A land without martyrs?

Published in Features, Issue 3 (May/June 2020), Volume 28

St Odrán, Gerald of Wales and Christian martyrdom in medieval Ireland.

By Jesse Harrington

Above: Gerald of Wales, as he is depicted in St David’s Cathedral, Pembrokeshire, where he is reputedly buried; he claimed at the Christ Church Cathedral Lent synod of 1186 that the Irish Church could not name a single martyr.

In 1186 tensions were high between the English and Irish clergy at the Lent synod convened at Christ Church Cathedral in Dublin. The English clergy of Wexford had been found to have illicitly taken wives despite stern canonical prohibition. The situation was highly embarrassing to the English administration, as they had originally sought to justify the invasion of Ireland in 1171 by claiming that the Irish Church was in dire need of reform. On the side of the invaders, the visiting archdeacon Gerald of Wales was nominated to respond. Gerald delivered a sermon before the gathered Irish episcopate in which he admitted the deficiencies of the newcomers but claimed in rebuttal that the monastically trained Irish bishops were inferior preachers, that they were drunkards and, above all, that they could not name among them a single Irish Christian martyr.

Unsurprisingly, Gerald’s bombastic sermon was not well received. The most astute answer to his final charge was given by the archbishop of Cashel, Muirges Ua hÉnna:

‘It is true that, although our people seem to be barbarous, rough, and cruel, nevertheless they have always been accustomed to show great honour and reverence to churchmen and have never laid a hand on God’s saints. But now a people have entered the land who know how to make martyrs and are accustomed to do so. Henceforth Ireland, like other regions, will have martyrs.’

The archbishop’s response ironically alluded to the murder, fifteen years earlier, of the rapidly canonised archbishop of Canterbury, St Thomas Becket. The saint’s murder—whose 850th anniversary underlies the ‘Becket 2020’ commemoration in England this year—had been widely attributed to the orders of the English king, Henry II. Ua hÉnna’s point was that the absence of Christian martyrs was not a sign of inferior courage and fortitude among the clergy, as Gerald supposed, but rather a sign of superior faith and reverence, which recent events showed the English to lack. Was it the case, however, that Ireland had hitherto lacked Christian martyrs?

Early Irish martyrs

Above: ‘But now a people have entered the land who know how to make martyrs and are accustomed to do so’—detail from a 1225 psalter depicting the martyrdom of Thomas Becket, the archbishop of Canterbury, by knights of King Henry II of England in 1170. (British Library)

Gerald was wrong, of course, that none had died as martyrs in Ireland. St Patrick’s own letters of the fifth century reported countless baptised Christians in Ireland murdered by the soldiers of the chieftain Coroticus and their allies, ‘the apostate Picts’, and concluded that those Irish converts would surely reign with the saints and the martyrs in heaven. The Irishman St Donnán of Eigg was burned with around 50–150 members of his community off the west coast of Scotland on the Easter Vigil of 617 and was entered into the ninth-century Martyrology of Tallaght. A certain Conall mac Moudain was also reported to have won the crown of martyrdom in 727.

The Irish annals further reported prelates among the many clerics who died at the hands of the Vikings—among them the bishop of Bangor, put to the sword ‘by the heathens’ in 823; Abbot Éitgal of Skellig, who died of starvation after being captured by Norse raiders in 824; and the prior Blathmac mac Flann, killed in a raid on Iona in 825. Blathmac’s death earned him not only a place in the Martyrology of Tallaght but also a poetic elegy by the imperial abbot Walafrid Strabo of Reichenau in southern Germany, which commemorated him (with only slight inflation of his position) as a martyred abbot.

Nor was such martyrdom limited to the clergy. The Middle Irish prose tradition depicted the high-king Brian Boru as a martyr for his supposedly Christ-like death, while at prayer after fighting the Norse at the Battle of Clontarf for the salvation of his people, on Good Friday 1014. The vernacular literary tradition also claimed the legendary king of Ulster, Conchobar mac Nessa, not only as a contemporary of Christ but as the first Christian to enter heaven, and even the first Christian martyr. Conchobar’s death-tale, Aided Chonchobair, whose earliest prose recensions date from the ninth or tenth century, claimed that the king had received word of Christ via a Roman emissary and that he was baptised by his own blood when he died from emotion at hearing of the injustice of Christ’s crucifixion. Several other, twelfth-century, vernacular sagas, such as Aided Diarmata meic Cerbaill and Buile Suibhne, further insinuated the saintly status of their legendary royal protagonists by claiming their purgative deaths as a kind of quasi-martyrdom.

