Ireland’s First Easter Vigil

This is one of my favorite posts from the Heavenfield archive:

From Muirchu’s Life of Patrick:

“And on the very night that St Patrick was celebrating the Passover, they were partaking of the worship of their great pagan festival. Now there was a custom among the pagans — made clear to all by edict — that it would be death for anyone, wherever they were, to light a fire on the night before the fire was lit in the house of the king (ie the palace of Tara). So when St Patrick celebrating the Passover lit the great bright and blessed divine fire, it shone clearly and was seen by nearly everyone living on the plain of Tara. And those who saw it viewed it with great wonder. All the elders and nobles of the nation were called in the king’s presence and he spoke to them. ‘Who is this man who has dared to commit such a crime in my kingdom? Let him perish by death!” And the answer from those around him was that they did not know. Then the wise men answered: “‘O king, life forever!” This fire, which we see lit this night before the fire of your own house, must be quenched this night. Indeed, if it should not be put out tonight, it will never be extinguished! You should know that it will keep rising up and will supplant all the fires of our own religion. This one who lit it, and the kingdom he bringing upon us this night, will overcome us all — both you and us– by leading away everyone in your kingdom. All the kingdoms will fall down before it, and it will fill the whole country and it ‘shall reign forever and ever.’”

[The king and men confront Patrick to try to kill him but he and his followers escape. The king sees only 8 deer and one fawn in the darkness...]

“The next day, which [for us] was the Day of the Passover [Easter Day], was for the pagans the day of their greatest festival…. While they were eating and drinking in the place of Tara,…Patrick with only five companions appeared among them, having come through ‘closed doors’ in the way we read about Christ. He went there to proclaim and demonstrate the holy faith in Tara in the presence of all nations.” (Davies and O’Loughlin trans, Celtic Spirituality, Paulist press, 1999, p. 99-100, 102)

Theology as narrative at its best. As Thomas O’Loughlin describes it in his Celtic Theology (2000, p. 107):

“Muirchu had a few uncertain traditions about Patrick, but he had one theological certainty: the changing of people from being not-the-people-of-God to being part of Christ was the drama of the Paschal Mystery; the Paschal Mystery was entered through the drama of the liturgy, so the story of his people was the story of Easter Night. From his perspective as theologian/churchman could he have provided a more fitting origin story — a people reborn in the great event of Christian rebirth– for his people’s faith?”

Muirchu never calls Patrick’s fire a bonfire that is our assumption. The divine fire that Patrick lights represents the Paschal candle lit during the Easter vigil symbolizing the light of Christ in the world. Just as Muirchu claims that every fire in the kingdom was to be lit from the king’s pagan fire, every candle used during the easter vigil is lit from the paschal candle. Muirchu wrote for and was read by primarily monastics who would have immediately recognized this divine light as the paschal candle that they light every Easter Vigil. This candle is known to go back to at least the time of Jerome in the 4th century. Paschal means passover, and Muirchu calls Patrick’s Easter Vigil his celebration of Passover. In early medieval literature, including the Historia Brittonum, Patrick is consistently linked with Moses.

Muirchu says that Patrick went to Tara to speak to all the nations this is because the King of Tara was the High King of Ireland and representatives from most of the kingdoms of Ireland would have been present for the greatest pagan festival of the year.

Have a blessed Easter Sunday!

 

The Death of King Diarmait

I’ve been browsing through the Fragmentary Annals of Ireland for you know what, plague, and I came across an interesting entry.

665 Kl. The death by plague of the son of Áed Sláine, i.e. Blathmac [...], i.e. in Calatruim. Diarmait died in the same place, standing, stretched against a cross, watching the Laigin army approaching to kill him. His soul departed from him. It is found in some books that these two kings, Blathmac and Diarmait, reigned twelve years. In others, however, … years, which we follow. These two kings of Ireland, then, Blathmac and Diarmait, died in that plague, i.e. the Buide Conaill. (FA 28)

The Annals of Ulster has a king Diarmait son of Aed Slaine and a king Blathmac who died of plague. There is nothing about being “stretched against a cross, watching the Laigin army approaching to kill him.” I don’t think that I’ve seen anything quite like this before. This would seem to have a Leinster (Laigin) connection, like some of the other hints in plague lore like the name Buide Conaill itself (Conaill being the dynastic founder of the Leinster). Has anyone seen anything like this before?

