The Lesser Known Patrick

Ireland’s annual cultural and religious celebrations on 17 March, ‘Saint Patrick’s Day’ (Lá Fhéila Pádraig), have been curtailed for a second year. This has been disappointing both for people at home and diaspora abroad, along with other stakeholders for whom this one day every year gives Ireland a political and commercial platform unheard of for other small nations.

A trimmed back, more reflective celebration can nonetheless bring its own benefits. It can provide us with time to contemplate the cultural roots of this day, to deepen our appreciation for what it symbolizes and to perhaps learn something new about the main protagonist. Here I reflect on a lesser known myth about Patrick, as portrayed in the Brehon Laws.

Image 1: Irish 5 shilling stamp depicting Saint Patrick, 1937 (Image credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Staging of the Myth: The Senchas

The Senchas Már (‘Great Tradition’) is the most significant collection of Brehon Law tracts. Most of it is thought to have been produced in and around the northern midlands of Ireland [1], or at Armagh, by the late 7th to early 8th centuries [2]. Topics covered in the Senchas are quite varied, including tracts on illegal injuries (Bretha Crólige), bringing water across neighbouring land (Coibnes Usici Thairidne) and marriage law (Cáin Lánamna).

The Senchas project was consistent with a broader trend of committing native laws to writing across Europe around the same time [3]. This new literate tradition was promoted by the early Christian Church, which also curated ecclesiastical texts such as the Collectio Canonum Hibernensis (‘Irish Collection of Canon Law’) [4]. While there was a degree of cross-fertilisation between the ‘traditional’ Brehon and canon law, the extent of direct clerical involvement in drafting the Senchas specifically has been a point of debate [5].

In any case, drafting the Senchas was probably not just a functional activity for the scribes to busy their days with. There may have been strategic aspects too – including the preservation of a legal tradition coming under fire from a more ‘doctrinal’ (Roman) perspective in the early Irish Christian Church by the 7th and 8th centuries [6]. Relatively liberal marriage and divorce practices, e.g. under Cáin Lánamna (‘Law of Couples’), as well as the fining of wrongdoers for serious offences, such as illegal killing, were particular points of tension between the two camps. An alternative reading sees the Senchas as an opportunity for the Church to recast the native laws as Christian, thus furthering its own political and economic objectives [7].

‘It is not easier to condemn it than to praise it’

Throughout the Senchas, the conventional sanction for illegal killing was a dual fine. It comprised a variable ‘honourprice’ (lóg n-enech) component, linked to the status of the victim, and a fixed fine (éraic), reflecting the seriousness of the offence [8]. Still, there were circumstances in which forms of physical and capital punishment could be applied under the ‘traditional’ Brehon Laws – a likelier outcome where an offender did not have the means to satisfy fines. This philosophy contrasted with other overtly ecclesiastical laws, such as Cáin Adomáin (‘Law of Adomnán’, also known as the ‘Law of the Innocents’). Cáin Adomnáin advocated capital punishment much more readily, with a possibility of gruesome death in specific cases, e.g.: ‘And whoever kills a woman shall be condemned to a twofold punishment…his right hand and his left foot shall be cut off and after that he shall die…’. [9].

Another point of tension with ecclesiastical law was polygyny. Under the traditional Brehon Laws a man could have multiple wives, with most of the law tracts recognising two or three grades of wife – a chief wife (cétmuinter or ben hi cor lanamnusa), a concubine (adaltrach or ben tánaise) and ‘other’ wives (cach ben olchena) [10]. The Church disapproved of these practices in the Collectio Canonum Hibernensis in the following terms: De concubinis non habendis cum legitima uxore (‘on not having concubines as well as a legitimate wife’) [11].

In a riposte to these canonical complaints, the author of the law tract Bretha Crólige (‘judgments on blood lyings’) cleverly recalled the polygynous Hebrews in the Old Testament by observing: ‘There is a dispute in Irish law as to which is the more proper, many sexual unions or a single one; for the chosen people of God lived in a plurality of unions, hence it is not easier to condemn it than to praise it’ [12].

