Early Medieval Ireland refers to a timeframe from 400-1200AD. A vast amount of textual and archaeological evidence from this period suggests that saints played a crucial role in determining the political and social structures of Irish society. There are three key sources for learning about such roles: a saint’s Life (biography), a Genealogy and a Martyrology (a calendar of saints’ feast-days). These sources are categorised under the term ‘hagiography’, and tell us about the author’s interpretation and subsequent portrayal of a saint’s cultural identity. While most of the surviving hagiography can be traced as far back as the twelfth century, the majority of Irish saints lived from 500-700AD, suggesting that a saint’s Life does not provide an accurate historical account of his/her actual identity. Hence, when Ireland witnessed the Norman invasion in 1169, the re-writing of saints’ Lives followed, and a saint’s Life became an essential commodity for promoting the contemporary concerns of the author in the new political order.
One important example of an Irish saint’s Life is the Latin Life of St. Abbán (i.e. written in the Latin language), of the early thirteenth century. This seems to have been used to teach a Norman audience about the geography of Ireland: while most Lives begin with scenes concerning the saint’s birth and childhood, Abbán’s begins with a topographical prologue of Ireland. Elsewhere, the Life also appears to reflect the author’s bias against the Normans; particularly in a scene depicting Abbán in city called Abingdon, in England, where the saint converted Abingdon into a Christian city. Further insight into the textual origin of saints’ Lives can be acquired from a comparison of the number of surviving manuscript copies, in which a Life survives. In general, these texts are written in Latin and Irish; and for St. Abbán, both Latin and Early Modern Irish versions of his Life survive.
The scene representing Abingdon also takes place in the saint’s Irish Life, but with one vital difference: the event is based in the city of Padua, in Italy. In general, the Irish versions were written later than the Latin Lives, but were preserved in manuscripts dating to the seventeenth century and the contemporary concerns of the hagiographical writers could differ throughout the medieval period. Thus, while the formulation of this scene bears no connection to Abbán’s existence, it does tell us about the re-framing of his later reputation. The reference to Abingdon in the Latin Life moreover, embodies a personal disagreement between the author of St. Abbán’s Life, namely Bishop Ailbe Ua Maíl Mhuaidh (Ailbe O’Mulloy) of Ferns, Co. Wexford and a Norman man named William Earl Marshall, who during the Norman period in Ireland, acquired access to two manors in Ferns, which Bishop Ailbe had initially claimed to be his. The Bishop’s portrayal of Abingdon as a pagan city may have been an underlying attempt to portray the Normans in a negative light, as a result of his encounter with Marshall.
Like Bishop Ailbe, the author’s preference to Padua in St. Abbán’s Irish Life, could also be indicative of his own contemporary affairs. In 1629, Mícheál Ó Cléirigh, compiled almost twenty saints Lives, (Irish versions) into a manuscript (MS 2324-2340), in which only the Irish Life of St. Abbán, refers to Padua. The Irish Life however, was written at some point from the fourteenth to fifteenth century, in which the author’s identity is unknown. The Irish Life is based on the content from the Latin, in which case the unknown author of the Irish Life substituted Abingdon for Padua. Reference to Padua is nevertheless, likely to represent Franciscan interest in St. Abbán’s Irish Life, since Padua only appears in sources dealing with Franciscan saints, such as St. Anthony of Padua.
Evidently, scenes depicting such miracles are typically the later inventions from the contemporary writers of saints Lives. At the same time however, there are many other geographical references in the Life of St. Abbán that have more historical connotations. For example, towards the middle section of the Life, Abbán is depicted as founding eighteen monasteries throughout county Cork. Unlike the scenes representing Abingdon and Padua, these depictions are also recognised through the various types of ecclesiastical remains dedicated to the saint, lying within many of the same Cork regions mentioned in his Life. Some of this archaeology originates from the eleventh century, suggesting that Abbán’s cultural identity was not invented by a growing Norman population in thirteenth century Ireland. Equating textual and archaeological evidence ultimately illuminates the attestation of his cult, and even earlier evidence can be found in a place called Adamstown, in Co. Wexford, where a Latin High-Cross dating the eighth century stands outside St. Abbán’s church.
Such evidence originates from a period that is undoubtedly close to the supposed time of St. Abbán’s existence: circa the sixth-seventh century. More generally, the century in which a saint lived can often be unknown or unclear. When such a matter is known, it is known from chronological records of events called ‘Annals’, in which the year of a saint’s death is often recorded. For St. Abbán, no attestation of his birth or death date survives in any of the annalistic records. The only evidence for telling us about the time of the saint’s existence can be found in an eighteenth-century secondary source called‘Monasticon Hibernicum or a history of the Abbies Priories and Other Religious Houses in Ireland’, of which the author Mervyn Archdall, took note of approximately twenty geographical regions associated with St. Abbán, in which he noted on many occasions the year of the saint’s death: 650AD. However, on no occasion does Archdall take note of what primary source(s) he may be taking such information from, which may initially seem frustrating. On the other hand, however, this could have been knowledge that Archdall’s audience was already familiar with, in which case, a detailed explanation of this information may have been unnecessary at the time. The problem is guessinghow an eighteenth-century Irish audience could have known of St. Abbán’s death. In either case, no chronological record of the saint’s death survives.
