PALLADIUS (Medieval Ireland)

In 431 (according to Prosper of Aquitaine, Chronicle, S.A.) Pope Celestine I dispatched the newly-ordained Palladius as "first bishop to the Irish believing in Christ" (primus episcopus ad Scottos in Christum cre-dentes). Neither Palladius nor his mission is mentioned in official Roman sources, and references to Palladius in later Irish documents derive either from the Chronicle or from Book I cap. 13 of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People (731), who also found the information in Prosper. Prosper appears to allude again to the mission of Palladius in his polemical tract Contra Collatorem (written in the later 430s). He refers to Celestine’s having made Britain ("the Roman island") Catholic, while making Ireland ("the barbarous island") Christian. This was in reference, in the first instance, to an earlier episode, in 429, when Celestine dispatched Germanus, bishop of Auxerre, to Britain in order to combat a recent recrudescence of the heresy known as Pelagianism. That mission (again according to Prosper) had been undertaken at the instigation of a deacon named Palladius, who is undoubtedly identical with the man of that name sent to Ireland in 431. It is generally assumed that the mission to Ireland in 431 followed on from the one to Britain in 429, on the basis that the ecclesiastical authorities in Rome would probably have feared for the orthodoxy of any fledgling Christian community in Ireland because of its geographical proximity to the compromised Christians of Britain. It is assumed also that Palladius was, by whatever means, familiar with the situation in Ireland.

Nothing more was known about Palladius himself until a recent discovery that casts new light on his youthful years, especially those apparently spent in Rome studying law circa 417, following which he made a "conversion" to radical Christianity. According to this new theory, Palladius has been proposed as the previously unidentified author of a group of radical Christian-socialist tracts known to scholars as the "Caspari Letters" (after their first editor, Carl Paul Caspari), a collection with strong links to Pelagius and his circle and composed probably around 417. The fierce denunciation of wealth and property in the letters suggests that their author was a recent (and relatively youthful) convert to Pelagian views. We can only speculate as to whether or not those views find a reflection in later Irish Christianity.

Though some Irish writers of the late-seventh century maintained that Palladius’s mission was either not successful, or else that he abandoned the missionary effort, there is a general consensus amongst historians of today that he did reach Ireland, presumably with a party of helpers, and established his mission probably in the area around the present-day County Meath. The place names Dunshaughlin and Killossy/Killashee are understood to derive from the Irish dun "fort" + Secundinus and cell "church" + Auxilius respectively (in their Irish forms Sechnall and Ausille), denoting early foundations by continental missionaries probably associated with Palladius. No church dedicated to Palladius, however, has survived.

At just this point, however, Palladius disappears entirely from view, his role and that of his followers completely submerged by the all-conquering legend surrounding the great Saint Patrick. Native tradition associates the beginnings of Irish Christianity with Patrick, not Palladius, who was written out of history in the seventh century. Because of Palladius’s "disappearance" after 431, Irish historians filled the void by dating Patrick’s arrival in 432. No document from the Palladian mission has survived, whereas Patrick’s two writings became the foundation for a body of legends that turned the humble Briton into an all-powerful, conquering Christian hero. In the process, however, the true character of the man was sacrificed for the purpose of creating a mythological figure whose "heroic" deeds formed the basis for outlandish claims made in the centuries after him.

When the Irish churches emerge fully into the light of history at the beginning of the seventh century, the famous Paschal letter of Cummian (632) refers only to "the holy Patrick" (sanctus Patricias) as papa noster ("our father")—the earliest indication we have that Patrick, and not Palladius, enjoyed a special status as the "Father" of the Irish Church. Historians have been troubled, however, by the fact that Patrick nowhere in his writings makes mention of Palladius or anyone else involved in missionary activity in Ireland, but constantly reiterates the claim that he has gone "where no man has gone before." It is not at all impossible, therefore, that Patrick came to Ireland before Palladius, rather than after him, perhaps in the late fourth century, or in the generation before Palladius was dispatched by Pope Celestine to the "Irish believing in Christ." Whatever his eventual fate, Palladius made nothing like the same impression on the Irish historical mind as Patrick did, and is now a forgotten figure in Irish history.

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