‘Narrating the Irish story of conversion: the earliest lives of St Patrick and the formation of Irish Christian identity’

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On 19 April, 2016, the Centre for Scottish and Celtic Studies welcomed Katja Ritari (Helsinki) to discuss ‘Narrating the Irish story of conversion: the earliest lives of St Patrick and the formation of Irish Christian identity.’ Below is this listener’s brief summary of the lecture.

Katja began by stating that the process of conversion is referred to as a “transformation into a chosen people” in 1 Peter 2:9-11. She argued that this concept played a central role in Irish Christian communal identity. She used the two earliest Lives of St. Patrick dating to the second half of the seventh century, one written by the historian Muirchú and the other by Tirechán, to explore the ways in which these texts used conversion to define Irish identity as a Christian nation. By narrating the origin of this group, these historians played a key role in the construction of the collective memory of the group. While research in early medieval identity traditionally focuses on ethnic divisions, but this discounts the importance of religion in the formation of identity.



Katja stated that, in Muirchú’s narrative, the collective identity of the Christian Irish was defined primarily by their religious beliefs. Muirchú described the pagan Irish as barbarians prior to their conversion. Even though these people he described are the forefathers of the Irish Christians, their barbarian ancestors are excluded from the communal identity constructed by Muirchú. Although St Patrick was an outsider from Britain, because he was chosen by God to preach to the Irish, he is a member, the Bishop of all Ireland, the perceived father of the entire group. In fact, Muirchú states that St Patrick will be the one to judge all of the Irish on Judgement Day. Religion, not ethnicity or kinship, was the distinguishing factor in determining who belonged to this collective identity.

Both Muirchú and Tirechán described confrontations between St. Patrick and the druids of the pagan King Loiguire, who ruled from the palace of Tara. Both texts describe various miracles St. Patrick performed in order to prove God’s might to the pagans on Easter. In Muirchú’s account, the King agreed to convert to Christianity, as “it is better that I believe rather than I die.” In Tirechán’s narrative, the same king stated that he cannot accept this new faith because he was tied to his ancestral customs, but promises St. Patrick safeguard as he travels through his realm. In many of the stories provided by these two authors, baptism is equated with birth, or a new life, while paganism is associated with death.

Katja stated that one of the most interesting episode in Tirechán’s text concerns the two daughters of Loiguire, Ethne and Fedelm. These two maidens encounter St. Patrick and his bishops as the girls are going to bathe. The conversation that follows appears to be how Tirechán imagined pagans would inquire about Christianity. They asked many questions, what his God looked like, where he was from, where was he, did he have gold and silver, how is he seen and found? After teaching them about God, St. Patrick asked them if they were ready to believe. The maidens affirmed that they were, after which St. Patrick baptised them. The girls then demanded to see Christ face-to-face, which he explained they could only do after death, and after receiving the sacrament. After the girls took the Eucharist, they died immediately.

A similar account is given in Muirchú’s text, although this episode featured a pagan British princess named Monesan. Because she was naturally full of the Holy Spirit, she had pestered her pagan parents about who had made the world. After her parents brought her to St. Patrick, she was similarly questioned and baptised, after which she promptly died in order to see Christ face-to-face. In these narratives it is stated that the remains of each of these converted pagan girls became relics and were housed in various churches. Katja argued that the structural parallels of these episodes represent Christian life in a condensed form, from the baptismal font to the grave to heaven. These episodes focus on conversion on a personal level.

These maidens also represent “good pagans,” or those that are pagan but are natural law of the Holy Spirit and are accepting of the Christian faith if given the chance. These narratives also include accounts of St. Patrick raising dead pagans in order to give them the chance to convert to Christianity. Others, like Mac Cuill maccu Greccae, was a particularly cruel barbarian who is convinced to convert to Christianity. However, baptism alone was not enough to forgive his many sins, so he was required to undertake an additional penance. He was transformed from a hateful barbarian to an exemplary Christian.

Katja concluded by stating that the narratives of Muirchú and Tirechán illustrate the personal experiences and communal identity of seventh century Irish Christians by contrasting their customs and beliefs with those of the pagans. While their writing was influenced by the religious and ethnic identity of that time, the hagiographers still took an active part in creating this identity by choosing which of the conflicting opinions and tales they would incorporate into their narrative. They agreed on the version of the path in which St. Patrick was the sole converter of the Irish and in which he will be the judge of the Irish in the afterlife. They also used these claims in order to assert their political agenda, especially in the case of the ecclesiastical supremacy of Armagh, St. Patrick’s chosen heirs. The hagiographers moulded the Irish Christian identity of people by telling them who they are and where they came from.

For more of Katja Ritari’s work, please see her already published “Saints and Sinners in Early Christian Ireland: Moral Theology in the Lives of Saints Brigit and Columba” (ISBN: 978-2-503-53315-5), and her soon-to-be-published “Pilgrimage to Heaven: Eschatology and Monastic Spirituality in Early Medieval Ireland.

Summary by Megan Kasten (PhD Researcher)

Our seminar series continues on 26 March 2016 with Fraser Hunter and Martin Goldberg (National Museums of Scotland) to discuss ‘Looking behind Celts: views from an exhibition.’ This will be held in Room 202, 3 University Gardens at 5.30pm.

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