Tírechán: Biography and Character Study

Tírechán – Biography and Character Study by Terry O’Hagan by Terry O’Hagan

1. Introduction

The biographical information which follows is primarily intended to provide a general overview of the limited details known about Tírechán and his work concerning St Patrick (conventionally known as the Collectanea). Secondly, it will attempt to place Tírechán within his contemporary seventh-century context and environment. Lastly, in a somewhat longer and discursive manner, it will try to shed some light on the character and individuality of the man. This will be expressed through a brief exploration of particular elements contained in his text and of certain implications suggested by the very fact of its having been compiled.

Ludwig Bieler’s English-language version of the Collectanea text, as included in the present Stack, remains the most widely accessible translation and will therefore be used for quotation purposes.1 Liam de Paor’s (1993) English translation is well written in an uncluttered modern prose style which is particularly suitable for a general audience.2

For the most detailed description and discussion of the Patrician documents and their palaeographical implications and contexts see the analysis of the codex concerned in John Gwynn’s extraordinary diplomatic edition,3 as captured and included in the Stack, and Richard Sharpe’s work of 1982.4 For an introduction to previous antiquarian attention to Tírechán and his Collectanea see Swift (1994).5 With the exception of Bieler’s seminal work of 1979, the most modern and detailed discussion of the historical context of Tírechán and his ecclesiastical and political motivations remains that of Catherine Swift in her doctoral thesis,6 which was subsequently built on by Thomas Charles-Edwards (2000).7

2. Preface: A Tribute to an Unknown Scribe

The prospect of assigning biographical details to an Irishman who lived over 1300 years ago is daunting, particularly when that Irishman’s identity is only known from the chance survival of a single sentence within a single manuscript. For we remain indebted today to an unknown scribe (conventionally known as Scribe A) who, early in the ninth century, sat down to copy what was already considered antiquated Patrician material into the Book of Armagh. This individual was one of two assistants working under the supervision of Ferdomnach, the master scribe responsible for completing the entire Armagh manuscript in and around the year 807 AD. Scribe A was by far the more experienced and speedy of the two assistants, and was given more work to complete then his somewhat slower colleague.8

Scribe A’s skill and ability is particularly evident in a later section of the manuscript, dealing with St Martin. While still in the middle of a page, he seems to have been temporarily assigned by Ferdomnach to some other work. During Scribe A’s resulting absence, Ferdomnach must have examined how much space was left on that current page, and calculated how much more of the text Scribe A was on course to fit into it; for he himself went on to begin the next page, commencing with the point in the text that he reckoned Scribe A was going to have reached. This therefore left the latter with a confined space into which, when he subsequently returned to the task, he had to fit a specified portion of text. To his credit, Scribe A had reached to within a single word of his target-point when he eventually filled his page.9

We can therefore imagine Scribe A as a diligent and competent copyist, a scholar who probably spent much of his time working alone on his designated portions, carefully and meticulously copying text from the old exemplar he had before him onto fresh vellum pages. On one particular day he positioned himself to begin a new task, carefully prepared his stylus before dipping it in ink,10 and proceeded to write the introductory sentence to what would become known as the Collectanea:

"Tirechán episcopus haec scripsit ex ore uel libro Ultani episcopi, cuius ipse alumpnus uel discipulus fuit." (Book of Armagh, fol. 9rb; Gwynn, Liber Ardmachanus, p. 17)

"Bishop Tírechán has written this, based on the words and the book of bishop Ultán, whose fosterling and pupil he was." Collectanea, 18 (5) (Bieler, Patrician Texts, p. 125)

This single sentence, written as a simple introduction to the ensuing twenty-six columns (two to a page), provides us with the name and rank of a man who had lived, worked and written over a century beforehand. Without it, Tírechán’s identity would have been forever lost to history. Moreover, this version of the Collectanea, as preserved in the Book of Armagh, soon afterwards became the only surviving example of the text.11 Unlike the work of his original subject Patrick, or that of his own contemporary Muirchú, no other copies or versions of Tírechán’s writings have come down to us through the centuries. Indeed, the authors of all subsequent documents based on its contents, such as the Bethu Phátraic or the Vita Tripartita, must have consulted this very copy within the Book of Armagh, since damage and effacement to portions of the original correspond exactly to what we find in later versions based on those same portions.12 The copy of the Collectanea within the Book of Armagh is therefore a unique ninth-century textual witness to the writings of the seventh-century bishop Tírechán, and as such is an immensely important document which is textually and archaeologically stratified in time and context.

