The Life of St Patrick and his Place in History

Published in Issue 3 (Autumn 2000), Reviews, St Patrick, Volume 8

The Life of St Patrick and his Place in History, J.B. Bury, (Dover Publications, £12.95) ISBN 0486400379

John Bagnell Bury was born in 1861 in County Monaghan and died in Rome in 1927. He was the son of a Church of Ireland clergyman, Edward John Bury, rector of Clontibret. He was educated at Foyle College in Derry and then at Trinity College, Dublin, where he gained the chair in Modern History in 1892. From 1902 he was Regius professor of Modern History at Cambridge. Bury was an outstanding scholar of the Classics, learning Latin first from his father and then excelling in Greek. He was to learn Russian and Hungarian later in his career. He epitomised the finest in Victorian scholarship and was to the fore in the revival of interest in all aspects of Byzantine studies.
His scholarly output was prodigious. His fame rests principally on his works on the history of the Roman Empire. It was largely as a result of that work that he turned his attention to a study of St Patrick. In the activity of Patrick he had an opportunity to examine the influence of Rome beyond the borders of her empire. Similarly his study of the Slavonic apostles, Cyril and Methodius, led him to look for comparisons with missionary activity in other parts of Europe. Few have come to the study of St Patrick with such a scholarly background and breadth of vision.
Bury’s book on St Patrick was a classic. It was the first scientific study of the ‘problem of Patrick’. Generous in his acknowledgement of the contribution of Todd he highlighted that scholar’s ecclesiastical bias. Unfortunately the history of Patrician scholarship over the following fifty years shows that few took heed of his remarks. Archbishop Healy’s book on St Patrick was published in the same year, 1905. It was the last gasp of medieval scholarship in which history and legend were compounded to produce a great composite picture of the national saint.
In Bury’s study for the first time the reader became aware of the need to respect the sources and the importance of contemporary evidence. At the opening of the twentieth century early Irish studies were in their infancy. The vast majority of the sources had not been properly edited and published.  But in one important area Bury had access to the sound diplomatic edition of the Book of Armagh, then in preparation by his friend John Gwynn, later published in 1913.
Despite the great advances in our knowledge of Roman Britain and the Roman world in general since Bury’s day, his own deep knowledge allowed him to discuss the position of Ireland and its relations with that world in a way that is still clear and impressive. His discussion of monastic life in southern Gaul and the teaching of Pelagius are still useful and instructive. He regarded the Hymn of Secundinus as contemporary. We now  know that it is a later document deriving its inspiration from the new hymn tradition of southern Gaul and dating to the very end of the sixth or beginning of the seventh century. It is now realised that the introduction of the Latin alphabet probably pre-dates the coming of Christianity. Bury had already said that and suggested its importance in relation to ogham. He pointed to the myth of the immediate collapse of Roman Britain in AD 407—something that scholars were still arguing about late in the twentieth century.
Bury was weakest in an over-reliance on seventh century and later documents purporting to tell about Patrick. He could not be faulted on this since scholars continued to use these materials until D.A. Binchy put a halt to the worst excesses. Despite this he so often saw through the legends and appreciated their underlying structure. His discussion of the Confession itself is penetrating. This reprint is to be heartily welcomed. There can be no better introduction to the ‘problem of Patrick’—all modern criticism begins with this scholar. The late and sadly missed Liam de Paor has written a sensitive introduction to the reprint. He was an excellent choice since Liam’s contributions to the Patrician debate have been among the most important to be published.

Saint Patrick: the man and his works, Thomas O Loughlin, Triangle SPCK.

The next milestone in Patrician studies was D.A. Binchy’s incisive St Patrick and his biographers, ancient and modern (1962). This dented the scholarly reputation of many at the time but when the full import of Binchy’s remarks were realised scholarship began to take new directions. From that point on those who wrote about Patrick were extremely careful in how they handled all sources later than the saint’s own writings. But also, and more importantly, it brought about a fresh examination of the saint’s own words. This is the spirit in which Thomas O’Loughlin’s book has been written. It is a fresh translation of the writings of the saint with three chapters by way of introduction. It has a bibliography of further readings and ends with an index of Patrick’s use of Scripture.
He has taken account of D. Conneely’s The Letters of Saint Patrick (1993) and D. Howlett’s The Book of Letters of Saint Patrick the Bishop (1994). Fr Conneely’s work was less concerned with who Patrick was or his chronology than with the content of his writings. What had he read in the Scriptures, in the fathers of the Church, in the works of contemporaries? Where did he stand theologically? What is known about his faith? What of his intellectual standing? This last point has been at the centre of the work of Howlett who has put forward a thesis that Patrick’s writings are of a highly structured nature and written with very considerable style.
O’Loughlin has a particular interest in the biblical references or allusions used by Patrick and has greatly added to what has been known of these. However the book has all the appearance of having been written in haste. The use of English is frequently poor. One cannot help feeling that the author, having read deeply in the secondary literature, felt overwhelmed in the face of ‘the conflicting opinions and many doubts voiced by many a person’ but unlike the seventh-century biographer was unable to come to a clear summary of what is currently known about the saint and his background. He is constantly concerned about what we do not know and about what we cannot know and this leads to philosophical passages to which I found it impossible to relate. He could have provided an important reassessment (given his detailed knowledge of Patrick’s scriptural references) of what we think Patrick’s difficulties were but this did not happen.
There are lapses—some simply the result of poor proofing. But others are more serious. The well-known passage in
Prosper about the sending of Palladius is translated as: ‘Palladius, ordained by Pope Celestine, was sent to the Irish who are believers in Christ as their first bishop’. This is at least ambiguous. The traditional translation, ‘…to those of the Irish believing in Christ…’ is accurate. ‘Patrick would never have imagined that a woman would read his writings’ (p.6) yet the document of the lady Egeria is cited as an example of contemporary writing (p. 26). This book is an SPCK publication and is aimed at a wide readership. Despite these criticisms it will bring many for the first time to the writings of Patrick and that is important in itself.

