Pillars of Conversion in Muirchú and Tírechán: Two Case Studies

Pillars of Conversion in Muirchú and Tírechán: Two Case Studies by Elizabeth Dawson by Elizabeth Dawson

1. Introduction

The earliest extant Hiberno-Latin saints’ Lives, which date from the seventh century, are particularly illuminating because of the attention they give to Christian conversion; importantly, they are the first extant narratives which deal with this transformation. Here we discuss the portrayals of conversion in the Lives of St Patrick by the clerics Muirchú and Tírechán (Bieler, 1979), and ask how the writers, and consequently their audiences, came to understand their Christian past.

The story of Irish conversion was extremely important to Christians on the island, especially at this early point in the history of the religion there. For them conversion marked the beginning of their history — it was a story which set Christians apart from non-believers, but it was also a crucial marker of spiritual identity that included them in the greater narrative of the entire Christian world. The perspectives of the writers of these Lives are invaluable because, while removed from the initial stages of Christianity in Ireland, they lived at a time when conversion was still ongoing, albeit in a different way. Hagiographical texts are not truly historical in conception — for example, they include incredible miraculous stories — but they are historicist in practice, as it was the aim of the authors to preserve the stories and traditions of their Christian communities. But, in doing so, these writers unconsciously reveal a huge amount about the state of Irish Christianity in their own, seventh century as well as consciously presenting various perspectives on earlier conversion. As a result the Lives ultimately enlighten our understanding of the communities in which they were produced as well as of those that came before them.

These portrayals of the past allow us to interpret what the authors understood to be the pillars of their Christian belief and tradition. But the place that such Lives then took within the tradition of hagiographical writing has its own importance, since the compositions themselves must have played a significant part in the ongoing spread and development of Christianity on the island. They contributed and possibly even created a narrative of Irish Christian conversion, organized around the pillars of personal conversion (in which the saints’ actions bring about the change), institutional conversion (where the church structure and establishment acts as a propeller for Christianization), and social conversion (in which familiar and native elements are utilized or subsumed into the Christian psyche). These points may be illustrated by means of two case studies, one from Muirchú’s Life of Patrick and the other from Tírechán’s.

2. The Seventh-Century Saints’ Lives

The saints’ Lives are the only lengthy Christian narratives of native origin among the corpus of extant seventh-century texts from Ireland. As well as our two Lives of St Patrick there are also two of St Brigit, one by Cogitosus (Connolly & Picard, 1987) and the other, known as the Vita Prima, by an anonymous writer (Connolly, 1989); the latter contains, at the very least, significant seventh-century material. There is also a Life of St Columba written by Adomnán (Anderson & Anderson, 1961) right at the end of the period. Although composed in the seventh century they all place their protagonists in the fifth century (or, in the case of Columba, the sixth), and so focus on the early stages of Irish conversion and the expansion of Irish Christianity. It should be remembered that the writers in question were not the first of their kind: the earliest known authors associated with the production of Irish saints’ Lives all date to the early decades of the seventh century, but unfortunately their works do not survive. These individuals are mentioned in various texts, including some of the extant Lives: Muirchú refers to Cogitosus as his (spiritual?) father, while Tírechán, as pupil and fosterling of the bishop Ultán (d.657), acknowledges that he wrote his Life based on his teacher’s words. Adomnán also includes a section of Cumméne’s (d.669) older Life about the miraculous powers of Columba. (Adomnán’s use of Cumméne’s writings is the most explicit example of this process of assimilation, as he describes how the community on Iona collected stories about their saint.) So it seems that a strong tradition of Hiberno-Latin hagiography preceded the writers of the extant Lives and, importantly, it is probable that these earlier writers treated of the conversion of the island in their works. The writers of the early Lives all died between 657 and 669 and so are likely to have been producing work during the first half of the seventh century, or very early in the second half. This allows us to trace a pattern of Irish writing from the end of the sixth century through to the composition of the extant seventh-century saints’ Lives. Crucially, a number of these writers appear to have been connected, suggesting that a conscious writing tradition existed which was concerned with preserving the memory of Christian expansion in Ireland: the later writers each aimed not only to celebrate their patron saint but also to place that saint in the framework of the island’s past and within the history of ecclesiastical development. And through reassessing and rethinking these early narratives the later writers also made their own mark on the conversion story — indeed they were part of it.

