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The two St Patricks


Schrödinger's catIn 1940, Irish Prime Minister Eamon de Valera set up the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies. Based on the more famous foundation in Princeton New Jersey, it had two schools, corresponding to Dev's major academic interests: Celtic studies and mathematics.

The institute still exists, now with an added school, of astrophysics.

The first director of the school of mathematical physics was the Austrian genius Erwin Schrödinger. He had won the Nobel Prize in 1933 and was regarded as occupying the same lofty plane as Bohr, Heisenberg and Einstein. He was also unconventional, managing what Newt Gingrich failed to pull off, an open marriage: he turned up in Dublin in 1940 with his wife and his mistress and his mistress's daughter.

He was given a house in Clontarf where the older two were introduced as his wife and his housekeeper, thereby pre-empting any upset to the chaste sleep of the neighbourhood.

One of the results to which the Austrian has given his name is the thought experiment known as Schrödinger's cat, a scenario in quantum dynamics which allows for a cat to be alive and dead at the same time. Schrödinger was an agnostic and saw no place in mathematics for any kind of deity; a cat that was simultaneously alive and dead was okay, but no God.

The school of Celtic studies was led by Professor O'Rahilly, who was known at the time for his theory that the person we know as St Patrick is an amalgam of a number of holy men who lived more or less contemporaneously. This caused consternation in some quarters and considerable amusement in others.

One who saw the funny side was the writer Flann O'Brien. Wearing his hat as Myles na gCopaleen, he took a dim view of anything associated with his longwinded and obtuse prime minister. Given a free kick at the newly established institute he wrote in his Irish Times column that it was a great success, having so far proved that there was no God and two St Patricks.

(O'Rahilly was not pleased and the Institute took the newspaper to court for libel; they won the case and were awarded damages of £20, only half of which was ever paid.)

The two St Patricks theory is now regarded as respectably mainstream. The idea that Patrick came to pagan Ireland and changed it to an island of saints and scholars is an attractive one, however shaky that conversion has often seemed.

We know that there were Christian communities in the country when he arrived — St Ciaran in the midlands, St Declan in the south-east, to mention two. (The Saint part of those names was removed by Rome some years ago, but the Irish paid no heed.) We know too that Palladius was sent to the country at least a year earlier than Patrick, so it is likely that the Christian message was not completely new.

In those times, all that a missionary needed to do was to convert the king or the chieftain; if he was converted, all his subjects followed or were assumed to have followed. The story of the Paschal fire of Patrick used to be known to every Irish school child:

On Tara's hill the daylight dies,
On Tara's plain 'tis dead.
'Til Baal's enkindled fires shall rise
No fire must flame instead.

In prayer on the nearby hill of Slane, Patrick lit his Easter paschal fire and was summoned to the king to explain his defiance.

From here, the natural tendency of the Irish to make a story out of everything means that there are different versions of what may have happened: the king's daughter accepted the message but the king didn't; Patrick did a number of tricks involving snakes; one of the nobles saluted Patrick and was converted and raised to the episcopate.

More than likely, none of those is correct.

St Patrick holds the Irish in a powerful emotional thrall. As schoolchildren we were told that he refused to come down from a bleak mountain in County Mayo which still bears his name, until the Almighty promised him that the Irish would always be faithful to his message.

Whatever about the theology in that, it is admirable propaganda, providing an explanation for Ireland's adherence to Rome through centuries of persecution while warning the modern generation of a sacred trust. It is a matter of regret that this trust is no longer taken seriously.

Frank O'SheaFrank O'Shea is a Canberra writer. 

Topic tags: Frank O'Shea, St Patrick



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Existing comments

Of the three patrons of Ireland, we are now certain there was only ever one Columba, aka Colum Cille (mythic as he is), probably more than two Patricks, and certainly any number of the main Irish saint (in my humble opinion), Brigid, aka Bridget &c., aka the Mary of the Gael. They are a happy triad. There was more than one Kevin, but mythmakers didn’t keep statistics. The stories kept on being repeated until they turned into legend, the legend being more important than the historical reality. (Nothing’s changed.) Which is why I would question the assertion that conversion was as simple as converting the kings of Ireland. The legend of Tara is about the assertion of the new religion in terms that the Celts could understand. The acceptance of the new religion went with an adaptation of the old, of which the most famous example is the keeping of the fires at Kildare. It has still not been proven conclusively to me that this practice stopped at the Reformation. The cults of these saints moved out from Ireland, which is why we have places like St Bride’s Fleet Street. None of these saints are the possession of one church, they are revealers of the Gospel truth. They are remembered and honoured in the Anglican and Orthodox churches, and we still don’t know the full extent of the Coptic influence on Ireland’s conversion.

PHILIP HARVEY | 14 March 2012  

Another thought. The simple equation of Irishness with Catholicism is an inheritance that is at the core of the crisis in contemporary Ireland. The historian Diarmaid MacCulloch in his history of Christianity (2009) puts forward a challenging idea that needs to be heard in this context. He argues that if Queen Mary (1516-1588) had lived and England remained with Rome that Ireland would have become the most Protestant country in Europe. He says Ireland would have come to look like Protestant Holland, and all because the Irish will adopt the opposite practice of the enemy, i.e. England. He even reminds us that the planting in Northern Ireland, a symbol of Protestantism in that country, started under Queen Mary.

PHILIP HARVEY | 14 March 2012  

Palladius - Pelagius?

H. Martin | 14 March 2012  

Many believe God made a lot of mistakes when he created this world. Thank you, God, that making the Irish was not one of them.

john frawley | 14 March 2012  

Who ever did it...Ireland was converted out of the holy and scholarly monasteries of Wales (Cymru). Irish people always seem incredulous that Patrick(s) was/were not Irish but a Cymro like me!!( Welsh is an Englsh word for "foreigner" or non-welcome, non-Anglo-Saxon and alien Christian sort of chap).

Eugene | 14 March 2012  

Yes Eugene, you have struck on the truth. Patrick was also for a time a slave kidnapped by Romans, at least one of them anyway. We have to question the idea that Ireland was a Roman mission field.The Celtic mission that spread early across most of the British Isles was, well, Celtic. The real serious Roman mission was the one that came later, led by Augustine to Canterbury. Even the Synod of Whitby didn't solve much, really. And what about if I say that the Catholic Church only became the Roman Catholic Church at Trent in the 16th century? Continuity is in the eye of the beholder.

PHILIP HARVEY | 14 March 2012  

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