Further attempts to examine this matter can be acquired from the saint’s genealogy. St. Abbán’s genealogy is attested in nine manuscripts, two of which date to the late eleventh and early twelfth century. Both the saint’s Life and genealogy name his father as Cormac, a king of Leinster. In the genealogy however, Cormac’s paternal relation to Abbán is not represented in all of the nine manuscripts, in which case, Cormac is sometimes depicted as a great-grandfather. Elsewhere, a seventeenth century genealogical manuscript (MS A 16) provides a longer and rather different pedigree list to those from the earlier manuscripts, in which the name Ailill appears as an ancestral figure. According to The Annals of the Four Masters, a king of Leinster, named Cormac, son of Ailill died in 535AD, which Charles Plummer pointed out could possibly be the father of St. Abbán, suggesting that Abbán lived from the sixth to seventh century. Comparison of Archdall’s repetitive reference to Abbán’s year of death may certainly suggest that this is likely to be the period when Abbán lived. However, since Cormac’s ancestral representation is inconsistent throughout the genealogical manuscripts and there is a lack of apparent primary evidence for supporting Mervyn’s claim, the idea that Abbán lived from the sixth-seventh century is speculative.
Elsewhere however, an important historical matter relating to the saint’s patronage remains to be outlined. St. Abbán is recognised as the patron saint of a parish in the south-east of Co. Laois, named Kilabban, and also the aforementioned Adamstown: a Wexford village, originally known as Moyarney before the Norman invasion. St. Abbán’s Life and genealogy suggests that there is underlying political tension between both places in relation to their connection with the saint. Beginning with the manner in which the Life addresses this matter, the scenes pertaining to Abbán’s death is an interesting starting-point. After Kilabban stole Abbán’s remains from Moyarney, a battle was about to follow: Moyarney alongside south Leinster, attempted to fight against Kilabban and the northern half of the province, in an attempt to obtain possession of Abbán’s relics. A key point that the author conveys based on the sequential layout of events in the entire text as well as the death scenes is that Abbán founded Kilabban before Moyarney. The saint’s genealogy may also contribute to this allegation: while the genealogies depict Abbán’s maternal uncle as St. Kevin of Glendalough towards north Leinster, the Life depicts Abbán’s maternal uncle as a south Leinster saint: St. Íbar of Beggerin Island, Co. Wexford.
I would suggest that Abbán’s north Leinster patronage is of an earlier origin. However, as I have already indicated, a critical comparison of the surviving archaeological evidence is necessary for acquiring further insight into such historical matters. In any case, the life and cult of St. Abbán is a potentially important study, for uncovering the impact which his later reputation had on the religious and political development of Early Medieval Ireland.
Archdall, M. 1786. Monasticon Hibernicum or a history of the Abbies Priories and other Religious Houses in Ireland. Dublin: Luke White press.
W.W. Heist (ed.), Vitae Sanctorum Hiberniae ex codice olim Salmanticensi nunc Bruxellensi. Subsidia Hagiographica xxviii., Brussels, 1965.
M.T. Kelly. ‘St. Gobnata and her Hive of Bees’, in Journal of the Royal Historical and Archaeological Association of Ireland, Vol 3 (1897), 101.
Corpus Genealogiarum Hiberniae, ed. Michael A. O’Brien. Dublin, 1962.
Annals of the Four Masters, ed. John O’Donovan. 7 vols. Dublin, 1851.
Corpus Genealogiarum Sanctorum Hiberniae, ed. Pádraig Ó Riain. Dublin, 1985.
Padraig Ó Riain. ‘The Genesis of an Irish Saint’s Life: St. Abbán’. In Evans, D. Ellis, John G. Griffith, E.M. Jope (eds) Proceedings of the Seventh International Congress of Celtic Studies, held at Oxford, from 10thto 15thJuly, 1983, Proceedings of the International Congress of Celtic Studies, Oxford: D.E. Evans, 1986, 159-70.
The Book of Leinster, vol. 6, ed. Anne O’Sullivan. Dublin, 1982.
Charles Plummer (ed.), Bethada Náem nÉrenn. 2 vols. Oxford, 1922.
Charles Plummer (ed.), Vitae Sanctorum Hiberniae. 2 vols. Oxford, 1910.
Genealogiae Regum et Sanctorum Hiberniae, ed. Paul Walsh. Maynooth, 1918.