Beyond Ireland, one could find commemorated the seventh-century Irish missionary-martyrs such as Colmán, Cillian and Totnan of Würzburg. The Irish might additionally claim John Scotus, bishop of Mecklenburg, whom the German chronicler Adam of Bremen praised as exemplary and as having been murdered for professing Christ in a Slavic uprising in 1066. Though modern scholars have often identified John as a Scot, the Latin term Scotus typically referred in this period to one of Irish or of Gaelic birth, without distinction.

A land of martyrs or of confessors?

Above: St Lorcán Ua Tuathail (Laurence O’Toole) (d. 1180)—soon championed by his colleagues in Ireland and France as a Becket-like martyr for the liberties of the Irish Church. (Church of St Laurence O’Toole, Stillorgan, Co Dublin)

Nonetheless, in another sense, Gerald and Muirges were correct. The great and universally recognised saints of Ireland were principally ‘confessors’ rather than ‘martyrs’, and the island, broadly speaking, lacked internationally remembered individuals who had died specifically as a result of persecution for their belief in Christ. For example, though the later hagiographies of Patrick remembered their saint’s condemnation of Coroticus as ‘a killer and persecutor of Christians’, they placed the chieftain’s activity in Britain and left his victims unnamed. Moreover, the Christian Irish who had died outside of Gaelic lands were not always commemorated in Ireland.

Violent deaths were accordingly rare for saints in Irish hagiography. The rarity of Christian martyrdom was such that in later Irish sources the Latin term martyr and the Irish martre were occasionally used to mean simply a violent death or slaughter in a more generic sense. Scarcity of ‘true’ martyrs was not perceived as a problem for the Irish Church, since the eighth-century Irish collection of canon law, the Collectio canonum Hibernensis, deemed the confession of baptism equal to confession by blood. A lack of persecution and of opportunities for ‘red’ martyrdom was part of what drove the early Christian Church to develop the idea of confessors as saints who gave their lives to God in a figurative daily martyrdom, and what drove the Irish Church in particular to formulate the alternatives of ‘white’ or bloodless martyrdom (referring to withdrawal from the world) and of ‘blue’/‘green’ martyrdom (referring to penitential asceticism).

Even unambiguous representatives of red martyrdom may not have been widely known. Though John Scotus was a clear representative of both the traditional and newer forms of martyrdom, he was not a representative of the episcopate reigning in Ireland; moreover, the embarrassment of the Slavic uprising meant that there were few in Germany who wished to promote his cult. By the time that John Scotus appears as bishop of Mecklenburg in Johannes Trithemius’s De viris illustribus ordinis sancti Benedicti of 1492, it is clear that he had been confused with the less obviously saintly Irishman John Scotus Eriugena (who was not a bishop but was traditionally held to have been killed by his students at Malmesbury). This confusion ultimately cost the saint his place in the official Roman Martyrology in 1565.

St Patrick’s charioteer

Those who answered Gerald on behalf of Ireland’s tradition of Christian martyrdom thus had their work cut out for them. Among those who capably responded was the English Cistercian monk Jocelin of Furness. In 1185, less than a decade after the English conquest of the kingdom of Ulster, the relics of the saints Patrick, Brigid and Colm Cille were reportedly discovered at Downpatrick. Jocelin was an authority on saints and was soon commissioned by the archbishop of Armagh, Tomaltach Ua Conchobair, the bishop of Down, Malachias, and the new English lord of Ulster, John de Courcy, to write a new, Latin Life of St Patrick in commemoration. This activity coincided with Gerald’s time in Ireland. Jocelin and the bishops who commissioned him were all monks with Gaelic Irish sympathies, while de Courcy was a political rival of Gerald’s family of de Barry. Unsurprisingly, there are clear signs of literary rivalry between Jocelin and Gerald in their works.

