St. Patrick and Irish Logos


The Era of Saint Patrick

In the fifth period of the Gaels era, the Irishmen underlined the Saint Patrick era, who Christianized Ireland in the 5th century. Before him, the chronicle spoke of bishop Palladius, who came to Ireland in 431, sent by Rome, but his image was traditionally merged with Saint Patrick.

The Celts didn’t regard the Christianization as a radical and revolution identity change, as the peculiarity of the Irish Christianity and Celts Church, in general, compared to many other European societies, wasn’t strictly opposite to the local pre-Christian myth, but included it mildly and smoothly in their spiritual culture. Thus, many Druids and mythological characters were Christianized, and the Christian saints and disciples turned into the new version of the Druids. Irish Christianity is a unique example of the harmonized integration of pre-Christian traditions into a new religion.

Saint Patrick was a Catholic Briton who became the main figure of Christianity’s extension. Together with Saint Columba and Saint Brigit, he is the one of Ireland's patron saints and the founder of the Irish Church. Sometimes Saint Patrick is called the “apostle of Ireland”. When he was young, Irish pirates kidnapped him, so he had to spend many years in Ireland. Upon coming back to Britain, he became a priest and went again to Ireland as a missionary. According to the old tradition, Saint Germanus of Auxerre consecrated a bishop.

Saint Patrick, at the time, was a stranger for Irish society as he was a Briton, promoted a new religion, and refused to integrate into current society. His sermon attracted many people, including noble and rich persons. He was consecrating priests, building churches, and expanding Christianity heartily. For the Irish people, the creation of nunneries was unusual, but Saint Patrick was able to Christianize many (sometimes quite influential) women; the hagiographers noted the popularity of his sermon of Christ amongst the women. At the same time, his opponents were the Druids, who regarded the new religion as the threat to their faith.

Guyonvarc'h and Le Roux fairly noted that:

Before Saint Patrick’s arrival, Ireland was heathen, but after it became Christian: the evangelization, no matter the details, was the exploit of one great missionary. It’s evident this mystery isn’t explained by the only personality of the founder of the historic and Christian Ireland, who was one of the greatest mythical personage of pre-Christian Ireland’s last years. i

Saint Patrick founded the center of the church mission in the North of Ireland (Ulster) in Armagh; a place that was sacred for the Gaels, where the goddess Macha was consecrated (she named this place: “Macha's height”, Ard Mhacha). Together with two other goddess: Badb and Morrígan (Anand), she was included into the triad of the ancient Celtic goddesses (Morringna). All three goddesses were responsible for the sovereignty, wars, death, and tragic events (misfortune, disasters) of the Second Indo-European Function, with an emphasis on the negative side.

Armagh became the Archiepiscopal Cathedra for the whole of Celtic Christianity, influencing parishes, dioceses, and monasteries.

Guyonvarc'h and Le Roux stated that with his sermon of Christianity, Saint Patrick managed to avoid a severe confrontation between new and old religions.

In the 8th century, Saint Patrick, as his main hagiographer Muirchu said, came to Tara and first Christianized King Laoghaire, his daughters, his warriors, and his Druids. The hagiographers wrote that this happened in 432 BC. Several years later, the whole of Ireland was Christianized without confrontation or martyrs.

It seems more like a legend than history, as the king asked for the wonder of Christianization, and Saint Patrick obeyed. He made Cú Chulainn appear in his chariot. He praised the bliss of heaven and warned of the torments of hell. Saint Patrick then reviewed all the Irish laws to bring them into accord with Christianity. The Filis lost their right to read and use their most dangerous heathen spells, and the Druids’ sacrifices were bannedii.

Compared to other nations, Irish Christianization was mild and smooth, in fact, as Guyonvarc'h and Le Roux noted, if Saint Patrick and other Christian preachers (especially Saint Columba) didn’t defended their new truth spiritually, they wouldn’t have managed such a great campaign.

