A Quirky Case of Medieval Ecclesiastical Propaganda


Cross of the Scriptures, Cathedral, Temple Doolin and South Cross / Photo by Ingo Mehling, Wikimedia Commons


The historical and archaeological importance of the original ecclesiastical site of Fuerty, Co. Roscommon.


Part I

Introduction

Clonmacnoise commemorated… Fuerty, Roscommon (Image: Author)

A few weeks ago, a short article in the Irish Times caught my eye. Entitled ‘Historic’ ordination of deacons in Sligo, it was a brief notice concerning newly ordained permanent deacons in the modern Irish diocese of Elphin. Two comments were of particular interest to me:

Bishop of Elphin, Christopher Jones described the occasion as “truly joyous” and historic, pointing out that it was almost 1,500 years “almost back to the time of St Patrick himself” since a similar ordination had taken place in the diocese.

Newly ordained William Gacquin said the last recorded reference to a deacon in diocesan records was when one baptised St Ciaran in the parish of Fuerty, Co Roscommon, in the sixth century. – McDonagh, M. Irish Times, December 10, 2012

Such comments provide a fascinating example of the extent to which early Irish hagiography is still influencing modern ecclesiastical identity and ‘history’. Whilst no doubt wishing to stress the historical nature of the proceedings, the referencing of the above episode in such a manner relies on an uncritical acceptance of antiquarian translations of later medieval Lives of St. Patrick. Divorced from its original setting, the episode is not only portrayed by modern-day ecclesiastics as historical fact, but also attempts to equate the modern-day concept of a permanent deacon with that of the early medieval ecclesiastical grade. In doing so, it not only fails to appreciate the original ecclesiastical milieu in which it was written; but inadvertently underplays the actual historical and archaeological importance of the original ecclesiastical site of Fuerty, Co. Roscommon.

A Matter of Record

Leaving aside the small matter of projecting a much later diocesan/parish structure onto an earlier  chronological period (a point clearly made in the history section of the diocese own website); the earliest version of the ‘diocesan record’ in question is contained within a seventh century text known to scholarship as the Collectanea. Written by a Bishop Tírechán between 664 and 684 AD, it presents a pseudo-historical itinerary of St. Patrick’s missionary journey throughout large areas of Leinster and Connacht.

Tírechán was a native of modern-day Co. Mayo who had grown up under ecclesiastical fosterage in Leinster. His primary reason for writing the text was to provide a quasi-legal framework to those dynasties and churches in Connacht who were open to establishing, or accepting, an alliance with Patrick’s paruchia. He did this by writing the ‘history’ of certain church foundations; bringing the saint into contact with the ancestors of local dynasties who granted rights, tribute and land in return for ecclesiastical favour, baptism and blessing. Quid pro quo: one legitimated the other in providing for the future by creating a fictional shared past.

Although spurious concerning anything to do with the historical Patrick, or indeed, the fifth/sixth centuries AD; the text itself is an invaluable document for understanding early Irish Christianity. Written at a very important juncture during the seventh century AD; it provides us with one of our earliest windows into the culture and climate of early medieval ecclesiastical organisation (or perhaps even, disorganisation!).

When you look at the document in its actual historical and landscape context, a picture emerges of a fast flowing and loose patchwork of ecclesiastical identities, monastic federations and secular dynasties; all of whom were plying for power and influence within Connacht. Patrick may have been well on his way to becoming the pre-eminent national saint, but the Columban and Clonmacnoise monastic federations were still potential regional players. As a native of the province and contemporary participant in such squabbles, Tírechán presents several examples of patrician churches which were apparently claimed by both rivals above.

Reading between the Lines

[……..]abillis iostus [dia]conus qu[…]m
sanctus penepuer pusillus In […..]lic[.. .]
et tenuit fidarti et dedit illi patricius [lib]
ros babtismatis et babtitzauit nepo[tes] [….]
et Insenectute sua bona babtitzauit [ce]
ranum filium artificis quando se[nex] ac ple
nus dierum fuit…

…et babtitzatuest ceranus ex [lib]
ro patricii adiacono iusto populi [in]
conspectu // – Fol. 12 v, Liber Ardmachanus; Gwynn, 1913, 24

Which (more or less) translates as:

[left]  a certain Iostus, a deacon, a holy youth not more than a little boy, in…and he held fidarti, and Patrick gave him books of baptism and he baptised the sons of… (Uí Maine), and in fine old age, he baptised Ceranum (Ciaran), the son of the craftsman, when he was old and in the fullness of his days…

…and Ceranus (Ciaran) was baptised out of the book of Patrick by deacon Iusto in the sight of the people.