But a new piece of indigenous propaganda may now have been needed to allay the concerns of the Church authorities about the Christian soundness of the Brehon Laws. In any case, the Church had an interest in establishing authority over the native laws. Enter Patrick.

Patrick as Jurist

Image 2: Slemish, County Antrim, traditionally associated with Patrick’s time as a shepherd slave (Image Credit: Albert Bridge/Slemish (8) / CC BY-SA 2.0)

Patrick’s life was known to the drafters of the Senchas, and they sought to claim him as one of their own. A law tract on the relations between Church and society (Córus Bésgnai) portrayed him as a type of legal arbitrator between ‘the word of God’ and the pre-existing ‘law of nature’ (i.e. the traditional Brehon Laws). The setting was a meeting at Tara between a king (Lóegaire mac Néill), a poet (Dubthach maccu Lugair) and Patrick. He determined what must go and what could stay in the Brehon Laws [13], which suggested that the pre-existing laws were not completely rejected by him.

This was symbolically important, because Córus Bésgnai sat alongside other ‘canonically controversial’ texts within the Senchas, not least Cáin Lánamna on marriage and divorce. So it is thought that, by invoking Patrick (the ‘national apostle’) as a sort of legal mascot, these other more controversial elements of traditional Brehon Law could be better protected from canonical attack [14].

Later scribes must have spotted a public relations coup in the making. An additional text (possibly late 8th century, with subsequent revisions out to the 16th century), known as the ‘psuedo-historical prologue’ (PHP) to the Senchas, embellished the tale. Drawing on fragments of Patrick-related happenings from other sources, events take a more dramatic turn in this version. The following is a summary of it [15].

The PHP telling commences after Patrick had defeated King Lóegaire’s ‘druids’ – early Irish multitaskers who acted as priests, astrologers, physicians etc., and whose status diminished after Christianity. Lóegaire then convened a national assembly (dáil), to which Patrick was invited, to discuss ‘proper ordering and their usages and laws’ (asrochongrad iarom ó Loegaire formna fer nÉrenn do thudecht i n-oenmagin fri hoentaid n immacallma im chórus a mbéscnai ⁊ a rechtgai. Docuas uadib co Pátraic co tudchised don dáil). When asked what was most difficult to accept about the new religion from a legal standpoint, the attendees bemoaned the Christian principle of forgiveness [16].

Image 3: St Patrick Preaching at Tara (Image Credit: Seton Hall University Special Collections – Rare Books – Page 3 – Special Collections & The Gallery (

To test Patrick’s mettle on forgiveness, his charioteer was murdered in front of him (in one version by Nuadu, a kinsman of King Lóegaire). Patrick then gazed to Heaven, triggering an earthquake. In fear, those present reminded Patrick of his commitment to forgiveness and he was asked to pass judgment on what had happened. He assigned responsibility to Dubthach maccu Lugair, the royal poet.

Under divine inspiration, Dubthach recited a poem with a compromise outcome. The killer was condemned to death while Patrick showed forgiveness by obtaining Heaven for his soul [17]. However, later commentary made the point that, because it was not possible to ‘guarantee Heaven’ to a person after Patrick’s time, traditional éraic fines for illegal killing could still be acceptable [18] – a canny preservation of a status quo under the guise of change.

Those present at the assembly then reaffirmed their desire to ‘establish and arrange all their laws’. Following this, Dubthach recited all the ancient laws of Ireland. Patrick acted as a sort of editor-in-chief and concluded: Roba dír recht aicnid uile inge cretem ⁊ a coir ⁊ a comuaim n-eclaise fri tuaith. Conid é Senchus Már in sinIs í trá in cháin Pátraic. Issed nád cumaic nach breithem doennae do Gaedelaib do t[h]aithbiuch, nach ní fogaba i Senchas Már: ‘[t]he whole law of nature was acceptable, save (in what concerns) the faith, and its proper dues, and the knitting together of church and kingdom. So that that is the Senchas Már’…This then is Patrick’s law. No human judge of the Gaels can undo anything which he may find in the Senchas Már’ [19].

