Opinion: a cleric who lived 200 years after St Patrick's death is the one responsible for many of the stories around the saint's life

About 200 years after the death of Patrick, the powerful church of Armagh was jockeying for position as the head of the Irish church. Like any good election campaign, they needed a plausible poster-boy and a clear, cohesive message and a cleric called Muirchú was given the task of creating a narrative about St Patrick.

Much of what we "know" about the saint was carefully constructed by Muirchú. Heavily influenced by the Bible and other key early Christian texts, he composed a lively tale, the "Life of St Patrick", which presents Patrick as a conquering Christian hero. He spin doctored the image of Patrick to such a degree that the actual personal accounts written by the saint himself (his so-called "Confession" and his "Letter to Soldiers of Coroticus") became largely irrelevant in contributing to his public persona.

Elements of history that did not fit with this image were conveniently swept aside. For example, we know from other historical sources that a bishop, Palladius, was sent to Ireland in 431 by Pope Celestine to "the Irish believing in Christ". However, Patrick’s role in converting the whole of Ireland to Christianity is central to Muirchú’s story, so Palladius has to be side-stepped by Muirchú who implies the bishop did not really like it in Ireland, left shortly after he arrived and unceremoniously died on his journey home.

From RTÉ Archives, Patrick Caulfield tells the legend of of St Patrick’s confrontation with the pagan god Cromduff which saw Co Mayo's Dún Briste separated by the saint from the mainland

The path now clear, Muirchú depicts Patrick as a superhero, vanquishing paganism in Ireland after an epic showdown on the hill of Tara with King Loíguire’s head magicians. Patrick picks this fight by lighting an Easter fire, visible on a hill, in direct breach of the king’s orders. (Patrick’s fire represents the Christian religion which, it is foretold, will burn brightly on this island forever.)

Incensed by this disobedience, Loíguire instructs his magicians to destroy Patrick. With God on his side, Patrick disposes of the first magician quickly and brutally, Lochru being miraculously hoisted into the air and dropped, smashing his skull against a stone. The next day, according to Muirchú, Patrick has a fierce battle with the magician Lucet Máel involving poison, weather manipulation and trial by water, which culminates in Lucet Máel getting burned alive. The end result of all this supernatural violence is the conversion of Loíguire and, ultimately, of all the people in Ireland.

Muirchú’s figure of Patrick is scary, violent, and a powerful patriarch in the Old Testament tradition. Closer to the actual truth of Patrick’s missionary activities might be the account provided by Tírechán, Muirchú’s seventh century contemporary. Like any text written hundreds of years after the events they purport to portray, Tírechán’s collection of stories about Patrick cannot be taken as a reliable account of his actual movements.

"St Patrick was a Protestant": from RTÉ Archives, Brendan Wright's 1995 report for RTÉ News on different attitudes to St. Patrick in Northern Ireland

But his description of Patrick travelling around the West of Ireland, converting and baptising on what was mostly an individual basis, broadly tallies with Patrick’s own version of events. Patrick says in his "Confession" that he was the first to take Christianity to a part of Ireland where no evangelist had penetrated before, "to the point beyond which there is no-one". In this context, he is probably referring to the western coast of Ireland, which may not have been touched by the Palladian mission.

Like all good raconteurs, Muirchú does not let facts get in the way of a good story. An image of Patrick doing the hard yards and traipsing around in the rain ordaining priests and founding churches does not hold the public consciousness on the same level as the pagan-slaying, heroic figure created by Muirchú.

In fairness to the scribe, his "Life of St Patrick" is a highly accomplished piece of hagiography which aimed to promote the cult of a saint and communicate religious messages of deep theological importance. It is not correct, therefore, to paint Muirchú as a medieval PR guru with a flippant disregard for the truth. For example, his depiction of Patrick as an Old Testament hero in the mould of Moses and of Tara as Babylon emphasise the influence of the Bible as a direct inspiration. As with all literary constructs, the intended audience may not have been expected to "believe" every detail of the story.

Patrick is rightly famous in Ireland, but arguably for the wrong reasons

The texts regarding the development of the cult of Patrick and the church that adopted it are preserved in the early ninth century Book of Armagh on display in Trinity College Dublin. Unlike its more attention-seeking room-mate, the Book of Kells, the Book of Armagh is both a valuable source for early Irish history, ecclesiastical politics, society and religion as well as a precious artefact.

Patrick is rightly famous in Ireland, but arguably for the wrong reasons. While he was not the first to bring Christianity to Ireland, he did compose the earliest complete written sources that survive. Those wishing to commemorate the "real" St Patrick this year can read these documents here and judge for themselves.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