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

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Chapter 4.2: James Carney and St.Patrick's date

Fabio P. Barbieri


Many modern experts follow, at least to some extent, the famous Patrician scholar James Carney, who made a thorough examination of Patrician entries in Irish annals and other literature.  It was a great work of scholarship, whose findings are justly celebrated - except that they prove the opposite of what he thought they did.

As he discovered, all the historical personages Patrick is said to have met in the course of his missionary career, according even to the earliest sources (two biographies by a Leinster ecclesiastic called Muirchu and a Bishop Tirechan[1]) cluster in the second half of the fifth and first half of the sixth century.  Carney's work has major implications not only for Patrician legend but for the historical reality of the dates of the kings of Tara; and so far as I can see, he seems perfectly right in redating the famous Niall of the Nine Hostages[2], King of Tara and forefather of the vast Ui Neill/O'Neill group of clans, whose death he places at 452[3].  But, though it goes against the grain for paruitas nostra to oppose such a man as Carney and such men as his followers, including F.J.Byrne and Dumville, far above me in scholarship and to whom I owe great debts - a cat may look at a king; and I hold him and them to be plainly wrong about, not the facts, but the historical implications of his study of the Patrician legend.  They take it to mean that Patrick's date of arrival must be moved down by some decades; and I take it to mean that Patrick never met Loegaire nor any of the people he is meant to have met, and that the death-date implied by these meetings - 493AD - is unacceptable.

The central episode in Patrician legend is his confrontation with king Loegaire and his wizards at Tara, where, while Loegaire was celebrating a great pagan festival, Patrick lit Ireland's first Easter-fire in defiance of the king's sacred fire, from which all the hearths in the island were supposed to be re-lit.  Loegaire, High King of Tara, son and successor of the great Niall, belongs to the four-fifties and four-sixties; and everyone accepts that the "great festival" challenged by Patrick's Paschal fire was in fact the Feis Temro - that is, not, as Muirchu says, an annual spring festival, but a once-in-a-lifetime ritual of royal consecration.

What are we to make of the fact that Muirchu, who makes this Feis Temro the first act of Patrick's public ministry - and Loegaire's Feis Temro took place in or about 454 - also makes him reach Ireland one year after Prosper's date for Palladius, who he says had just died - 432?  This is consistent with all the other traditions noticed by Carney, which made Patrick meet practically only with people from the second half of the century or later, and give us hardly any account of activities or encounters datable before 454, and I think it easy enough to argue that Muirchu was correct in making it the first major act of Patrick's apostolate, at least according to the accounts he had received.

I hope no scholar is willing to take it seriously as a historical event.  It is a blatant national legend, with the national Saint confronting and defeating the King: a kind of tale that, as Dumville pointed out in another context[4], is absolutely typical of Celtic royal foundation stories.  And the element of foundation is present on Patrick's side as well; I mean that this encounter is the beginning of his Irish ministry proper.  The only things he does before this are the conversion of the owner of Saul, Dichu, and an attempt to compensate the master he had fled as a slave, an Ulster kinglet called Miliucc, with twice the price - which failed because Miliucc burned himself alive with all his possessions rather than see the face of the Saint.  Both events are preliminaries: they amount to giving Patrick, literally and figuratively, a locus standi, a home base, in the island, and to settling the troubling matter of his being an escaped slave - how could an escaped slave, in that very rank-conscious society, dare to look at kings in the face?  Both stories, therefore, only set the stage for Patrick's confrontation with Loegaire and his druids; and the whole complex fits prodigiously well with the national significance of Tara and Patrick, the Royal seat and the national Saint.  In other words, it bears every sign of being constructed to satisfy the demands of an ideology.  It cannot be historical.

Patrician tradition has three firm points: 1) Palladius came to Ireland, but died (most versions say, in Britain) after only a year; 2) Patrick, who had not been in Irelanduntil Palladius died, followed to take his place as Bishop; 3) Patrick challenged the fire of Loegaire's Feis Temro with one of his own.  But Muirchu relates that during Loegaire's festival, all fires in Irelandwere extinguished and then re-lit from his newly lit fire[5]: if the heart of Patrick's legend is that he challenged Loegaire's fire, then Patrick's own must be as new, as virgin.  Therefore Patrick cannot have lit a fire in Ireland before; therefore he cannot have even been in the island before - for who can imagine a stay of any length, in rainy, cold Ireland, without a fire? - i.e., he must have just come to the island from outside.  Therefore point 2) seems to depend on point 3); and this consideration strengthens the suspicion that Patrick's journey to Ireland, as we have it, is quite legendary.  So, if Patrick's legendary reaching Ireland after Palladius' death depends on a need to make him a fresh arrival when Loegaire has his festival, it follows that there is no evidence that the historical Patrick was outside Ireland when Palladius died; a point which we will do well to remember.

The three stages of the story of Patrick's journey to Ireland - a first tentative landing at Inverdee; his arrival in Ulsterand meeting with Dichu; his disastrous non-meeting with Miliucc - articulate a coherent progression that is to end at Tara.  Loegaire himself is introduced as soon as Patrick takes to the ocean, and his druids predict Patrick's coming before he reaches Inverdee.  This, narratively speaking, places Patrick's journey, from his embarkation to the arrival at Tara and the first Easter fire, in the frame of the fate of Loegaire and his druids, as a fated, foreseen, pre-ordained process; in other words, one single legend.  There is a definite dimension of social ideology.  The first man Patrick meets in Ireland, Dichu, is a free man who owns land (and therefore has a right to allow Patrick, escaped slave or not, on to his own land); the next person he - fails to meet, but at any rate affects by his presence - is a kinglet, who seems not only to own a considerable amount of property, but to be defined by it, since he destroys his property along with himself (and we remember that in Gildas’ ideology, the king, any king, both teyrn and gwledig, is rich by nature, but that it is only lower-class boors like Cuneglasus who are defined by their wealth alone).  Finally, having moved across the spectrum of the freeborn world, Patrick reaches the top - the High King, a king above kings, surrounded by such venerable figures as druids and poets, the summits of Celtic society.

The progression may not necessarily be limited to freeborn society.  Patrick does not meet any slaves; but it is possible to argue, either that he himself represents the slave element[6], or that his first, abortive landing at Inverdee represents a sterile contact with Ireland, without any future to it; in its own category of ideas, this would be equivalent to the meaning of slaves within the social ideology.  In Celtic Heritage, Alwyn and Brynley Rees argue that Partholon's first invasion of Ireland, which is wiped out and leaves no descendants - i.e. is sterile - has an ideological correspondence with the slave element in society, while the succeeding one, of Nemed, from which all following invaders of Ireland are descended, corresponds with the lowest freeborn element, the nemed or religiously sanctioned freemen, who, unlike slaves, are admitted to the sacrifice and have a juridic personality.  In this sense, Patrick's progression, from a sterile landing in which he can meet no man, to a landing where he meets an Irish nemed freeman who lets him into the country, to a non-meeting with an aggressive lesser king, to a successful meeting with a supreme king surrounded by members of the highest caste, druids and poets, clearly represents a similar progression (joined with a dyadic element by which one failure is followed by one success, one failure, and one final crowning success).  Mankind’s first landing in Ireland - in the person of Partholon - achieves nothing; just like Patrick’s first landing achieves nothing.  And that Dichu is able to allow Patrick into the country, while nothing could be done at Inverdee, seems to have some sort of correspondence with the fact that freemen were allowed to the sacrifice and slaves were not; royal enclosures in Celtic countries shared the characteristics of (temporary) sacrificial enclosures in India - a fellow Indo-European culture whose sacred institutions have frequently been compared to Ireland's - and it is possible to see them as permanent sacrificial enclosures.  Irelandmight, in this sense, be seen as the greatest of royal/sacrificial enclosures, "this kingly island".

