British History, 407-597, by Fabio P. Barbieri

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Appendix 5: Saint Patrick and the Isle of Man

Fabio P. Barbieri

It can be demonstrated that, about 580, St.Patrick was perceived in some quarters as primarily the patron saint of the Dal Fiatach.

One of the longest of his miracle stories in Muirchu is that of Macuil Maccugreccae, a tyrant and blasphemer who tried to put Patrick's thaumaturgical powers to the test by bringing him a supposedly dead man who was actually very much alive.  Patrick, like God, is not fooled: when they bring the man before him, they find he is in fact quite dead.  Horrified by the miracle, the tyrant's men, and then the tyrant himself, submit.  Patrick orders Macuil, as a penance, to place himself unarmed on the smallest possible coracle, with only one item of the cheapest possible clothing and no food, wearing "the sign of his sin" on his forehead, and sail with no oars or rudder until wind and sea take him to shore.  The dead man is then resurrected.  Macuil does what he is told, and ends up on the isle of Man, where he meets two British bishops called Conindrus and Rumilus, who had been evangelizing the Manx people.  They eventually make him a bishop, and he becomes the first bishop of Man.

The story makes it clear that it is not Patrick who teaches Macuil Christianity or baptizes him, let alone makes him a bishop; it is the two British churchmen.  But Macuil's whole life is conditioned and directed by his sin towards Patrick, which may even have been seen as the unforgivable sin, sin against the Spirit.  Because he has put the man of God to the test, he is exiled in the most humbling circumstances possible, going through at least the fear of death, and perhaps through something like a ritual death.  His crossing of the ocean has something to do with Baptism, beginning a new life after a man had effectively died in his place, as a punishment for his own evil.  (The story is quite clear that, though Patrick had resurrected his servant, the latter's death had been very real.)  But it is not Baptism; it is the British bishops who grant him that.

What does this mean?  It means that the ecclesial group who claimed Patrick as their representative and founder, lay a claim on the first bishop of the Isle of Man that was in some way seen as earlier and deeper even than Baptism.  The legend put the first bishop of Man in a relationship of absolute dependency on Patrick - with his feet bound, no food and hardly any clothing, no rudder or oars - and compelled by his guilt.  Maccuil's journey to man was determined by his sin towards Patrick; that is, everything that happened to him afterwards, up to and including his final elevation to the high honour of Bishop, was the result of Patrick's orders to him.  Patrick is even more fundamental to his future episcopal see than are those who actually consecrated him; and as in any sort of legend the status of the founder of any entity - town, kingdom, institution, church - defines the status of his successors, all Maccuil's successors are bound by St.Patrick's word above and before the word of any other episcopal authority.

In historical terms, this has to mean that an Irish church wished to overrule the claim of the British to the obedience of the bishops of Man.  It is recognized that the island's first Bishop was baptized, raised to the priesthood, and consecrated, by British missionaries; the story does not even want to deny that they were uiros ualde mirabiles, in fide et doctrina fulgentes, qui primi docuerunt uerbum Dei et babtismus in Euonia et conuersi sunt homines insulae in doctrina eorum ad fidem catholicam "great men, very wonderful, shining in faith and doctrine, who first taught the word of God and the Baptism in Man, and converted the men of the island through their teaching to the Catholic faith".  But the man they place at the head of their new bishopric was in fact under the power of Patrick since before his baptism.

The political point of this is hard to miss.  It amounts to pseudo-religious support to an Irish claim upon Man, and it is clearly intended to override a previous British one.  All right, so the first bishop of Man was consecrated on the island by two British bishops; but - though the poor benighted Manx may not know it - he was in fact an Irishman, an Irishman from Ulaid, and his whole Christian life from baptism, indeed from before baptism, was the repayment of a debt owed to Patrick, and came under Patrick's authority.

It follows that, when this legend first took shape, its Irish authors knew that the isle of Man had first been Christianized by Britons, and that two British bishops had consecrated its first bishop, whose name the Irish knew as Macuil Dimane.  They wanted to rewrite a history already known.

