The Shire Reeve's Tale: 14

Today I attended the Inaugural Conference on Peace and Reconciliation at the St Patrick’s Centre, Downpatrick, at the invitation of its Director, Dr. Tim Campbell.

My role was to give a talk on St Patrick the man, rather than the myth and the legend. I was preceded by Margaret Ritchie, MP for Down, Leader of the SDLP and my old friend Councillor Eamon O’Neill, Chairman of Down District Council. I was initially to speak for forty-five minutes, but this was cut to thirty as I was to precede President Mary McAleese, and she was running early. In the event I spoke for twenty minutes as the President was very early.

The ancient Annals of Ulster record two significant events occurring one year apart:
“In the year 431 from the incarnation of the Lord, Palladius ordained by Celestinus, Bishop of the City of Rome, is sent, in the consulship of Etius and Valerius, into Ireland, first Bishop to the Scots(Irish) that they might believe in Christ.”
“AD 432, Patrick arrived in Ireland in the ninth year of the reign of Theodosius the Younger, in the first year of the episcopate of Xistus, the forty-second Bishop of the Church of Rome.”

On 28 July 2008 my friend Dr. Ian Paisley presented me with a book Saint Patrick A.D. 493-1993 edited by David N. Dunville, Fellow of Girton College Cambridge, Reader in the Early Medieval History and Culture of the British Isles and the Department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic, University of Cambridge, which confirms much of what I have always thought and written about Patrick.

Patrick’s contribution to Irish history is of course much celebrated, but is also a matter of some controversy. Dunville’s book, published in 1993, was what his scholars felt was a commemoration of the 1500th anniversary of his death – 17th March 1993 – an event which had already been celebrated once in 1961. In my book The Ulster People which you have reading in this blog and which the Irish academic establishment wished to burn, I stated that the only first hand accounts of Patrick came from two works which he reputedly wrote himself – The Confession and the Epistle to Coroticus. The reference to his arrival in the Annals can not be taken necessarily as factual as it is now believed that the annals only become contemporary in the latter part of the sixth century. The fifth century entries were therefore backdated. Dunville’s group of scholars also raised the question of Palladius and his mission from Rome.

Late sources about St Patrick are as difficult as the early ones. But they bring us material about Palladius who was definitely sent from Rome in AD 431 as the first Bishop for Irish Christians, then ultimately left without subsequent history or cult in his adopted country. The invention of two Patricks may belong at the latest to the eighth century and may be a reflection of the largely successful seventh century conflation of the careers of Palladius and Patrick.

Patrick may indeed have come in 432 AD as a slave to Ireland but I think he should be dated from 451 AD as a missionary of the British Church to Ulster, since throughout the 450’s missionary activities among the Barbarians was a matter of concern in the highest Roman Christian circles. The sudden expansion of Anglo-Saxon power at the expense of the Britons from 440’s onwards had made communication between Rome and Gaul and Ireland increasingly difficult. It was therefore presumably in these circumstances that the British Church had taken over responsibility for the development of Christianity in Ireland.

Based in Downpatrick , Lecale, Patrick came to the Valley of the Angels in North Down and here it was that the monastery of Bangor was established by Comgall in the mid sixth century. Bangor became a very powerful and influential monastery under the patronage of Cantigern, Queen of Dalaradia, so that the cult of Patrick was established at Connor in that kingdom. It moved to Armagh following the defeat of Ulster at the Battle of Moira in 637 AD, when Armagh established its primacy.

St Comgall’s people of the Cruthin (Cruthini populi) declined in influence and power. The Rule of St Comgall’s disciple, Columbanus, also did not long survive his death, due to the Romanising authority of the Frankish bishops. The influence of Brunhilde, Columbanus’ famous adversary, was probably enough to have initiated the Papal mission to England which introduced Roman practice into southern England and came into conflict with the Britons. British practice was maintained through the monastery of Iona founded by Colmcille (Columba), which remained steadfast for the Latericus, which missionaries then brought to Northumbria.

The difference between the two practices caused further difficulties in the Northumbrian Court where the Irish- educated King Oswy had married the Kentish Princess Eanflæd, brought up in the Roman tradition. Bede reported that sometimes the King would be celebrating Easter while the Queen was still observing Palm Sunday. This happened on at least half the years of their marriage before the question was resolved. In 664 King Oswy and the clergy of his realm had had enough. A synod was summoned at Whitby to determine whether British or Roman tradition should be followed, both in Easter computus and in clerical tonsure.

The British cause was argued by Bishop Colman of Lindesfarne, the Roman by Wilfred, later Bishop of York, who dominated the debate, bullied Colman, insulted St Columba and misrepresented the facts, but clinched the argument with fantastic assertions about the practice of St Peter. King Oswy therefore opted for Rome giving as his ground that it was Peter and not Columba who held the keys of Heaven. Gradually the rest of the British Isles fell into line with Rome. The last to conform were the Britons of the West, the “Welsh”, some of whom still held out until the 840’s.

I was not able to give all of this lecture because Mary McAleese arrived to give her keynote address. This was beautifully presented as usual. Following it she was entertained by local school-children. Following lunch there was a panel discussion chaired by William Crawley of the BBC. The Panel included Harold Miller, Bishop of Down and Dromore, Eamon Phoenix of Stranmillis College, Eamon O’Neill, and a Sinn Féin Councillor. Debate became rather heated because another Sinn Féin Councillor wanted to display a Tricolour at the St Patrick’s Parade on Thursday (St Patrick’s Day).

At coffee Eamon Phoenix told me that my book Bangor, Light of the World was a chosen text in the Dublin Universities but that, although the Cruthin certainly existed, my views on them were not widely held. So there you are. Ironic, is it not, that the Irish academic establishment promote the old British Church position over the Roman one, and yet do not want us to talk about ancient British Ireland. Following coffee there was a second panel discussion chaired by Eamon Mallie. The panel included Tim Campbell, Basil McCrea of the UUP, and William Hay, Speaker of the Northern Ireland Assembly. And then it was time to go home.

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