Monday, 10 December 2012

Feastdays of the saints: A history of Irish martyrologies

Below is a book review  by Columban specialist Brian Lacey on a history of Irish Martyrologies by Pádraig Ó Riain. It was first posted in 2009 on my former blog and contains some useful background information on the historic Irish calendars of the saints:

Pádraig Ó Riain FEASTDAYS OF THE SAINTS: A HISTORY OF IRISH MARTYROLOGIES Subsidia hagiographica 86, Société des Bollandists, Bruxelles, 2006. Pp. 416 + xxvii. Price 75 Euro. ISBN 978-2-87365-018-6.

As Pádraig Ó Riain points out, in the early ninth century the monastery of Tallaght was known, along with that other well known Dublin place - Finglas, as one of ‘the two eyes of Ireland’. Tallaght is where we must start to look in any investigation in Ireland of the tradition of writings about saints called martyrologies. A martyrology, as Ó Riain tells us at the outset of this book, ‘is a list of names of saints, arranged according to the days of the year on which they died’. Usually these lists are ‘drawn from all over the Christian world’ and sometimes they have extra details such as the place where the saint is said to have died. These details can be of immense value for the understanding of both religious and political events in a local context.

The earliest text of this kind known to us (the so-called Hieronymian martyrology drawn up either in southern France or northern Italy, but already with several Irish associations) dates to the late sixth or early seventh centuries, although it was clearly based on older lists and information. Having followed a slow and circuitous route, a shortened version of that text arrived in Tallaght around 828, as Ó Riain has newly worked out. However, by then it had accumulated - like a glacier that picks up traces of the landscapes over which it passes - influences from monasteries in Northumbria, Iona and Bangor (Co. Down). The copy that arrived in Tallaght had probably been deliberately requested as Ó Riain suggests, in response to a decision made at a church council in Aachen in 817 that every monastery should have a martyrology from which would be read out the daily list of saints. Once the copy arrived it immediately spawned two other texts, known to us now as the Martyrology of Tallaght and the metrical Maryrology of Óengus, which stand together at the head of the surviving Irish martyrological tradition. These were composed according to Ó Riain’s persuasive arguments in that order between 829 and 833, probably by the same author, Óengus a monk and bishop at Tallaght who is said in some sources to have been the son of Oengoba and the grandson of Oiblén.

The Martyrology of Tallaght was, in origin, what we might call a working document (although it may have been venerated later as a relic, at Lorrha in Co. Tipperary) to which a number of local Irish ‘saints’ names were added, particularly those of figures linked with the contemporary church reform movement associated with the céile Dé. The Martyrology of Óengus was, however, a literary masterpiece: a sophisticated rendering into disciplined verse quatrains in Irish of the main elements of the earlier prose text. It was, as Ó Riain’s book points out, the first text of its kind anywhere in the Christian world. In an Armagh scriptorium in the late twelfth century, the already fairly lengthy text acquired a preface as well as extensive commentary and glosses. Before that, in the eleventh century, a copy of the original poem had been brought to the Irish Benedictine monastery in Regensburg (one of the so-called Schottenkloster) where it continued to influence other continental texts.

Meanwhile, around the year 1000, a copy of a popular continental martyrology (the Martyrology of Ado, composed c. 855) had been made in a monastery in Metz, where, under the direction of its Irish abbot, the names of a number of Irish saints were added. A copy of that text was later made in Cologne (in a church also with strong Irish connections) from where it was brought to Dublin, most probably accompanied by a collection of relics for the foundation of Christchurch cathedral c.1030. It seems that this is ‘Dublin’s oldest known book’, as Prof. Ó Riain explained in a lecture to this Society in January 2004. Ó Riain teases out all the links and connections between these various texts and reconstructs their individual influences on the later Irish martyrologies: the Martyrology of Gorman, the Martyrology of Drummond, the Martyrology of Turin, the Martyrology of Cashel and, last in the series, the early seventeenth-century Martyrology of Donegal. He also places all these literary works in their appropriate ecclesiastical and cultural settings.

This is a wonderful work of painstaking original and revisionary scholarship. The book, which is aimed in the first instance, of course, at a very specialist readership, nevertheless operates on several levels. It provides us with the first inter-connected history of the entire group of martyrologies from Ireland as well as those relevant places abroad that had strong Irish associations in medieval times. Indeed the book shows us that Irish influence on this genre of writing at a European level was quite extensive. The book also analyses the individual histories of each of the relevant texts. The evidence for Ó Riain’s new ideas and interpretations is presented in the very great detail necessary to explicate the thousand years of that tradition plus the several hundred years of subsequent study by modern ecclesiastical and secular scholars. The setting out of this detail might possibly deter the more general reader who is interested in these texts mainly for the light they throw on local studies, however that would be a great mistake. The excellent structure of the book - with each chapter divided into smaller sub-sections - means that such detailed passages can be passed over, if desired, without the reader having to lose the thread of the main narrative. In addition, throughout the book Ó Riain provides summaries and chapter conclusions, which can be read independently of the close arguments. His final epilogue, in which he summarizes the whole story again, is an epitome of clarity for such a complex subject over such a long period of history. In the appendices he also provides chronologies and diagrams that, once again, simplify and clarify the complex arguments involved in working out his overall thesis.

Some of the chapters in this book are based on material previously published, both in Ireland and abroad. Those individual studies, however, have been revised and updated here. Together with the work being presented for the first time, this means that the book provides us with the first-ever comprehensive account of the whole subject. As Ó Riain points out, new editions are badly needed of several of the main martyrological texts that would take into account the results of modern scholarship. Until such editions appear this book also offers a guide as to how much we can rely on the existing versions.

Pádraig Ó Riain has previously given us many valuable studies in the field of Irish hagiography and hagiology: his important edition of the Irish saints’ genealogies and his analysis of the dossier relating to Saint Finbarr being only two significant examples. The two pages in the bibliography of this book that list Ó Riain’s own relevant works are, again, only a sample of his industry. Paradoxically, for someone who has done so much to explain what the medieval writings about our saints actually mean, Ó Riain’s work can be characterised, in some respects at least, as iconoclastic, in that he frequently deconstructs the engineered medieval images in order to show us what really lies behind them.

New books dealing mainly with the early medieval period in Irish history are relatively rare. In that sense it is, at least, a double pleasure to be able to welcome such a fascinating, readable and erudite account of this subject and to congratulate the Society of Bollandists, which since the seventeenth century has dedicated itself to the scientific study of saints’ Lives, for such an excellent publication.

Brian Lacey


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