The State of Irish Hagiography
The Heroic Age, Issue 9 (Oct 2006)
For many years, modern scholars tended to regard the early Irish Church as a strange and peculiar organization on the margins of Western Christianity, a church whose practices and doctrines often appeared to be at odds with orthodox beliefs. The same notion extended to Irish hagiography; the Lives of Irish saints were perceived as peculiar, over-the-top texts, full of credulous and bombastic miracle stories and rather bombastic saints, too—the product of a wild native imagination from clerics practicing their own form of Christianity.
Over the past twenty-five years, this perception has changed considerably as our understanding of the early Irish Church and so-called ‘Celtic Christianity’ has developed and changed, with new research into the history, archaeology and language of early medieval Ireland. Studies in early Irish hagiography have flourished, with an increasing number of publications demonstrating a variety of approaches in a variety of disciplines. Indeed, the latter half of the twentieth century saw a burgeoning of interest in this body of texts, in both Latin and Irish, with the work of scholars such as Ludwig Bieler, Kathleen Hughes, and Felim Ó Briain, among others. The publication of W.W. Heist’s Vitae Sanctorum Hiberniae (Brussels, 1965) supplemented and completed the major collections edited by Charles Plummer (Vitae Sanctorum Hiberniae, 2 vols. (Oxford, 1910) and Bethada Náem nÉrenn, 2 vols. (Oxford, 1922)). With these and other editions of Irish saints’ Lives, made from the late nineteenth century and into the mid-twentieth, students of Irish hagiography had readily available to them the main primary texts in modern editions. What was needed, however, was a suitable methodological approach—or a range of approaches from disciplines other than philology—which would remove Irish hagiography from the margins of hagiographical study in general. This brief survey outlines some of the foremost publications and developments in Irish hagiographical studies which have been made since 1980 and the directions now being taken by scholars working in the field.