One last great irony lies in the actions of our diligent Scribe A, whose innate conservatism and dedication to detail preserved the memory of Tírechán’s identity: his own name remains unknown to us, despite his having left the equivalent of a signature.13 His colophon, which no doubt contained his name, was scraped away in antiquity. In the middle of the nineteenth century, whilst successfully endeavouring to recover the names of the master scribe (Ferdomnach) and of the abbot of Armagh for whom the Book of Armagh was compiled (which turned out to be Torbach), the antiquarian Charles Graves used a particular mix of acid and wine spirits to clean up the relevant erased portions.14 Though he did manage to retrieve those two identities, the actions of Graves inadvertently destroyed any remaining evidence or chance of recovering the name of Scribe A (something which modern technology might easily have accomplished). No discussion of Tírechán’s identity and authorship should therefore begin without paying tribute to the unknown Scribe A, and acknowledging his unique contribution to our understanding and appreciation of the seventh-century Collectanea and its author.

3. The Collectanea: Introduction, Description and Dating

Tírechán’s Collectanea depicts a hagiographical model of St Patrick conducting a journey throughout Ireland and lists placenames, dynasties, ecclesiastical foundations, clerical appointments and secular grants of rights accorded to the Saint. Written in Latin, yet containing many Old Irish placenames, the text is considered an unfinished ‘work in progress’.15 It comprises assorted compilations, memoranda and listings of information apparently garnered from oral and written sources as well as local traditions. The Collectanea is viewed as differing from other early medieval hagiographies (such as Muirchú’s) in its ‘pragmatic’ emphasis on bringing Patrick into contact with named people and places rather than on illustrating miracles.16

Tírechán focuses overwhelmingly on the province of Connacht, with two thirds of the many sites, foundations and landscapes mentioned being west of the River Shannon. Though Tírechán identifies himself as belonging to this territory, in that he came from the north of what is now Co. Mayo (see below), the inclusion of such an amount of localized material and information suggests that it is the fruit of deliberate first-hand, on-the-spot research by the author.17

While Tírechán does not include a definitive date of composition, internal evidence within the text of the Collectanea suggests that it was written in the second half of the seventh century.18 References to contemporary events such as plagues, ecclesiastical controversies, and particular dynasties that were vying for control of the kingship of Tara, all suggest a range of approximately 664 x 684 AD.19 Such a date would be compatible with the information we have concerning Tírechán’s ecclesiastical mentor Ultán (see below) and his close contemporary Muirchú, who is known to have been present at the Synod of Birr in the year 697.

4. Tírechán: Author and Scholar

The details given by Scribe A in his introductory sentence provide us with the only concrete reference to Tírechán in Irish history. The name remains unique in early Irish source material and was probably an uncommon one for the time. The information supplied makes it clear that Tírechán was a student of a bishop Ultán, no doubt the Ultán moccu Conchobair whose obit was entered at 657 AD in the Annals of Ulster.20 This is corroborated within the text when Tírechán, speaking in the first person, states on several occasions that Bishop Ultán had also provided a book and oral testimony to him.21

Independent evidence in the eighth-century Martyrology of Tallaght provides us with a provenance for Ultán, namely the monastery at Ardbraccan, Co. Meath:22 today, traces of early monastic archaeological remains there mark the site of an original church foundation which still bears his name. We can therefore safely presume that, as a younger contemporary of Bishop Ultán, Tírechán was a clerical student at Ardbraccan during the 650s, and after Ultán’s death seems to have continued that bishop’s work and interest in hagiographical material relating to earlier Irish saints.23

5. Tírechán: Family Background

As already noted, Tírechán makes it abundantly clear elsewhere in the Collectanea that his own personal family and dynastic background lay in north Connacht, among the dynasty of the Uí Amolngid (Tirawley, Co. Mayo) and particularly in the region around Killala Bay:24 of the many sites and locations about which he writes in the Collectanea, this is the region for which he provides the most detailed topographical information. Indeed, it is his preferential treatment of the figures of the sons of Amolngid, and the high status he confers upon them (particularly his own ancestor-figure Conall, son of Énde), that betray his bias towards and personal interest in the dynasty.

Such a scenario, involving the education and training of a young clerical scholar from Connacht in the ecclesiastical milieu of a Leinster monastery, would not have been particularly strange for the time: the fosterage of children and young adults between high-status élites in early medieval Ireland is well attested in legal, annalistic and literary accounts. Tírechán’s educational situation in his youth would seem to suggest that his own dynasty in north Mayo certainly had the means, methods and motivation for sending him to Ardbraccan, on the other side of the country, in order to be fostered and educated under Ultán’s patronage — and the authorities at Ardbraccan would seem to have been happy to oblige.