In other words, every single feature of the story represents a coherent ideological part of a whole, and has the internal logic, not of historical reality, but of fiction, determined by ideology.  And while all this is easily argued from Muirchu's Life alone, the wholly legendary[7]nature of the story, as well as its narrative unity from Patrick's landing to his struggle with Loegaire, is best proved by comparison with another Celtic legend of the arrival of a great Saint in a pagan country: Nennius' legend of St.Germanus (Historia Brittonum 32-35, 39, 47).  While we will pay more attention to this story in a later chapter, here is a table setting out their common points.

 

1)- St.Patrick reaches Irelandfrom the sea. 1)- St.Germanus reaches Britainfrom the sea.  
2)- His chief mission is to convert pagans, and he deals chiefly with kings.

 

 

2)- His chief mission is to convert pagans, and he deals chiefly with kings.  (This is unhistorical: the Britain to which Germanus travelled was already Christian.)  
3)- The first person he meets is the friendly Dichu, who gives him a place to stay in the island. 3)- The first person to welcome him is the friendly Cadell, who makes him his guest.  
4)- Rather than meet him and be helped to his salvation, the tyrant Miliucc sets fire to himself and all his property.

 

4)- The tyrant Benlli shuts him out of his fortress, refusing to meet him and be helped to his salvation; shortly after, he and all his fortress are destroyed by fire from heaven.  
5)- As a result of this, Patrick predicts that the descendants of Milliucc will never have the throne and will always be slaves.

 

5)- As a result of this, Germanus predicts that Cadell and his descendants will have the kingdom for ever; Benlli and all his family are wiped from the face of the earth.[8]  
6)- Patrick then faces and defeats the High King of Tara, Loegaire, in front of the crowd at a royal festival (probably the feis Temro). 6)- Germanus then faces and defeats the King of all Britain, Vortigern, in front of a large royal assembly.  
7)- Though the druids oppose Patrick, the poets of the court favour him – i.e. the Irish specialists of the sacred Word (who can, on occasion, dethrone kings by satire) are on his side.

 

 

7)- Vortigern is driven from the throne of all Britain by the voice of the Saint and the clergy of the island, i.e. by the power of the sacred Word.  (This also has something to do with the notoriously devastating power of Celtic poetic satires, which can deprive a king of sovereignty.)
8)- Loegaire is defeated and in danger of death, and his wizards are killed.  The conflict is between two forms of fire, Loegaire's pagan fire and Patrick's Christian one, and Patrick's proves the stronger. 8)- Vortigern is driven from his throne and eventually burned with fire.  Fire seems to be an attribute of Germanus, who has already used it to destroy Benlli.  

 

The stories are clearly not copied from each other.  Loegaire's struggle against Patrick and his God has little in common with the clash of Germanus and Vortigern; and while in Patrick's story the first fire we see is Miliucc's disastrously self-willed one, and then Patrick has to overcome Loegaire's, in the British legend Germanus alone controls fire, using it to destroy at will, and there is no such thing as a pagan fire.  If there had been a direct borrowing, it is these colourful incidents that we would expect to have been carried over.

The more interesting, then, that both stories should have practically the same plot.  Interesting, and not coincidental; for what both stories represent is the irruption of the Sacred into a previously darkened and blasphemous realm. The social ideology we met in the Patrician version, is fully confirmed and indeed made clearer: the Nennian equivalent of the hero's non-royal first meeting, Dichu, is the impoverished non-royal landholder Cadell, the king's servant with a little plot of his own, who owns a single cow and a calf; and we remember that owning a single head of cattle (bo airig) was the token of the lowest rank of free status in Ireland.  But while Dichu has no great destiny prophesied to him - though we would expect it, in view of his auspicious welcome to Patrick - and has nothing to do with the next rank of person involved, king Miliucc, Cadell is a servant of king Benlli and will, by the saint's grace, succeed the tyrant, who is consumed by fire as a direct result of refusing the salvation they carry.

Germanus’ journey ends with Vortigern.  Nennius makes it quite clear that once Vortigern and his people had been destroyed, Germanus left Britain and went home.  And, while there are no poets or druids at this particular meeting, there is another saint - Faustus - and all the clergy of Britain.  The fact that they all are on Germanus' side, and that Vortigern has no such surrounding of holy and wise highest-caste members as Loegaire, is probably of the same order as Germanus' apparently exclusive possession of fire; that is, the stories differ in that in the Irish there is a real contest for the control of fire between Patrick on one side and Loegaire and his druids on the other, while in the British, Germanus had a monopoly of it.  Nevertheless, it is in fire that both saints triumph.

Patrick, therefore, was assigned a pre-existing legend of what happens when holy things come to the land.  The social ideas involved have no demonstrable connection with Christianity, but quite a bit with obviously pre-existent Celtic society.  And the arrival of a new and higher fire can only indirectly be related to a Christian view of the world; but fire, its sacred status, and its purity, was a chief concern in all sorts of Indo-European religions - compare, for instance, the enormous importance of the god of fire, Agni, in early India.  Christianity in both Britain and Ireland adopted forms of thought, story plots, and ideas, that pre-dated it[9].

The importance to our research of these parallels is that they prove that the central block of legends in Muirchu's life of Patrick - which was carried over, with elaborations, into every subsequent Life - is, from his arrival to Ireland to his defeat of Loegaire, a unified and quite legendary whole.  It follows that there is no proof, and no particular reason to believe: a) that Patrick came to Ireland as a consecrated Bishop; b) that he only came - as Muirchu has it - after Palladius' death; c) that he lit any Easter fire; or, d) that any of the other acts attributed to him by this particular strand of the legend ever happened - including any meeting with Loegaire.  There is no reason why Patrick should have met the High King; there is no reason why he should not; but what is as certain as tomorrow's sunrise is that he did not meet him in anything like the terms of the legend.

This also means that it is quite impossible to use the Loegaire episode as a dating marker, since it is so obviously unhistorical.  And as the dating and the legend come as a package deal, we are not authorized to accept the one and reject the other: we either accept that Patrick had some dealings with Loegaire's Feis Temro practically as soon as he reached the island, or we have no reason to think that anything particular happened to him in 454 or any such year, let alone that he met the king of Tara.  How can we say that Patrick met the King at some point, but that we reject the consistent testimony of the documents as to how and when he met him?[10]  What would we have left?  All the documents tell the same story, in a thoroughly internally-consistent fashion.  Either we accept the legend of the confrontation at Loegaire's feis Temro, which no serious historian could, or we have no evidence that such a meeting happened.

What is more, there are problems in envisaging the historical Patrick meeting any king of Tara, whether Niall himself or any of his children.  He never speaks of it in his writings; he only dealt with reguli, lesser kings, and brehons, mainly to pay them money; and it is all but certain that - while he claims to have travelled throughout Ireland - his residence was in Saul, among the Dal Fiatach, claimants to the High Kingship of Ulster and even of Tara, and sworn enemies of Niall and his descendants[11].  This automatically placed him in a difficult position towards the warlike house that held Tara in the face of Ulster power.  Whether or not Tara had any claim at the time to the high-kingship of all Ireland[12], its central position makes it a far more sensible place for a mission to the island of Ireland than the eccentric north-east coast, surrounded on all sides by hostile Ui Neill, Airgialla and Connachta power.  That Patrick did not set up base near Tara can only mean that he was not welcome there (perhaps we should take seriously the Irish notice that Palladius went to Britain after being driven out of Leinster and Meath), and that he stayed in Saul, and perhaps Armagh and Downpatrick, because that was the only place whose lord allowed him to reside[13].

What has impressed historians has been the sheer consistency of the number of connections Carney made: most people recorded as having had to do with Patrick, and in particular every layman, belonged to a specific time, to wit 460-530 or so.  But this is only evidence if you do not take into consideration the way a people, as a whole - and especially a literate people such as the Christian Irish - construct mythological pictures.  Single myths may originate with single individuals, but a large-scale mythological framework with clear and elaborate depictions of time and space is the product of a social group, and must be seen in a social as well as a documentary light; and it just is no good to draw up the most elaborate and brilliant pictures of textual history, showing how and when certain data entered the written tradition and what its state is likely to have been - as O'Rahilly, Carney, Dumville have done, and done to a standard I would not dream of criticizing - if the whole textual history is not approached with an idea of what its various authors and transmitters were about, what social pressures drove them, what basic beliefs shaped their work.