During his apostolic mission, Patrick showed himself to be an active fighter for Christianity, and for more effective conviction he killed, burned, cursed, and defeated his adversaries with stronger magic than their spells. It was quite normal, as his Druid was Christ, and he is stronger than the others. The disputes of Patrick and Columba with the Druids were more magical then theological. One Druid from Tara made it show heavily, but was unable to melt it. The other one suddenly made impenetrable darkness. And Patrick made the sun come back with one word. In one of the Christian mythological legends, a saint came to fight with Aengus, the son of the Dagdaiii.

The whole structure of Celtic Christianity is full of similarities with the ancient traditions. Thus, the oldest and the main Celtic festival Samhain, when the 'doorways' to the Otherworld (sídhe) opened, different miracles were possible that led to Halloween, giving it a special symbolic context.

The famous shamrock, which, according to the legend, was used by Saint Patrick to explain the dogmas of the Trinity, used to be a Druid symbol that represented the war goddess triad.

Irish Christianity became the center of spiritual development not only for Britain, but also for Western Europe, and the Irish monkhood was one of the most outstanding and mystical in Europe. And it is very symbolic that the first Medieval French philosopher Johannes Scot Eriugena was an Irishman.

The Medieval histories of the Round Table, King Arthur, and the Holy Grail were the combination of the old Celtic sacral legends and Christian traditions.

It is significant that the Irish people remained faithful to Catholicism in its Irish form, rejecting Puritanism, as well as Anglicanism in all periods of their history. This Irish-Catholic identity should be regarded within the context of deep synthesis as it complexly differs from the Catholic traditions of Spain, Portuguese, Italy, Austria, Germany, Poland, and France.

Tuan mac Cairill, Fintan mac Bóchra, and Christianized Swans

As an example of Celtic Catholicism, we can quote the history of Tuan mac Cairilli. He united the different layers of the Irish sacredness: of time and space.

One of the greatest followers of Saint Patrick is Finnian of Moville (495 AD - 589 AD) who traveled across Ireland, extending Christianity. One day he met a man who was known to be the best in Ireland’s history. It was the priest whom Finnian was talking after they both gathered Sunday mass. He introduced himself as: “I am of the men of Ulster. I am Tuan, son of Cairell, son of Muredach Red-neck, and these are the hereditary lands of my father. I am indeed Tuan, the son of Starn, the son of Sera, who was brother to Partholon, that was my name of yore at first”. That means that the hero should be about 2000 years old at the time of the story, as Partholon’s period was the first one in Ireland’s history. Then he said that he had lived 100 years as a man in Partholon’s era, 20 years – as a wild boar in the Nemedian period, 80 years – as a deer in the Fir period, 100 years – as great hawk in the Tuatha Dé Danann era, 100 years – as a salmon under the sea, then 100 years as a man and met Finnian. Thus, he remembered all the historical events, as he was a witness to them.

Tuan explains his last reborn from a salmon to a man:

Once, however, when God, my help, deemed it time, and when the beasts were pursuing me, and every fisherman in every pool knew me, the fisherman of Cairell, the king of that land, caught me and took me with him to Cairell's wife, who had a desire for fish. Indeed I remember it; the man put me on a gridiron and roasted me. And the queen desired me and ate me by herself, so that I was in her womb. Again, I remember the time that I was in her womb, and what each one said to her in the house, and what was done in Ireland during that time. I also remember when speech came to me, as it comes to any man, and I knew all that was being done in Ireland, and I was a seer; and a name was given to me — to wit, Tuan, son of Cairell. Thereupon Patrick came with the faith to Ireland. Then I was of great age; and I was baptized, and alone believed in the King of all things with his elementsii.

This history is one of many that shows the relationship of Irish Christians towards the pre-Christian tradition. It is significant that Saint Finnian treated Tuan as a senior, and their dialog was formed as the dialogue between two druids: one (Finnian) asked the other one (Tuan).