In this light, Tírechán must be viewed as belonging to a very exclusive echelon of early medieval Irish society. As the product of a wealthy Connacht dynasty he no doubt brought some form of tribute and sponsorship to the monastic centre at Ardbraccan and, in return, enjoyed the fruits of a detailed ecclesiastical education and grounding. This would have entailed spending many years away from his home territory. Despite this, Tírechán seems to have retained an overtly western Irish identity into his later years, at times inadvertently expressed within the Collectanea itself (see ‘Tírechán’s Multiple Identities’, below).

6. Tírechán: Compiling the Collectanea

The process of acquiring, collating and writing the contents of the Collectanea would not have been a short one. Tírechán makes it clear that he searched widely both for oral and in written information relating to various Patrician foundations in Leinster and Connacht. Aside from sources such as the uita plana or ‘straightforward account of Patrick’s life’ (likely to have been an early, primitive version that was also known independently to Muirchú) and the Book of Ultán,25 he also references information told him by ‘old men’ and ‘elders’.26 It has been argued that some of the episodes and details he provides may have been taken from early forms of ecclesiastical charters or grants:27 many of the foundations he describes are certainly portrayed in quasi-legalistic terms.28 Perhaps the most intriguing example of this is his referencing of the rights of Patrick’s heirs in a manner that undoubtedly resembles what we find in another ancient document contained in the Book of Armagh, namely the so-called Liber Angeli (‘Book of the Angel’). 29

The vast majority of these sources could only have been preserved within the individual localities of the foundations and secular dynasties in question. Tírechán undoubtedly travelled to many of these locations himself in order to acquire information. Aside from the many personal and dynastic names within the text, this is best exemplified in his frequent references to local geographical, topological and archaeological features that existed in the contemporary seventh-century landscape. Aside from many churches and monasteries, these included numerous prehistoric burial mounds, neolithic and Bronze Age tombs, prehistoric earthworks, inauguration sites, early Christian burials, holy wells, crosses, ogham stones, raths, liosanna, cashels and crannogs. Not only, then, does Tírechán provide insight into the ecclesiastical and political landscape of the regions; he also provides us with a picture of the contemporary ritual landscapes of certain regions within the provinces of Connacht and Leinster. Aside from his political agenda for doing this, the depiction and inclusion of such details in his text is evidence of the extent of the travels he undertook in the compilation of the Collectanea.

Even if one disregards the majority of places mentioned by Tírechán and focuses only on those sites where he overtly describes contemporary objects and features in the first person (‘I have seen with my own eyes’; ‘and so it remains to this day’; ‘it is still to be seen there today’),30 we are still left with a considerable array of locations across Ireland that were personally visited by the author. Aside from north Co. Mayo and Ardbraccan, they include the places known in modern anglicized form as Armagh (Co. Armagh) and Slemish (Co. Antrim), the hill of Slane and the Hill of Tara (Co. Meath), Donaghmore and Teltown (Co. Meath), Drumshambo (Co. Leitrim), Elphin, Kilmore, Baslick and Tulsk (Co. Roscommon), Kilmaine, Athgower, Croagh Patrick and Killaraght (Co. Mayo), Tirerrill (Co. Sligo), and Cashel (Co. Tipperary). Whatever about any expeditions undertaken by the historical St Patrick, Tírechán’s own journeys make the latter one of the earliest attested and most widely travelled individuals to produce a personal account that survives from early medieval Ireland.

7. Tírechán: Travelling Antiquarian

The vast majority of the sites mentioned by Tírechán lie in Connacht; as a native of that province, he was well suited to undertake a wide-ranging survey there. The time taken to complete the venture would surely have been significant and probably involved several forays into distant regions.31 With only a few exceptions,32 scholars have paid little attention to this aspect of Tírechán’s work; yet it has implications for our general picture of travel and transport within early medieval Ireland.

The picture presented by early Irish historical sources, especially those involving social status, suggests that the great majority of the population did not stray far from their respective local túatha (the petty kingdoms where they lived). Bishops and kings were seen as an exception, although even they are presented as having, or needing to have, large numbers of servants and bodyguards in their retinues when travelling. Venturing a relatively short distance, into neighbouring kingdoms, may have been one thing; travelling to the other side of the country would have been quite different.33

The early medieval landscape was very different from that of today. Without early modern field divisions and drainage works, the Ireland of the seventh century would have been much wetter and boggier, and more heavily forested; it encompassed vast areas of what Tírechán calls diserta (wastelands).34 These areas of unproductive land would have made up the majority of the hinterlands between the more heavily settled areas. Indeed, early Irish sources suggest that they were considered highly dangerous to travel through, owing to the constant threat from brigands and robbers. Other isolated areas of mountainous terrain, coupled with the river systems and lakes and their seasonal variations, would have provided further challenges to the early medieval traveller. Not the least among such a traveller’s concerns would have been the securing of accommodation and food at the end of a day’s journey.