It was the bad luck of Carney and his followers not to be lovers of superhero comic books, as I am; and please believe that I am not being flippant.  My comics reading gave me experimental evidence of how myths and legend-cycles are created, not only individually but collectively, at the level of social organization.  American superhero comics have spawned a lively and fascinating social group, superhero fandom, one of whose main activities is the constant exegesis of what it calls the continuity of superhero universes, vast interlocking chronologies, different according to the various publishing companies or creative artists involved - the Marvel Universe, the DC Universe, the Jim Lee Universe.  These universes are built out of the fictional histories of all the characters involved; and, as these characters all have vast and frequently contradictory histories, often invented by people with no idea that anything of what they wrote and drew would ever be remembered, let alone fitted into a continuity, and then carried on by people whose vision was either nonexistent or contradicted that of the original creators - the amount of data is both enormous and baffling.  Impassioned argument and great intellectual effort goes into fitting it all, whatever the contradictions, into coherent universes; two talented writers, both sadly deceased (Mark Gruenwald and E. Nelson Bridwell) made quite a speciality of it, but there are very few fans who do not take a thoroughly informed interest in time-sequences and allied aspects of the mythology.  Some, being rebellious spirits, tend to reject it, at least in theory; but it remains the common ground, the world of ideas from which they started and in which they are rooted; and when they develop their own superhero mythologies - as the present writer has done - they automatically supply them with an equally elaborate continuity.  Discussion of continuity is practically the distinguishing mark of the superhero fan; it is the way fans, at their first meetings, recognize each other as fans and establish social relations.

An instance of how continuity works.  The character Captain America was created a year before America entered World War II, and retired after its end.  In 1963, one of its creators, Jack Kirby, was induced to resurrect him, which he did by literally bringing him out of deep freeze: from 1945 to the early sixties, the hero had apparently been frozen in the Arctic.  Kirby (one of the greatest cartoonists who ever lived) was known to laugh at this contrivance later on, but fans took it in deadly earnest, and it is now set in stone as part of the mythology[14].  However, someone remembered that a version of Captain America had briefly been published in the fifties, with a rather inglorious kill-the-Reds slant.  Had the Captain come out of deep freeze for a time, or should we pretend this had never happened?  No; and with a spirited display of interpretative invention, the writer Steve Englehart made the Fifties Captain an unfortunate imitation of the original, who, due both to inborn fanaticism and to flaws in his process of empowerment, became a mad murderous Red-baiter who eventually confronted and was taken down by "the one, true Captain America!"  (Is this not reminiscent of the double and triple Patricks of later hagiography?)  It was quite a good story, and, at the same time, it removed a continuity bug.

Multiple saints have even closer parallels.  In the past, DC Comics had developed a whole system of separate "Earths" to explain the extraordinary duration of their main characters: hence the 1940s/50s Superman, Batman, Flash and Wonder Woman lived on "Earth 2", while their 1960s/70s counterpart - which were all somewhat different in costume, powers and even name - lived on "Earth 1".  Thanks to comic-book cosmology, these characters met easily and frequently, though the Earth-2 Superman was shown to have graying hair - but no receding hairline. (With incredible folly, DC discarded this useful and amusing device in 1984, and have since been forced to simply delete and rewrite the history of characters who last too long.)  The business of an older and a younger Superman, an older and a younger Batman, an older and a younger Green Lantern, whose distinguishing characteristics depend on different stages of development of the legend, and who can meet and even become friends even though they started as one and the same character - is closely reminiscent of "Old Patrick", "Patrick", and "Patrick of Ros Dela", or for that matter of the two separate Saints in which the historical Uinniau, correspondent of Gildas, was split when the Dal Fiatach of Ulster and the Ui Neill made two separate and incompatible claims to his memory[15].

What this shows is that an intense interest in the chronological and genealogical aspects of a mythological complex can spread far beyond the schoolroom, and become a basic aspect of the common interests of a whole social group; that it can be discussed among people not because it is part of a set subject, but simply because it is a part of the sort of people they are - the sort of group they belong to.  Now, is there any social group in Ireland that might be expected to behave - with respect to religious history or legend - as superhero fandom behaves towards the dates and adventures of Captain America?  Heavens, yes!  Absolutely the first thing anyone learns in their first lesson of Irish church history is that the early Irish church had a peculiar organization based not on dioceses but on monasteries.  Think about it: dozens, even hundreds, of adult men, grown from boyhood to take a surpassing interest in Christian literature and legend, living in contact with historical and annalistic literature, and with the facilities to produce more if they want to, each group with a strong esprit de corps and common identity based on one or more great individual of the past - heroes - Saints.

Scholars such as Eoin MacNeill, and Carney and Dumville, have caught a glimpse of the process at work[16].   My problem is that - probably influenced by their social experience of classroom environment and learned publication - they seem to miss the extent to which the obsession with continuity can be not just a subject taught at school, but part of a shared experience and of a social identity.  Nothing could be more subtly, yet more evidently off the point than MacNeill's statement of his theory, published seventy years ago, but still worth quoting for its concrete, clear-headed, even down-to-earth quality: "The probability is that, after a certain amount of tentative history-building had gone on in a random way, the subject began to attract the attention of the schools.  Once in their hands, the work had to be done thoroughly and systematically..."   Extremely well put, but... no no no no no no.  The lives of the saints, their interrelationships, and the whole history of the island - they were not a "subject", but the very water in which the fish of Irish monasticism swam, the intellectual space in which it lived and moved and had its being.  MacNeill's description is no doubt correct in that there was no doubt a swift growth of historical speculation followed by systematization at the hands of monastic schools; but, far from being a result of the introduction - as a separate process, probably by imitation of contemporary Christian schools on the continent - of professional scholarly ethics and conscience, as a separate factor, it was part of the motive power to set up regular schools in the first place; part of the universal intellectual activity in which every monk and every Christian interested in Christian tradition was as much at home as an otter in his native waters.  (Bear in mind that by intellectual activity I do not mean advanced intellectual activity: superstition and the most elementary kind of learning can both be regarded as intellectual activity, so far as they centre on the mind rather than on any other focus.)

A superhero fan familiarizing him/herself with Celtic ecclesiastical legend finds him/herself in a subtly familiar world, with the same fascination with awesome heroes endowed with super-powers (St.Patrick regularly resurrected the dead, and was seen to cast light from his uplifted hand as if from a halogen lamp - a typical superhero feat) and - a defining feature - with the same obsession with crossovers.  Fans all have their favourite heroes - mine include Captain America, Savant, the Fantastic Four, Supergirl, Thor, and a few characters of my own creation - and find it thrilling to have them meet each other, or be given the recognition of meeting a greater hero, Spider-Man, the X-Men, Superman; this is called a crossover[17].  Now Celtic saints always meet each other: St.Patrick met half a squillion Saints (the list of his encounters in Tirechan's "life" takes up almost a page of Dumville's book, and more were added later) including St.Brigid, who, in my view, never existed; St.Columba meets St.Kentigern, who meets St.David, who could not meet St.Patrick because the latter was much earlier, but that did not stop him from being placed in St.David's life anyway.  St.Patrick tries to lay claim to St.David's future see of Vallis Rosina and is driven away from it by an angel - it is reserved for a future great Saint (David), and Patrick must go to Ireland instead.

