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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On Your Own, With No Direction Home: (St) Patrick’s Journey Across Ireland

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Image: Emmet Ó hInnéirghe (Used with Permission)

Introduction

It’s Thursday. It’s March 17th. If you’re a regular, you know what that means. To celebrate the day that’s in it and in keeping with time-honoured blog tradition, I hereby present my annual Patrician-themed rambling extravaganza – a forensic examination of a lesser spotted feature within the writings of the historical Patrick himself. This year, I thought I’d take a look at what appears to be a fleeting throwaway line from the Confessio concerning Patrick’s escape from captivity and subsequent two hundred mile journey across Ireland to an unknown port.

I have actually touched on it before, ever so slightly. Previously, I wrote a short audio book for Abarta Heritage on Patrick’s six years in captivity; and towards the end of the section dealing with the young Patrick’s decision to make a break for freedom, I concluded with the following line:

If there was one thing that Patrick would have known after six years under Irish skies – it was the direction home. Towards the rising sun.

Aside the fact that it reads like an over-dramatic hollywood-esque voice-over (it sounds much better in the book, honestly!), its both over-exaggerated and simplified. For one thing, the sun doesn’t rise or set directly east/west, except for the equinoxes. In Patrick’s time as a slave in western Ireland on the shores of Killala Bay, it actually would have risen North East over the sea from his perspective during the summer months. Nevertheless, it was my little way of acknowledging a single line in the text of the Confessio and suggesting that there may be more than meets the eye to it.

The particular line centres on the youthful Patrick’s decision to leave his captor and head 200 miles across Ireland to a waiting ship/port – without knowing anybody or where he was going. Why is it important and worthy of examination? Well, I would suggest that it carries several implications. Celestial symbolism and biblical frameworks aside, Patrick did escape from captivity and he must have crossed Ireland somehow and I think a closer look hints at just how he may have done so. In addition, it opens up several other aspects:

a) its a further inference (other than his own words) to his youthful captivity being on the western Irish coast – something which continues to be questioned by certain sectors, despite modern Patrician scholarship being widely agreed on the matter

b) it forms a crucial event horizon (quite literally) in Patrick’s later theological framework and motivation for his mission

c) it potentially offers an indication of how he may have come to be there in the first place – as in, the manner in which he was transported to Ireland from Western Roman Britain.

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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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‘Traditional’ Irish Marriage(s) in Early Medieval Ireland

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Monasterboice High Cross & Round Tower (Image: Author)

Contrary to the impression often given by modern religious zealots who advocate a return to ‘traditional Irish values’ in matters of sexual and moral behavior, early Irish society was unequivocal in it’s recognition of, and support for, multiple marriage and divorce.
(Ó Cróinín, 1995, 127)
In the longest established of the western churches outside the Roman Empire and in a society in which Christian Latin culture flourished in a remarkable way, the norms of Christian marriage were not, paradoxically, accepted in society generally (we shall see later that there were exceptions) throughout the middle ages…
 …it is surely interesting that the Christian Irish lawyers, most of whom were clerics, should appear to consider marriage within a theoretical framework different from that of the contemporary church and should frame their practical rulings accordingly. 
(Ó Corráin, 1985, 5)

Following on from the last historical perspective on the unparallelled irony in modern religious opposition to the forthcoming Irish Marriage Equality Referendum, I have one final addendum, so to speak, stemming from an interesting claim on national radio by an honourable member of the above ( in conjunction with numerous others references within media to the ‘institution’ of marriage and ‘tradition’ ‘since time immemorial’):

Early Medieval Irish society was complex, fluid, dynamic and messy. We can see this in its archaeology and literature. We see it in the fragmentary extracts of early Irish law texts whose codification and survival is largely a result of early ecclesiastical interest and effort. In a highly stratified, unequal and patriarchal society, Early Irish Laws provide us not only with some of the socio-economic concerns that necessitated and demanded legal definition, but also the cognitive terms underpinning such subjects.

It’s use and choice of language provide us with glimpses in how they conceived and understood certain concepts, parameters, and classifications. Idealized legal notions of how things should work (Canon Law)  alongside more realistic expectations and provisions (Vernacular Law)  of how things actually did.

