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E06132: Muirchú's Life of *Patrick (missionary and bishop of Ireland, 5th c., S01962) is set in Ireland, Britain and Gaul, and records in two books the saint's deeds, miracles and death. Written in Latin, probably at Armagh (north-east Ireland), 661/700, probably after c. 675/80. Overview entry

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posted on 2018-08-18, 00:00 authored by dlambert
Muirchú, Life of Patrick (BHL 6497)


The author address his 'Lord Áed' and expresses his misgivings about commencing the Life, since 'many have attempted to write this story coherently according to the traditions of their fathers and of those who were ministers of the Word from the beginning, but ... the great difficulties which the telling of the story presents, and the conflicting opinions and many doubts voiced by many a person have prevented them from ever arriving at one undisputed sequence of events.' He remarks that only his 'father' Cogitosus has set out on a comparable task.

The author invokes the works of Basil of Caesarea; their translation by Rufinus into Latin; and Patrick's four names 'in a book in the possession of Ultán, bishop of Connor': 'Sochet when he was born, Cothriche when he was a slave, Mauonius when he studied, Patrick when he was consecrated.' The author gives his own name as Muirchú moccu Machtheni, and states that he is writing at 'the request of Áed bishop of the see of Sléibte.'

[The order of chapters follows Bieler's edition]

Book One
I 1. On Patrick's father Cualfarnius (a deacon at Bannavem Thaburniae in Britain, now known as Ventre), and his mother Concessa; how he was taken into captivity and brought to 'this barbarian island' aged sixteen; his six years in captivity under a pagan king, and his fasts, vigils and prayers in that time; his visits from the 'angelic' (angelicus) Victoricus; and his journey back to Britain aged twenty-three.

I 2. His three days at sea; twenty-eight days in the desert; prayers for food for his pagan companions; and how he escaped from Satan in a dream by twice invoking *Elijah [Old Testament Prophet, S00217].

I 3. How he was captured again, but only for two months, as a 'divine voice' foretold.

I 4. How he stayed again with his own kinsmen, and saw many visions.

I 5. His decision aged aged thirty to visit 'the apostolic see' (Rome), 'head, that is, of all churches in the whole world.'

I 6 (5). How, before he reached the Alps, he met Bishop *Germanus of Auxerre [S00455], and stayed with him for a long time as his pupil.

I 7 (6). How after thirty or forty years Victoricus came to him again in a vision, and told him to teach the Gospel.

I 8 (7). How Germanus gave him a senior companion, the priest Segitius, for his mission; and how they knew that Palladius, archdeacon of Rome, had already been sent on such a mission to Ireland.

I 9 (8). How they learned that this sanctus Palladius [S02338] had died on his return from his failed mission; and how Patrick then went to Bishop Amathorex to be consecrated [possibly *Amator, bishop of Auxerre, S01980], before sailing to Britain, and then Ireland.

I 10 (9). On Loíguire son of Níall, the pagan king at Tara, and the 'sages and druids' (sciui et magi) who prophesied Patrick's arrival.

I 11 (10). Patrick's arrival in Ireland, and decision to redeem himself from his old slave-master, King Miliucc.

I 12 (11). How Miliucc burnt himself alive.

II 15 (13). On the angel who used to visit Patrick.

I 13 (12)–14 (13). The decision to celebrate Easter at the plain of Brega, where they went and pitched their tents.

I 15 (14)–17 (16). On the pagan festival celebrated at the same time at Tara; and how the pagans saw the light shining from Patrick's Easter feast; then travelled to see where the light had come from; and the meeting that took place between Patrick, King Loíguire, and his magi, where one of the latter was killed in the same way as Simon Magus.

I 18 (17). How the King Loíguire was enraged by this and tried to kill Patrick; how an earthquake stopped him; and how he bent his knee and feigned reverence to the saint.

I 19 (18). How Patrick preached at Tara on Easter Day.

I 20 (19). How Patrick and the magus Lucet Máel confronted each other by performing different wonders; and how the magus was burnt alive.

I 21 (20). How King Loíguire sought counsel and at last converted.

I 22 (21). Patrick's departure from Tara, in order to teach and baptise further afield.

I 27 (26). Muirchú sets out to relate 'a few of the many miracles' of Patrick, 'bishop of all Ireland.' How Monesan, a virgin from Britain, visited Patrick in Ireland; died immediately after baptism; and was translated twenty years later to a nearby chapel, as Patrick prophesied ($E06264).

I 29 (28). How Patrick's prayers turned Corictic, a British king, into a fox.

I 28 (27). How he knew that the boy Benignus would be his successor, since he also had visions of heaven and of angels.

I 23 (22) How he converted the tyrannus Macc Cuill moccu Greccae, who had planned to kill him, and sent him on a penitential pilgrimage, so that he eventually became Bishop of Mane and 'prelate' (antestes) of Arde Huimnonn (the Isle of Man).

I 25 (23). How he cursed certain pagans working on a Sunday.

I 24–26 (25). How Dáire gave him the place 'where there is now the Burial-Ground of the Martyrs beside Armagh' (ubi nunc est fertae martyrum iuxta Mache), and eventually, Druim(m) Sailech, which is now the 'city' (ciuitas) of Armagh. How Patrick caused a flood, turning a greedy man's land into a marsh.

Book two
II 1. On Patrick's 'assiduity in prayer' (dilegentia orationis).

II 2. How he spoke to a dead pagan, whose tomb had accidentally been marked with a cross meant for a Christian; and how he moved the cross to the correct place.

II 3. How he miraculously lit up his hand, so that his charioteer could find his horses in the dark.

