Feature

The Irish tradition of ‘vernacular theology’
Irish folktales can help make sense of complex questions, writes Prof. Salvador Ryan

As we celebrate the feast of our national patron, St Patrick, at this time of year, you may hear some discussion of the need to separate the Patrick of history from the  Patrick of legend, the latter figure oftentimes being better known than the former. 

This, of course, is a worthwhile and necessary endeavour if we are to correctly identify the flesh-and-blood saint and, indeed, learn anything from his own life experience. In saying that, however, legends also have their place, and they can sometimes serve as valuable and, indeed, fascinating windows into the beliefs and world-views of their disseminators.

There is one particular genre of material in which St Patrick often features as a central character: the Irish religious folktale. Many (although not all) of the stories I will be discussing were edited by the Co. Kerry folklorist and archivist with the National Folklore Commission, Seán Ó Súilleabháin, in his Scéalta Cráibhtheacha published in 1952, and have since been translated and published as the collection Miraculous Plenty in 2011.

What Irish folktales often succeed in doing well is domesticating the divine. Biblical figures and well-known saints speak in the everyday cadences of the Irish who both relate and hear these tales. 

Place-names

The place-names associated with the various incidents in the tales are Irish ones, and, indeed, often local to the particular region in which the version of the folktale emerges. The incidental details found in such tales often reveal much about the contemporary social and religious context, and lay bare many of the preoccupations of the period. 

At the same time, however, they also attest to the enduring relevance of universal themes; questions such as the problem of evil, for instance, and why suffering and death are part of the human condition. They also address themes such as what it means to be charitable, and how one should best practise one’s faith. 

Even if the conclusions drawn from some of the tales will sit uncomfortably on modern ears, a close reading of them can provide a useful insight into what one could call a ‘vernacular theology’, that is, a way of making some sense of significant religious questions through the lens of the everyday.

One of the most enduring of questions for all human beings is the reality of suffering and death. A disturbing tale collected in Co. Kerry in 1936 attempts to address this question by recalling the saying that “a ship-full is drowned on account of one man”. 

The tale relates how the Lord and his apostles were walking by the shore when they noticed that a ship that had set sail in terrible weather had disappeared from view. When Peter asked Jesus what had happened to it, he replied:  “She has sunk and all that were on her are at the bottom of the sea.” When Peter remonstrated with the Lord on why he had failed to save the passengers, the Lord replied that there was nothing he could do, for the ship had to sink on account of [the sin, presumably, of] one man. 

Peter expressed his displeasure once again and the Lord nonchalantly replied: “Well it’s done now anyway.” 

As they walked along they came upon a hive of bees and Jesus asked Peter to bring him a fistful of bees with his bare hands. 

Peter complied, but as he was withdrawing his hand, with the fistful of bees, one of the creatures stung him, leading Peter to lose his temper and destroy every last bee in the hive. 

The Lord chastised Peter for bringing him back a fistful of dead bees and asked why he hadn’t brought them back alive. Peter explained that one bee had stung him, causing him to become so disorientated that he killed the lot in response. “Why didn’t you just kill the one that stung you?” the Lord asked, and, pressing his point, continuing, “not long ago you were finding fault with God for drowning a whole ship-full on account of one man. It was exactly the same with you.” 

Vivid tale

This vivid tale, with its very troubling image of a God who loses his patience with a group of human beings because of the offence of one of their number is almost the inverse of God’s promise to Abraham in Genesis 18 that “for the sake of 10 just men” he would not destroy the city. 

Unsettling as the tale may be, it testifies to a particular view of God that was prevalent at the time, and, indeed, which persists among some to this day.

Sometimes, though, folktales can communicate surprising lessons for their time. 

One tale, collected in Co. Kerry in 1933, relates how a young priest leaving home encouraged his mother to attend Mass every day and to drop a stone in a specially-prepared box every time she went, so that her son, who obviously enjoyed spiritual book-keeping, could count the number of times she had been when he next returned. 

The lady complied with her son’s wishes and turned up at Mass on time every day, logging her attendance by dropping a stone in the box on each occasion. However, one day she noticed that some cattle had escaped and were trampling her neighbour’s potato field. 

