It seems to me, as I read the views of modern scholars on the saints of the early Irish church, that there are winners as well as losers in the revisionist process. One clear winner has been Saint Palladius, whose reputation as the first bishop sent to the Irish has been reclaimed from the 'Armagh propagandists' who did their best to airbrush both the man and his mission out of the historical record in order to promote the idea of Saint Patrick as the national apostle. A summary of the views of one modern scholar on this theme can be read at my other site here. What kept the memory and claims of Palladius alive, however, was the fact that his mission was recorded in an unimpeachable historical source: the works of Prosper of Aquitaine. This 5th-century chronicler and champion of the teachings of Saint Augustine against Pelagianism records for the year AD 431:
Ad Scottos in Christo credentes ordinatus a papa Celestino Palladius primus episcopus mittitur.
'Palladius, having been ordained by Pope Celestine, is sent, as their first bishop, to the Irish who believe in Christ'.
As scholar Michael Richter points out in his book Medieval Ireland- The Enduring Tradition:
'This is the only reliable date for Irish history in the fifth century. Yet Prosper's statement raises several questions: When had Christianity come to Ireland? How many Christians were there in Ireland in the year 431? Who was Palladius? How long was he active in Ireland? Where did he carry out his work?'
and he attempts some answers, starting with the last question - where did Palladius carry out his work?:
'In the Middle Irish Life of Patrick (Bethú Phátraic), we are told: 'He (Palladius) founded three churches. Cell Fine in which he left his books, the casket with the relics of Paul and Peter and the board on which he used to write, Tech na Román ("House of the Romans") and Domnach Airte containing Sylvester and Solinus' (presumably two of his followers)... The three churches mentioned are situated in Leinster, the region lying opposite the coast of Wales.'
Modern scholarship seems to be in agreement that the Palladian mission operated in Leinster and Munster and that it is likely that Palladius came to Ireland via Wales. Richter seeks to locate Palladius within a specific historical context - that of the fight against Pelagianism:
'Palladius was dispatched to the Irish Christians at about the same time as Germanus of Auxerre was sent to the Christians in Britain. Germanus had been dispatched to Britain in AD 429 to combat the heretical teachings of Pelagius. Active from around the year 400, Pelagius was a British monk who had developed a doctrine of human free will. Since this conflicted with the Catholic doctrine of grace, Pelagius was declared a heretic in 418. In his Ecclesiastical History Bede tells us that Germanus had refuted Pelagianism in Britain through the healing power of relics (H.E. 1, 17ff.). A similar function could be attributed to the relics Palladius brought to Ireland. If this was the case, it would indicate that Rome assumed a rather highly-developed level of Christianity amongst the Irish.
He now turns to another of his initial questions - who was Palladius?:
'Two deacons with this name are known from this period, one from Rome, the other from Auxerre, and it was probably the latter who came to Ireland. However, before we consider this and other questions regarding Palladius' activities, we must turn our attention to Patrick.... Patrick does not give us any concrete details concerning the region in which he was active, nor does he mention that he had an episcopal see. Indeed, after his writings, nothing more is heard in Ireland about Patrick throughout the sixth century.This gives rise to the following problems: Patrick was a bishop; Palladius is referred to as the first bishop. Palladius came to the Irish who already believed in Christ whereas Patrick was active among the Irish for many years; Palladius apparently spent a long time among the Irish according to the information in the tribute paid to him by Pope Celestine I and described by Prosper in his work Contra Collatorem.'
Richter does not quote the text of this tribute so I have found it in another source:
'He (Celestine) has been, however, no less energetic in freeing the British provinces from this same disease (the Pelagian heresy); he removed from the hiding-place certain enemies of grace who had occupied the land of their origin; also having ordained a bishop for the Irish, while he labours to keep the Roman island catholic, he has also made the barbarian island christian. '
The Roman island, is of course, Britain, the barbarian island which has been Christianized is Ireland.
Richter then attempts to reconcile some of the contradictory statements about Palladius and Patrick which he had raised above. He suggests as a starting point an assumption that Patrick was active in a part of Ireland which had not yet been reached by Christianity. He therefore proposes that Patrick's primary mission was carried out in the provinces of Ulster and northern Connacht, whereas, as we have seen, the Palladian mission was based in Leinster and Munster. Richter goes on to say:
'Nor does the description of Palladius as the first bishop of the Irish pose any real problem: Patrick had no contact with Rome and Prosper apparently knew nothing of Patrick's activities. The later legend tells of Patrick spending many years in Gaul, mainly in the monastery of Lérins. There is, however, no mention of this in the authentic works of Patrick; the Latin in the Confessio and the Epistola is such that a long stay on the part of their author can be ruled out. Gaulish bishops who, according to later sources, worked with Patrick in Ireland are more likely to have worked with Palladius.'
And the reason for the silence regarding Patrick in the 6th century?:
'The fact that nothing was heard of Patrick in the century following his missionary work can no doubt be explained by the increasingly important role which the monasteries were to play in the Irish Church from the end of the 5th century. Palladius and Patrick were, however, both bishops. Their work developed from this office and both wanted to establish a diocesan Church in Ireland.'
Richter ends by saying that although both Palladius and Patrick were committed to the Roman organizational model of the Church, the fact that Ireland had not been part of the Roman Empire and lacked towns and other aspects of the Roman heritage, made this model quite unsuitable.
By contrast with the way in which Richter and other modern writers approach the mission of Palladius, Canon O'Hanlon espoused the traditional view that his mission was a short-lived failure:
'Notwithstanding his high commission to evangelize the people, St. Palladius remained not long in Ireland. To St. Patrick, and not to him, had Providence assigned the grand measure of a successful mission'.
In this view, Palladius was unable to face the opposition of the locals:
'..the prevailing opinion appears to be, that the rude and inhospitable people where he landed did not readily receive his doctrine, and therefore he willed not to remain in a country strange to him. His resolve was formed, to return with the first tide which served, and to seek the Pope who had sent him.'
Of course, it took more than a few hostile pagans to scare off the true apostle to the Irish:
'Here we have to admire the inscrutable ways of Divine Providence, who so willed it, that the mission of Palladius should prove comparatively barren of results, while within a short time after his leaving Ireland, St. Patrick was destined to arrive, and to preach the Gospel among the natives, with most successful and consoling results'.
If this traditional Patrician triumphalism is hard to swallow, Richter offers a comforting thought:
'Some scholars are of the opinion that the later legend of Patrick was compiled from accounts relating to the activities of both Patrick and Palladius. In this case, the controversy over the description of Patrick as 'the Apostle of the Irish' would become irrelevant'.
Thus does Saint Palladius emerge as one of the winners in the efforts of modern revisionist scholars, with his reputation restored. What ultimately became of the first bishop to the Irish is unclear. Later accounts say that Palladius, having failed in Ireland, went instead to Scotland and was martyred there. More recent writers tend to be sceptical of the Scottish connection. The Aberdeen Breviary has assigned July 6 as his feastday, although some other sources commemorate a feast of Saint Palladius on January 25.
There is a most interesting blog entry on Saint Palladius and the Dunlavin area of County Wicklow here which concludes:
'Ultimately perhaps, Palladius’ life should not be measured by the success or failure of his mission, but by how much he endured and what he gave for his cause and his God.'
Content Copyright © Omnium Sanctorum Hiberniae 2012-2015. All rights reserved.
Content Copyright © Omnium Sanctorum Hiberniae 2012-2015. All rights reserved.