Against such a background, Tírechán’s journeying would certainly appear to have been an extraordinary achievement in terms of commitment, expense and energy; yet it raises the question of just how hard it may have been. Did he have help, clerical assistants, or bodyguards? Did his ecclesiastical status afford him some measure of immunity? How was he protected or supported during his travels? To what extent did he use road infrastructure, animal-drawn vehicles or boats? Tírechán offers us no elucidation of any of these points; if anything, his silence may even suggest that he considered such activity routine. Whatever his own experience, the Collectanea provides us with evidence that repeated inter-provincial journeys on the part of high-status members of society were at least possible and may have been routinely undertaken within seventh-century Ireland. Such a scenario would certainly match the environment depicted in early Irish literature and law concerning hospitality, hostelries and guests.

8. Tírechán’s Agenda

Tírechán’s political and ecclesiastical motivation for writing the Collectanea is expressed in his presentation of older, ‘primitive’ churches as owing their foundation to St Patrick, and therefore their correct allegiance as being to his heirs. His most explicit statement of approach is as follows:

"However, my heart within me is filled with (sorrowing) love for Patrick, because I see deserters and arch-robbers and war-lords of Ireland hate Patrick’s territorial supremacy, because they have taken away from him what was his and are afraid; for if an heir of Patrick were to investigate his supremacy he could vindicate for him almost the whole island as his domain." Collectanea,18 (2) (Bieler, Patrician Texts, p. 139)

This is framed in a semi-hagiographical manner by portraying St Patrick’s missionary journeys as an itinerary of the peoples and places where the Saint had established connections ‘in the distant past’. In establishing the landmarks, folk-memories and ancestral figures of early foundations and linking them with present ruling élites, Tírechán was actively co-ordinating the contemporary seventh-century political and ecclesiastical landscape with an earlier, pseudo-historical one. In identifying those dynasties who had (allegedly) favoured, and been favoured by, Patrick in the past, Tírechán was providing local secular and ecclesiastical authorities with a quasi-legal framework that offered historical and ancestral legitimacy and authority to those who were receptive to supporting the heirs of Patrick in the present.

In this light, many scholars in the past have generally viewed Tírechán as an Armagh propagandist. Tírechán was certainly a Patrician propagandist, but the extent to which he was a supporter of Armagh is not as certain as it once may have appeared. For someone who was allegedly an Armagh apologist and supporter, Tírechán hardly references the church or its organization at Armagh at all.35 When he does, it is as a mere fact in passing: the Armagh church that Tírechán portrays is an eminent institution by virtue of its relics of Roman origin, but it does not play any part in his version of Patrick’s missionary journeys. Instead, a closer look at the Collectanea reveals that Tírechán is primarily interested in depicting two alternative ‘great churches’ as centre points in Patrick’s missionary itinerary, namely that of Donaghmore, Co. Meath, and a certain other aeclessia magna Patricii near Kilalla Bay.36 Elsewhere in the Collectanea, Tírechán makes reference to churches and foundations claimed and occupied by the rival ecclesiastical foundations of Columba and Clonmacnoise. This suggests a contemporary context of externally-based ecclesiastical competition operating within Connacht for the allegiance of local churches and foundations. Such a situation is likely to have been replicated on a secular level, as it has been argued that Tírechán’s own dynasty was also under pressure from rivals at this point.

Rather than Armagh, Tírechán in fact portrays the ancestors of the contemporary Uí Neill kings of Brega (Meath) as ultimate arbitrators of secular power and authority, and ‘first to be favoured’ by Patrick. In doing so our author is likely to have been seeking to increase his own dynasty’s support, by attempting to position the contemporary Connacht political scene in the context of the secular power-play taking place in Leinster. Against this background, and that of rival ecclesiastical foundations’ making inroads into Connacht,37 Tírechán in fact presents us with a snapshot of a very fluid and fast-moving early medieval political climate, at a time when Armagh’s ultimate hegemony was far from being a certainty.

