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The Unsilent Saint: St Patrick and the Irish Language

In celebration of St Patrick's Day, Professor Máire Ní Mhaonaigh of the University of Cambridge's Department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse, and Celtic tells us about Ireland's patron saint, and how digitization of medieval texts has helped reveal for all the history of the much-loved Irish saint.

Definition of Imprimatur
St Patrick stained glass window from St Patrick Catholic Church, Ohio, photo by Nheyob, via Wikimedia Commons

"St Patrick is most often associated today with snakes and shamrock", Prof. Ní Mhaonaigh pointed out, "though neither the story of how he rid Ireland of the former, nor his use of the three-leafed plant to explain the nature of the Trinity forms part of the earliest material we have about him."

Unlike St David, texts written by St Patrick himself have survived, which have been translated and digitized.

"This is highly unusual for a medieval saint", explained Prof. Ní Mhaonaigh. "His own writings have survived in the form of two fifth-century letters."

"One of these, known as the Confessio (‘Confession’) provides important information on his life, and supply other well-known facts about the saint, including his British origin and the fact that he first went to Ireland as a slave. In the Confessio, Patrick tells us that, having heard the Irish calling to him in a dream, he returned to Ireland as a missionary. It is this aspect of Patrick’s Life that was described, developed, and embellished by later writers that has led to the creation of the figure we now associate with Patrick the saint."

The second surviving document written by Patrick is Epistola ad milites Corotici (Letter to the soldiers of Croticus).

"Patrick’s medieval persona was significant, and much information concerning Patrick as depicted in early texts is contained within the electronic Dictionary of the Irish language (eDIL), a treasure-trove of words, phrases, and cultural concepts, easily searchable on-line (using Gaelic and English search terms)."

Saul Church, County Down
Saul Church, County Down: Tradition also holds that this is where St Patrick died. Photo courtesy of Fiona Edmonds

The AHRC is currently funding a five-year project based at Queen’s University Belfast and the University of Cambridge, which will result in around 4,000 further additions to this already extensive resource, which is free-to-access for the public.

"Searching for ‘Patrick’ in eDIL, as the Dictionary is known, currently results in 139 hits". This relatively large number of hits all relate to the saint, explained Prof. Ní Mhaonaigh. "Further entries concerning St Patrick form part of the research database currently being developed within the ongoing project. These results will be incorporated into the electronic Dictionary and published during 2019".

As a foretaste, Ní Mhaonaigh revealed that Patrick is referred to in a memorable phrase involving the word ‘foot’ (cos). You can read more about this the on the project's Facebook page.

"eDIL also reveals the name by which Patrick was originally known in Ireland - Cothraige; but it also provides access to nicknames associated with the saint."

"He was commonly known as Tálcend ‘the adze-head", Prof. Ní Mhaonaigh said, "which is a reference to the shape of his Christian tonsure. Another feature of his head must have responsible for a different appellative applied to him, according to a ninth-century Glossary attributed to a king of Munster, Cormac son of Cuilennán, ‘Bablóir' (the babbler)!"

"Patrick is frequently linked with bells, including a famous object he was said to have bequeathed to the Church of Armagh. One such bell is called Bethechán, named after the birch (beithe) which grew through its handle after Patrick threw it into a wood. Another is termed In Findfaídech, which literally means ‘the fair lamenter’. It's an allusion perhaps to its not so melodious tone."

Definition of Tonsure

"It is unknown as to what the melody of a hymn linked to St Patrick today through its modern title ‘St Patrick’s Breastplate’ may have been like. There are a number of references to it as féth faída in early sources. The phrase alludes to a magic mist that rendered those covered by it invisible, and it could be conjured up by Ireland’s pre-Christian gods, the Tuatha Dé Danann. In Patrick’s case, the hymn itself was to act as a kind of lúirech (corselet) to protect the saint against the pagan king of Tara, Láegaire son of Niall, and to render him in that way invincible – and invisible – to deadly enemies. Patrick’s dramatic encounter with King Láegaire and his druids is found in seventh-century Latin hagiography, which represents an important stage in the development of the legend of the saint. The Old Irish poem which contains the well-known lines ‘Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me’ etc. (Críst lim, Críst reum, Críst im degaid) was also composed much later than St Patrick’s time, and is recorded in an eleventh-century collection of hymns."

"The medieval sources emphasise Patrick's connection with poetry and learning in other ways", explained Prof. Ní Mhaonaigh. "Since history meant ‘written history’, and writing came to Ireland with Christianity - which was considered to be the religion of the book - and Christianity is said to have been brought by Patrick, he was therefore a pivotal figure in the narrative of Ireland’s Christian history, carefully crafted by the medieval learned classes."

"In an eighth-century prologue to a large collection of legal texts known as the Senchas Már (‘Great Lore’), the laws of Ireland were said to have been written under Patrick’s direction by a consortium of nine men, comprising three bishops (including Patrick himself), three kings, including King Láegaire who had undergone conversion, and three scholars. Patrick’s authority was enshrined in the name given to it, cáin Phátraic (Patrick's Law). A specific law associated with Patrick’s church of Armagh, is similarly termed Cáin Phátraic, and is cited as one of the four main ecclesiastical laws of Ireland. Its particular stipulation was that clerics should not be killed."

"Writing of other kinds was also given Patrick’s imprimatur, according to a late twelfth-century narrative, Acallam na Senórach ‘The Colloquy of the Ancients’.

Definition of Imprimatur

In 'The Colloquy of the Ancients’, there is a delightful story of how St Patrick was visited by guardian angels to helped him decide how much time to spend reading secular literature.

"The saint receives a visit from his two guardian angels, called Aibelán and Solusbrethach", Prof. Ní Mhaonaigh explained. "The angels put Patrick's conscience at rest, and pronounce that this material should be preserved in writing."

"In this way stories concerned with pre-Christian characters and events also come to be an authorised part of a continuous history of Ireland stretching back to the pagan past. As one medieval commentator put it when noting how the historical lore of Ireland was assembled for Patrick, (súainem filidechta) ‘a thread of poetry’was put on it for the saint."

"Patrick’s interaction with that pagan past has many facets and he is said to have forbidden two types of divinatory incantation - imbas forosnai and tenim laída. A third, however, díchetal do chennaib, continued to be permitted since Patrick deemed it harmless as it involved no pagan rites. The fanciful names and the wonderful details of these rituals are explained and expounded by medieval authors. And as for Patrick’s own incantation, his favourite exclamation was allegedly debroth! Its meaning and usage are set out in eDIL, and in honour of St Patrick it is currently the project’s Word of the Week on the website and Facebook page."

"Incidentally, you will also find 'snake' and 'shamrock' in eDIL, but in those entries Patrick himself is nowhere to be found - nor will the publication of the revised website in 2019 alter that. It will change numerous other entries, however, as well as adding many new ones, the result of research undertaken under the auspices of the AHRC. That research will also give us a greater insight into the medieval sources that provide us with our picture of the saint."

You can follow the project on Twitter @eDIL_Dictionary

Extract from St Patrick's Confessio


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