Perceptions of St Patrick in Eighteenth-Century Ireland, Bridget McCormack, Four Courts Press.

Bridget McCormack’s book is fourth in the Maynooth Historical Studies Series under the general editorship of Raymond Gillespie which aims to contribute to the debate on the Irish past by presenting the results of recent research on old themes or on new corners of the past. On 18 March 2000 there was an exhibition on St Patrick in the Apprentice Boys Memorial Hall in Derry. One of the posters showed St Patrick in a traditional pose. It was clear that this was not the Patrick of the nationalist tradition for instead of shamrock at his feet he had Orange lilies and in the background was the beautiful neo-Romanesque Church of Ireland church at Saul with the flag of St Patrick on its roof.  There is a perception that St Patrick has been appropriated by the nationalist tradition and this was an attempt to lead Protestants to participation in the cult of the saint. There could be no clearer example of what Bridget McCormack’s book is about.
The Church of Ireland when it became established and the Catholic church both looked back to St Patrick as their founder. Following the doctrinal disputes of the seventeenth century the Church of Ireland settled into its role as the state church. During the eighteenth century it evolved an image of itself and the depiction of St Patrick became an important element in that process. As Patrick became the symbol of each religious denomination he was dressed in the trappings of each brand of Christianity however remote that had become from the Christianity of the fifth century.
This is a sensitive examination of the various aspects of the cult of Patrick from the level of the country people to the way in which he was pressed into service at each level of society right up to the highest levels of state. Of particular interest was the way in which the emerging Protestant nation with its anti-Roman stance made use of Patrick, the shamrock, the harp, and the other symbols that may still be seen on the facade of many of our eighteenth-century buildings. Of interest too is the way in which the Catholic hierarchy handled the relationship between popular cult and a modern respectable (as they perceived it) Catholicism. This is an important book and shows what can be done with what at first glance might appear to be unpromising material. It is well written although structurally it still retains the shadow of the thesis that lies behind it.

Celtic Christianity: making myths and chasing dream
, Ian Bradley, Edinburgh University Press
In the same vein but of much wider scope is Ian Bradley’s book. As he points out, ‘Interest in and admiration for “Celtic” Christianity is booming’. The evidence for this presented in his final chapter is staggering. He accepts the criticisms of scholars against the use of the term ‘Celtic Church’, ‘Celtic Christianity’ and says ‘I myself have now stopped using the term “Celtic Church” and prefer to think in terms of smaller, more localised entities such as “the Columban Church”’.  But if he has become a convert why call his book Celtic Christianity? ‘Celtic’ sells of course! What is the problem with talking about the Irish church, the Anglo-Saxon church, the early Welsh church?
The use of the term ‘Celtic’ in relation to our early societies is a smoke screen for proper investigation. It allows the dreamers, romantics, New Age people to pick and choose the ingredients for their view of the past. It is also of use to the more sophisticated but still denominationally biased. The anti-Romanists are still there. Mr Bradley is only too happy to pick up on a reference (from a recent book) to saints’ Lives as ‘a swamp of superstition’ (p. 9). And it is such a waste of time. If these people were to try to understand the early church on its own terms and not through the prism of the Reformation, post-Reformation and Counter-Reformation then we could be on the path to a genuine voyage of discovery.
He sees periods of revival in ‘Celtic Christianity’ from the seventh century to the present. His first chapter on the ‘first wave of interest in Celtic Christianity c. 664-800’ is full of errors and misunderstandings. As the author leaves the Middle Ages and heads for modern times there are fewer errors although one would have many points of disagreement. This book is packed with information and I found the later chapters of great interest. I was taken aback by the breadth of interest in things ‘Celtic’ and the sad fact that so many seem to prefer the soft, romantic, option, however inaccurate, to a crisp examination of the real thing. Should Bridget McCormack ever extend her study to the twentieth century then this book would be a useful example of how the past is perceived.

Iona, Kells and Derry: the history and hagiography of the monastic families of columbia, Marie Herbert, Four Courts Press.
Máire Herbert’s book was first published by Oxford University Press in 1988. It is fitting that it has been produced in paperback. Of the books reviewed here this is the most scholarly. It is a model of how saints’ Lives should be handled. Dr Herbert has examined the history of the cult of St Columb Cille from the time of the saint down to the twelfth century. The book is divided into three parts. Part one deals with the history of the monastic federation of the saint. Part two is a study of the hagiography associated with the cult of the saint. Part three provides an edition and translation of the Life of the saint written in Middle Irish.
This book has been meticulously researched and clearly written. If each saint’s cult were examined in this way then we would be in a position to know a very great deal about the development of the church in early Ireland. There is no doubt that this book will be an inspiration to younger scholars and an encouragement to them to embark on the very difficult area of scholarship that is hagiography. For the general public too this book should make fascinating reading. This is especially so since this complex material is presented with such clarity. Dr Herbert is to be congratulated on a very fine work.

Charles Doherty


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