And so Patrick provided the Senchas Már with ideological armour. It seems that fines for serious offences and traditional marriage practices continued for centuries afterwards, so perhaps this piece of ‘Patrician propaganda’ was quite effective!

Afterlife of the PHP

The PHP was later resurrected as an ideological device, albeit for different purposes, in the 1560s and 1570s during the Tudor conquest of Ireland. This period of upheaval saw native Irish institutions, including the legal system, under significant pressure from English administrators. Now the PHP would come to the aid of certain legal (‘brehon’) families, particularly the Ua Deoráin (O’Dorans) of Leinster. They were reconciling to aspects of English administration and laws while trying to survive the transition [20]. To this end, they revised and distributed the PHP. The manoeuvre seemed concerned with depicting Brehon and English law as sharing common ground, such as capital punishment and legal judgments issued under royal authority etc. [21]

Described as an ‘apologia for compromise with the English government on issues of law and order’ [22], it nevertheless also breathed life back into the tale of Patrick’s role in the foundation story of Irish law. A fantastical encore just as the curtains were coming down on the Brehon Laws.

This article may be cited as J. Biggins, ‘The Lesser Known Patrick’, The Brehon Lawyer (March 2021)

Sources used for this article

D.A. Binchy, ‘The Psuedo-historical Prologue to the Senchas Már’ (1975) 10 Studia Celtica 15 (‘Binchy 1’)

D.A. Binchy, ‘Bretha Crólige’ (1938) 12 Ériu 1 (‘Binchy 2’)

Dáibhí Ó Cróinín, Early Medieval Ireland 400-1200 (Routledge, 2017)

Fergus Kelly, A Guide to Early Irish Law (Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, 2009)

John Carey, ‘An Edition of the Pseudo-Historical Prologue to the Senchas Már’ (1994) 45 Ériu 1

Liam Breathnach, Córus Bésgnai: An Old Irish Law Tract on the Church and Society (Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, 2017)

Neil McLeod, ‘The Concept of Law in Ancient Irish Jurisprudence’ (1982) 17 Irish Jurist 356

Nerys Patterson, ‘Gaelic law and the Tudor conquest of Ireland: the social background of the sixteenth-century recensions of the pseudo-historical Prologue to the Senchas már‘ (1991) 27 Irish Historical Studies 193

Patrick Wadden, ‘The Pseudo-Historical Origins of the Senchas Már and Royal Legislation in Early Ireland’ (2016) 27 Peritia 141

Thomas O’Loughlin, Adomnán at Birr AD 697: Essays in Commemoration of the Law of the Innocents (Four Courts Press, 2001)


[1] Kelly, p. 242

[2] Binchy 1, pp. 15-16; Wadden p. 142

[3] Wadden, pp. 142-143

[4] Ó Cróinín, p. 144

[5] Kelly, pp. 232-236

[6] Binchy 1, pp. 24-25

[7] McLeod

[8] Kelly, pp. 125-126

[9] O’Loughlin, p. 61

[10] Kelly, pp. 70-71

[11] Ó Cróinín, p. 147

[12] Binchy 2, pp. 45-47

[13] Breathnach, pp. 153-157

[14] Binchy 1

[15] Carey

[16] Wadden, p. 145

[17] Carey, pp. 17-18; Wadden, pp. 145-146

[18] Carey, pp. 29-30

[19] Wadden, p. 146

[20] Patterson

[21] Patterson, p. 202

[22] Patterson, p. 205

1 thought on “The Lesser Known Patrick”

Comments are closed.