From a surface reading then, the episode seems to confirm the original statements. Patrick left a young deacon named Iostus (Justus) in a certain place (the name of which is corrupted). This same Iostus went on to ‘hold’ (i.e. ‘take, possess’) a site called Fidarti (‘Fiadharta‘ > ‘Fíorta‘ > modern day ‘Fuerty’). After receiving books of baptism from the saint, Iostus then baptised the people of the region (the Uí Maine dynasty). Much later on, in old age, he went on to baptise Ciaran (of Clonmacnoise), himself also apparently old, out of the same patrician books; an act somewhat at odds with later medieval versions of his life which depict an early death in his thirties. However, when placed in its seventh century context, the above episode takes on significantly different meanings.

Landscape and Geographic Context

 Castlestrange Stone – Image: Sarah777 (wikimedia commons / used under a CC Licence)

Seventh century Fidarti, or Fuerty, was situated in a border region of Connacht and the midlands, between the territory of Mag Aí and that of the Uí Maine. In Tírechan’s original text, the episode at Fuerty takes place after patrician activity in and around modern-day Castlereagh. Following on from it, the action moves back to modern-day Oran and Baslick, Co. Roscommon, as well as the River Suck; which seems to play a defining border role in other episodes within Tírechán’s text. It’s close proximity to Fuerty is not at all coincidental.

Just two km to the south of Fuerty, along the same stretch of the River Suck, lies the magnificent carved boulder known as the Castlestrange Stone. The La Tene style of decoration has been interpreted as indicating an Iron Age date. Its presence in the landscape would seem to suggest an element of conspicuous display, something that would certainly fit the idea of the river being a tribal boundary in the late iron age/early medieval period.

The site of Fuerty (just across the River Suck) represents one of the most south-easterly ‘Connacht’ locations named within the entire text; while it and another unidentified nearby site are said to be ‘held/possessed’ by Patrick or his designates. The  language used by Tírechán (tenere: ‘held, captures/overtakes’) implies strong legal terminology, suggesting the Patrician sites in question were involved in rival ecclesiastical claims. Indeed, it has been noted that when Tírechán uses the same term in relation to other church sites elsewhere in his text, it is almost always connected to similar sites connected to, or claimed by, ecclesiastical rivals (Clonmacnoise, Clones, Devinish, Kildare).

Ecclesiastical and Political Context

Fuerty, in the seventh century AD, was therefore a contested site and landscape located in the border lands between Mag Aí (Patrician orientated) and Uí Maine (Clonmacnoise orientated) territories. In not having the saint go any further into Uí Maine country, Tírechán was acknowledging the seventh century liminal extent of Patrick’s paruchia; while simultaneously projecting the saint’s authority beyond the immediate  boundary through the actions of the deacon Iostus. All in all, it’s a cheeky contemporary statement on Tírechan’s part; dressed up to look like an innocent ‘historical’ background.[1]

Not only was he inserting a Patrician connection in an area claimed by Clonmacnoise; but he was deliberately undermining its very founder. By presenting Ciaran as being baptised by deacon Iostus, in the sight of his people, out of books originally presented by Patrick; Tírechán was engaging in a magnificent example of early medieval ecclesiastical one-upmanship. Such a claim would have undoubtedly been perceived by Clonmacnoise authorities as a scandalous insult in itself; yet Tírechán was not content with this mere slight and went even further.

Portraying the baptism event as taking place when Ciaran was an older man not only provided further insult (especially if the later medieval legends of an early death were already being cultivated by then); but also served to distance him from Patrick in terms of antiquated authority and legitimacy. Tírechán even went so far as to claim a chronological gap of 140 years in-between the death of Patrick and the baptism of Ciaran in his original manuscript! Indeed, this is why he explicitly specifies the extreme youth of Iostus and that of the fine old age of Ciaran; having the need to retrofit their potential lifespans into a semblance of plausibility.

