A Window into Seventh-Century Irish Church Politics
By Lauren Humphrey
Abstract: In seventh-century Ireland, the priest Muirchú maccu Machtheni composed the Life of Saint Patrick at the direction of Aed, bishop of Sletty. The hagiographer represents the saint in such a way that, though he is clearly a champion of the Christian cause, he also demonstrates similar characteristics to the pre-Christian guardians of Celtic culture and religion, the Druids. At times, Muirchú’s Patrick seems like a Christian Super-Druid – a religious leader who can do just what the Druids do, but even more. This technique is the principle method by which Muirchú incorporates the idea of supersession into his work: one religion outdoes and surpasses another. I am investigating Muirchú’s hagiography in light of this theme and in light of the historical context, including information about the Druids, the Irish church, the hagiographical genre, and Saint Patrick’s own autobiography, the Confession. Through analyzing selected passages of the Life in conjunction with this historical evidence, I trace the appearance of supersession, especially as it relates to Christianity overtaking Celtic paganism, and then discuss the historical reason that the idea of change would figure so strongly into Muirchú’s story. The hagiographer wrote at a time of controversy in the Irish church, and the strength of the theme of supersession supports the claim scholars have made that his work was in fact a propaganda piece.
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