Saint Patrick

In Brief

Thoughts of Ireland's most famous patron saint float regularly into the novel's dialogue and interior monologue. Some require no comment: a mention of "Saint Patrick's Day" here, a character swearing "by Saint Patrick" there, or an invocation of "the blessing of God and Mary and Patrick on you." But the colorful legends associated with this early Christian missionary, not one of them documented during his lifetime, take characters and readers down some obscure winding paths.

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Pádraic, or Patricius as he calls himself in his Latin Confessio and a single Latin letter, was—assuming he actually existed—a Romanized Briton with some close connections to Roman Gaul. He was probably born in the late 380s AD and probably died in the early 460s. Raiders enslaved him as a teenager and brought him to Ireland, where he herded sheep for six years before escaping to the continent. From Gaul, he returned to Ireland in 432 on a mission from Pope Celestine I, and supposedly converted the entire island to Christianity within his lifetime, without any bloodshed. He is celebrated on his supposed deathday, March 17.

Fittingly for an ad salesman, Bloom seems most interested in how this talented missionary succeeded so well at persuading the violent pagan warriors of the island to accept the Christian dispensation—a sales job that has never quite worked on Bloom himself. In Lotus Eaters he thinks, "Clever idea Saint Patrick the shamrock." According to legend, Patrick used one of these three-leaved clover shoots to illustrate the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. In Lestrygonians Bloom gets off one of his better jokes of the day when he thinks of another of Patrick's adventures in sales: "That last pagan king of Ireland Cormac in the schoolpoem choked himself at Sletty southward of the Boyne. Wonder what he was eating. Something galoptious. Saint Patrick converted him to Christianity. Couldn’t swallow it all however."

Bloom is mistaking one pagan king for another, under the influence of a 19th century poem that he learned in school. The great Cormac, son of Art, reigned during the 3rd century, so Patrick could not possibly have interacted with him, but legend holds that he did convert to Christianity, thereby so angering the druid priests of the existing faith that they cursed the king and caused him to choke on his food. According to the Annals of the Four Masters, it was a salmon bone. Bloom's revery is prompted by watching the diners in the Burton "Working tooth and jaw" and thinking, "Don't. O! A bone!"

The poem by Sir Samuel Ferguson (1810-86), 28 quatrains on "The Burial of King Cormac," was first published in Lays of the Western Gael in 1864. It says that Cormac "choked upon the food he ate / At Sletty, southward of the Boyne." The poem improbably relates that, as the king choked to death, he managed to find breath enough to say, "Spread not the beds of Brugh for me, / When restless death-bed's use is done: / But bury me at Rossnaree, / And face me to the rising sun. / For all the kings who lie in Brugh / Put trust in gods of wood and stone; / And 'twas at Ross that first I knew / One, unseen, who is God alone."

The ruler who couldn't quite swallow the saint's teachings, as opposed to his dinner, was Leary (Laoghaire), who according to the Four Masters had been High King for four years when Patrick arrived in 432. He did not agree to convert but allowed Patrick to proceed with his missionary work. In Ithaca Bloom somehow finds occasion to recite his confusion of the two kings to Stephen, who sets him straight on Cormac being the "last pagan king": "Bloom assented covertly to Stephen’s rectification of the anachronism involved in assigning the date of the conversion of the Irish nation to christianity from druidism by Patrick son of Calpornus, son of Potitus, son of Odyssus, sent by pope Celestine I in the year 432 in the reign of Leary to the year 260 or thereabouts in the reign of Cormac MacArt († 266 A.D.), suffocated by imperfect deglutition of aliment at Sletty and interred at Rossnaree."

As it happens, Stephen has actually been thinking earlier in the day about such historically impossible meetings of great figures. In Scylla and Charybdis he muses about "Oisin with Patrick." Medieval oral traditions held that Oisin (Oisín), warrior-poet son of Finn MacCool (Fionn MacCumhail) and historian of the legendary Fenians (Fianna), survived for 200 years after the end of the heroic age because he left with his bride Niamh for her land of Tír na nÓg, a place off the western coast of Ireland where time has no meaning or reality and nothing ages. When he returned to visit his father in Ireland, he found Fionn and his entire way of life gone, and he himself became old, blind, and enfeebled, but there was Patrick, eager both to teach Oisin the true faith and to learn about the Fianna from him.

In some Christian tales Patrick succeeds in converting Oisin, but in pagan versions Oisin more than holds his own, vigorously defending his pagan beliefs and values against "Patrick of the closed mind" and his small-minded religion. None of Stephen's thoughts about the meeting of the two men are given, but since he thinks of it in relation to his own Parisian encounter with a truculent John Millicent Synge, it seems likely that he is recalling the more argumentative versions.

Other famous legends about Patrick come up in the chapter most associated with Irish nationalism, Cyclops. Patrick appears in its long list of saints and also in the mention of "Croagh Patrick," the holy mountain on the ocean's edge in County Mayo where the saint is supposed to have fasted for 40 days and expelled all of Ireland's snakes, which are sometimes read allegorically as representing the druids. The Citizen seems to be thinking of this lore when he vituperates Bloom, another representative of a false faith, as a poisonous "thing" to be driven out: "Saint Patrick would want to land again at Ballykinlar and convert us, says the citizen, after allowing things like that to contaminate our shores." Ballykinler, a village 30 miles south of Belfast in Ulster's County Down, sits on Dundrum Bay, which is one reputed site of Patrick's arrival in Ireland.

