Appropriating Patrick: Keating, Ussher, Toland and the Early Irish Church

A statue of St Patrick in an antique shop window (c) david perry/flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
A statue of St Patrick in an antique shop window
(c) david perry/flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

The very oldest texts in any language written in Ireland that have survived relate to St Patrick. One, the Confessio, outlines his own account of his life. To the modern reader, it may seem sparse. There is no mention of Pascal fires, of shamrock or of snakes.

The tale of St Patrick developed over time, and to fulfil different purposes. Muirchú’s Latin Life of Saint Patrick, compiled around the year 680 which includes tales of wonders, was written to confirm Armagh’s pre-eminent place in the Irish Church. Patrick was said to have arrived in Ireland in 432AD to undermine the earlier Palladius who was documented to have arrived in 431AD. The development of the myth continued into the 15th century, with examples to be found in the Book of Lismore and the Leabhar Breac. This tradition emphasised St Patrick as a wonder worker and a prophet. At the same time secular writings such as the 12th century Acallamh na Senorach include stories of Patrick meeting the Fianna.

The Norman invasion saw a parallel tradition emerge, starting with Gerald of Wales’ outline of Patrick’s life in Topographia Hibernica, which included a debunking of the legend of the banaishment of the snakes. Jocelin of Furness’ account, based on resources some of which are now lost, was written as part of the Anglo-Norman attempt to appropriate the saint. Written at the same time as the shrine in Downpatrick was established, it portrays Patrick as a miracle-working prophet, whose mother was related to St. Martin of Tours.

The Counter Reformation: Patrick as Catholic?

The growth of the myth continued until the Council of Trent (ended 1563). As part of the Counter-Reformation, the cults of saints were to be controlled, and the accounts or “lives” of them to be revised in line with Counter-Reformation theology. In the Irish context, the major work was done on the continent, with one of the earliest being Richard Stanihurst’s life of Patrick, a scholarly work drawing on Gerald of Wales and Jocelin, printed at Antwerp in 1587.

Stanihurst promoted the role of Patrick as “Apostle of Ireland”, ranking with the Fathers of the Church, an aspect also adopted by Peter Lombard’s account of Patrick in De regno Hiberniae, written in Rome about 1600 and published in 1632. Lombard drew parallels between Patrick and Moses, a theme which became dominant in later Catholic work which emphasised Patrick as a patriarch.

Work by Rothe, Messingham and the Franciscans in Louvain not only brought the Irish saints “into line” but also fought off attempts to appropriate them by the likes of Thomas Dempster. The work of Peter Lombard, David Rothe and Philip O’Sullivan Beare emphasised the continuity of Irish Catholicism from the time of Patrick, and Irish loyalty to the Pope. The scholarship on Irish saints culminated in John Colgan’s Acta sanctorum veteris et majoris Scotiae seu Hiberniae (Louvain, 1645). In 1632 a campaign spearheaded by Luke Wadding saw Patrick added to the Roman calendar of saints.

Geoffrey Keating’s 1643 Foras Feasa ar Éirinn brought together these elements to create an Irish history tightly bound up the Pope, who, Keating asserted, had approved Patricks original mission. Keating embraced the papal bull Laudabiliter (a bull whose existence is disputed which granted Ireland to Henry II) and wove it into a historically dubious account where the Pope, via Brian Boru’s son, had the right to give the English crown dominion over Ireland. This allowed him to weave together native Irish custom and Anglo-Irish rights in a narrative that erased hostilities between them, and produced an Irish identity rooted in Catholicism.

Patrick: a good Protestant?

In Ireland over the same timeframe, an alternative reading of Patrick had been developed.

A Welsh minister, Hanmer who moved to Ireland in 1590, developed an interest in Irish history and declared “[the] only doctrine Patrick read and expounded…was the four evangelists, conferred with the Old Testament” – ie. Patrick was a good protestant. This position was taken up by the English clergyman John Rider, who became dean of St Patrick’s. This led him into public conflict in 1600 over whether the first Irish Christians were Protestant or Catholic. The Jesuit Henry Fitzsimon took up the challenge, delivering a response to Rider on 2nd January 1602 who published a partial reply on 28 September, “the first work of controversial theology printed in Ireland” (Ford, 2007, p. 13). Fitzsimon published his replies to Rider in Douai in 1604. Rider’s reply is now lost but Fitzsimon reports him arguing for ‘a conformitie betwixt the first Christianitie planted among us, and their puritan profession’.

This was the first formal theological argument in Ireland between protestant and Catholic. It was the start of a debate which continued for forty years, shaping identities and the sense of history in both communities, along with developing sectarian hostility. As part of that development, the Church of Ireland had the choice of rejecting Patrick and the early Irish church as corrupt from the start, or embracing continuity between the early Christian community and their own.