Archaeological Context

All of the above, however, pales when compared with even deeper subtextual implications underlying Tírechán’s claims. For any such propaganda to have been effective, it must logically have made use of certain half-truths; and Tírechán’s version of past events  are likely to have been based on perceived contemporary (seventh century) realities. Reading the text through an archaeological lens, the church site of Fuerty, already considered old, seems to have been in possession of an ancient book, or books, apparently associated with a figure called Iostus and possibly already regarded as relics. Second to that, was undoubtedly some sort of past association with Ciaran and Clonmacnoise, which may reflect later medieval accounts of the saints dynastic association with the Roscommon area.

Any seventh century Uí Maine inheritors of the church of Fuerty who were already commemorating Iostus, his book, or a Clonmacnoise connection would have therefore been placed in an interesting situation. Renouncing any Patrician association in favour of Clonmacnoise would have not only entailed belittling an already valuable relic, but would also involve the denigration in importance of their perceived founding figure. On the other hand, accepting the Patrician association would have offered them a perceived authority and antiquated legitimacy beyond that of Clonmacnoise, as well as a ‘genuine’ Patrician relic with which to promote their unique position within both the Clonmacnoise sphere of influence and Ciaran’s pseudo-history.

Dynastic Context

High Cross, Clonmacnoise (Image: Author)

Naturally, this would have afforded Fuerty an elevated status within Ui Maine territory. With a foot firmly in both ecclesiastical camps, its local secular dynasty would have no doubt enjoyed potential benefits from either federations (perhaps grudgingly from one or the other at various times). An important aspect of any such antagonism, however, is the relative powerlessness with which either federation could bring to bear. If the association with Ciaran’s baptism and the books of Iostus had already been in place; then, as above, any renouncing of the same would have had more consequence for Clonmacnoise than Fuerty. If the Clonmacnoise/Ciaran connection was to be maintained, then it was to be within a firm Patrician framework, with the national saint enjoying a privileged position ‘in the past’.

Late Medieval Context

The fact that the later medieval Life of Ciaran includes the figure of Justus (Iostus), Fuerty and Ciaran’s baptism within its re-imagined account, serves to not only illustrate that Clonmacnoise was forced to adapt the less than favourable tradition (albeit reversing certain details); but also that the tradition was firmly entrenched and strong enough to survive the intervening centuries of Clonmacnoise regional dominance. Most intriguingly, the twelfth century Life also includes a fantastical story of how Ciaran’s ‘writing tablet’ (the Pólaire Ciaráin), associated with his ‘teacher’ Justus, had been saved in antiquity and that it could still be seen in the church at that time.

Not only is this likely to be a re-working of Tírechán’s original account (conveniently removing the Patrick element) but it suggests the survival of a tradition of an ancient book/tablet, if not an actual relic, still being associated with Ciaran and Justus in the twelfth century. Even more interestingly, the old Irish term for the book, polaire, is a British Latin loan word which has attested early Christian usages of being part of the required equipment of bishops and priests. Even its description in the later life is an accurate archaeological portrayal of wooden tablets bound in leather straps known from the seventh century  (the earliest physical archaeological evidence of writing in Ireland is that of the Springmount Bog Tablets, c. 600 AD, on display in the National Musuem, Kildare Street).

Despite attempting to remove the ‘stain’ of Patrick’s alleged distant involvement in Ciaran’s baptism; the strength of the Iostus/Fuerty tradition seems to have been too strong for Clonmacnoise to overcome. The implication then, is that the tradition was employed by the Uí Maine in the seventh century and continually maintained by their secular inheritors in subsequent centuries. Through the power and presence of archaeological artefacts infused with ancient tradition and acting as ‘physical witnesses’ to the past; it was in fact the local authorities of Fuerty that retained an upper hand in ecclesiastical choice and opportunity – not those of either ecclesiastical federation. The long shadow of Clonmacnoise may have loomed large within the immediate ecclesiastical landscape; but local patrician commemoration seems to have never been completely left behind.