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St. Patrick and #MarriageEquality: A Modern Day Homily from the Fifth Century

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As a rule of thumb, I have always tried to steer clear of contemporary politics on this blog. I generally have little to add and no real desire to do so. Recent commentary however, along with ludicrous posters, attempted obfuscation, deliberate misinformation and outright attempts at scaremongering on the forthcoming Irish Marriage Equality Referendum by minority fringe groups, pseudo-academic research bodies and pretend charities doubling as lobby groups, have compelled me, along with others it seems, to make an exception. In doing so, I take a certain measure of consolation in the fact that I am not really engaging in petty political rhetoric. Marriage Equality for same sex couples is a human and civil rights issue, transcending mere politics.

While I am quietly confident that the proposed referendum question will be passed, there nevertheless remains the rather unpleasant business of having to put up with thinly veiled prejudice masquerading as opposing opinion from certain people who claim to be compassionate Christians. Amid the stifling stench of sanctimonious self-entitlement and the ever increasing magnus opus gei rhetoric emanating from oratorial orifices in recent days, it has become abundantly clear – that my country needs me. I hereby give notice that I am returning the favour and thus commend unto you the following historical perspective towards the issues of the day.

The earliest historical evidence for Christianity in this island (the writings of St. Patrick) contain some very interesting parallels to current events. Before he was ever elevated to patron saint and symbol of All-Ireland religious orthodoxy & authority, the Historical Patrick was someone with real Christian empathy and concern. He was someone who championed and defended Irish people who were being denied recognition and equality – by other Christians. He was someone who repeatedly suffered from religious stigma and prejudice attached to homosexuality. There were deliberate efforts – from fellow Christians – to harness contemporary cultural homophobia and force him into social and political exclusion. Last, but not least, he also happens to be the earliest historically attested person within Ireland to have engaged in ‘same sex’ child adoption.

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Patrick: Six Years A Slave

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Some time ago, I was kindly invited by Abarta Heritage to write a little something on the ‘Historical Patrick”. I jumped at the chance.

Abarta is the leading Irish company specializing in Irish digital audio guides, heritage interpretation and visitor service solutions to communities, cultural sites and institutions. It also happens to be owned and run by archaeologists. There’s something special about heritage material produced by people who have researched, excavated, visited, surveyed and physically held such subject matter in their own hands. It’s comes across in their approach and work. Detail and perspective. I’d like to think it might occasionally come across in mine.

The medium of audio is something which I have been interested in exploring for a while. I’m a podcast and radio fiend who inhales historical media. Abarta gave me the absolute freedom to do what I wanted. The brief was to come up with something engaging for people interested in learning more about the Historical Patrick – something which would explore the real life person underpinning his later saintly namesake.

We wanted to give an idea of his overall background within Ireland and Britain of the time, the landscape he would have witnessed and to give a flavour of what is known about the physical, social and cultural realities. We wanted to let his own story, his own words from his own hands, take centre stage whilst also retaining a wider academic framework informing the narrative. We wanted something which would reflect the rich details, issues and complexities involved in studying Patrick and his works alongside his importance and place in the development of later Irish identity and tradition.

The resulting audiobook, ‘Patrick; Six Years A Slave’, is available here.

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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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Saints in Scottish Place-Names

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Image: Internet Archive Book Images / “The archaeology and prehistoric annals of Scotland” (1851) / Flickr (Public Domain)

Christmas has come early here at Vox Hib HQ with the very welcome and long awaited launch of the Database of Scottish Hagiotoponyms, aka Saints in Scottish Place-Names

This website is the result of a project, ‘Commemorations of Saints in Scottish Place-Names’, funded by a Research Project Grant from The Leverhulme Trust (2010-13), and undertaken by staff in the University of Glasgow’s School of Humanities (Celtic & Gaelic, and HATII).
Professor Thomas Owen Clancy (Principal Investigator)
Dr Rachel Butter and Gilbert Márkus (Researchers) & Matthew Barr (Systems Developer)
The database that has been assembled presents the fruits of our research. It contains over 5000 places, 13,000 place-names, and some 750 saints potentially commemorated in these names.

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