Irish and British saints of the early medieval period
By Catherine Swift
The Pastoral Review (2012)
Introduction: Irish saints tend to be studied en masse. This approach is traceable back to John Colgan and his Franciscan colleagues at Louvain in the 1640s, through the local traditions collected by the researchers for the Topographical Department of the Ordnance Survey Office in the 1830s and 1840s, the early twentieth-century editions and translations of the Anglican prelate Charles Plummer down to Richard Sharpe’s Medieval Irish Saints’ Lives (1991), Dorothy Anne Bray’s List of Motifs in the Lives of the Early Irish Saints (1992) and the various publications of Pádraig Ó Riain (culminating in the recent magisterial Dictionary of the Irish Saints in 2011). Throughout, emphasis has been laid on the sheer number of holy men and (to a rather lesser extent) holy women from Erin’s green isle.
This is partly due to a longstanding desire to stress the strength of Irish Christian tradition but it also reflects the nature of our medieval sources. Many Irish saints are recorded in litanies, in martyrologies, in genealogical lists or as the founding saints of settlements whose heirs (comarbai) are recorded in annalistic death notices. Specific detail on the events of a saint’s life and their theological beliefs is very often lacking. Instead, the most easily available facts are their feast days, the settlements with which they are associated, their place of burial and their family origins.
This close association between saint and locality is often traceable today. Travelling through the Irish countryside, you will find a hospital named after St Lommán, a church dedicated to St Feichin, a school named after St Munchin or a well commemorating St Declan. Some of these saints might be relatively well known, others almost unheard of outside their own district. Writing in far away Louvain, John Colgan wrote letters to Irish diocesan bishops asking that they collect and send him as much local data as they could amass and his magisterial works, Acta Sanctorum Hiberniae (1645) and Trias Thaumaturgae (1647), are, in consequence, often peppered with place-names and local lore.