It seems serene enough, this Armagh, Northern Ireland, ancient seat of two cathedrals both named for St. Patrick – one Church of Ireland (with ties to the Church of England), the other Roman Catholic. But dig below the quiet (and friendly!) surface, and you see signs of conflict. One of the gorgeous stained glass windows in the Church of Ireland’s cathedral was built to replace an earlier window that was blown out by a bomb set off by “terrorists” in 1957. Military heroes who died for the British crown are honored along with the saints, and saints share room with crusading knights among the Gothic niches.
Although this is a thoroughly British cathedral, it was founded by St. Patrick., the most Irish and Catholic of saints. King Brian Boru, the great king of all of Ireland 550 years after St. Patrick’s time, was murdered in 1014, long before Oliver Cromwell or William of Orange or Scottish settlers invaded from the east. He is buried here in this cathedral (a short hop from our Youth Hostel; the other St. Patrick’s, the Catholic one, we can see a few rugby fields’ distance from our window in the other direction).
The history we get from the plaques and statuary around the Anglican St. Patrick’s is about conflict and invasion as old as human occupation of Ireland. There is a sculpture of a squatting figure that looks almost modern in its rough existential anguish. This is “the Tandragee Man,” a 3000-year-old statue said to represent Nuadha, ruler of an invading tribe called the Tuatha De Danann They pushed out the older tribe, but poor Naudha lost one arm in the battle. This was the Bronze Age, when one-armed men didn’t seem fit for higher office, so he was replaced as king. But his replacement was so unpopular, the Tuathans managed to let Nuadha resume his kingship, once he had been fitted with an artificial arm made of silver. Thus began the Silver Age.
I have brought books by Irish poets with me, one signed to me by Seamus Heaney (they were impressed by that last night down at the pub on Ogle Street) and one a paperback I’ve had since college by William Butler Yeats called The Celtic Twilight. In an epic poem in the book, “The Wanderings of Oisin,” Yeats imagines the mythic character Oisin, whose origins may go back to the Bronze Age, recounting his sad tale of love and battle centuries later to St. Patrick, who seems rather scornful that the hero is “still wrecked among heathen dreams.” Yeats may have understood that a deeper conflict in the Irish soul may be between its heathen dreams and a Christian church all-too aligned with worldly authority, whether Roman Catholic or Church of England.
It’s a complicated knot of grievances and conflict, as twisted and half-hidden as the scrolling designs in a Celtic cross.
— Doug Cumming