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
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
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
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
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."