A definitive decision on this was made by James Ussher in 1622. An Irishman born from a wealthy Dublin merchant family, he was an expert in Irish history and manuscripts, even corresponding later with Hugh Ward in Louvain. Ussher made a firm claim for Patrick in his treatise, An epistle…concerning the religion anciently professed by the Irish and Scottish, shewing it to be for substance the same with that which at this day is by publick authoritie established in the Church of England. This was reprinted in 1623 and an expanded version produced as part of Ussher’s collected works in 1631 under the title A discourse of the religion anciently professed by the Irish and British.

What Ussher set out to prove was that ‘the religion professed by the ancient bishops, priests, monks, and other Christians in this land, was for substance the very same with that which now by public authority is maintained therein, against the foreign doctrine brought in hither in latter times by the bishop of Rome’s followers.’ He argued that the original Irish church had been pure, gradually becoming more corrupt until around 1000AD when ‘the devil was set loose to procure that seduction which prevailed so generally in these last times’. To demonstate this he gathered together as many sources as possible relying especially upon Bede, St Patrick, and the saints’ lives, and two Irish theologians Sedulius and Claudius (Ford, 2007, p. 123).

Focusing on ‘things as appertain to the discipline rather than to the doctrine of the church’ (to avoid sparking internal debate in protestantism which would distract from his primary aim), Ussher argued based on Bede that the Irish originally used bibles in the venacular or, if learned, in Hebrew and Greek. Though a detailed examination of the commentaries of Sedulius and Claudius, he argued for the Irish originally believing in the primacy of grace, predestination and justification by faith alone, following Augustine of Hippo (Ford, 2007, p. 123).

Ussher went though the sacraments of the Eucharist and Penance, the doctrine of Purgatory and the understanding of the church and argued for them “shew[ing] the agreement that was betwixt our ancestors and us in matter of religion”. He praised the monasteries as ‘seminaries of the ministry … so many colleges of learned divines’, emphasising the educational aspect and showing obvious pride in their preservation of learning after the collapse of the Western Roman Empire. He argued that the later monasteries were corrupt, appealing to, among others, Richard Fitzralph in his campaign against mendicant orders (Ford, 2007, p. 124). The clear evidence of clerical sons following fathers and for communion being given under both kinds in the early medieval church were further demonstrations for Ussher than the ancient Irish Church was more protestant than Catholic.

This exercise in anachronism made sense in a time when it was believed that doctrinal truth was a given, and could be followed back unchanging through history. However, Ussher was aware that his story was one-sided. He was torn between the historian presenting what was in the texts and the propagandist building a case. He added a self-aware addendum in 1631 in which he admitted that he had had ‘to leave the instances which might be alleged for the contrary to them unto whom the maintaining of that part did properly belong’ (Ford, 2007, p. 2004).

One problem was the ongoing link to the Pope, which Ussher had to play down. So Ussher emphasised the arrival in Ireland in 1151 of the papal legate, Cardinal Paparo, which integrated well with his chronology, and argued for the Roman rite being imposed in the twelfth century as part of the church reforms carried out under Malachy. However Ussher still had to struggle to justify earlier contact for which there was evidence in the earliest days of the Irish Church.

Ussher had other problems with his thesis. He sought not only to distance the Irish church from Rome, but to distance the Irish church from Britain. He emphasised the independence of Patrick and the See of Armagh (Ford, 2007, pp. 125-6) and refuted those would make the Irish church subordinate. At the same time he sought to distinguish between the arrival of the Normans (his ancestors) and the “Romanisation” of the church. The papal bull Laudabiliter which was useful for Keating was a particular problem for Ussher. Repudiating it diminished English rights to lordship at the same as as it reduced papal claims to the island.

This account by Ussher was the earliest historical criticism of the accounts of St Patrick. Not only that but it outlined the relationship between Ireland’s past and the contemporary Church of Ireland, providing it with a foundation. However the interdenominational debate continued.

Patrick: the Apostle of Reason?

Seventy-five years later, another version of the early Christian church was constructed, this time by John Toland. Unlike the other two, it was aimed at destabilising religion rather than shoring it up. Toland’s primary project was the undermining of clerical authority (Champion, p. 192).

Though a connection, Humphrey Wanley, Toland had obtained access to a manuscript, the Codex Armachanus. This was the basis of the second part of Nazarenus published in 1718. First circulated in script form, the printed version of Nazarenus is less obviously irreligious and more ambiguous (Champion, p. 170-171).

The work used Toland’s Celtic learning (he was a native speaker of Irish), along with his wider knowledge in classical and other sources. Much like Ussher, who Toland cites, the reconstruction of this early Church is aimed at establishing a pure church from which all deviation is corruption. Given Toland’s reconstruction, the actual effect is to undermine the claims of contemporary churchmen (Champion, 2007, p. 218).

In many ways Toland’s effort runs parallel to Usshers. He argues for the independance from Rome of the early Irish Christian church, in terms of doctrine and authority. He quotes Gilbert of Limerick seeking reforms “so those different and schismatical orders, by which almost all Ireland was deluded, might give place to one Catholic and Roman office” (Letter II, p. 16). He cites Sedulius and others to argue that the early Irish Church had no images or statues, no vestments, no incense or daylight candles, no costly plate or choirs. He states there was baptism by immersion, no confession to priests, or praying for intercession or prayers for the dead or belief in Purgatory, and like Ussher, says the early Irish “hoped for salvation from the mercy of God”, not through their own merits (Letter II, p. 22).

