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  • Writer's pictureHugh MacMahon

Putting St Patrick in his Place



A visit to Sleaty (or Sletty) in Laois raised questions for me about St Patrick, the beginnings of Irish Christianity and our understanding of our roots.

St Fiacc (415-520) founded an early monastic community in Sleaty that claimed a close relationship with St Patrick. Patrick is said to have presented it with vestments, a bell, a manuscript of Pauline Epistles and a crosier.

This connection was highly valued and when Aed, a 7th century successor of Fiacc, retired and went to Armagh, Patrick’s heritage centre, he brought valuable documents relating to Patrick with him. They survive in two forms, ‘Fiacc’s Hymn’ and The Life of Patrick by Murchu, a disciple of Aed. Our popular image of Patrick is largely based on them.

Both Aed and Muirchu were present at the Synod of Birr in 697 as guarantors of the Cáin Adomnáin (‘Law of the Innocents’) so they were important Irish churchmen.

However in recent years the Sleaty tradition has been challenged.

We know Pope Celestine sent Palladius to Ireland in 431. From my visits to places associated with him in the Wicklow area it is obvious he spent a significant amount of time there in a number of places and was successful despite facing difficulties. Yet Muirchu claimed that Paladius failed and left within a year to be followed immediately by Patrick in 432.

The ‘Confessions’ of Patrick mention no dates or events by which we can check when the author arrived. He was more concerned with answering accusations make against him than detailing his life story. The dramatic account of Patrick confronting the High King on Slane comes from the Sleaty sources and is now seen as part of efforts to depict him as the national hero. The Church of Armagh, as his successor, was putting forward its claim to be the supreme ecclesiastical authority in the country.

While these developments may be new to the general public they are well known to scholars and have been debated for decades.

Visiting Sleaty and piecing together the stories of early Christian communities have made me wonder what more is to be unlearnt of our complex history.

You can read more about those visits in Facebook under: Hugh MacMahon.

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