9. Tírechán’s Multiple Identities

Scattered throughout the text of the Collectanea are some fascinating glimpses into the personality of Tírechán. It has been mentioned previously that he retained elements of a western identity long after having been schooled in an eastern ecclesiastical milieu. There is no doubt that, as we have seen, he remained a supporter and active promoter of his own Mayo dynasty. In addressing an ecclesiastical audience when summing up the first section of the Collectanea dealing with Leinster, before moving on to Connacht, he states:

"You know that all the things I have written from the beginning of this work have taken place in your own regions, except that I have related a few, relevant to my enterprise, which I learnt from many elders and from the said bishop Ultán Moccu Conchubair who fostered me." Collectanea, 18 (1) (Bieler, Patrician Texts, p. 139)

The phrase ‘in your own regions’ (in uestris regionibus) implies that Tírechán not only differentiates between east and west but may also be contrasting the eastern regions with his own.38 Indeed, within a few words of this, the subsequent reference to his fostering by Ultán may also be seen as a reminder to his eastern ecclesiastical audience that he was not a native inhabitant of their area. Further on in the text, he goes on to emphasize differences between two portions of the Collectanea:

"All the things that I have written from the beginning of this work are unspecified; all that remains will be more specific." Collectanea, 18 (5) (Bieler, Patrician Texts, p. 139)

On the surface, Tírechán’s purpose in making this statement is to outline the extent and scope of the ‘new’ material from the western region of Connacht that was to follow. Yet in characterizing it as he does he may also be highlighting his own sense of belonging there. It is as if Tírechán is stating that those in the east will have not heard this material previously because it is only as a result of a western effort, from a western inhabitant, that it is coming to their attention now. If this is the case, we may even have a subtle expression on Tírechán’s part of pride in his western origins and endeavours.

Elsewhere in the text Tírechán expresses a more overtly western identification and pride when introducing his own ancestors to the narrative. When Patrick meets Énde, son of Amolngid, who will go on to play a prominent role in Patrick’s journeys in Mayo, Tírechán manufactures a situation in which the Saint queries Énde as to his ancestry and origin. Énde replies:

"I am Énde son of Amolngid, son of Fíachrae son of Echu, from the western district, Mag Domnon and the Wood of Fochloth." Collectanea, 14 (2) (Bieler, Patrician Texts, p. 135)

In proclaiming the western origins of his ancestors Tírechán deliberately emphasizes their lineage in order to proclaim his own. Further on in the text, when the same ancestors are involved in offering their inheritance to Patrick, Tírechán states in the first person:

"It is for this reason, some say, that we are servants of Patrick to the present day." Collectanea, 15 (2) (Bieler, Patrician Texts, p. 135)

This not only offers us the most concrete example of Tírechán’s self-proclaimed regional identity, but also shows that he had retained it throughout his ecclesiastical career. Such retention suggests that belonging to an early medieval ecclesiastical institution with diverse personnel from distant parts of the country did not automatically displace an individual’s sense of loyalty or secular familial allegiance. And in fact the expression of disparate social identities within early medieval Ireland is likely to have been a complex and multi-layered process: alongside his Patrician and secular dynastic identities, Tírechán sometimes uses terms that imply a simultaneous identification with the (eastern) ecclesiastical élites for whom he is writing. For example, at one point he references the difference between the Irish language and ‘our language’ (that is, Latin):

"... ad fontem Loigles in Scotica, nobiscum ‘Uitulus Ciuitatum’ ..." (Book of Armagh, fol. 10va; Gwynn, Liber Ardmachanus, p. 20)

"... to the well of Loígles in Irish, in our language ‘Calf of the Cities’ ..." Collectanea, 13 (3) (Bieler, Patrician Texts, p. 135)

And at other points, in drawing distinctions between a Christian and a pagan insular Irish identity, he refers to specific features of the latter by their technical, Irish-language names:

"... for the pagans, armed in their tombs, have their weapons ready until the day of erdathe as the druids call it, that is, the day of judgement ..." Collectanea, 12 (2) (Bieler, Patrician Texts, p. 133)

"... and the hair of his head was shorn off, that is, the hair cut in druidic fashion which was seen on his head, airbacc giunnae, as it is called ..." Collectanea, 26 (19) (Bieler, Patrician Texts, p. 145)

"... and the wood of contention had been set, which the pagans call caam ..." Collectanea, 32 (2) (Bieler, Patrician Texts, p. 149)

"... and gave him her ornaments, that is, ornaments for hands and feet an arms, which are called aros in Irish ..." Collectanea, 34 (2) (Bieler, Patrician Texts, p. 151)