It so happens that we can date the creation of this story almost to the year.  To quote F.J.Byrne: "One of the most notable of Ulster kings [i.e. High Kings of all Ulster] was Baetan mac Cairill of Dal Fiatach.  In his short reign from 572 to 581, he sought to assert his suzerainty over Dal Riata in Scotland and over the Isle of Man... Ulster interest in the Isle of Man was of ancient date - a name on an ogham inscription there can be identified with that of an early ancestor of the kings of Conailli Muirthemne - and the annals record two expeditions of the Ulaid thither in 577 and 578.  The genealogies say that the Irish were driven from Man two years after Baetan's death - an event probably connected with the annalistic notice of Aedan mac Gabrain's victory there in 582.  The genealogies further claim that Aedan had done homage to Baetan at Rinn Seimne (Island Magee near Larne)" - in other words, within a few kilometres of the main Patrician sites.  This probably means that Baetan saw the land of St.Patrick as particularly well-omened for his own royalty.  He probably placed his dynastic and political adventures under his protection, as his own local saint.

Baetan's intervention in Man is the only time the isle is mentioned in the whole of Professor Byrne's Irish Kings and High Kings[1]; in other words, the only time that such an intervention is on record, or at least that it affected Irish politics in any way.  Baetan was one of the last non-Ui Neill kings to claim, however briefly, the title of Tara, as well as his own provincial High Kingship; certainly the last Ulsterman.  He was a Dal Fiatach, and his enemy Aedan was an Ui Neill; his final defeat marked the effective end of Ulster power.  There is no other date remotely as likely for the creation of this legend, which blasphemes against Patrick by putting his humble expression, "I do not know, God knows" as the start of his arrogant sentence of exile over Macuil; and evidently the struggle with Aedan was so grim and to such a purpose, that the ecclesiastics of one of the Patrician sites, whether Armagh, Saul or Downpatrick, felt that the cause of Baetan's supremacy over Ireland, Scotland and Man was so sacred that warrant for it had to be found in sacred history.

As for the history of Man before Baetan's intervention, we can say this: that in the 580s, amidst a fully literate ecclesiastical culture still dimly lit by the dying rays of the literature of Gildas and his contemporaries, the Irish Christian clerks of Dal Fiatach knew that the first bishop of Man was a local whose name they rendered as Macuil Dimane.  He had been canonically consecrated as Bishop by two British colleagues with the decidedly non-Irish names of Conindrus and Rumilus, and could be dated to something like the date of St.Patrick, perhaps a few years later - since, if we are to take the detail of the story at all seriously, we need to place a few years between Patrick condemning and exiling Macuil and Conindrus and Rumilus converting him, training him and ordaining him.  This might mean one of two estimates: if the Irish were already in possession of the dates of Prosper, they might have placed Macuil's consecration in the 440-450s; if they adhered to the earlier dating scheme knocked sideways by Prosper, it is more apt to have been dated to anything between the 480s and the 500s.  It must, at any rate, have been long enough for living testimony to the nationality and activities of Man's first bishop to die out, or else the Irish of Dal Fiatach could not so confidently have claimed him for an Ulaid; therefore Macuil Dimane is best dated at least 70/80 years before Baetan's expansionistic policy - long enough for their first bishop to become an ecclesiastic local hero for the Christians of Man.

There seems to be no reason to doubt that Macuil Dimane, Conindrus and Rumilus were historical personages (Macuil is the St.Maughold of Manx legend); I cannot say anything else about them, which is a pity, since they seem to have left such a good name after themselves in Man that even the propagandists of their Dal Fiatach invaders did not even try to reduce their stature and Apostolic lustre.


[1]He is also the only Irish king mentioned in the island's entry in The Oxford companion to Irish history, though there is mention of much later intervention by the bishops of Dublin - a city that was still more Norse than Irish at the time, and whose links with Man had more to do with the common Viking heritage.

History of Britain, 407-597 is copyright 2002, Fabio P. Barbieri. Used with permission.

Comments to: Fabio P. Barbieri

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