Text: Vita sancti Patricii (Muirchú)

There are four different copies of Muirchú’s Vita sancti Patricii (Life of St. Patrick), none of which are complete. One of these, in the Book of Armagh, is probably the most reliable version. Muirchù mentions recording oral traditions about Patrick from elders, but he also relies on the information in Patrick’s letters to recreate his life. His text shows that he was not only well acquainted with the Bible but also with Classical texts by Virgil and Sedulius.

Muirchú moccu Machtheni was born in the 7th century and was one of the churchmen who attended the Synod of Birr in 697. He seems to have belonged to a kin-group that lived in the vicinity of Armagh and to have written this life at the behest of Bishop of Áed of Sletty.

The following text was adapted from the translation by L. Bieler (available online here) and uses his numbering scheme.


My Lord Áed: many others have tried to write this story coherently according to the traditions of their elders and according to those who were ministers of Scripture from earliest times, but telling the story presents great difficulties and there are conflicting opinions and many people have expressed doubts that prevent agreeing on any specific sequence of events. I might well say that, like boys making their first appearance in the assembly – to quote one of our common sayings –, I have taken my little talent— a boy’s paddle-boat, as it were—out on this deep and perilous sea of sacred narrative, where waves boldly swell to towering heights among rocky reefs in unknown waters, a sea on which so far no boat has ventured except that of my (spiritual) father Cogitosus. …

§ 1.11: At the end of the holy voyage the boat of the holy man was full of amazing things from across the sea and of spiritual treasures, and it reached a convenient port in the district of Cúalu, a well-known harbour of ours called Inber Dee.

Patrick believed at that point that best thing for him to do was to start out by redeeming himself. He then made his way to the north and went to see the pagan named Miliucc who once held him as a slave, bringing him twice the amount necessary to pay for his freedom: that is, an earthly and a heavenly bounty, so that he could free from captivity the man Patrick had formerly served as a captive. He turned the prow of his boat to an island east of the coast, which to the present day is named after him.

Then, leaving Brega and the territory of Conaille and that of the Ulaid on his left side, he finally entered the inlet of Bréne. He and those who were with him in the boat landed at Inber Sláne, hid their small vessel, and went a short distance inland in order to rest there.

They were found by the swineherd of a man named Díchu who, although he was a pagan, was good by nature. He lived in the place where there is now the barn named after Patrick. The swineherd, thinking they were thieves or robbers, went to tell his master Díchu about them, and led him upon Patrick and his companions without being noticed.

Díchu had come intending to kill them, but when he saw the face of holy Patrick the Lord changed his mind for the better, and Patrick preached the faith to him, and Patrick converted him then and there. He was the first man to be converted and the holy man stayed with him for a few days.

Patrick was anxious, however, to leave as soon as possible to visit Miliucc and deliver the payment of his bounty: this was his plan to convert him to the faith of Christ. So he left his boat with Díchu and set out on his way by land to the territory of the Cruithni until he came to Slíab Miss. It was on this mountain, a long time ago, when he was serving there as a captive,that  he had seen the angel Victoricus leave the imprint of his swift step on the rock of another mountain, and ascend into heaven before his eyes.

§ 1.15: It so happened in that year that a feast of pagan worship was being held, which the pagans used to celebrate with many incantations and magic rites and other superstitious acts of idolatry. The kings, regional rulers, leaders, princes, and the nobles of the people gathered there; furthermore, the druids, the seers, and the inventors and teachers of every craft and every skill were also summoned to king Loíguire at Tara, which was like Babylon to them, just as such men had been summoned at one time to Nebuchadnezzar [in the Bible]. They held and celebrated their pagan feast on the same night on which holy Patrick celebrated Easter.

They also had a custom, which was announced to all publicly, that if anyone, in any district, far or near, lit a fire on that night before it was lit in the king’s house in the palace of Tara would be killed. Holy Patrick, then, celebrating Holy Easter, kindled the divine fire with its bright light and blessed it, and it shone in the night and was seen by almost all the people who lived in that plain [around Tara].

Thus the fire from his tent happened to be seen at Tara, and as they saw it they all gazed at it and wondered. And the king called together the elders and said to them: “Who is the man who has dared to do such a wicked thing in my kingdom? He shall die.”

They all replied that they did not know who had done it, but the druids answered: “King, may you live for ever! This fire which we see has been lit on this night before the fire was lit in your house, and unless it is extinguished on this same night on which it has been lit, it will never be extinguished at all; it will even rise above all the fires of our customs, and the person who has kindled it, and the regime that has been introduced by him who has kindled it on this night, will overpower us all as well as you, and will seduce all the people of your kingdom. All kingdoms will yield to it, and it will spread over the whole country and will reign throughout eternity.”