3. The Pillars of Conversion

As we have seen, Irish interest in the production of hagiographical writings appears to have started early in the seventh century, so it is roughly contemporaneous with the development and increasing popularity of saints’ Lives across the Christian West. The earliest Irish Lives therefore date from a time when hagiography and the cult of the saints had already developed in meaning and widened its parameters so as to accommodate aspects of an increasingly diverse Christian society. It is precisely the resulting variation within the hagiographical genre that makes it unique. The texts are at once exemplars of a greater Christian undertaking that is shared and, individually, proponents of the local and regional traditions and histories of their own areas: they show that the authors and the ecclesiastical institutions they represented may have had different perspectives and intentions, but taken together they create a picture of conversion which develops a relatively understandable and recognizable set of narratives. By the middle of the seventh century a practice of hagiographical writing was in place, and it would seem that the frame of a conversion narrative also existed.

The Lives each have their own focus, showing that conversion was seen as the result of diverse influences. Cogitosus’ Life of Brigit and Adomnán’s Life of Columba, for example, are primarily concerned with asceticism and the monastic life, and clearly they saw this as central to the development of the religion. The Vita Prima Sanctae Brigitae in particular focuses heavily on Brigit’s association with the world around her and her relationship with her community and society in general, showing that integration with social norms was perceived to have been very important to the spread of Christianity. In virtually all of the Lives the establishment of churches and the consecration of clerical personnel is seen as pivotal to the Christianization process. And above all, though to varying degrees, each Life celebrates its saint as a vehicle of conversion. The pillars of conversion were clearly understood by the seventh-century writers and their audience as important aspects of the Christianization process. The Lives of Patrick are most illustrative for this purpose as they are the most obviously associated with the first years of Christianity in Ireland.

4. Muirchú

Muirchú’s text is clearly focused on Patrick and on enhancing his heroic biography, and his narrative centres primarily on the saint and his essential role in Irish conversion. Muirchú’s writing skills are so successful that today the traditional story associated with Patrick comes from his narrative, and not from Tírechán or from the saint’s own surviving works. Central to Muirchú’s narrative is Patrick’s defeat of the druids in Tara and his ultimate triumph over the King of Tara, Loíguire. Occurring at the very beginning of the text, the episode takes up several chapters of the narrative and sees Patrick confront Loíguire and his druids on two separate occasions — once on the outskirts of Tara, and again in the centre of Tara itself. Rather than have Patrick travel the country converting individuals separately, as Tírechán does, Muirchú has him transform the entire island through the conversion of the high-king Loíguire so that, in a single episode, he defeats paganism in all Ireland. Edel Bhreathnach has shown that Muirchú cleverly achieves this by having Patrick subvert the traditional taboos of the pagan site of Tara (Bhreathnach, 1996). This is done in various different ways, the following being one example:

"A feast of pagan worship was being held, which the pagans used to celebrate with many incantations and magic rites and other superstitious acts of idolatry. (2) There assembled the kings, satraps, leaders, princes, and the nobles of the people; furthermore, the druids, the fortune-tellers, and the inventors and teachers of every craft and every skill were also summoned to king Loíguire at Tara, their Babylon, as they had been summoned at one time to Nebuchodonosor, and they held and celebrated their pagan feast on the same night on which holy Patrick celebrated Easter. (3) They also had a custom, which was announced to all publicly, that whosoever in any district, whether far or near, should have lit a fire on that night before it was lit in the king’s house, that is in the palace of Tara, would have forfeited his life. (4) Holy Patrick, then, celebrating Holy Easter, kindled the divine fire with its bright light and blessed it, and it shone in the night and was seen by almost all the people who lived in the plain. (5) Thus the fire from his tent happened to be seen at Tara, and as they saw it they all gazed at it and wondered. And the king called together the elders and said to them: ‘Who is the man who has dared to do such a wicked thing in my kingdom? He shall die.’ They all replied that they did not know who had done it, but the druids answered: ‘King, may you live forever! Unless this fire which we see, and which has been lit on this night before the (fire) was lit in your house, is extinguished on this same night on which it has been lit, it will never be extinguished at all’." Bieler, I 15(14), p. 84–87

Here it is clear that paganism is firmly pitched against Christianity — the pagan feast opposes the Christian celebration of Easter, and the druids and Loíguire oppose Patrick. But it also shows us Muirchú, who believed the fire had been important to the pagan festival, striving to co-opt its significance for Christianity. This indicates an awareness that association and accommodation are an important factor in successful conversion.