Hagiography v. History

Therein lies the genius of early Irish hagiographers such as Tírechán. Engaging in creative ecclesiastical propaganda during the seventh century was not simply a matter of formulating a story and sticking with it. Such activity involved the manipulation of multiple levels of subtext. Contemporary political machinations and monastic identities, ancient chronological and archaeological authority, legal and ecclesiastical metaphor and symbolism; all of which needed to be facilitated within a temporal landscape framework. Above all, the hagiographer needed to make his version of history not only believable (in a medieval sense), but also attractive enough for local populations and churches to assume and adopt the same throughout subsequent generations.

In some ways, we could perhaps even say that Tírechán himself, in writing ‘the present’ into ‘the past’; was intentionally laying the groundwork for future audiences. If only he could have known that thirteen centuries later, his words would not only still be around but would actually be referenced as a historical ‘diocesan record’ by a modern deacon and fellow Bishop. Proof indeed, of the ultimate success of his entire enterprise regarding his depiction of Iostus and Fuerty.

A Shaggy Dog Story

I previously wrote that I imagined Tírechán committing such scandalous words to vellum with a wry smile on his face. Such a smile would have perhaps been even wider had he only known that it would be a future Bishop of Elphin recounting the story. Elphin and its associated dynasty of the time, the Corcu Chonluain, are also given some prominence in Tírechán’s text. But, as with Fuerty, one really needs to appreciate the underlying subtext to enjoy the full effect of Tírechán’s subtlety. Lets just say that, if one was to translate the linguistic components of the dynastic name Corcu Chonluain into colloquial language of the time, one would get something along the lines of:

‘The People with the Fragrant Smelling Odour of Trespassing Dogs’.

Part II

Introduction

Part I examined a recent reference to early medieval hagiographical material by modern ecclesiastical figures. Divorced from its original setting and ecclesiastical milieu, the episode in question ended up losing much of its intended meaning by being ‘lost in translation’ on many levels. A particular irony was that, in attempting to emphasize the historical nature of a recent ordination, the uncritical use of hagiography as ‘history’ inadvertently served to underplay the actual historical and archaeological importance of the original ecclesiastical site of Fuerty, Co. Roscommon.

So what we can say or surmise from the seventh century reference to Fuerty by Tírechán?

Early Contemporary Reference

First of all, the very fact that it was mentioned at all is important. In terms of Irish history, it ranks amongst one of the earliest contemporary references to churches that we have. If you consider that the oldest Irish writing that survives dates from c.600 AD,while the earliest contemporarily written annal entries were being entered by about c.650 AD; then Tírechán’s mention of the church in 660s-680s AD puts it in a remarkable position by virtue of the survival of its early contemporary attestation.

The fact that Tírechán found it a suitable venue to include in his pseudo-historical account  suggests that it was already considered old enough to qualify as one of his so called  primitiuae aeclessiae hiberniae (‘Primitive Irish Churches’). The use of the term ‘primitive’ should not be read in its modern sense. Tírechán’s use of the phrase was intended to refer to those  churches which were believed to be among the oldest strata of Irish churches.

Fuerty’s inclusion in such a grouping attests to its antiquity. As discussed in the last post, none of Tírechán’s propaganda concerning its origins would have worked or have been believed in the seventh century without some semblance of chronological nobility behind it. Tírechán could not have claimed it as being old enough to have witnessed Patrician activity if it did not enjoy a similar position in the landscape of local folk memory. It is extremely likely then, that Fuerty’s true origins, whatever they may have been (and they were nothing to do with the historical Patrick or young wandering deacons), lie in the sixth century AD and perhaps even earlier. This alone marks Fuerty out as an important early ecclesiastical site known to have been considered so, and described as such by early medieval contemporaries; regardless of the more colourful details concerning its ‘past’.

The site was undoubtedly a leading church associated with a major ruling dynasty of the day. Despite being situated in rival ecclesiastical territory, it nevertheless merited referencing and inclusion in Patrician propaganda. This was based partly on its antiquated presence in a contested contemporary landscape; and partly based on the availability of what seems to be existing traditions and relics of a distant figure. Not only do we have an important dynastic church, already considered old in the seventh century; but we have contemporary evidence for an early and localised cult of relics and their veneration within.