My point is that the discussion on continuity is ongoing and pervasive.  Superhero fandom is constantly engaged in a work of debate and establishment of continuity, demanding internal cohesion and consistent chronology for all the characters in a given universe and indeed for as many universes as possible, or ripping up those that exist (for nobody is ever satisfied); and I argue that the same sort of ongoing collective debate took place in the Irish church (and for all I know elsewhere as well) in establishing the supposed "facts" about ancient heroes and saints.  You can see its fingerprints all over the material.  But no historian before me, I believe, ever had the experience of arguing (unsuccessfully) that Jack Kirby's Eternals did not belong in the same universe as the Marvel super-heroes, or (successfully) that Thor should never be made to fight Superman because Superman cannot cope with magic and one tap from Thor's magic hammer would mince him like beef - with and against dozens, even hundreds of people passionately interested in the same kind of "facts" but with radically different ideas about them; therefore historians cannot properly understand how the legend of St.Patrick was formed - and are over-impressed by the internal consistency of the sequel of crossovers that make up Patrician documentation.  Ma'ams and Sirs, that is exactly what we should expect!

Above all, the picture of tiny tentative efforts at harmonization, followed after some considerable while by more systematic work by the schools, developing over a matter of centuries, done not out of passion but because it was the way professional school monks did things - is very wide off the mark indeed.  It is very important to realize that the most fantastically elaborate chronological and even cosmological pictures can arise in an astonishingly short time.  Superhero continuity began to be discussed less than forty years ago; and I am sure nobody outside fandom would credit the fantastic, baroque complexity (and number! - the amount of superhero universes, each with its own continuity, must by now have reached three figures) achieved in such a short period of time, driven by a flaming, a burning interest in these awe-inspiring characters.

At the same time, there is an attractive mixture of intense invention and intense conservatism.  As soon as they are created, these baroque creations become set in stone, no more to be changed than lava once it has cooled: even the most ludicrous bits of continuity - such as the story of Captain America's deep freeze, and in general all the embarrassing bits of ignorant pseudo-science accumulated especially by Marvel Comics in its early days - are to be preserved, and if possible made sense of.  Fans react to blatant continuity-rewriting with a sense of intellectual betrayal and outrage.  And there is a curious rationality in their designing: the saying "entities are not to be feigned without necessity" applies nowhere better than in the invention of superhero continuity, where most of the intellectual work goes into explaining, connecting, rationalizing the existing data.  This is what the process of creating a mythology is like.  A literary critic once said that J.R.R.Tolkien "became, in a single lifetime, the creative equivalent of a people"; this process takes place in superhero fandom every day.

The one huge difference is that the Irish sages worked on material they believed to be historical.  Comics fans know[18]that the characters they are dealing with are fictional, and that continuity is largely an intellectual game; but the Irish learned classes took the characters they were dealing with as thoroughly historical.  This raises the question whether the people who invented the various crossovers between people who "must" have met, saints, kings, other notable people, knew that they were writing fiction, and to what extent their work was accepted by their audience.  How much force had the argument "these people must have met; therefore what I say about their encounter cannot have been entirely wrong, since I keep within the likelihood of what two men such as them can be expected to have said and done"?  It is my impression that, in an age hungry for heroes and for heroic encounters and starved of records of some of their own founders - especially Patrick himself - such stories, when not blatantly impossible - that is, conflicting with continuity - would tend to be accepted; first, perhaps, on approval; and then, as they became ancient and hallowed, as received fact.  The one thing we must not on any account do, is to fall ourselves into the trap of believing them - and that is what Carney's argument does.

After all, to argue from the proximity of St.Patrick, in Irish records, to persons known to have lived in the late fifth and early sixth century, is to argue that the Irish could not read their own annals.  If they had decided that Patrick had died in 493 or so, of course they were going to tie him up with what they regarded as his contemporaries!  And is anything in Irish literature clearer than its desire to bring Patrick into contact with as many historical figures as possible, in search of an ancestral blessing or of the consecration of a royal or abbatial or episcopal or presbyteral title; or even, as in the extraordinary Colloquy of the ancients, to give Christian blessing to the ancient, pagan, legends of the Fianna and Finn mac Cumhail?  It is a consistent fact that Patrick's role in every legend is to validate an institution - kingdom, monastery, church, bishopric.  Whether he founds it, or whether he has a sharp conflict with existing incumbents and puts them in their place (sacrally as well as in the more mundane meaning of the expression), he is the talisman by which Irish institutions are sacrally placed in a Christian world.  Patrick's name in any story, any charter, any genealogy, was the token of regularity, of consecration, of national and Christian value; is this not an enormous spur to the creation of such stories?  In ancient Ireland, communities such as monasteries and little kingdoms felt involved with their ancestral heroes to the point of genuine identification, that is, they genuinely felt that what had happened to their great ancestors affected their lives and defined who they were.  If, therefore, St.Patrick was identified with Christianity in Ireland, they, themselves being Christian, felt it was natural that one of their ancestors should have met St.Patrick.  Also, if one of their ancestors was known to be the contemporary of a great figure in the past - St.Columba, CuChulainn, King Cormac - of course they should have met.  It is not even necessary to imagine that their authors were lying.  Their mental process is better described as: St.Patrick established Christianity in Ireland; I and my family/community/kingdom are good Christians, part of the Christian Irish world; therefore Patrick must be a part of our ancestral past.  The person or persons who made these stories (for we cannot get away from the fact that someone, at some point, was responsible for their creation - stories do not self-generate) probably did not think that they were indulging in a fiction, so much as restoring, in some fashion, a lost reality.

It follows that if a royal family or church establishment wanted to validate itself by attaching its bona fides to the national saint, it would naturally look to its member closest to the Saint's estimated time, and bring that member into contact with the Saint; beginning with the powerful Ui Neill clan, who evidently estimated that Loegaire and two of his brothers, Coirpre and Conall (whom Patrick encounters in Tirechan's account), were chronologically the likeliest candidates.  This is particularly significant in that it excludes the great patriarch himself, Niall of the Nine Hostages, from a role to which his position of founder would seem to designate him; in other words, by the time the Ui Neill felt the need to have their lineage validated by contact with Patrick, they held the Saint to have lived in the time of Loegaire - at least two decades after Prosper's date for Palladius.  And Loegaire had to come first: having the highest dignity and the highest significance for the island as a whole, he had to be the first to encounter Patrick.  Other ancestral figures[19] had to meet the Saint after him[20].  If Patrick had been assigned 39 (or the lovely Biblical round number 40) years of apostolate, this would have to start from the date of Loegaire's Feis Temro; and would account, give or take a year, for the fixing of his death-date at 493, allowing him a credible - if longish - human lifespan.  And as Loegaire came first, all the historical figures brought into contact with Patrick would belong to the following two or three generations - easily covered (if Patrick is held to have met some of the younger individuals as children, or baptized them) by a forty-year mission.  Is this not reason enough for all the regularities observed by Carney?[21]

Now, let us go back to the first of the three firm points I identified in Patrician tradition: the death of Palladius after only one year in his diocese.  We know of Palladius from two sources: Prosper of Aquitaine’s chronicle entry, and the mentions in the various Irish Patrician materials.  We know that later Irish schools knew Prosper’s chronology and made use of it; but Prosper has nothing to say about Patrick, nor about the time of Palladius' death.  Nobody could ever deduce from him that Palladius was unsuccessful, let alone that he died early in his mission.  If the memory of Palladius had been lost in Ireland before Prosper's chronology was published in the island and brought its chronicle-writers their "first" knowledge of their true first bishop; there would have been no reason to date Patrick's coming to Ireland as early as one year after Palladius'.  It has been argued that Palladius was assigned such a short career because he had to be got out of the narrative way to avoid overshadowing the national saint; which is a non sequitur.  The weight of a legendary character (as we must regard Palladius and Patrick in so far as they feature in legends) has absolutely nothing to do with his duration: does Moses matter less than Methuselah, or Achilles than Nestor, or CuChulainn than Tuan?

And let us remember the obsession with continuity.  From its beginning, Irish church history was annalistic, and if the Pope's appointee had not been known to Irish learned classes before the discovery of Prosper's chronicle, the chronological problem would hardly even arise.  Patrick’s dates, in the legend, were anchored to those of Loegaire; and Loegaire was crowned in 454; if an earlier Bishop Palladius was found to have reached Ireland in 431, there is no reason to make Palladius last so little, and die so far away.  It would have been easy to assign him a long and obscure episcopate.  Nor would this do anything to diminish the national Saint’s stature, just as the fact that St.David was certainly not the first Christian in Wales did nothing to dimish his.