A major part of this narrative focuses on Patrick’s battle with the druids. Not surprisingly the druids, who refuse to adhere to Patrick’s wishes and the wishes of the Christian God, find themselves thoroughly defeated at the saint’s hands. Hence it is through fear and Patrick’s demonstration of power over the old religious order that Loíguire’s conversion is finally brought about. After killing most of Loíguire’s druids Patrick says to him:

"‘If you do not believe now you shall die at once, for the wrath of God has come down upon your head.’ And the king was in great fear, his heart trembling, and so was his entire city." (Bieler, I 20(19), p. 96–97)

But, although this is the most obvious and memorable side of Patrick’s conversion efforts in the text, it is not the only way that Patrick achieves conversion. The passage also shows the importance of preaching. Muirchú recognizes that preaching the Christian message is instrumental in achieving conversion. At the beginning of the Life the writer says that Patrick went to Rome in order to learn to preach and convert those beyond the Empire:

"He set out to visit and honour the apostolic see, the head, that is, of all the churches in the whole world, in order to learn and understand and practise divine wisdom and the holy mysteries to which God had called him, and in order to preach and bring divine grace to the peoples beyond the Empire, converting them to belief in Christ." (Bieler, I 5(2), p. 70–71)

So, while Muirchú presents Patrick’s victory over paganism as a battle, from the outset he shows that preaching remains essential to his understanding of religious transformation. In the following example Patrick has already defeated a number of druids on the outskirts of Tara and makes his way to the centre of the royal site; this is Muirchu’s description of Patrick first entering Tara:

"On the following day, that is Easter Day, when the kings and princes and druids were at the table with Loíguire — for this was their greatest feast day — eating and drinking wine in the palace of Tara, some of them talking, and others thinking about the things that had happened, (2) holy Patrick with only five companions entered through closed doors, as we read about Christ, in order to vindicate and to preach the holy faith at Tara before all the nations." (Bieler, I 19(18). (1–2), p. 92–93)

In sum, Muirchú’s idea of conversion, although heavily focused on the defeat of paganism in Tara through miraculous deeds, is still complimented by the fundamental idea that, in order to convert, Patrick must also spread the word of God. Muirchú’s narrative is highly stylized and metaphorical but, as these few examples have shown, he nonetheless provides a simple portrayal of conversion that was probably required by seventh-century communities in order to come to terms with what was actually a multifaceted process.

5. Tírechán

Tírechán’s Life of Patrick, compared with Muirchú’s, is rather complex in its portrayal of conversion. He discusses the practicalities of conversion far more in his narrative, and this is why Patrick is constantly consecrating bishops and founding church establishments throughout the text — in other words creating the institutional essentials of conversion. The passage discussed here concerns the conversion of the daughters of Loíguire and is an unusual one as it is one of the few long stories found in the narrative. It is useful because, though contained within a single chapter, it touches on many aspects of the conversion process as understood by Tírechán. The passage describes how the daughters of Loíguire, the king of Tara, come upon Patrick and his assembly of bishops and through his preaching are converted to the Christian faith. In response to one girl’s questions about the unknown religion Patrick is particularly discursive:

"‘Our God is the God of all men, the God of heaven and earth, of the sea and the rivers, God of the sun and moon and all the stars, the God of high mountains and low valleys; (9) God above heaven and in heaven and under heaven, he has his dwelling in heaven and earth and sea and in everything that is in them; he breathes in all things, makes all things live, surpasses all things, supports all things; (10) he illuminates the light of the sun, he consolidates the light of the night and the stars, he has made wells in the dry earth and dry islands in the sea and stars for the service of the major lights. (11) He has a son coeternal with him, similar to him; the Son is not younger than the Father nor is the Father older than the Son, and the Holy Spirit breathes in them; the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit are not separate." (Bieler, 26 (8–11), p. 142–143)

