The Classical Association in Northern Ireland’s 2017-2018 public programme was successfully launched, as an impressive crowd braved the miserable autumn weather to attend Dr Elizabeth Dawson’s lecture on “The Earliest Latin Lives of St Patrick: Hagiography and History”.
Having completed a PhD in early medieval history at UCD, Dr Dawson is currently a lecturer of history at Queen’s University Belfast, focusing on the cults and lives of early Christian saints, and the development of the Patrician cult from the fifth to twelfth century.
Dr Dawson began her talk by discussing the fifth century writings of St Patrick; the ‘real’ Patrick. The Confessio and Epistola ad Coroticum are the only surviving Latin works that can be attributed to Patricks own authorship. All information regarding the ‘real’ Patrick is gathered from these two highly significant sources. The Epistola is a letter of denunciation against a chieftain named Coroticus. Dr Dawson explained that with this source the historian gains an insight into Irish conversation in the 4th/5th century.
However, Patrick’s Confessio is more informative. Written as a defence against his ecclesiastical superiors in the British church, the Confessio provides crucial biographical information. Patrick (born c.410) was of Romano-British origin and was brought to Ireland as a slave at a young age, escaping after six years. Patrick then became a priest and when encouraged by a vision he returned to Ireland as a missionary. There is currently a scholarly dispute on how well-educated Patrick was. Dr Dawson stated that she agrees with David Howlett who claims that Patrick must have been relatively well-educated to have written the Confessio and the Epistola ad Coroticum.
A major part of Dr Dawson’s talk was dedicated to two 7th century hagiographers, Tírechán and Muirchú. These two earliest Latin lives are not only essential to the establishing of the narrative of St Patrick but also to gain an understanding of Irish politics and society in the 7th century. However, both are accused of being Armagh propagandists (especially Muirchú) who were trying to use the authority of St Patrick as a way for Armagh to establish ecclesiastical dominance in Ireland.
There is very little biographical information on Tírechán as he does not feature in any annals or genealogies. All information we have on the hagiographer comes from the Book of Armagh which was written two centuries later. Dr Dawson labels Tírechán the ‘underdog’ of the two writers since he is often criticized by academics for his ‘crude writing’ and ‘low Latinity’. But there is merit to be found in Tírechán’s Collectanea, as he names numerous locations, cult sites, dynasties and early church characters.
Dr Dawson then proceeded to discuss the Vita that was constructed by Muirchú, whose hagiography has seen more academic treatment than that of Tírechán. Muirchú appears to have been of greater social importance than his fellow hagiographer, as he is a signatory on the Lex Innocentium; a treaty created to help protect innocents during times of war. Furthermore, Muirchú claims to be the foster son of Cogitosus, the author of St Bridget’s Vita, which would suggest that he comes from a hagiographical tradition. Dr Dawson explained that miracles feature heavily in Muirchú’s Life of St Patrick, especially where Patrick was trying to convert local kings. In many of the conversion stories the Irish kings were faced with two choices; conversion or divine retribution culminating in the king’s death. Dr Dawson claimed that the purpose of these stories was to show that Christianity was superior to secular power. Muirchú was using the conversion stories as an analogy; ecclesiastical Armagh was St Patrick and the secular powers were the pagan kings.
Dr Dawson concluded her lecture by showing that although the two Latin lives were narratively different, when woven together they provide an interesting picture not only of St Patrick but also of politics, society and the Patrician cult in 7th century Ireland. The Classical Association in Northern Ireland are extremely grateful to have had an expert on Patrician hagiography on our 2017-2018 event programme.
Check out our Gallery of photos from this event.