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The Life of Martin of Tours: a view from twelfth-century Ireland

The Life of Martin of Tours: a view from twelfth-century Ireland

By Máire Herbert

Ogma: Essays in Celtic Studies in honour of Próinséas Ní Chatháin (Four Courts, 2002)

Martin of Tours

Introduction: The writings of Sulpicius Severus about Martin, compiled in the final decade of the fourth century, were known in Irish monastic circles at least by the close of the seventh century, when they served as an important model for Adomnan’s Vita Columbae. Indeed, the Martinian writings were also ysed in the composition of the Lives of two other Iona saints, Baithene and Adomnan, author of the Vita Columbae. Liturgical commemoration of Martin, attested in the Vita Columbae, reinforces the sense that the Columban monastic community particularly venerated Martin as an exemplar of asceticism who had privileged access to the supernatural world. Yet Martin’s veneration in early Christian Ireland was not solely a Columban prerogative, as the evidence of surviving hymns, Mass invocations, and calendar commemorations reveals. Moreover, the beginnings of Martin’s cult among the Irish may be earlier than indicated by the surviving records, if Columbanus’s report pilgrimage to Tours be deemed to reflect a devotion dating back to his monastic formation in sixth-century Ireland.

What emerges significantly from all of the foregoing testimony is that in early Christian Ireland Martin was appropriated in his monastic rather than in his episcopal persona. We note, for instance, that the names of Antony and of Martin are linked together in the epilogue to Felire Oengusso, composed around the beginning of the ninth century. While the works of Sulpicius Severus may have been known to Muirchu when he was compiling his Life of Patrick in the late seventh century, it is not Martin’s Vita but the apocryphal acta of New Testament apostles which provided the most significant literary template for the depiction of Ireland’s premier bishop-apostle.

Evident promotion of Martin among Patrick’s devotees in Armagh seems to be attested securely only from about the beginning of the ninth century. The most significant indication is, of course, the copy of Sulpicious Severus’  Vita of Martin, together with two of his Dialogues, entered into the Book of Armagh, alongside the New Testament and the dossier of texts relating to St Patrick, around the year 807. It would seem that the ninth century was also the time when contact with Martin was first depicted in Patrician hagiography. The vernacular Vita Tripartia provides the most elaborated version of this contact. It represents Patrick, in the course of his studies in Gaul, visiting Tours and receiving the monastic tonsure from Martin. Moreover, the two saints are linked by kinship as well as by ecclesiastical association, since Patrick’s mother is identified as a sister of Martin.

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