Here Patrick is preaching a type of Creed, and this is indicative of the importance that religious understanding would have had for some converts. So, although in Muirchú’s text conversion is brought about through physical means for the most part, in Tírechán’s text preaching and true belief are portrayed as primary. After Loíguire’s daughters have heard Patrick they are baptized — another obvious and essential part of Christian conversion. Again the detail and ritual of the act is striking:

"Patrick said: ‘Do you believe that through baptism you cast off the sin of your father and mother?’ They answered: ‘We believe.’ ‘Do you believe in penance after sin?’ ‘We believe.’ ‘Do you believe in life after death? Do you believe in the resurrection on the day of judgement?’ ‘We believe.’ ‘Do you believe in the unity of the Church?’ ‘We believe.’ And they were baptized, with a white garment over their heads." (Bieler, 26(14–15), p. 144–145)

The attention to detail in these sections must reflect the practices of the seventh century at least, and indicate that Tírechán is especially interested in the pragmatics of conversion. But the daughters’ quest for religious transformation does not end here: they beg Patrick to show them the face of Christ. This of course can only be achieved in death and, according to their wish, Patrick gives them the Eucharist — they must receive the sacrament to cement their Christian conversion — after which they fall asleep and die. Unusually, however, the girls are buried not by their new Christian family but by their pagan family:

"The days of mourning for the king’s daughters came to an end, and they buried them beside the well of Clébach, and they made a round ditch after the manner of a ferta, because this is what the heathen Irish used to do, but we call it relic, that is the remains of the maidens. (21) And the ferta was made over to Patrick with the bones of the holy virgins, and to his heirs after him forever, and he made an earthen church in that place." (Bieler, 26(20–21), p. 144–145)

Here, in a similar way to Muirchú, Tírechán illustrates the change from pagan to Christian ritual: although the girls are buried in the heathen way their burial place eventually becomes an asset of the Christian Patrician community. But, in implying that a period of transition occurred between beliefs, Tírechán’s text portrays a more complex process of conversion than does that of Muirchú. Though he sticks to the same general narrative as Muirchú, insisting that Patrick alone converted the island, Tírechán’s narrative is not as pointed as Muirchú’s, and as a result includes more realistic elements.

6. Conclusion

These passages from the Patrician Lives show two different portrayals of conversion, which nevertheless are not necessarily contradictory. The Lives value aspects of Christianity in diverse ways, but they show that writers in the seventh century were themselves trying to come to terms with a history that was extremely complicated but from which they were not far removed. The Lives were compiled during a period that saw a great increase in the production of religious compositions and it may be that, even as a second generation of hagiographical writers, these authors, together with their Christian communities, were still struggling to make sense of their religious heritage. Might this be an indicator that even in the seventh century certain fundamental aspects of Christianity were still developing? Or may it rather reflect the growth of adherence to the religion? Possibly it was necessary to explain conversion in different ways as communities developed and expanded. The reasons for writing the Lives, whether a function of audience, politics, religion, or other factors, are complicated; but the preoccupation of the authors with the very beginning of Christianity in Ireland is itself evidence that religious communities even in the seventh century were highly conscious of the fact of conversion, and of the need to understand it.

7. Bibliography

Anderson, A.O. & Anderson, M.O. (eds & transls), Adomnán’s Life of Columba (London, 1961).
Bhreathnach, E., ‘Temoria: caput sanctorum?’, Ériu, 47 (1996), 66-88.
Bieler, L. (ed. & transl.), The Patrician Texts in the Book of Armagh (Dublin, 1979).
Colgan, J., Trias Thaumaturga (Louvain, 1647).
Connolly, S. & Picard, J.-M., ‘Cogitosus: Life of St Brigit’, Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, 117 (1987), 5-27.
Connolly, S., ‘Vita Prima Sanctae Brigitae: Background and Historical Value’, Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquities of Ireland, 119 (1989), 5-49.