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Literary Culture in Early Christian Ireland: Hiberno-Latin Saints’ Lives as a Source for Seventh-Century Irish History

The writers of seventh-century Irish saints’ Lives created the Irish past. Their accounts of the fifth-and-sixth century saints framed the narrative of early Irish Christianity for their contemporary and later audience. Cogitosus’s Life of Brigit, Muirchú’s and Tírechán’s accounts of Saint Patrick, and Adomnán’s Life of Columba have guided the understanding of early Irish history from then until now. Unlike other early texts these Lives are securely dated. Composed as tools in the discourse regarding authority in seventh-century Irish ecclesiastical and secular politics, they provide historical insights not available from other sources. In the seventh century Armagh and Kildare competed for primacy over the Irish church; these religious centers also were involved in politics, with Armagh’s claims supported by the Uí Néill kings, whom Armagh supported. Kildare, in Leinster, was outside the Uí Néill political sphere. The Lives are part of the historicizing understanding of their past that the Irish developed in the seventh century. These Lives were weapons in the conflicts between North and South for political and ecclesiastical power. The authors used stories of saints to create the narrative of early Ireland. Their literary choices included the literary form of hagiography, miracle stories, and the stories’ rhetorical style. The Lives are Christian biographies. They create a world through miracle stories. Individual details of expression associated ecclesiastical foundations and secular dynasties with religio-political power derived from the saints. The saints’ Lives create the past by representing the words and actions of the saints in elaborately decorated language. Because of the elaborate language, the saints’ words and actions acquire authoritative credibility: the rhetoric indicates that the words participate in divine reality. The source of the style of seventh-century Hiberno-Latin writing includes elements of Late Latin, the Bible, and native Irish poetry. This is not merely decorative, but functions to show that saints are not bound by mundane reality, but have a direct connection to heaven; their deeds and sayings acquire even more power and effect in this world. The style ultimately promotes the political/ecclesiastical elites of the seventh century by showing that they derived power from actions of their saints.