Tírechán’s portrayal of Latin linguistic use as illustrative of a certain Christian identity is particularly interesting. Literate Christians in early medieval Ireland, let alone those versed in Latin, would have formed a very select minority. Phrasing matters as he does, Tírechán is directly associating himself with this ecclesiastical minority, and deliberately identifying with the members of an élite social strata within the eastern regions. Yet many of his fellow secular and lower-status colleagues and kin would presumably have considered themselves ‘just as Christian’, whilst having little ability to read, write or speak Latin. Of course, Tírechán himself would have used Irish for the most part in daily life, especially when dealing with non-ecclesiastical matters; and in fact, even in his text, he happily engages in a thorough-going fusion of Latin and Irish linguistic placename-elements when referencing contemporary locations. So his occasional marking of the use of Latin as the badge of a specifically Christian insular identity should be viewed as the deployment of a symbol on his part, a deliberate social and quasi-national textual construct that he uses to highlight cosmological differences when and as needed within the Collectanea.

Tírechán’s comprehension of Christian identity seems to have been one which, at times, could transcend local, regional and ethnic boundaries. His frequent depiction of Christian barbari (barbarians, or foreigners), Gauls, Franks and Britons who accompany and honour the Saint on his journeys suggests that, in Tírechán’s mind, Christian and pagan social identities and their corresponding ethnic backgrounds in the world at large could be as fluid and contradictory as those he depicts as existing within insular society.39 In the context of Tírechán’s Latin it has been said that he ‘wrote and thought like an Irishman’.40 If this is the case, then perhaps we can now elaborate a little. Tírechán, despite being the product of a Leinster ecclesiastical education, wrote and thought like an élite Christian scholar, a proud Connachtman and, at times, a typically frustrating and paradoxical early medieval Irishman.

10. Tírechán’s Independent and Rebellious Streak?

Sub-textual elements of Tírechán’s personality can also be detected within the Collectanea when it is viewed in its seventh-century context. Given the parallels and similarities with certain events, motifs and characters in Muirchú’s Life of Patrick, it is clear that Tírechán’s was part of an emerging ecclesiastical consensus which sought to standardize and portray the myths and legends of the Saint’s early activities.41 It must be remembered that both he and Muirchú had access to Ultán’s book and an early version of Patrick’s Confessio, as well as disparate threads involving east-coast locations and a growing awareness of the papal commissioning of Palladius. All such elements were being woven together to augment an emerging cult of Patrick in the late seventh century.

Tírechán utilizes and facilitates this emerging framework in the Collectanea by acknowledging as Patrician associations with eastern Ireland the Saint’s arrival from Europe, the Hill of Tara, and the Slemish locations. Yet elsewhere in his text he departs from the emerging standardized narrative in order to insert western locations and legends into the Patrician story. For he was in the enviable position, as one who was no doubt eager to promote his own dynasty’s position and reputation, of having a homeland that itself claimed a tangible and real connection to the historical Patrick.

Tírechán’s home territory, around the shores of Killala Bay in today’s Co. Mayo,42 was believed to encompass what remained of the original Wood of Foclut, the only Irish place that Patrick had mentioned by name in his Confessio (C 23). This location is depicted in the Confessio as the scene of the Saint’s initial captivity and as the background to his later dream of being called to minister to the Irish. Tírechán builds upon these associations, and his Wood of Foclut is given a paramount position within the Collectanea.43 His utilization and promotion of the site as motif, witness and location of his own dynastic ‘great church’ would have not been lost on an ecclesiastical audience familiar with Patrick’s own writings: as the inheritors of what was believed to be the location of the only Irish place specifically identified therein, Tírechán’s dynasty possessed a unique ecclesiastical cachet within seventh-century Ireland.

Despite acknowledging the eastern hagiographical locations promoted by others, Tírechán’s celebration of Foclut can be viewed as a deliberate and overt challenge to the emerging Patrician framework, and suggests a personality who was not afraid to question prevailing orthodoxies. In doing so, by way of attempting to place Patrician hagiography within a western context, Tírechán is directly responsible for establishing to this day the lasting prestige of the most celebrated site of pilgrimage dedicated to the Saint’s memory: this is that of Croagh Patrick, in Co. Mayo, it being with Tírechán and his Collectanea that responsibility for the earliest documented association of the mountain with the Saint would appear to rest.44

As for his referencing of Patrick’s Confessio itself, Tírechán’s practice was at times unique. His use of one particular element, that of women presenting gifts to Patrick,45 is particularly interesting in this regard; for the incident does not appear in what is now the oldest copy of the Confessio, namely that contained within the Book of Armagh. In fact, many of the incidents related by Patrick which depict him as mortal, frail or controversial were omitted from that copy. Not only does this illustrate that alternative and more complete versions of Patrick’s writings were known, read and circulated in seventh-century Ireland, but also that Tírechán was a man who was not afraid to reference material that was probably already on the way to being deemed unsuitable by other Patrician authorities in the early Middle Ages (as we have seen, the Book of Armagh was written in the early ninth century).