The history of Tuan mac Cairill is similar to the one of the bard Taliesin, recounting his births and transformations through the history of humanity. Tuan mac Cairill is the Irish version of immortal essence, transforming from one state to another, changing bodies and time, but keeping the semantics of the history of the nation. This inner connection to the sacred structure, including all time changes: past, present and future, in its sense is the paradigm of the druids’ culture, based not only on the memories of the events, but on comprehension of general logic of national events. The invariability of this axis composes the conditions for the continuity of cultural identity: Tuan mac Cairill is the name of someone who makes an Irishman an Irishman, as Taliesin is someone who makes a Welshman a Welshman. The Christian context of this legend is crucial, in fact, being a salmon, a wild boar, a hawk, a deer, and a human being; the creature finally became an anchorite, a monk, gathering the Sunday mass with followers of Saint Patrick. It isn’t just an adaptation of Irish Dasein in the Christian tradition; it is a strict establishment of proportion that defines the new religion’s relationship, under full acceptation of its dogmas, towards the old one – the next, higher semantic element.

Guyonvarc’h and Le Rouxiii pay attention to the symbolism of creatures, which Tuan mac Cairill turned into, and associates them with the relevant period of Ireland’s history.

In the Partholón era – Tuan mac Cairill is a human (Druid);

In the Nemedia era – a deer;

In the Fir Bolg era – a wild boar;

In the Tuatha Dé Danann era – a hawk;

In the Gaels era – a salmon;

In the Saint Patrick era – a monk, a priest.

Thus, there is a full cycle going beyond the human being (from the sacred priest view) and returning to the same state, but in an updated form of the Christian. This transformation has an eschatological character: the objective of human metamorphosis becomes a human incarnation in the St. Patrick era, the Christianization and the salvation.

Another quite similar character is Fintan mac Bóchra, sometimes called husband of Cessair, the first woman to sail to Ireland. In the story of the Manor of Tara, he says that he witnessed his wife and all other first settlers being flooded, and he survived by turning into a salmon. Later, he was an eagle and a hawk, and then a man and an adviser of different kings of Ireland of many generations (from Partholón to Mil). In particular, he participated in Cath Maige Tuired. Only a mysterious hawk lived as long as he, which Fintan mac Bóchra met later and used to talk about his memories with. Fintan and the hawk decided to leave the world of men in the 5th century after Ireland’s Christianization, both being true faithful Christians.iv

Another interesting story is the part of the Mythological cycle. It is about three sons and a daughter (Aodh and twins, Fiachra and Conn, Finnguala) of King Lir, who lived in the Tuatha Dé Danann era and were people of that generation. Three sons and a daughter, born to King Lir by Aoibh, his first wife was beautiful and friendly. But when their mother died, the king married her sister Ayofe, who disliked her nephews and niece for their beauty and love to each other and to their father. She was unable to kill them, but used her magic to turn the children into four white swans, promising to get them back to normal, when the Queen of the South and the King of the North got married and when the monk blessed them. Ayofe was forever turned into an angry demon of the air by their father.

For three hundred years the swans lived on the same lake, three hundred years on the sea between Ireland and Scotland, and the three hundred years off the island of Inis Gluaire. The swans had the most beautiful voice in the world, and the Irish admired their songs for many centuries.

At this time, Saint Patrick came to Ireland, thus, the first monks appeared. St. Patrick's follower, a monk from Inis Gluaire, named MacCaomhog, took the swans up to the church. The swans liked to listen to the masses and the church clock. He tied them to one another with silver chains, but these chains were not a burden to them.

When the silver chains were broken (according to one version, after the king was leaving the sanctuary with the swans, the bell of the church tolled, releasing them from the spell, on the other –the Queen wanted the swans for her own, so she ordered her husband Lairgean to attack the monastery and seize the swans), the swans became old men (as they were more than 900 years old), and they asked MacCaomhog to baptize them, and afterwards they died. They were all buried together.

i Guyonvarc’h Ch. Le Roux F. Le druides

ii Guyonvarc’h Ch. Le Roux F. Le druides

iii Guyonvarc’h Ch. Le Roux F. Le druides

iv Ibid.

i La Civilisation celtique, avec la coll. de Françoise Le Roux, Ouest-France Université, coll. « De mémoire d’homme : l’histoire », Rennes, 1990

ii Ibid.

iii Ibid.