II 4. How an angel foretold him his death, prompting him to head to Armagh, 'the place he loved more than any other'.

II 5–6 (5). How, on the way, he met again the angel Victor, who promised to grant him his four requests if he changed his route, i.e.: (i) 'that your pre-eminence shall be in Armagh' (in Ardd Machae fiat ordinatio tua); (ii) 'that whoever on the day of his separation from the body recites the hymn that has been composed about you will be judged by you as regards the penance for his sins'; (iii) 'that the descendants of Díchu, who kindly received you, shall find mercy and shall not perish'; and (iv) 'that all the Irish on the day of judgement shall be judged by you.'

II 7 (6). That he died aged 120 on 17 March, now 'celebrated throughout Ireland every year'.

II 8 (7). That there was no nightfall on the day he died.

II 9. How, before his death, he received the sacrament from Bishop Tassach.

II 10 (8). How angels and men kept vigil over him.

II 11 (9)–12 (10). How an angel advised him on his burial at Dún Lethglaisse (Down), and stated that one cubit of earth was to be placed over his body, 'lest your relics be moved from the ground' (ne reliquiae a terra reducantur corporis tui).

II 13 (11)–14 (12). How there was a 'contention,' even 'war' (contensio ad bellum), over Patrick's relics after his death between the Uí Neill and the Airthir on one side, and the Ulaid on the other; and how they were miraculously tricked into thinking they had taken the body: 'this delusion was arranged to secure concord between the peoples' (seductio ad concordiam populorum facta est).

Text and Translation: Bieler 1979. Summary: B. Savill.


Evidence ID


Saint Name

Patrick, missionary and bishop of Ireland, 5th c. : S01962 Elijah, Old Testament prophet : S00217 Germanus, bishop of Auxerre, ob. c. 448 : S00455 Palladius, archdeacon of Rome and missionary in Ireland, 5th c. : S02338 Martyrs, unnamed or name l

Saint Name in Source

Patricius Helias Germanus Palladius martyres Amathorex

Type of Evidence

Literary - Hagiographical - Collections of miracles Literary - Hagiographical - Other saint-related texts


  • Latin

Evidence not before


Evidence not after


Activity not before


Activity not after


Place of Evidence - Region

Britain and Ireland

Place of Evidence - City, village, etc


Place of evidence - City name in other Language(s)

Armagh St Albans St Albans Verulamium

Cult activities - Festivals

  • Saint’s feast

Cult activities - Places

Cult building - unspecified

Cult activities - Non Liturgical Practices and Customs

Composing and translating saint-related texts

Cult Activities - Miracles

Miracle during lifetime Power over elements (fire, earthquakes, floods, weather) Revelation of hidden knowledge (past, present and future) Apparition, vision, dream, revelation Miracle with animals and plants

Cult Activities - Protagonists in Cult and Narratives

Ecclesiastics - lesser clergy Ecclesiastics - bishops Women Pagans Foreigners (including Barbarians) Relatives of the saint Monarchs and their family Angels

Cult Activities - Relics

Bodily relic - unspecified Bodily relic - entire body Transfer, translation and deposition of relics Attempts to prevent the veneration of one's relics


Muirchú maccu Machteni’s Life of Patrick survives through imperfect copies in three manuscripts, most completely in the 9th century Book of Armagh (Trinity College Dublin MS 52), where it is almost immediately followed by Tírechán’s Collectanea (E06131). In view of the centrality of the site in his text, we can probably locate Muirchú himself at Armagh. He states in his preface that he wrote on the request of Bishop Áed of Sléibte/Sletty (ob. c. 700): since we know that Áed had gone to Armagh to incorporate his church into the Patrician paruchia during the time of Bishop Ségéne (661-88), we can broadly date the Life’s composition to 661/700 (Bieler 1979). Moreover, seeing as Muirchú appears to refer a few lines earlier to Cogitosus' Life of Brigit (E06130), we can probably date the text more narrowly to the final quarter of the 7th century.


Muirchú’s work stands out among the earliest Latin Lives of Irish saints in its controlled, chronological arrangement of its material into a heroic conversion narrative. Sincerely or not, Muirchú claims in his prologue that he is the first to undertake successfully a work of this kind concerning Patrick. He is largely silent about his sources, although he refers in his preface to a (now lost) ‘book in the possession of Ultán, bishop of Connor,’ plausibly the same liber Ultani cited by Tírechán. One written source of central importance, however, must have been Patrick’s own autobiographical Confession, which Muirchú either quotes or closely paraphrases at chapters 1, 16-17, and 19-23 (Bieler, 1979, 16-18). Alongside Adomnàn's Life of Columba (E06056) and Cogitosus' Life of Brigit (E06130), the Patrician texts of Tírechán and Muirchú are among only four Irish Latin Lives securely datable to the period before 700 (on this group, see Sharpe, 1991, 8-19). As with the Book of the Angel (E06933), also from the Book of Armagh, these Patrician texts are the only works of that group to speak explicitly of corporeal relics, although they make no clear references to their veneration, nor to any miracles worked through them. Muirchú’s Life is particularly striking for its story of the purported violent clashes over Patrick’s body following his death, and the saint’s own careful provisions to prevent his corpse becoming accessible.


Edition and translation: Bieler, L., The Patrician Texts of the Book of Armagh (Scriptores Latini Hiberniae 10; Dublin, 1979), 61-123. Further reading: MacNeill, E., "The Earliest Lives of St Patrick," Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland 58 (1928), 1-21. Sharpe, R., Medieval Irish Saints’ Lives: An Introduction to Vitae Sanctorum Hiberniae (Oxford, 1991).

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    Evidence -  The Cult of Saints in Late Antiquity



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