets the relevant feast day/saint(s) included in the Martyrologies, and often other experts and scholars chime in with short notes, etymological elements and/or historical tidbits. If you have ever wanted to know what it may have felt to be a medieval scribe, or a student gazing over their shoulder as they wrote, this is the perfect opportunity to follow along. In real time. Day by day. Month by month.

Basically, putting the original #MedievalTwitter into… ehh… #MedievalTwitter.

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Never Mind the Bullocks: There’s Something About St. Brigit

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Image: amandabhslater / photo on flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Another year, another February 1st. Another Imbolc, another St. Brigit’s Day. Another chance to revel in the avalanche of online ‘Celtic’ codswallop and pagan goddess gobbledygook. Such misunderstood musings are well-intentioned, harmless, and if truth be told, not a bad way at all to view the world. An idealized version of the distant past seen through an attractive prism of feminine attributes, influence and power. One could definitely do worse.

Of course, historically speaking, such views do not have a leg to stand on, let alone a sunbeam to hang a cloak off. There is even a certain irony in the fact that successive generations, in seeking to adopt, (re)create and promote a symbolic saintly/pagan figure of pseudo-history, have actually helped to obscure some of the very real and historically important attributes of the same.

It’s not so much that Brigit occupies an incredibly early position within Irish history and Early Irish Christianity itself; it is the fact that she represents the earliest surviving insular Irish hagiography, period. Almost a generation before Patrician hagiographers were sharpening their quills, a saintly Brigit was already being utilized for nothing less than all Ireland ecclesiastical primacy.

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Star Wars: Archaeology of the Jedi

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Image: Abarta Audioguides / Copyright (Used with permission)

*Warning* Although there is no major plot spoilers included, there is some discussion of the characters and location of a particular scene in Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens. If you have not seen the film and are sensitive towards knowing anything more about it, feel free to take the hint.

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Long term readers will surely be aware of my ongoing interest in the use of Skellig Michael as a location for Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens. Having now watched it twice since it opened (very enjoyable, back to old form, fan pleasing etc) I would like to record some initial thoughts on the cinematic depiction of the island, including to my mind, some echos of early Irish Christian iconography as well as the use of actual medieval archaeology to portray the fictional archaeology of the Jedi. In a small way, it is an attempt to direct attention for anyone interested towards what they were actually seeing on the screen. After all, its not everyday that millions of people around the world are exposed to a little bit of Early Medieval Ireland.

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An Archaeology of Star Wars: A Long Time Ago On An Island Far Far Away

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View from Skellig Michael – Image: regienbb / flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Rumours abound that this Thanksgiving weekend in the States will see the release of the first teaser trailer/preview of the new Star Wars (7) film – scenes for which were shot on the early medieval monastic island of Skellig Michael, Co. Kerry. In anticipation, here’s a little something on the early history and archaeology of Skellig Michael itself – and why its perhaps appropriate that ‘an unearthly corner of planet earth, left behind on an island far, far away’ continues to be (re)used as the setting for a re-booted mythical blockbuster. Or something.

What better place to depict an ancient, mystical, martial asceticism in a galaxy far, far away than an actual ancient, eremitic, settlement dripping with stone-cold monastic austerity, located at what was for centuries the very ends of the earth, seven miles off the very tip of a western Irish peninsula?

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Old Books and Old Wine: Armagh and the Comarba Patrick

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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.

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All Quiet on the Western Front: An Archaeology of Inishark, Co. Galway

Afer a few days on a deserted western Island, it usually goes a bit wickerman...

Skull of one of the only indigenous islanders left: sheep (Image: Author)

I’m just back from two weeks excavations on the deserted island of Inishark, Co. Galway, situated just west of Inishbofin – one of the most westerly outposts of Ireland. Next parish: Newfoundland.  Since 2010 I have been privileged to be a team member of an annual archaeological and historical survey of the island as part of the Cultural landscapes of the Irish Coast Project (CLIC) led by Professor Ian Kuijt, Note Dame University. This years archaeological excavations were directed by Franc Myles, one of the most experienced (and funniest) field archaeologists in Ireland.

Inishark (Inís Airc) was once home to several hundred people at the height of its settlement during the 19th and early 20th century – which had sadly dwindled to just 24 islanders when it was finally evacuated on the 20th October 1960. Like many other islands, the famine and successive bouts of economic depression, poverty and emigration took its toll on the native population. It never had electricity, modern communication or running water and unlike many others, was completely isolated for weeks on end during bad weather and winds.

Despite the hardy nature of the islanders themselves – some of the best boat people in the country (they had to be – nine miles out in the North Atlantic Ocean) – their basic living conditions and lack of emergency medical attention were such that they were eventually resettled on the mainland. Their story, and that of the island is perhaps best known to Irish audiences from the fantastic TG4 documentary from a few years back –  Inis Airc: Bás Oileáin – (Inishark: Death of an Island).

Today, 50+ years after evacuation, the entire island is a relict landscape of a once vibrant community – now abandoned and ever so slowly being reclaimed by the earth. Field walls and stone houses stand in various states of dereliction; the lumps and bumps of lazy beds, turf racks and kelp kilns bear silent witness to the islanders self-sufficiency. Stones peeking out of the earth tell tales of eking a living from the earth. A frozen landscape, fossilized in time and space – slowly sinking beneath the weight of its own sad echos and the ever-present natural erosion from the merciless Atlantic Ocean.

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