The tradition that Palladius died within a year from his arrival in Ireland, to be promptly succeeded by Patrick, does not depend on later annalistic chronology, and cannot therefore be bound by the terminus ante quem of 550 (minimum) for the compilation of the first Irish annals.  But the annals are unanimous on the matter, even where they attribute erratic dates to Palladius and Patrick both.  We admit, of course, that Irish annalistic tradition does not even begin to be reliable before about 550; the more so since I have insisted that Gildas had not learned annalistic skills in Britain[22] - and the cultural levels of the British and Irish Churches are likely to have been equal (since by then the Irish church had ceased to be a front-line missionary organization)[23].  But to deny that any reliable tradition of Palladius and St.Patrick, written down before living memory faded, could have been preserved in Armagh or one of the Patrician sites - Saul, Downpatrick - is the same as to deny that a written tradition had existed there.  And if it did, what are we to make of the transmission of the two certainly Patrician texts, the Epistle and the Confession: how were they preserved, unless a thread of written Latin tradition had come down to Muirchu’s Ireland from Patrick’s beginning?

Christianity is a religion of the book.  It demands literacy.  Do we accept, or do we not, that there was a Christian Church in Ireland from the time of Patrick?  Do we accept, or do we not, that this Church had made provisions to preserve and reproduce its sacred texts, that it must have had scribes and facilities for the production of written matter - either in parchment (there is no shortage of sheep in Ireland) or on some other material, but to a standard worthy of sacred text?  Do we accept, or do we not, that the Christian Church in Ireland, both Catholic and Pelagian, trained and ordained its own clergy from the beginning, in a training of which literacy and Latin were certainly parts?  Do we accept, or do we not, that it is through the institutional channels of such a Church that Patrick's own writings were handed down?  And if we do, on what grounds, may I ask, do we deny that substantially correct written notices about Patrick could be handed down from a time in which he was either alive or within living memory? We have no grounds to do so; in fact, the presumption must be that they were - uerba uolant, scripta manent, words are air, but paper is tough.

No: the only possible reason for the dislocation in date is that the Irish knew, before they received the text of Prosper, that Palladius had only been Bishop of the Irish for about a year before dying in Britain; and that Patrick had succeeded him.  This tradition was not securely anchored chronologically, but rather noted as a prelude to Patrick (hence it must have pre-dated the earliest Irish annals), and would have been, at the beginning of the Irish annalistic tradition, worked backwards from whatever date was assigned to Patrick's arrival - that is, to Loegaire's inauguration in Tara.  This cannot have involved mention of Pope Celestine, since otherwise the fallacy of the Loegaire date must have been evident as soon as a list of Popes was obtained - and that would have been as soon as coherent annalistic began; in other words, it would not have been possible for an annalistic tradition to arise that treated Loegaire's first year as Patrick's first.  There is, on the other hand, no reason at all to doubt that the notice of Patrick's probatio at the hands of Pope Leo was known, since the reigns of the Pope (who died in 461) and of Loegaire overlapped.  If there was a notice that the Pope carried out the probatio in his second year, this might have been disregarded until its import became clear, or else be held to have taken place before Patrick went to Ireland.

As a superhero fan, the process of thought involved is thoroughly familiar to me; the trouble is that the world of fandom is so alien to the average academic that I do not feel sure that my arguments will be even understood, let alone accepted.  The point with such interpretative activity is that it depends on a shared willingness, across a whole social group, to commit ourselves to the totally serious treatment of fictional characters.  Similar social groups have sprung about science fiction serials such as Star Wars and especially Star Trek - "Trekkies" are among the best-known sub-cultures in the English-speaking world - as well as around fictional detectives, especially Sherlock Holmes; and L.Frank Baum’s Oz books.  But even those historians who have played intellectual games about this sort of characters will probably not have thought of connecting them to the intellectual activities of Irish monks 1400 years ago; it took the arrogant confidence of a John Morris - used, for once, in the service of light - to brazenly challenge the consensus, with arguments with most of which I agree.

The mischief was made when the very first Irish annals were written[24].  Annalistic apparently reached Ireland some time between 550 and 580.  From then on, historical writing was one long tangle with continuity - dates, characters, who was where at which time, who was whose son, relative, pupil, who had which office at which date.  By this time, however, Patrick had been dead for over a century.  The annalists had to reckon his date from their own time by working backwards across the hard-to-assess dates of bishops, abbots and kings (in the course of this period, the Irish church had also undergone a genuine social revolution, moving from a traditional model ruled by bishops to a quite new one based on abbots and monasteries), and they got it wrong.  They had a date for Loegaire, as is inevitable for a king whose predecessors, colleagues and successors were known; and no date for Palladius and Patrick.  Therefore Patrick’s death was dated in 493, working forwards from Loegaire's Feis Temro, because the legend placed Patrick’s first activity there[25] (even though few writers dared to imagine that Loegaire himself had been converted); and all the searchers of chronological correspondences and inventors of illustrious encounters for their ancestors had based their inventions on that date.  The machine of what we might call "Patrician fandom" swang into motion: every lay and ecclesiastical person of any importance in the late 400s and early 500s was brought into contact with Patrick, to be baptized or consecrated or cursed or killed or at least argued with.  (Compare this with the immense amounts of crossovers suffered by the more popular superheroes - Spider-Man, Superman, the Batman, the X-Men!)

Then, at some point before 683AD, a thunderbolt hit the Irish church.  Somebody visited Rome, or came from Rome, and brought an unarguably correct document: the annals of Prosper, a contemporary of St.Patrick - from which it was clear that Palladius had reached Ireland not in the 450s, as everyone thought, but in 431.  The Irish knew that Patrick had succeeded Palladius.  There was no way out of it: either the date of Patrick's death was wrong, or he had lived much longer than missionary bishops in precarious circumstances usually live, and than he himself expected to live (Confession 59).

The Irish reaction to this continuity dilemma is also familiar to a comics fan: faced with the existence of dozens of stories dating Patrick to the 460s-490s, and with a certain and unarguable date of 432, they assigned him an implausibly long life.  Not only would this discovery destabilize too many dynastic and ecclesiastical interests, but it is also the case that the inner cohesion and coherence of the witnesses, that so impressed Professor Byrne, also struck his remote ancestors.  They could not give it up, lock stock and barrel, in favour of merely re-dating the Apostle of Ireland to an earlier period in which there were almost no witnesses to his activity.  And yet Prosper was there.  So the Saint was given that famous life-span of his, that was supposed to be 120 years, but which no Annal quite managed to make fit, so that he was supposed to have lived disparate but equally unlikely periods from 106 to 147 years; just like Captain America, the Sub-Mariner and the Fantastic Four all turn out to be impossibly long-lived.

There was, after all, one illustrious precedent whose 120-year life-span was a matter of firm belief for any Irish monk steeped in the Old Testament: Moses.  And please notice that the equation of Patrick with Moses has little or nothing to do with the actual historical role of either man; as late as 830, Nennius has trouble explaining it, and his four reasons to equate Patrick and Moses (Historia Brittonum 55) savour of excuse[26].  A later reader quite rightly wrote on the side of a Nennian manuscript that hic, ut mihi videtur, contradicet sibimet ipsi, "here, it seems to me, he contradicts himself"; only to introduce even more contradictory and implausible so-called reasons![27]  As late as the twelfth century, when this gloss was added, people were desperate for a reason, any reason, for Patrick to be like Moses.