Finally, we have the Ciaran connection. Although Clonmacnoise is an equally venerable ecclesiastical site, its own surviving hagiography concerning its saint dates from a much later period. Fuerty’s inclusion in the earliest phases of patrician hagiography, intertwined with that of Ciaran provides us with one of the earliest contemporary witnesses to the rise and power of the Cult of Ciaran in the seventh century AD.

Modern-Day Fuerty

 

The modern-day site of Fuerty is located just outside Roscommon town, a few km west along a quiet road (R366) that leads to the River Suck at Castlecoote. Typical of a certain type of dispersed rural settlement in Ireland, one can usually get a few minutes of utter quietness in-between passing cars.  The silence and lack of built up housing does little to suggest the once busy nature of the little nineteenth century village that once occupied the location.

The area around the church is immaculately kept by the local community; and certain architectural relics of yesteryear are still preserved. The site of an old fair green just across the road is particularly colourful in the summer months. The remains of an old forge complete with millstones and wheels can also be seen. A few meters down the road, adjacent the local pub (in what once was the local RIC barracks) is an old-fashioned post box built into the wall. Despite the green paint, its original Edwardian inscription can still be made out; a timely reminder that archaeological stratigraphy can sometimes only be a layer of paint deep.

Fuerty: An Archaeological Palimpset

The church site itself (SMR: RO039-063001) stands on a small but prominent rise at a bend in the modern road; a topographical position that matches its original placename: Fiodharta > Fíd Ard > Fíodh Ard; ‘High Wood’. To get an approximate perspective on just how prominent it would have appeared, have a look at the site on google streetview, as you approach it from the east.

A secondary road running along the western side curves slightly around the irregular internal wall; indicating the approximate position of an earlier medieval curvilinear boundary of a type commonly enshrined in the vicinity of such early church sites. One only needs to look at modern aerial views of the site to appreciate the visual echo of past enclosure. The recent eastward rectangular extension to the graveyard is in stark contrast to the irregular, slightly curved shape of the original church graveyard (SMR: RO039-063002). Although slightly realigned and re-landscaped in recent years, the curved nature of the pre-modern road is apparent from its earliest recording on the 1st Edition Ordnance Survey Map.

Perhaps the best vantage point is just outside the church itself. Standing at a small distance, one gets a particularly good indication of the extent of the curvilinear boundary; as well as a three-dimensional stratigraphic clue to its antiquity. One of the more paradoxical characteristics in Irish landscape archaeology, particularly those of old churches, is that age can sometimes be indicated by height above the ground and not below.

 

This is a result of centuries of occupation and burial continuity, one on top of the other, resulting in a significant rise of internal ground level within the original enclosure. Church sites such as Fuerty represent an enshrined palimpsest of a landscape constantly maintained and replaced within a defined ecclesiastical enclosure.

The surviving ruins are those of a 17th century Church of Ireland church with an adjoining 18th century roofless tower; representing the last architectural phases of formal church occupation on the site. As with any archaeological palimpsest however, there are several fragments of medieval artefacts to be found, including several examples of early cross slabs. Two such slabs (reddish sandstone) discovered within the graveyard during the nineteenth century were subsequently mounted in the wall of the tower; where they can still be seen today.

One of the slabs (SMR: RO039-063003) is incised with two-lined ringed cross, a fish motif and an inscription that reads ‘or ar anmain aidacain‘ (‘A prayer for the name/soul of aidacain’).  The other slab (SMR: RO039-063004) contains an incised five-line cross with expanded terminals and an inscription the reads  ‘or ar mor‘ (‘a prayer for the large/the many’). Another cross-slab (SMR: RO039-063005) which was decorated with a swastika cross symbol (a common early Christian motif) is known to have come from the site; while a further slab marking a grave (SMR: RO039-063009) in the churchyard contains a Maltese cross.

The two cross slabs mounted in the tower (Image: Author)

At the time of my last visit, the light was not very suitable for photographing the decoration on the slabs; but there are much clearer pictures available over on the excellent megalithomania; in addition to the original antiquarian sketches of the inscriptions highlighted above.