On the question of martyrs, Jocelin found an eloquent answer in the figure of Patrick’s charioteer, St Odrán. Earlier traditions about Patrick told that a pagan dynast, Fáilge, had once openly threatened to kill Patrick because he had destroyed one of his idols. The threat was unknown to Patrick, but it was known to his charioteer. One day, when Patrick intended to pass near Fáilge’s fort, Odrán requested that he and Patrick switch places so that he could rest, with the apostle of Ireland taking up the chariot’s reins. When Fáilge saw the saint’s chariot approach, he hurled a lance which pierced Odrán, mistakenly thinking that the man sitting in the chariot behind its driver was Patrick. As Patrick set down the reins and took the dying Odrán in his arms, the two men pronounced a curse on the murderer, who died immediately, while Odrán departed life with a martyr’s crown.

Odrán became the subject of a church dedication at Dísert Odráin—near the modern parish of Geashill, Co. Offaly, where his death supposedly took place—and was traditionally listed among those who were in holy orders with Patrick. Nonetheless, he was a relatively minor figure, and not all the early medieval hagiographies of Patrick mention him. Jocelin, however, compiled together all the narrative details from the Patrician hagiographies which did mention Odrán and gave by far the longest version among the differing accounts.

In particular, Jocelin added an editorial comment which left his readers in no doubt that Odrán was the island’s first Christian martyr:

‘By some, it is said that Odrán, foreknowing the servant of Satan to be intent on the death of the saint, obtained that in his stead he might on that day hold the reins. And this he did, earnestly desiring to lay down his life for the saint, lest, so bright a lamp being extinguished, the people of Ireland should again walk in darkness. And the saint beheld his soul borne into heaven by the angels and placed in the seat of the martyrs.’

Later martyrs

Above: Oliver Plunkett, archbishop of Armagh, the next Irish saint to be canonised in Rome (in 1975), was unambiguously regarded as a martyr for his execution at Tyburn in 1681. (NPG, London)

When Jocelin wrote, it had been some 700 years since Odrán’s death, with few claimed as martyrs in Ireland since then. As it turned out, Muirges was right that there would be new martyrs proclaimed in the aftermath of the English invasion. The archbishop of Dublin, St Lorcán Ua Tuathail (Laurence O’Toole), who had died in Normandy in 1180 while dealing with the invasion’s political aftermath, was soon championed by his colleagues in Ireland and France as a Becket-like martyr for the liberties of the Irish Church. Not only had he reputedly suffered exile on account of Henry II, as Becket had, but he was also wounded in an attack by a madman during a visit to Becket’s Canterbury Cathedral in the 1170s. Appropriately, Lorcán’s Irish hagiographers also found ways to draw parallels between him and Odrán, highlighting a separate attack near Wexford in which the archbishop similarly switched places with an English soldier to defend him from a brigand’s lance.

Formally, Lorcán’s canonisation in 1226 merely recognised him as a confessor rather than as a martyr. Nonetheless, the next Irish saint to be canonised in Rome—Oliver Plunkett (d. 1681, canonised 1975), archbishop of Armagh and a descendant of the thirteenth-century wave of English invaders in Ireland—was unambiguously regarded as a martyr for his execution at Tyburn. Nor was the modern era without its own, more political martyrs. The murder of the lord mayor of Cork, Tomás Mac Curtain, three days after St Patrick’s Day, and the death on hunger strike of his successor, Terence MacSwiney, both a century ago in 1920, spoke to medieval traditions of martyrdom and protest. Both were members of the Gaelic League and were inspired by the ancient Irish traditions of protest described in such imaginative works as W.B. Yeats’s The King’s Threshold. But the inspiration of their resistance also echoed the Irish traditions of Christian martyrdom. As Muirges predicted, ‘Ireland, like other regions, will have martyrs’. In another sense, like Patrick’s charioteer, they drove the cause of Ireland.

Jesse Harrington is a researcher of medieval religious culture and ecclesiastical history, and a doctoral graduate of the University of Cambridge.


R. Bartlett, Gerald of Wales: a voice of the Middle Ages (Stroud, 2006).

H. Birkett, The Saints’ Lives of Jocelin of Furness: hagiography, patronage and ecclesiastical politics (Woodbridge, 2010).

P. Ó Riain, A dictionary of Irish saints (Dublin, 2011).

N. Wycherley, The cult of relics in early medieval Ireland (Turnhout, 2015).


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