Some very early documents testify to a different and far more apt equation: in both the early chapters of Muirchu and the Hymn of Secundinus - attributed to one of Patrick's own followers - Patrick was compared to St.Paul, the Apostle of the Gentiles.  Muirchu compares Patrick learning divine law at St.Germanus' feet to St.Paul studying with Gamaliel, and the Hymn - which never mentions Moses - compares his apostolate ad gentes, to the pagan tribes, to that of St.Paul (line 27).  But that comparison, which comes natural to the author of the Hymn, is completely gone, except for the comparison with Gamaliel, by the time the first Lives come to be written.  In other words, there must have been a compelling reason to connect Patrick and Moses: a reason so compelling that it completely conquered the Irish learned class - and that had nothing to do with any actual parallel between two legends which are not, by any sensible standard, comparable.  It is hard to see any other reason for this, than the discovery that Palladius had reached Ireland in 431.

Muirchu, who wrote about 683AD, shows clear signs of the earlier chronology.  Almost the first thing Patrick does in Ireland is to head for Tara, light a Paschal fire, and challenge the druids of King Loegaire.  In real life, we are virtually certain that he did nothing of the kind.  But we know that Loegaire did not become king of Tara until about 454.  Muirchu, however, accepts 432 as the date of the Saint's arrival, thus assigning him over 20 years doing nothing - even the establishment of Armagh takes place afterwards.  (It is quite possible that Armagh had nothing directly to do with Patrick at all; Muirchu's story of his death and burial has a feel of finding sacred excuses for the Saint not to be buried in "the land which he loved above all", Armagh, but in Downpatrick.)

Carney was right in that this consistent set of dates certainly tells us something about the way the annalistic dating system was set up in Ireland, and in his emphasis on the secular, royal, bardic aspects of the traditions that went into its making.  But unless we assume that the pagan Irish bards started taking notice of the activities of Patrick and his followers from their beginning, what they said about Patrick centuries after the event is evidence of nothing[28]; and we know that no intellectual class was more conservative than the Irish poets.  Their subject was the kings, whom they praised no differently in the fourteenth century than their ancestors had praised them in the tenth or in the sixth.  To take notice of a new phenomenon, and one, at that, which probably had its roots among British-born slaves, foreigners and other un-royal and unnoticeable persons, would be against their every instinct.  Patrick cannot have met many kings, and meeting him cannot have counted as an epochal event in their lives unless any of them was converted; and while he speaks of sons of kings who were his friends, and a king's daughter who was baptized and took vows, Patrick mentions no royal converts.

Now, what do we conclude from all this?  We conclude that even as early as Muirchu and Tirechan, no valid joined-up historical account of Patrick's missionary years existed.  Nothing is easier than to demonstrate than that Muirchu's account of Patrick's confrontation with Loegaire - that is, most of what he has to say about him - must be unhistorical.  So is, without the shadow of a doubt, the story of his failed encounter with his former master Miliucc.  So are the stories of Coroticus, of the Ox's Neck, of the miser of Mag Innis, of the overlooked cross (which I am sure must have been invented by a later ecclesiastic, to excuse himself for just such a ritual fault); and while those of the storm and the lost horses, of Macuil first bishop of Man, of St.Monesan, of Daire, and of St. Benignus may have some relation to genuine history, it is impossible to have any faith either in the stories as Muirchu tells them, or in the claims they make.

From the moment Patrick lands in Ireland, we lose track of him. Nothing is more telling than the way that Coroticus' raid - which was, so far as we can judge, one of the most dramatic moments of Patrick's life - was so forgotten that one of Muirchu's sources had to manufacture a legend, making Coroticus, a Christian Roman citizen, into a pagan! Therefore any statement made in annalistic or other sources about the people he met and who followed him is to be regarded as proving nothing, since they are tainted by the immense pressure of legend; and it does not matter how many late-fifth- and early-sixth-century characters he is supposed to have met, if we cannot prove his date from any sources but these.

Let us be clear about this: the dating structure identified by James Carney is, as a whole, the product of later political and proprietary interests.  There is no date in it that can be rescued.  Even if any of the people mentioned in it happened to have historically met the Saint, we could never know it, because the whole confection, whatever historical data may have gone into it, is a complex of legends designed to show the Christian nature of all the institutions they involve. Carney has supplied us, not with a list of possible historical contacts of the Saint, but with an elaborate legend, fascinating for what it tells us about later Ireland, but of no value to the study of the historical Patrick.

Conversely, pieces of tradition may have existed autonomously outside the biographical mainstream. It is not a decisive argument against any item, that it only entered a particular tradition at a late date, unless it can be shown that it had no independent existence before it was added to that tradition. In the case of Patrick and Palladius, what can be shown is that the opposite is the case: that, in spite of the existence of a fertile and active mainstream tradition that made Patrick light his first fire at Loegaire's Feis Temro, a number of stubborn data existed which could not be reconciled, and which played merry Hell with it. One has to read Dumville's chapter on Patrick's death-date to realize what a brain-boiling tangle centuries of successive layers of monastic speculation have made of the accounts, historical and legendary, of Patrick's mission. For instance: in the World Chronology prefaced to the Annals of Innisfallen, Loegaire's accession to the throne is antedated by over 30 years, to 429; this is evidently another attempt to harmonize Prosper's date with the legend of Patrick's confrontation with the King and his druids - doomed, in view of the solidity of the genealogical material, which demanded that Loegaire be dated to the 450s-460s.

What it proves is that the difficulty dominated the minds of the annalists; which can only mean that they knew both the succession of Patrick from Palladius and his presence at Loegaire's Feis Temro as fundamental facts. One group of dates attaches the Mosaic life-span to the 461 death date and makes Patrick be born in the 340s; this shows that the 461 date, in spite of being excluded from the "Chronicle of Ireland", had a claim strong enough to force a revision even after Patrick's Mosaic life-span had become a standard part of the lore. Likewise, "the text-historical evidence makes it very unlikely that there is any direct connection [between the various entries dating Patrick's death at 457 or 461]; rather, they attest to continuing access to sources that asserted such a date for Patrick's death" (underline mine).

This assertion is not as decisive as it sounds, since it refers to material datable to the eighth, ninth, tenth centuries; still, it proves the continued existence of a source of information outside the legendary mainstream and incompatible with it, and yet prestigious enough to force revision upon revision. And as it is the Carney set of dates which must be regarded as legendary from top to bottom, it is to this other set of dates and facts that we must turn - except where, as with the 340s birth-date, they have suffered secondary contamination from the "Carney" dating scheme.[29]

Notes


[1]I do not intend to use Tirechan's Life as evidence, since I think it is not only entirely legendary but in bad faith.  I tend to agree with Morris' view that it was deliberately written to bring the whole of Irish Christianity under the sign of Patrick, hence attributing to him a ridiculous number of foundations.  Muirchu, by contrast, feels to me like an honest, if untalented, researcher.  Tirechan's view of the chronological problem is interesting, but adds little to what we could learn from Muirchu and the annals; there is little in Tirechan that we can use other than one of the closing additamenta or additional matter, which is probably not by Tirechan at all, and an old, half-forgotten notice about Palladius.

[2]It is even possible that Niall was redated to move him away from Patrick.  If he had been known to have reigned in Tara for much of Patrick's career, bang would go any opportunity for the kind of legendary encounter between King and Saint that the Loegaire legend represents; since if, as Professor Byrne suggests, his greatest deed was the overthrow of the ancient Ulster capital Emain Macha, anyone would realize that Patrick, closely connected with Ulster, had been caught up in its overthrow, and had not managed to hold Niall's forces back - in the face of all the legends of an imperious wizard-bishop imposing his will on kings, people and things.

[3]I also accept Byrne's view that Carney's and O'Rahilly's views about Niall should be brought together, erasing Nath I from the succession table and giving Niall a longer reign than Carney seems willing to allow him.  Carney's procedure with Niall and Nath I seems rather too close to the games he plays (as we will see later) with the dates of Patrick and Secundinus, redating Nath I to before Niall on the strength of one traditional death date (in the chronological labyrinth that is the Irish fifth century!) instead of considering the possibility that he might never have been king of Tara at all: just as he redates Secundinus to before Patrick on the strength of a dubious list of abbots of Armagh, instead of considering that the abbot of Armagh might not have originally have been a bishop at all.  And this in spite of the fact that another brilliant scholar - T. O'Rahilly - had already denied Nath I!  BYRNE, Irish Kings and High Kings, 80f.