Further references to ongoing ecclesiastical controversies are also contained within the Confessio. Tírechán includes overt references to one such debate by deriving some of his characters’ names from terms depicting tonsured styles of hair — an almost unique contemporary engagement with the post-664 debate on insular church fashions versus those of Roman style.46 On another amusing occasion, Tírechán depicts the founder of Clonmacnoise as being baptized using a bible originally presented by Patrick.47 Given Tírechán’s clear antagonism towards the federation of Clonmacnoise churches, and their presumed mutual distrust and rivalry, such a claim would no doubt have been seen as a scandalous insult and slur on the familia Ciarani! It is provocative behaviour like this that perhaps best illustrates Tírechán’s sometimes independent and rebellious nature when it came to contemporary commentary; and one can almost be forgiven for imagining a wry smile on his face as he committed such words to vellum.

11. Tírechán: Young Sapiens or Elderly Bishop?

Given the nature of the work involved in travelling and collecting the information before he could even begin compiling it into the narrative that survives, a question arises as to Tírechán’s ecclesiastical status. The unknown Scribe A gives him the rank of bishop. Presuming that the episcopal grade would mainly have been conferred upon those of middle age, we thus gain the impression that Tírechán survived long enough to attain this. But the physical strength, endeavour and hardship no doubt involved in the compilation of the Collectanea may suggest the undertaking of a slightly younger man.

As stated previously, if we are satisfied that Tírechán was a young student during the 650s and that the Collectanea, though probably written by 684, may even have been composed as early as 664, then the author may only have been entering middle age at the time he was penning it. This raises the possibility that Tírechán may have performed most of his work and writing as a sapiens (an ecclesiastical scholar, or wise man) and not as an actual bishop. After all, no clerical grade or title is conferred upon his close contemporary Muirchú either within the latter’s work on Patrick or in the record of his attendance at the Synod of Birr.

Even if Tírechán had been consecrated a bishop at an unusually young age, the notion of such a high grade’s being conferred on someone who then embarked on a long and arduous project, which would take him away from his flock for considerable periods of time, raises more questions then answers: early Irish ecclesiastical laws suggest that wandering bishops, priests and deacons were certainly frowned upon by the Church. Many were expected to stay within their respective territories and ministries. But it has been argued that, from the seventh century on, early Irish bishops exercised some wide-ranging powers, duties and responsibilities, especially those involving judgement and pastoral care. If this was the case with Tírechán, does it perhaps imply that he was performing some such specifically episcopal role at the same time as carrying out his fieldwork? Evidence from the obits within the early medieval annals suggests that ecclesiastical figures did, on occasion, gain reputations as scholars alongside the accomplishments of their official careers.

Alternatively, we may imagine that Tírechán conducted his research earlier in life but was subsequently made bishop and, when approaching his twilight years in semi-retirement, began then to set down the text of the Collectanea. The fact that it remains in an unfinished state may even suggest this was the case, with death intervening before he could complete the task. Wherever the truth may lie concerning these matters it seems certain, at all events, that Tírechán’s final composition of the Collectanea was in some way interrupted, and that circumstances arose which prevented him from ever completing it.

12. Tírechán’s Bishopric?

To locate Tírechán’s episcopal see (if any) would no doubt throw some light on many of the questions above. If it existed, was it in Leinster or in Connacht? Did he return home to Mayo, or was he sent elsewhere? In recent years, new evidence has emerged that may provide a hint: Anne Connon has uncovered a tantalizing twelfth-century reference in a papal confirmation of a grant of lands belonging to the nunnery of Clonard. This charter mentions a particular site: a villa (or baile) called ‘Disnerthirechan’, which was attached to St Mary’s Church, Kells. Noting the form, and allowing for the difficulties involved in dealing with Norman spellings of Irish placenames, Connon postulates that it may be an attempt to represent an Irish form *Dísert Thírecháin.48