§ 1.23: During Patrick’s day there was a man in the territory of the Ulaid named Macc Cuill moccu Greccae. He was a fierce and wicked ruler, so much so that he was called “Cyclops.” His thoughts were evil, his words arrogant, his deeds wicked, his spirit bitter, his temper angry, his body given to sin, his mind cruel, his lifestyle pagan, his thoughts selfish.

In his godlessness he had sunk very low. This brigand daily practiced his violence at Druim moccu Echach, bearing tokens of the most wicked cruelty and brutally killing travellers as they passed by. One day, as he sat in this wild place high up in the hills, he saw Patrick coming along, shining with the bright light of faith and, as it were, the wondrous diadem of heavenly glory, making his way towards his destination with unshaken confidence in his teaching.

Macc Cuill decided to kill him and he said to his followers: “Look, here comes the man who seduces and perverts people, who has the practice of performing tricks in order to deceive people and to seduce many. Let us go and set a trap for him to find out whether that god in whom he glories has any power.”

So this is trap they set for the holy man: They made one of their company, who was in perfect health, lie down in their midst, covered with a cloak and pretending to be mortally ill, with the intention of testing the holy man by this deceit. They called the holy man a seducer, his miracles tricks, and his prayers black magic.

As Patrick and his disciples approached, the pagans said to him: “Look, one of us has just fallen ill; come and sing over him some incantations of your religion, perhaps he may be healed.”

Holy Patrick, however, knowing all their ruses and pretences, said firmly and boldly: “It would not be strange if he had been ill,” and when the companions of the man who had feigned illness uncovered his face they found him dead. Dumbfounded and astonished by such a miracle, the pagans said to themselves: “This is truly a man of God; we have done wrong in seeking to trap him.”

Holy Patrick, however, turned to Macc Cuill and said: “Why did you want to trap me?” and the cruel tyrant replied: “I am sorry for what I have done. I will do whatever you tell me to do, and now I give myself into the power of the high god whom you preach.”

And holy Patrick said: “Believe, then, in the Lord my God Jesus, and confess your sins, and receive baptism in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.”

And he was converted at that time, believed in eternal God, and was baptized. And after this Macc Cuill said further: “I confess to you, my holy lord Patrick, that I had planned to kill you. Pass judgement, therefore, and state how much is due for such a great and wicked crime.”

And Patrick said: “I cannot judge, but God will judge. You now go down to the seashore unarmed, and leave this part of Ireland immediately, taking none of your property with you except one paltry short garment which just barely covers your body, neither eating nor drinking anything that grows in this island, with this sign of your sin on your head, and when you have come to the sea, shackle your feet with an iron chain, throw its key into the sea, board a small boat made of a single hide, without rudder or oar, and be ready to go wherever the wind and the sea shall carry you; and on whatever shore divine Providence may land you, stay there and practise the divine commandments.”

… Mac Cuill went to sea in a small boat, and the north wind blew at his back and took him southward and landed him at an island called Euonia [the Isle of Man]. There he found two praiseworthy men, shining lights in faith and doctrine, who had been the first to preach the word of God and baptism in Euonia, and by their teaching the inhabitants of that island had been converted to Christianity. The names of the two men are Conindrus and Rumilus. When they saw the man in his single garment they were surprised and took pity on him; they lifted him from the sea and received him hospitably.

Having found spiritual fathers in the place given him by God, he disciplined his body and soul according to their rule, and spent the rest of his life there with those two holy bishops until he became their successor in the episcopate. This is Macc Cuill, bishop of Mane and prelate of the Isle of Man.

§ 1.25: Holy Patrick was once resting on a Sunday above the seashore next to a bog which is a short distance to the north of Druimm Bó when he heard a loud noise of pagans working and digging the moat of a rath [ringfort]…

§ 2.13: When Holy Patrick died there was a bitter rivalry for his relics, leading even to war, between the Uí Neill and the Airthir on the one hand and the Ulaid on the other. These kingdoms were at one time neighbourly and friendly, but now became bitter enemies. A miracle occurred through the intervention of Patrick and the mercy of God to prevent the shedding of blood: an inlet called Druimm Bó rose high with swirling waves, and the crests of the waves burst into the hollow air and the quivering billows of the high flood rushed along as in a race, now surging up and now falling, and as if it were to hold back the hostility of the fierce peoples — for fierce they are — the wild sea rose and stopped the people from fighting.

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