Tirechan

Tirechan

Tirechan’s writings in the Book of Armagh are more like memoirs and statistics. He does not write a systematic account of Patrick’s life in the orderly style of Muirchu. For that reason he is less interesting.

However, he was clearly fascinated by the names of persons and places. He gives a long list of the successors of Patrick and is anxious to link them with the importance of Armagh as a Christian centre and the leading church in the country.

There is also another side to the account of Patrick’s travels which he gives us in great detail. Tirechan was a bishop in Connaught. Consequently, he pays special attention to Patrick’s journeys. Three times, he tells s, Patrick crossed the Shannon. At the Ford of the Two Birds, he makes his way through Roscommon, Mayo, Sligo and Leitrim. The Moy river, and many another stream, feature in the fishing stories of the saint. Patrick blessed one river (the Drowes) and it gains a good name for the many large fish that swim in it. On the other hand he does anything but bless another stream, the Duff, which divides Leitrim from Sligo, because the fishing family that lived on its banks refused to share any of their catch with him as he passed by. The fishing was declared to be very bad there after that piece of inhospitality! Another river, the Sele, suffered condemnation from Patrick because two of the saint’s disciples were drowned in it.

Maidens at the Well

Among all the names of people and places in Patrick’s elaborate and often apparently circular journey through the west of Ireland, a lovely story is included.

Patrick meets the daughters of King Loegaire at the well of Clebach. These two girls, fair-haired Ethne and red-headed Fedelma have ; ‘come to wash in the waters of the well. They are surprised to find Patrick and a whole gathering of bishops there – a king of synod!

The maidens thought that it was a dream and that they were seeing something that felt like fantasy, springing out of their vivid imaginations. Yet they had courage enough to start a conversation with this great gathering. They asked, ‘Where have you come from?’

Patrick replied: ‘It would be better if you stated your belief rather than asked us questions.’

Ethne than said, ‘Who is God? Where is he? Whose God is he? Where does he live? Has your God sons and daughters, gold and silver? Is he alive and beautiful? Have many fostered his son, are his daughters dear and beautiful? Is he in the sky or earth, or in the water, in rivers, or mountains or valleys? How can he be seen and loved? Is he in youth or old age?’

Patrick replied: ‘Our God is the God of all, heaven and earth, sea and rivers, of the sun, moon and all the stars, high mountains and low valleys, above heaven, in heaven, under heaven. He breathes in all things, makes all things live, supports all things … He lights the sun, makes wells …

‘He has a Son, co-eternal with Him, the Son is not younger than the Father nor is the Father older than the Son, and the Holy Spirit breathes in them. The Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit are not separate.

‘I wish to join you to the heavenly King since you are daughters of an earthly king.’

The two girls then asked how this could be done. In answer to further questions from Patrick, they declared that they believed. They were baptised with a white garment over their heads. They received the Eucharist… and then they died. Two of the druids who were present became Christians after this.

Moses and Patrick

Tirechan was very fond of numbers in his story of Patrick. He compares the Irish saint with Moses, the great leader of the Israelites. Moses led the Jewish people out of their slavery in Egypt through a wilderness to a fruitful and sunny promised land. In his notes about Patrick, Tirechan tells us that the saint was like Moses in four ways:

  1. He heard an angel speaking out of a thorn-bush.
  2. He fasted forty days and forty nights.
  3. He spent one hundred and twenty years in this present life.
  4. Nobody knows where his bones were laid to rest.

Tirechan calculated the age of Patrick, he was baptised; ten years later, he was captured; for seven years he was a slave; for thirty years he studied for the ministry; for seventy-two years he taught the faith; his entire age was one-hundred-and-twenty, just like Moses!

Many of the stories told by Tirechan remind us of the legends which were told about Patrick’s influence. Druids drop dead when Patrick raises his hand to God. When Patrick loses a tooth, it is treasured by one of his companions.

Croagh Patrick mountain made him think of the mountain-top experiences of Moses and Elijah and Christ. Ireland had its own Mount Sinai, Mount Carmel and the Mount of Transfiguration..

Tirechan describes the vision: ‘Patrick proceeded to the summit of the mountain, climbing Cruachan Aigli, and stayed there forty days and forty nights, and birds annoyed him and he could not see the face of sky and land and sea, the past – the present and the future – God said to him: “Climb, O holy men, to the top of the mountain which towers above, and is higher than all the mountains which towers above, and is higher than all the mountains to the west of the sun, in order to bless the people of Ireland.

Tirechan pays less attention to the early parts of Patrick’s life. Places, family names, personalities and churches are his chief interest. We travel with him, as he traces Patrick the traveller, first in Co. Meath where Bishop Ultan, Tirechan’s patron, lived at Ardbraccan near Navan. Then follows the journey across the Shannon through Connaught, in Tirechan’s own home country in the west of Ireland.