At first she didn’t want to go back to warn her neighbour for fear of being late for Mass, but she eventually thought better of it and turned back to help out, and, indeed, was late for Mass afterwards. 

When her son next returned home, his mother told him that she had been at Mass every day since, except for one occasion when she was late because she chose to help out a neighbour. 

Upon opening the box, the woman found that it contained only one stone. Her son explained, “the Mass you heard that day was the only Mass you heard properly since I was here last”. 

Here, then, we have a story that, in this instance, emphasises the horizontal aspect of the Eucharist (‘be Eucharist to one another’) over and against a sole concern with its vertical aspect, essentially inviting its hearers to ‘live your Mass’.

The Mass is the subject of another folktale, collected in Co. Galway in 1936, and in this instance, we have a vernacular treatment of a controversy that first raged in the North African Church of the 4th and early 5th Centuries. 

Known as the Donatist controversy, it concerned the question of whether sacraments administered by sinful clergy could be deemed to be effective. 

St Augustine had stressed that the sacraments were God’s work and were, therefore, not dependent on the worthiness or moral probity of the person who administered them. The message was: when Peter baptises, it is Christ who baptises; when Andrew baptises, it is Christ who baptises; when Judas baptises, it is Christ who baptises. Or, in another image, it matters not the person who brings a vessel of water to a man dying of thirst in the desert; what’s important is not the quality of the bearer, but the quality of the water that is carried. 

The Co. Galway story takes this controversy, which re-appeared in many guises over the centuries, and pronounces upon it in a variation on the theme. 

It relates how a man who had fallen out with a certain priest resolved never to attend that priest’s Mass again and had already missed two or three Sundays in a row. 

On the fourth Sunday a stranger visited him and asked why he wasn’t attending Mass which was starting around that time. When the man explained his reasons, the stranger invited him out for a walk up a nearby hill. 

After some time, coming to a stream, the man bent down for a drink of water and declared that it was the sweetest water he had ever tasted, inviting the stranger to have some himself. The stranger refused and declared that, if it was all that sweet, he should perhaps investigate where the water was coming from. 

The man agreed and they traced the stream up the hill to its source where they found a drowned dog lying in a bog-hole. The water the man had tasted downstream had obviously passed through the dead dog. “Now”, declared the stranger, “if you knew that that was the water you were drinking, would you drink a drop of it?” 

The man admitted that he wouldn’t. This leads the stranger to continue: “Well, when you and the priest were exchanging bitter words with one another, even if the priest was as rotten as the old dog in the bog-hole, and if his soul was as black as coal with sin, the words that come out of his mouth, the words of God, are as sweet as the water you drank from the stream.”

One of the hallmarks of many Irish religious folktales is the invitation to thank God in every circumstance of life. Gratitude was highly prized and, by contrast, ingratitude often severely punished. 

One tale relates how a saint, who was fed on a daily basis from Heaven, learned this lesson the hard way. One particular day he emerged from his cell to find that it was a wet, miserable morning. “It’s a cold, wet morning, this morning,” he rather innocently declared, before drawing his head back into his cell. However, as a result, no food arrived to him that day and, when he couldn’t figure out why, eventually a voice from heaven explained that he hadn’t thanked God for the previous day and thus went hungry. 

Remedy

To remedy the situation, the voice told him, he would have to stand in the middle of an icy river with his staff until green moss grew on it. He agreed to do so and soon after encountered a robber who was crossing the river and enquired regarding the saint’s strange vigil. 

When the saint explained that he was doing penance for ingratitude, the robber was suddenly struck with remorse; not so much for robbing and looting initially, but for his ingratitude in not thanking God for all his success at robbing and looting! He voluntarily joined the saint in the strange penance and, in the meantime, resolved to give up his thievery. 

The importance that was given to affirming God’s creation, even if that creation didn’t always appear pleasant, is effectively communicated in the tale which relates how Our Lord (it is said) saw good in everything when he was on earth. 

