Assoc. Prof. Elva Johnston: ‘Scottish Saints in Early Irish Martyrologies: Evolving Traditions?’

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Blog Author: Isla Parker

On the 23rd of February, the Centre for Scottish and Celtic Studies was delighted to welcome Elva Johnston for her seminar ‘Scottish Saints in Early Irish Martyrologies: Evolving Traditions?’ Currently Associate Professor of History at University College Dublin, Johnston has published extensively on late antique and early medieval Irish history with a specific interest in conversion, literacy, materiality, sanctity and sexuality. Johnston’s seminar for the Centre drew upon her most recent research into the saints of the early medieval Irish martyrologies.

Martyrologies, Johnston began, were lists of martyred saints according to death date. Medieval Irish martyrologies may appear in this structure though some include locations for the saints, poems and occasionally narratives. The core text for this seminar was the Martyrology of Tallaght, dated to the eighth- or ninth-century, which lists names without additional information. Johnston drew also upon the Martyrology of Óengus (Félire Óengusso), which used Tallaght as a source text, the commentary texts to the martyrologies dating from the ninth- to the eleventh-centuries, and the twelfth-century Martyrology of Gorman. Although Gorman survives only in one transcription from the seventeenth-century, the author is known. He was Maél Muire, a twelfth-century church reformer and abbot, who made use of the martyrologies of Tallaght and Óengus to construct Gorman. Marginal glosses and toponymic notes in Máel Muire’s manuscript provide additional information for the reader. Although it is often assumed that these were written by Máel Muire himself, Johnston highlighted the possibility that the notes were added by a later author.

In the scholarship, early Irish martyrologies are conventionally converged to form a single, chronologically-flat source for saints’ names and cults. However, as Johnston pointed out, this approach obscures differences and changes made between the texts. In this presentation, Johnston decided to approach the martyrologies as chronologically distinct. This method enabled her to observe changes in the inclusion of British and Scottish saints over time and further speculate about the attitudes of Irish writers to their neighbours across the Irish Sea.

Johnston defined “Scottish” saints as those connected to sites located in modern-day Scotland, choosing to focus specifically on “non-Iona” saints which have historically received less scholarly attention. Scottish saints in Irish manuscripts can, however, be difficult to identify given that there was a lot of travel back and forth between Scotland and Ireland in this period and that Scottish names may be Gaelicised. Nevertheless, within the nearly 2,000 different named saints in the Martyrology of Tallaght, fifteen can be identified as saints with Scottish cults, two are Pictish saints, four saints have Scottish and Irish cults, four have Pictish and Gaelic associations and a further twenty named saints are associated with Iona. The “non-Iona” Scottish saints were geographically spread from Applecross in the north-west to St Andrews in the east.

Johnston then turned to the ninth-century Félire Óengusso. She concluded that ten of the twenty-three Northern British saints in Tallaght receive verse mentions in the Félire. This is an important observation since most of the Gaelic saints do not find their way into the later text but nearly half of the Northern British saints do and almost all of the Iona saints. Johnston concluded that the author of the Félire selected his saints carefully and thus we can compare this text with others to identify changes over time. The Tallaght and Félire together indicate an ongoing and engaged interest in saints from Northern Britain by Irish writers.

The “commentaries” to the martyrologies which date from the ninth- to the eleventh-centuries are quite often flawed in their detail. Eigg is variously a river and an island and saints’ names are frequently Hibernicised. However, the discrepancies in detail between this material and the later Martyrology of Gorman can yield some interesting insights into the history of Scottish-Irish connections. Johnston gave a brief introduction to the twelfth-century “world of Máel Muire”, the author of Gorman. This world, Johnston explained, was being profoundly reshaped politically, socially and ecclesiastically. In the face of invading Normans, Máel’s ambition may have been to emphasise the value of the Gaelic tradition of saints. The Martyrology of Gorman, which adds two saints to the non-Iona group, indicates that Máel Muire had a strong understanding of and engaged interest in Scottish saints. While it is difficult to ascertain why he includes additional saints and who his sources were, the developments in his manuscript reflect changing knowledge and importance associated with Scottish saints in Ireland. Furthermore, while scholarship is keen to focus on the transport of saints from Ireland to Scotland, the Martyrology of Gorman, and indeed the martyrologies of Tallaght and Óengus, illuminate movement of saints and cults from Scotland to Ireland, an altogether under-researched area.

Johnston concluded that the medieval Irish martyrologies reflect a close connection between ecclesiastical foundations in Northern Britain, Scotland and Ireland. The author of the Félire of the ninth-century displays an interest in Scottish saints but is highly selective about the cults he includes. By Máel Muire’s twelfth-century, the social and political context is profoundly changed resulting in a re-articulation of older traditions.

Johnston’s decision to approach her source material as a series of distinct texts enabled her to identify changes that medieval authors made and begin to speculate and theorise why they made these decisions. Johnston’s insightful presentation offered a methodology for future research into the changing attitudes of Irish writers towards Scottish saints.  

Thanks and credit goes to Elva Johnston, presenter Prof. Thomas Clancy, and Catriona MacDonald and Gina Lyle at the Centre for Scottish and Celtic Studies for their professionalism and resilience following the disrupted start to proceedings.

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