[4]".. it is an axiom of Celtic hagiography that the alleged founder of a dynasty... [must] be shown to be dependent on the favour of the dynastic or territorial saint."  The historical value of the Historia Brittonum, in Arthurian Literature 6 (1986), p.12.  Nothing could improve on this for clarity and brevity; though I would add that the king in question does not have to be the founder of his actual dynasty, so long as he is its first member to be Christian or meet a Christian saint; and that similar relations may be expressed with persons other than kings, e.g. in the legend of Macuil, first bishop of Man, who is shown to be dependent on Patrick in the most radical manner conceivable (see Appendix V).

[5]This would not be very practical if the festival in question was, as Muirchu claims, an annual event, but would make good sense as part of the inauguration of a new king - not necessarily of Ireland (since better authorities than myself hold that such a king did not exist in Patrick's time) but at least of Tara's vast area of overlordship.

[6] Or rather, an element which crosses over from slave levels to the highest levels of sacred wisdom and power.  The same picture belongs to the certainly mythical picture of Brigid, hybrid product of a druid and a slave-girl, born “on the threshold” at the border between Inside and Outside, and permanently binding all levels and all worlds - she is often seen as a pillar of flame that links Earth and Heaven.

[7]And I haven't even mentioned the well-known problems with locating Patrick's days of slavery in Ulster, Miliucc or no Miliucc.  Scholars ancient and modern tend to believe that the young Patrick was held near Killala Bay in northern County Mayo, and certainly he lived as far as possible from any opportunity to sail to Britain, since he had to walk 200 miles to reach a ship that would take him there - which excludes Munster, Leinster and Ulster, all regions in regular seaborne contact with the larger island.  Connaught is by far the best location; but Miliucc is supposed to have been a king in Ulster; hence he is very unlikely to have been the historical owner of Patrick.

[8]In view of what I just said, the difference between being enslaved for all time and being wiped off the face of the Earth is not so wide as one might think, since sterility and lack of descent seem, in Celtic ideology, ideologically bound up with enslavement and slavery.

[9]Patrick's first landing at Inverdee, his putting out to sea again, and his second landing at Strangford Lough, which puzzled Dumville, are best explained by a common Celto-Latin legendary theme in which a grand figure of sacred sage and law-giver, coming from the universal ocean to the country he is to bless with his presence, makes his first landfall somewhere in it and then puts out to sea again, sailing not completely around the land, but half-way around it, to eventually make landfall somewhere opposite the first landing stage.  He reaches this landfall as a sacred annual ceremony is taking place, and is welcomed to take part in it by the chief celebrant, a king of lesser rank, who happens to be at odds or at war with the high king of the land.  The grand law-giving sage, who is an incarnation of the supreme God - Lug, Jupiter - takes the side of his host, and eventually, after inflicting severe chastisement not so much on the high king as on the forces within his court that opposed his own host, reconciles them.  I have analyzed this legend in my Gods of the West I: Indiges, Bruxelles 1999, 40-43.  The major difference between these two groups of legends is that, in the one I analized, the hero finds a kinglet who welcomes him to a sacred ceremony (involving, in at least one of the versions, fire offerings) and therefore receives the hero's protection and support; in the Patrick-Germanus group, the kinglet refuses altogether to admit the hero into his precincts, and therefore is consumed by fire.  This explains the presence of Dichu and Cadell, two characters of a type that corresponds to nothing in the group studied in Indiges: non-royal landholders, held in reserve - certainly in Cadell's case - to be promoted to the kingship, at the hero's command, when it is vacated by the destruction of the tyrannical previous occupant (since, as we have seen in bk.1 ch.7, a kingdom was a stable and eternal reality in Celtic ideology, not to be destroyed or swallowed up by another merely because a royal family became extinct).  The Celtic idea of a royal precinct comes from the Indo-European idea of a temporary sacrificial precinct; but it makes it permanent and associates it permanently with kingship.  Access to such a site as Tara is regulated and often forbidden by a "gatekeeper" whose Indian equivalent, even in character, is the official who regulates and often prevents access to temporary sacrificial grounds.  And that means that the presence of a ritual expert - a sacred person or, in Christian terms, a Saint - is necessary to regulate the fire that is always at the heart of these precincts, because of their sacrificial nature: when boors like Benlli and Miliucc deliberately refuse him access to their royal precincts, the fire gets out of control and destroys them.

[10]One could however conceive that Patrick, trying to repair what seems to have been a hostile relationship with Niall of the Nine Hostages, might have decided to attend the coronation of his son Loegaire, and that the whole legend might have been built on his remembered attendance.  Patrick would by then be known and probably respected throughout Ireland, and Loegaire might welcome his presence; indeed, he might make special provision to avoid offending his religious sensitivities at what was after all a pagan festival.  But we have no grounds to think so; it is not even guesswork, but imagination.

[11]There is good evidence that, as late as the 580s, Patrick was regarded, at least in Ulster, as chiefly the patron of the Dal Fiatach, and of their king Baetan, the last Ulster King of Tara.  See Appendix V.

[12]Whether or not Patrick’s time had an actual Irish monarchy is in my view largely a false problem.  The Celtic mind was naturally hierarchical, and would naturally tend to place kings in ranks, such as are shown in various Irish law treatises.  This sort of thinking would identify the strongest or highest-ranking of king in Ireland as "high king", just as it would make the same kind of identification over smaller regions.  That king, whether of Tara or anywhere else, may or may not have been able to order a hosting in west Munster, exact tribute from Carlow or hostages from the Nore valley, or administer justice in Ulster; but his primacy would be recognized, at least in theory, by everyone who shared in the common Irish culture.

[13]There certainly were Christians in various places in Ireland, beginning with Patrick's fellow enslaved Britons, apart from the Pelagian exiles.  If Patrick was, as there is no need to doubt, Catholic Bishop to all the Irish, he must have travelled widely to reach them; and in fact, he tells us of long travels among hostile tribes, of being imprisoned by at least one kinglet, and of having to pay huge fees - as much as the price of fifteen slaves - to brehons in various places.  I suggest that these fees were paid to get the justiciars of Ireland to recognize him the same status as druids and poets, who could travel freely between different tuatha while common people could not.  In other words, there is no reason to doubt that Patrick would travel, preach, baptize and anoint beyond the little Dal Fiatach borders, including Ui Neill lands; nevertheless, his permanent residence remained there.  It is also possible to suggest that he was allowed to settle in Ulster just because he was not made welcome in Meath, given the rivalry between Niall and his sons and the lords of Ulster.  That would especially be a consideration if the Catholic Christian community in Ireland was already of some size - resident foreigners, freed slaves, slaves still under their masters, and perhaps the odd converted master - and the lords of Ulster saw the opportunity of some political advantage from the presence of its leader.

[14]The already-mentioned continuity expert Mark Gruenwald wrote an ingenious story that gave the Captain experimental evidence that his peculiar superhuman body chemistry would tend to send him into suspended animation if his lungs filled with freezing water, which would explain the twenty years' frozen sleep.  CAPTAIN AMERICA 384.

[15]Cf. DUMVILLE, Saint Patrick, 140

[16]EOIN MACNEILL, Celtic Ireland, Dublin 1921, esp. p.37-8; CARNEY, Early Irish literature: the state of research, in GEAROID MAC EOIN (ed.), Proceedings of the sixth international congress of Celtic studies, Dublin 1983, 113-120; DUMVILLE, Language, literature and law in mediaeval Ireland: some questions of transmission, in Cambridge Mediaeval Celtic Studies 9 (1983), 91-98.

[17]I should note that in recent years crossovers have become a plague, which the more knowledgeable fans tend to detest; but they would not have become so overused if they had not appealed to readers in the first place.