Cattle Plagues in the Annals of Ulster, 699-708

From the archives a couple years ago:

I’ve been looking at the Irish annals for references to plagues and I came across a couple of references to cattle plagues. Now these plagues are probably not the same disease causing human deaths in the annals. There is a species barrier for most diseases, but not all. Yersinia pestis is one that can cross the species barrier but I don’t think cattle are frequent plague victims in large numbers. Further, if humans were also victims they would be mentioned more prominently in the entries.

More importantly, cattle plagues cause human famines and protein malnutrition that can last for a decade or more. A massive loss of cattle can’t be replaced in a year or two. You can’t just order up replacement cattle. I was at a talk last year at Kalamazoo where they showed that the cattle plague that preceded the beginning of the Black Death took nearly 20 years for cattle stocks to recover. This caused a full generation of protein malnutrition. I would also add that milk would have also supplied a considerable amount of fat in the diet. We have too many fats in our diet today but in a medieval diet, milk fat (in butter, cheese and whole milk) would have been a significant dietary resource. Where else would a medieval diet have gotten protein or fat? With a short supply of cattle, there would have been little meat available (leaving probably mostly pigs, sheep, and birds for meat). Under normal circumstances milk and eggs would have supplied a significant amount of protein.  This would have left people relying very heavily on carbohydrates for all their nutrition. Its hard to get a enough protein from vegetables alone. Eggs would have become a critical protein source.

This all reminds me of Bede’s claims that the Irish monks relied heavily on cattle. On Lindisfarne, they drank only milk and water. He claimed that St Cedd fasted at Lastingham eating only a little bread, a hen’s egg, and watered milk. Likewise St Egbert fasted on only a little piece of bread and skim milk.  The Irish could survive quite healthily on just milk and cereals. Milk supplies protein, fat and sugar. Cereals supply carbohydrates. There are your four basic food groups, if not a lot a variety. However, this leaves them highly reliant on one type of animal and a cattle plague/murrain could be disastrous.

The Annals of Ulster record that the cattle murrain starts among the Saxons in 699 and it appeared in Mag Trega in Tethba (Ireland) on the Kalends of February in 700. Mag Trega is Moytra in County Longford, Ireland. It then records also in 700 that “famine and pestilence prevailed in Ireland for three years, so that man ate man.” Obviously this is a retrospective entry for it to list that it occurred for three years.  Nevertheless, it illustrates how dependent the Irish were upon their cattle. The Annals of Ulster recorded a mortality of cows again in 701. It wasn’t over yet. Again in 708, another cattle murrain is recorded.

The cattle plague would also seem to suggest that there was some trade in cattle across the Irish Sea. The annalist recorded the cattle deaths beginning among the Saxons, then spreading to Ireland. We also have to keep in mind that cattle were wealth certainly in Ireland, but perhaps also in Britain. We are left to wonder what political ramifications resulted not only from the famine and deaths but from the loss of cattle wealth. Would this have made cattle raiding more fierce over the cattle that were left, or would elites look from something else by which to calibrate their relative wealth? Could this have led in part to an increase in coinage at the turn of the 8th century? What could have replaced cattle (or leather) as a trade good? Remember it can take 10-20 years for cattle stocks to recover have a major cattle plague.

I looked at all the entries from 650 to 730 and these are the only cattle deaths mentioned. The human plague reports and the cattle deaths are distinct. The pestilence recorded that accompanied the famine in c. 700 was probably gastrointestinal since in such a severe famine people would have been eating anything they could find. Scavenging for food coupled with a lowered immune response makes people very vulnerable to food poisoning / intestinal disease. Weakened immune responses could have also led to a variety of infectious diseases striking the population, much as they do in refugee camps. Between the human plagues that struck in the 660s and 680s, and the cattle plague at the turn of the century every generation in the second half of the seventh century would have coped with illness and death en masse.