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The words of and about St Patrick

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

To mark St Patrick's Day, Professor Máire Ní Mhaonaigh, Director of Studies in Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic at St John's, explores some lesser known aspects of St Patrick's story and legend, through the words associated with him. Professor Ní Mhaonaigh is part of an AHRC-funded project to expand and update an electrionic Dictionary of the Irish Language.

St Patrick is most often associated today with snakes and shamrock 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 concerning the saint. Unusually for medieval saints, however, Patrick’s 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. His return visit was as a missionary, having heard the Irish calling to him in a dream, as he himself recounts. It is this aspect of Patrick’s Life which was described, developed and embellished by later writers to create the figure we now associate with Patrick the saint.

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 (www.dil.ie), a treasure-trove of words, phrases, and cultural concepts, easily searchable on-line (using Gaelic and English search terms). 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. Searching for ‘Patrick’ currently results in 139 hits, all relating to the saint. Further entries concerning him form part of the research database being developed within the ongoing project; these results will be incorporated into the electronic Dictionary and published during 2019. As a foretaste, we can reveal that Patrick is referred to in a memorable phrase involving the word ‘foot’ (cos): (see the project’s Word of the Week for the week in which St Patrick’s Day fell last year: https://www.facebook.com/1559061804342736/photos/a.1594668034115446.1073741827.1559061804342736/1707393606176221/?type=3&theater)

eDIL, as the Dictionary is known, reveals the name by which Patrick was originally known in Ireland, Cothraige (dil.ie/12673); but it also provides access to nicknames associated with the saint. He was commonly known as in Tálchend ‘the adze-head’, a reference to the shape of his Christian tonsure (dil.ie/39935). 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’ (dil.ie/5068)! Unsurprisingly, 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 (dil.ie/5792). Another is termed In Findfaídech (literally ‘the fair lamenter’, dil.ie/21071), an allusion perhaps to its not so melodious tone.

What the melody of a hymn which remains linked to St Patrick today through its modern title ‘St Patrick’s Breastplate’ may have been like is unknown. There are a number of references to it as féth faída in early sources (dil.ie/21819). The phrase alludes to a magic mist which 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 corselet (dil.ie/31029) 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 hagiography in Latin 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 also emphasise his connection with poetry and learning in other ways. Since history meant written history and since writing came to Ireland with Christianity (the religion of the book) which was said to have been brought by Patrick, he was a pivotal figure in the narrative of Ireland’s Christian history carefully crafted by the learned classes. Thus, 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 underwent conversion, and three scholars. Patrick’s authority was enshrined in the name given to it, ‘Patrick’s law’ (cáin Phátraic). 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 (dil.ie/7786).

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’. Somewhat unsure as to how much time should be devoted to secular literature, the saint receives a visit from his two guardian angels, Aibelán and Solusbrethach, who put his conscience at rest and pronounce that this material should be preserved in writing. In this way can 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, ‘a thread of poetry’ (súainem filidechta) was put on it for the saint (dil.ie/39071).

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 teinm 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 (see dil.ie/27294, dil.ie/40394 and dil.ie/16103). 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 (www.dil.ie and also on the project’s Facebook page).

Incidentally, you will also find ‘snake’ and ‘shamrock’ in eDIL but in those entries Patrick himself is nowhere to be found (dil.ie/37078 and dil.ie/33000). 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.