[18]With some exceptions, perhaps - such as the extraordinary letter in Marvel's DOCTOR STRANGE 11 (1975) which claimed that some kind of mystical state could reach worlds where comics characters were "real beings with a soul and everything"; but I can assure you that its author is not typical.

[19]With the exception of Dichu, who is needed to admit Patrick into Ireland and give him his lodgement at Saul, and of Miliucc, who, being Patrick's former owner, has to be dealt with before Patrick can legitimately go around Ireland as a free man.  These legends were allowed to come before the meeting with Loegaire because they were its necessary antefact.  (Sorry to go over already-covered ground, but it is as well to leave no margin for misunderstanding.  Loegaire was the first person to meet Patrick save for the necessary antefacts and the characters necessary for them.)

[20]It would be interesting to see whether this principle was pushed to any great extent; that is, were Patrick's encounters arranged in time in any order of foundational importance for the various personages concerned?  Did a higher king or bishop meet the saint before his subordinates?  Were there rival chronological traditions to suit the claims of different power centres?  On the other hand, the many-centred and long-lasting process of origination of legends that I postulate seems to make it difficult for any power centre - even Armagh - to impose an order on the supposed encounters; there would always be a tuath or diocese popping up somewhere with a new claim for a Patrician encounter, not fitting the existing schemes.

[21]There is another possible reason.  If we assume the pace of the spread of Christianity to have been, roughly speaking, even, moving from the a smallish missionary church largely composed of Romano-British slaves and aliens in Palladius' time to the triumphant mother church of Columba and Columbanus, there must have been a point in which Church institutions, in particular episcopal and presbyteral successions and monasteries, began to solidify, grow in number, and root themselves in the country.  If this process began to gather speed at some point in the lifetime of the legendary, or what I should call the "Carney" Patrick, it would be natural to attribute their foundation to the Apostle of Ireland.  This would account for the number of ecclesiastical figures among Patrick's encounters, especially in Tirechan.  In actual fact, it is not even necessary that they should all proceed from his succession; some may have been founded by later bishops from Britain or even Gaul, and some may - given the vigorous Pelagian presence in Ireland - go back to the Pelagian bishops excommunicated in the historical Patrick's lifetime.  (Declan of Ardmore and Ciaran of Sairngir seem reasonably strong candidates, especially Declan, "the Patrick of the Deisi", the hero of a genuine alternative saga of the arrival of Christianity to Ireland, whose widespread and long-lasting popularity has something about it of a challenge to Patrick, and whose name could possibly be a deformation of a Roman original.)

[22]Nor, in my view, had the author of the Genealogy of the West, the adapted Frankish legend of the first European men in Nennius ch.17, which went through at least one revision without any sign of chronological considerations.  See Appendix XII.

[23]A guess: since the introduction of annalistic skills in Ireland seems to come not long after Gildas' masterpiece, is it not possible that they reached the British Isles in the wake of the impact of his work?  Gildas himself sought information about Britain from overseas sources; his masterpiece shows no evidence of annalistic skills, but there is no reason why the book, emphasizing past history as it did, should not arouse a new wave of polemics in the course of which British, and therefore Irish, writers, first realized the significance and technique of annalistic time-reckoning.  Some elements lead us to believe that the impact of The Ruin of Britain was enormous: firstly, that it was intended to be - its great author meant it as a response to the classic of their literature, L - and secondly, that it is practically the only piece of Gildasian Latin writing to come down to us - and in several manuscripts! - from what must have been a considerable and distinguished crop, and therefore it must have been held in great regard.

[24]Certainly the 493 date was deeply embedded in annalistic chronology - far more firmly than what I regard as the better 457 and 461 dates. According to Dumville, the lost original "Chronicle of Ireland" cannot have contained a notice of the death of St.Patrick in either 457 or 461, since the notices in annals derived from it - namely the Annals of Ulster and the Clonmacnoise group of annals - do not agree; their entries are therefore likeliest to have been made when they were written from their lost original.  Dumville holds that the "Chronicle of Ireland" contained an entry somewhat like this: Patricius archiepiscopus et apostolus Scottorum quievit centesimo vicesimo anno aetatis suae, "Patrick, archbishop and apostle of the Irish, rested in the hundred and twentieth year of his life".  This agrees with my argument that the chronological mischief started with the first organized annalistic redaction; but it is hardly conclusive, since this entry clearly has a lot of history behind it.  It is indeed fully legendary, but it attributes to Patrick the Mosaic age, which I regard as a reaction to the discovery of the real date of Palladius.  Dumville dates it to "the beginning of the tenth century at the very latest".  But it is fascinating to see how, even at such a late date, details of roughly genuine chronology, excluded from the first redaction, manage to creep back into the annalistic tradition.

[25]This argues that the legend of Loegaire and Patrick, making Patrick the patron of the entire Ui Neill overlordship and perhaps of all Ireland, was already current by 550-580; even though, as I argue in Appendix V, the Dal Fiatach still regarded the Saint mainly as their peculiar patron at the time.  The likeliest explanation is that the two notions reflect different environments.

[26]The four reasons: Patrick talked with an angel in the burning bush; he fasted on a mountain forty days and forty nights; he lived 120 years; and no man knows his tomb.  The first two are clearly inserted in the Patrician legend to reinforce the Mosaic parallel (or is Nennius saying that Patrick received the tablets of the law a second time?); the fourth is true, but might be said of many other saints and heroes; the third is obviously the crux.

[27]Are you ready for this?  "He was forty when he came out of captivity (sic!); and for forty years he learned and served God; and for forty years he preached.  In these three forty-year periods, indeed, Patrick equals Moses.  For in the same way, Moses was 40 years in the house of Pharaoh, 40 in the land of Midian, and 40 in preaching and leading the people..."  Apart from the un-Biblical chronology, the author sees no difference between being raised as a prince in the house of Pharaoh and living as a slave among the swine of Miliucc...  DUMVILLE, St.Patrick 232.

[28]The legend of Patrick and Loegaire is probably of bardic rather than ecclesiastic origin, and certainly shows an unexpected tenderness towards pagan bards, who show respect and even reverence to the Saint while their druid colleagues are busy trying to ruin him.

[29]There is a quite fantastic weakness in another of Carney's arguments, to wit that the first item in a list of bishops of Armagh was not Patrick but Secundinus, thus proving that Secundinus reached Ireland before Patrick and that some of his activity was misattributed to the "apostle of Ireland".  Armagh?  But Armagh was not Patrick's episcopal see; all the evidence is that he had to do with Saul and Downpatrick, and I for one think that Armagh was a monastery - not originally an episcopal see at all - which benefited from the "monastic revolution" that changed the Irish church, some time before the age of Columba, to become the centre of the Patrician area of Ulster.  Any list of heads of Armagh, taken to be heirs of Patrick from the beginning, is bound to be suspicious, and Dumville has demolished it, including the delusive appearance of "Sen-Phatric", “Old Patrick”, as the successor of Sechnall-Secundinus, which is contradicted by a mention of Iarlaithe, fourth in the list, as tertius episcopus Ard Machai in succession to Benen-Benignus; if Patrick, Sen or otherwise, were part of the list, Benen would be third and Iarlaithe fourth.  Conclusion: whatever Patrick's role in the foundation of Armagh, he never ruled it; granting, of course, that there is anything at all to be said for the list of the first few rulers of the monastery, which certainly seems to suffer from some severe dislocation before the later sixth century - DUMVILLE, St.Patrick op.cit., 276-77.  Dumville concludes that "one has to suspect that Feidlimid (ob.578) stands at the horizon of historical record" and that "the only doctrine which would allow Sechnall" [i.e. Secundinus] "to be first ruler of Armagh would be if Patrick was not the founder of that church", which, of course, is exactly what I think.  Patrick may have been responsible for the establishment of a monastery in Armagh, without wanting to rule it himself: a bishop, in the Church in which he had been trained, would hardly be likely to want to lead the monks in his diocese as well as leading the priests and laity.  In other words, this argument is no argument at all.

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

Comments to: Fabio P. Barbieri


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