Like Ussher, he also lauds the monasteries as places of learning, but goes even further in saying that the so-called monks were actually laymen, chosen as clergy from among the laity and the monasteries were in fact schools (Letter II, page 33).

For Toland the early Irish Christians were peaceful and learned. He quotes Jonas’ Life of Columban: “yet they flourished in the vigor of Christian doctrine, and exceeded the faith of all the neighbouring nations.” Toland comments, “This faith consisted in a right notion of God, and the constant practice of virtue.” (Letter II, p. 16.)

Toland departs from Ussher (and Keating) by happily accepting other Christian missionaries to Ireland including Palladius existed long before Patrick, though he credits Patrick with the final success. Toland can afford to acknowledge other missionaries since he has no interest in the primacy of Armagh.

In fact, he claims that true archbishops only appeared in Ireland in the tenth or eleventh century, with the title “Archbishop of Armagh” applied to Patrick a mere mark of respect. He cites a remark in Bernard’s Life of Malachius that there were “as many bishops as churches”. Toland then interprets this to mean that the term bishops actually applied to what we might call “moderators” or “overseers”. They were not bishops in the Roman Catholic or Church of Ireland sense.

All this sounds somewhat like a Presbyterian take on the early Irish church, but Toland’s remarks on Communion suggest otherwise. After saying that the early Irish church took communion in both kinds as a commemoration of Jesus, he adds “denoting their subjection to the laws of the Gospel; by which alone, and the dictates of reason, they were guided in matters of faith” (Letter II, p. 22). The importance of “the dictates of reason” bring to mind the thesis of “Christianity not Mysterious”, and Toland’s dismissal of mysteries and priestcraft. His earlier mention of ” right notion of God” suggests the same. The superficial similarities to Ussher are indeed superficial – the religion Toland attributes to Patrick’s heirs is rational and not mysterious.

There are deep differences between these three accounts of Patrick. However there is one thing they have in common. The 17th and 18th century see the first attempts to strip away the fantastical elements from Patrick’s story. Despite this the older traditions persisted and today the public perception of St Patrick remains inextricably linked with druids and chieftains, snakes and shamrock. The legend remains alive, and far removed from Patrick’s own words written in the fifth century: “I am a sinner, a simple country person, and the least of all believers.”


Thanks to Dr Patrick Walsh and Denis Stewart on Twitter who pointed out that Irish Presbyterians also laid claim to Patrick. In this History Hub podcast from the 2011 Tudor and Stuart Ireland Conference Dr Patrick Walsh discusses an early historian of the Irish Presbyterian Church, Andrew Steward under the title, “Was St.Patrick a Presbyterian?” (Soundcloud). Denis Stewart pointed out the 1893 A history of the Irish Presbyterians by W. T. Latimer (on, which makes a later claim for Patrick. Both are worth comparing to Toland’s account.


Information on the early cult of Patrick and counter-reformation developments of his life based on:
Bernadette Cunningham and Raymond Gillespie (1995) ‘The Most Adaptable of Saints’: The Cult of St Patrick in the Seventeenth Century’ in Archivium Hibernicum, Vol. 49 (1995), pp. 82-104. (JSTOR)

Also see the blog posts: The Great Scottish Debate: Duns Scotus and Eriugena, “Old Luke Wadding…said Welcome” and The Political Importance of Brian Boru

Information on inter-denominational debate on St Patrick and on Ussher’s Epistle from:
Alan Ford (2007) James Ussher: history, theology and politics in early-modern Ireland and Britain, Oxford University Press (pp. 13-14 and pp 120-127).
Alan Ford (1998) “James Ussher and the creation of an Irish Protestant identity.” In BRADSHAW, B. and ROBERTS, P., eds., British consciousness and identity: the making of Britain, 1533-1707 Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp 185-212

Further reading on the Epistle, its influence and its role as a foundation narrative for the Church of Ireland:

John McCafferty (1997) “St Patrick for the Church of Ireland: James Ussher’s Discourse” in Bullán, Vol 3, No 2. (online at

Information on Toland from:
Justin Champion (2003) Republican Learning: John Toland and the Crisis of Christian Culture, 1696-1722. Manchester University Press

John Toland (1718) Nazarenus (on

Historical Patrick contains the writings of Patrick in various languages together with other relevant documents.

HistoryHub podcast: Saint Patrick – Historical Man and Popular Myth Dr Elva Johnston (UCD) tries to separate the historical man Patrick from the mythical legend of Ireland’s patron saint.

JSTOR Daily: Will the Real St Patrick Please Stand Up?

Vox Hiberionacum is an excellent blog concentrating on Early Irish Christianity and Early Medieval Ireland: here are the posts on the Historical Patrick.

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