Posted in 1689 & earlier: Medieval and Early Modern James Ussher John Toland Patrick

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.
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Posted in 1689 & earlier: Medieval and Early Modern

The Political Importance of Brian Boru

Brian Boru from Geoffrey Keating's General History of Ireland, printed in 1723.
Brian Boru from Geoffrey Keating’s General History of Ireland (1723)
© Marsh’s Library (CC)

The Battle of Clontarf was fought on the 23th April 1014 at Clontarf, near Dublin. The history of early Ireland, Foras Feasa ar Éirinn (literally Foundation of Knowledge on Ireland though often known as The History of Ireland) by Geoffrey Keating gives one of the best known early descriptions of the Battle of Clontarf. A (heavily criticised) 1723 English language translation of the Foras by Dermot O’Connor contains the first printed image of Brian Boru, shown above. The original work was written in Irish.

Apart from its historical interest, the book plays a part in the history of Irish thought. The Feasa is intended not merely to document events but to put forward a particular viewpoint – to defend Ireland against criticisms going back as far as Gerald of Wales, to outline the relationship of Ireland to the English king and define Irish identity.

The work also includes the concept of rule by consent, an idea that became very important in the 17th and 18th centuries [FFÉ, p. 183]:

We do not read in the seanchas that there was ever any king of Ireland from the time of Slainghe to the Norman invasion but a king who obtained the sovereignty of Ireland by the choice of the people, by the excellence of his exploits, and by the strength of his hand.

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