The Irish word dísert (Modern Irish díseart, essentially meaning a solitary place, from the Latin desertum) was a term commonly used in early medieval Ireland to denote an ecclesiastical hermitage or monastery; in the name of a place it usually appeared in association with that of the eponymous founder or honorand. Many examples of this formula survive, from Díseart Diarmada (Castledermot, Co. Kildare) to Díseart Mhártain (Desertmartin, Co. Derry). The occurrence (if that is what it is) of such a formula in Connon’s twelfth-century papal document would suggest the commemoration and honouring of Tírechán at an ecclesiastical foundation near Kells, of which the proximity to Ardbraccan is certainly striking. But perhaps the most intriguing element is its more precise location. The twelfth-century ‘Disnerthirechan’ corresponds to the modern townland of Calliaghstown, Co. Meath (Baile na gCailleach, ‘the town of the nuns’). About 1.5 km to the south lies the townland of Toberultan; if this is the anglicized form of Tobar Ultáin then the place derives its name from the presence of a holy well in the vicinity that was seemingly dedicated to none other than Tírechán’s erstwhile teacher.

Taken together, such evidence suggests the enshrined memory of several ecclesiastical foundations and landscapes in an area that commemorated or honoured two close contempories, Ultán and Tírechán. It could well imply that, rather than going back home to Mayo, Tírechán in fact returned to Leinster for long enough to become associated with the particular site in question. It should be noted that no other known placename in Ireland, even within his home territory around Killala Bay, embodies the name of Tírechán or any form etymologically derived from it. In the absence of any other candidate, therefore, the Co. Meath location remains the most plausible one for any episcopal see he may have come to occupy.

13. Conclusion

The Collectanea’s reputation among academics waxed and waned throughout the twentieth century; the text has suffered at times from the mistaken view that it is merely a dry account of little importance or accuracy. Within Patrician hagiography it has always been overshadowed by the more colourful literary account that we owe to Muirchú. But Tírechán’s contribution to early Irish history, landscape, society, politics and ecclesiastical life is now beginning to receive the recognition it deserves — not least as one of our earliest witnesses to the rise of the cult of Patrick. Of paramount importance are the ecclesiastical sites, features and figures depicted within the Collectanea, which provide us with a window into seventh-century perspectives, motivations and concerns at a time of dramatic social and religious transformation.

In this respect, Tírechán was actively involved in one of the earliest efforts to establish a collective ecclesiastical, regional and ethnic identity expressed in national terms through the process of Christianization. While the motivation for such may have been contemporary power politics, such efforts would eventually go on to format and frame collective Irish identity. Armagh, through its successful appropriation of the national saint and its all-Ireland primacy, was the earliest national body with generally accepted ecclesiastical authority over the entire island. It is perhaps all the more remarkable that this was achieved centuries before any equivalent political hegemony.

The present profile of Tírechán has attempted to introduce the man and his work in the broadest brush strokes only. It has sought to go beyond the text and add flesh and character to his personality, hopefully identifying certain features that are quite distinctive when viewed against the backdrop of seventh-century Ireland. Tírechán’s voice remains a uniquely lonely, strange yet familiar one amongst early medieval Irish sources. As with Patrick and his writings, his personality, emotions, bias and individuality at times shine through his text at the expense of cold historical facts and figures. In the process of seeking to create a national folk memory, Tírechán inadvertently shows us one of our earliest examples of an insular Irish mind and identity. In studying his words and work within their seventh-century context we may perhaps recognize more of our modern selves within him then we have previously imagined.


9Sharpe, ‘Palaeographical Considerations’, p. 13. The last word can be seen inserted in the bottom margin of the page (fol. 213v) in the diplomatic edition (Gwynn, Liber Ardmachanus, p. 420).^
10Compare the imaginative description of work in a scriptorium in Derick Mockler’s contribution to this Stack: Seeking Patrick, Chapter One.^
11 Collectanea is a descriptive term, adopted with the sense intended here by Bieler (Patrician Texts, p. 39). It refers strictly to the text authored by Tírechán, which ends in mid-flow on fol. 15v (Gwynn, Liber Ardmachanus, p. 30); accordingly it does not include the anonymous documents known as the Notulae and Additamenta, although these were once considered by antiquarians also to have been written by Tírechán. For a brief explanation of the history of working titles applied to Tírechán’s work see Swift, ‘Tírechán’s Motives’, p. 53, note 4, and Sharpe, ‘Palaeographic Considerations’, p. 16.^
21 Collectanea, 1 (1), 1 (6), 18 (1) (Bieler, Patrician Texts, pp. 125, 139). Muirchú references the same book of Ultán in his own work concerning the life of St Patrick as presented in this Stack.^
33See the imaginative reconstruction of such an enterprise in Derick Mockler’s contribution to this Stack.^
48A. Connon, 24 November 2008 (personal communication).^