One day, when walking along a road with his disciples, they came across the body of a dead dog. “Surely”, said one of the disciples, “our Lord will have nothing good to say about the dog.” Just then, the Lord remarked, “what lovely white teeth the dog has!”

A beautiful tale from Waterford, collected at the turn of the 20th Century and associated with St Patrick, affirms the dignity of the human body in death. 

The story relates how the Lord instructed St Patrick to visit a dying old man in a remote region, who hadn’t had access to a priest to give him the last rites. Patrick duly visited the man’s house and anointed him. The man died before Patrick departed, and the saint was allowed to see the soul leave his body. 

However, the behaviour of the departing soul was curious; three times, it made for the door and then doubled back to the corpse, and, on each occasion, kissed the corpse tenderly. Patrick, perplexed by what he saw, later asked our Lord the reason for this. He replied, “the soul was sad to leave the faithful, decent body which had kept it so clean, without sin in this life”. 

This, then, is an interesting tale in which dualistic tendencies, which often influence portrayals of the body and soul, are absent. Indeed, it is rarely enough that the body gets such good publicity. 

The figure of St Patrick doesn’t always come off so well, however. One tale from Co. Kerry taps into long-running grievances regarding clerical greed. 

While Patrick is watching a hurling match, he spots a pagan passing by on the road and proceeds to ask him if he would be baptised. After some time, the old man relents and consents to baptism, after which he immediately dies (this would have been regarded as a great grace, preserving him from any future sin that would sully his newly-cleansed soul). 

As his soul flew like a bird to Heaven, his clothes and bones fell in a heap on the ground along with a big purse of gold and silver. Patrick, satisfied, went on his way, but soon after turned back to take some coins from the man’s purse. When our Lord later challenged him on this, he admitted that he had taken a little money (essentially a ‘sacramental fee’!). This leads our Lord to declare that “the mind for the money would follow the priests ever after”!

Irish religious folktales can sometimes sketch humorous scenarios in making their point. In the following instance, it appears that God’s ways are, indeed, not always our ways. 

One day, Our Lord and his mother, Mary, encounter a blind man on the roadside and, as was the case in Cana, Mary draws attention to the need for a miracle. Our Lord proves willing, but also points out that the man’s wife is “above in the wood” with another man. One can imagine the glint in Our Lord’s eye when he continues, “I’ll give him back his sight so he can see her”. 

“Oh well”, replies his mother (who traditionally has a soft-spot for sinners stuck in compromising positions), “if you’re going to do that, find some excuse for the poor woman”. 

Inspiration

When the blind man recovers his sight, he looks all around him and finally spots his wife. She hastens down to him to try to explain. “You were inside in the wood with that man”, her husband begins to accuse her. “But,” she retorted (clearly in a flash of divine inspiration), “if I wasn’t there, you wouldn’t have got your sight back.” 

And the tale ends with the remark: “And that’s the reason why women can always find an excuse down to the present day!”

While endlessly entertaining, the Irish religious folktale remains an under-utilised, but hugely valuable resource for understanding the religious mind-set of those who have gone before us. 

 

Salvador Ryan is Professor of Ecclesiastical History at St Patrick’s College, Maynooth. He has recently edited Death and the Irish: a Miscellany (Dublin: Wordwell Press, 2016). 

 

‘Saint Patrick’ (pictured) as depicted in an oil painting by Catholic artist Stephen B. Whatley – painted with prayers on St Patrick’s Day 2016.

Whatley depends on the Holy Spirit, energy from whom he particularly felt whilst developing the interpretation of the shamrock, which St Patrick often used in his evangelisation as a symbol of the Holy Trinity.

The artist regularly feels what he describes as a ‘Divine push’ to pay tribute to Jesus, Our Lady and the saints, with dependence on the Holy Spirit, often on feast days – and a selection of his tribute paintings formed his exhibition ‘Paintings from Prayer’ staged throughout the Chapels of St Andrew and St Patrick in Westminster Cathedral, London in 2013. 

The work of Stephen B. Whatley is in collections including The Royal Collection of Queen Elizabeth II and Newman University, Birmingham; whilst his 30 paintings commissioned by the Tower of London are permanently reproduced outside Tower Hill Station.