Cyclops also mentions "S. Patrick's Purgatory," another geographical site associated with the saint's miracles. This one is in County Donegal, in the far northwest. Station Island in Lough Derg contained a deep pit or "cave" which Christ, in a vision, showed Patrick to be an entrance to Purgatory. The belief arose that pilgrims who spent a day and a night in this pit would experience the effects of Purgatory, suffering the torments appropriate to their sins and tasting the joys of salvation. From the 12th century to the 17th, pilgrims thronged to the site. The practice was revived in the 19th century, accounting for its mention in Cyclops, and it continues today, as evoked in Seamus Heaney's long collection Station Island (1984).

In the Middle Ages pilgrims typically went first to Saints Island, a larger piece of land near the shore, and then rowed to Patrick's island. The 17th century map reproduced here shows boatloads of pilgrims approaching the shores of Station Island and the "Caverna Purgatory," which today is covered by a mound supporting a bell tower for the adjacent church. The filling in of the cave would seem to have occurred in the 1650s, when Oliver Cromwell's soldiers desecrated the site in his campaign to suppress Irish Catholicism. The map with its indication of a cave was published in 1666, however, so perhaps the date is later. In any case, pressures to shut down the pilgrimage site had been building ever since the papacy issued bans against it just before and after the year 1500.

Cyclops makes brilliant comedy out of another famous aspect of Patrick's hagiography: his saint's day, March 17. This is traditionally regarded as the date of his death, though no reliable records exist. The 19th century poet and songwriter Samuel Lover wrote a bit of comical verse making fun of the arbitrary date, but he connected it to the saint's birthday. According to "The Birth of S. Patrick," the first factional fight in Irish history was over the question of whether Patrick's true birthdate was March 8 or March 9. One Father Mulcahy persuaded the combatants to combine the two numbers and settle on March 17. Having done so, "they all got blind drunk—which complated their bliss, / And we keep up the practice from that day to this."

Joyce turns this contention over dates into a brawl with assorted deadly weapons between members of the Friends Of The Emerald Isle who have come to witness the execution: "An animated altercation (in which all took part) ensued among the F. O. T. E. I. as to whether the eighth or the ninth of March was the correct date of the birth of Ireland's patron saint." A Constable MacFadden is summoned and proposes "the seventeenth of the month as a solution equally honourable for both contending parties." The quick acceptance of the policeman's proposal seems to have much to do with the fact that he is described as "The readywitted nine footer."

Joyce continued his engagement with the mythology of Saint Patrick in Finnegans Wake. In the summer of 1923 he worked on a sketch of "St Patrick and the Druid" inspired by stories of the saint's encounter with King Leary and his archdruids, who were encamped on the Hill of Tara. Patrick is said to have camped on the nearby Hill of Slane and built a paschal fire on the night before Easter, alarming the druids who held that all fires must be extinguished before a new one was lit on Tara. They told the king said that if this one was not put out it would burn forever.

Traditionally, this story is told as a Christian victory, but in Joyce's sketch, which he referred to as "the conversion of St Patrick by Ireland," a druid named Berkeley meets Patrick in the presence of the king and does all the talking, teaching the Christian his idealistic theory of light and color by discussing the "sextuple" (or, alternately, "heptachromatic sevenhued") colors displayed in King Leary's person (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet), all of which turn out to be shades of botanic green.

This sketch fed into several parts of the Wake, including its spectrum of rainbow colors and the phrase on its first page, "nor avoice from afire bellowsed mishe mishe to tauftauf thuartpeatrick." Joyce reworked the sketch extensively near the end of the book. On pp. 611-12, the archdruid Balkelly (a Shem figure) and "his mister guest Patholic" (Shaun) continue the discussion of light, color, and vision. The druid again uses "High Thats Hight Uberking Leary" as the example of his impractical way of seeing, but this time Patholic has the last word, invoking the sun of everyday seeing and the Great Balenoarch (the Italian for rainbow is arcobaleno) of the world's apparent colors.

In a 17 March 2015 blog post that discusses the presence of Patrick and the druid in the Wake, Peter Chrisp concludes by observing how important this saint was to Joyce. The Swiss writer Mercanton, Chrisp observes, talked to Joyce as he basked in the late sunlight one evening on the Quay de Lutry. Mercanton recorded that he "spoke of St Patrick, whose intercession was indispensable if he was to complete the book." Joyce said, "I follow St Patrick . . . It is the title of an erudite book by my friend Gogarty . . . Without the help of my Irish saint, I think I could never have got to the end of it." Chrisp ends by noting that "Gogarty's book was found on Joyce's desk after his death."

JH 2019
2010 photograph by Andreas Borchert of stained glass depiction of Saint Patrick holding a shamrock, in St. Benin's Church, Kilbennan, County Galway. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
2007 photograph by Lyricmac of mosaic of Saint Patrick banishing snakes on the facade of St. Patrick cathedral of El Paso, Texas. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
  Croagh Patrick seen from Clew Bay on the Atlantic ocean. Source: outsider.ie.
 1666 map of Station Island drawn by Father Thomas Carve. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
  Oliver St. John Gogarty's I Follow St. Patrick. Source: peterchrisp.blogspot.com.