Slab (RO039-063004) colour adjusted to show incised decoration (Image: Author)

The archaeological information contained in these slabs is particularly impressive. In terms of art style, typology and morphology, they are very much of a type of cross slab design known from Clonmacnoise, and generally thought to range from the 9th-11th centuries. The inscriptions are rendered in insular half-uncial, again thought to date to the same approximate period (on stone, anyway). The presence of a fish design (another early Christian motif) is particularly unusual for Ireland. But it is the inscription commemorating the figure of Aidacain that is most intriguing. A similarly named ecclesiastical figure is listed in the Annals of the Four Masters under the year 865 AD:

Aedhacan, son of Finnsneachta, Tanist Abbot of Cluain (Clonmacnoise) and abbot of many churches, died on the first day of November. – AFM 865.8

This single cross slab, mounted on an 18th century tower in Fuerty, brings us back into archaeological contact with the early medieval period. The slab design itself, a product of the ‘Clonmacnoise school’, alongside a commemoration of a figure historically connected with the abbacy of Clonmacnoise itself; contained within a site already long associated with Clonmacnoise. Even if the Aidacain commemorated is not the same individual as that of the annal entry, it nevertheless points to early medieval Christian commemoration on site, utilising the same design and palaeography known to have been roughly contemporary with similar examples at Clonmacnoise. Such cross/grave slabs illustrate the continuing high status enjoyed by Fuerty throughout the early medieval period as a suitable place of burial; connected to, and no doubt because of, the ongoing traditional associations with Cairan and Iostus originally referenced by Tírechán.

Conclusion

As previous discussed, the secular dynastic inheritors of the church seem to have enjoyed a close alliance and relationship with Clonmacnoise, despite the early patrician infringement into its pseudo-history. Its initial 7th century depiction and association with Clonmacnoise is backed up by archaeological evidence of 9th-11th century occupation and activity. Further references in the 12th century Life of Ciaran suggest the Ciaran/Iostus tradition was still being celebrated alongside the existence of secondary relics. The church was still operating in the early 14th century, as listed in the ecclesiastical taxation of Elphin and presumably continued in operation until its destruction during the Cromwellian period. Even then, it seems, the site was soon rebuilt and reoccupied by the established church until well into the nineteenth century.

Today, although in ruins, the site continues to be a place of burial and commemoration. A silent witness to a remarkable continuity of Christian tradition, occupation and activity stretching back over thirteen hundred years and perhaps even further. Looking at such sites through an archaeological lens can reveal a wealth of information hidden in plain view; little nuggets of detail that both inform and reflect its parallel hagiographical traditions. The true value of such traditions lie not in the details they purport to represent, but the context in which they were created and appropriated. The maintenance of such traditions and their cultural transmission throughout subsequent centuries tells us more about actual medieval Christian expression and experience, then anything involving the uncritical reproduction of medieval tales without any appreciation of its original context.

Bibliography

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Charles-Edwards, T. (2000) Early Christian Ireland. Cambridge

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Herity, M & Kelly, D and Mattenberger, U. (1997) ‘List of Early Christian Cross Slabs in Seven North-Western Counties’, Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland 127, 80-124.

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Stokes, W. (ed.) (1890) Lives of saints, from the Book of Lismore. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Swift, C. (1996) ‘Dating Irish grave-slabs: the evidence of the annals’ in: From the Isles of the North – medieval art in Ireland and Britain, C. Bourke (ed), Belfast, 245-249.

Swift, C. (1994) ‘The Social and Ecclesiastical Background to Tírechán’s Treatment of the Connachta in the Seventh-Century Collectanea’ (unpublished DPhil dissertation, Oxford).

Swift, C. (1994) ‘Tírechán’s Motives in Compiling the Collectanea: An Alternative Interpretation’, Ériu 45, 53–82.

Walsh, P. (1940) ‘Connacht in the Book of Rights’, Journal of the Galway Archaeological and Historical Society 19, pp. 1-15.


Originally published by Vox Hiberionacum under the terms of a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International license.

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