Lives of the early Irish saints : a study in formulaic composition and the creation of an image
Bray, Dorothy Ann
The purpose of this study is to examine the Lives of the early Irish saints according to traditional historical and structural principles, in order to perceive the basic pattern underlying their composition and to document the repertoire of formula items which became the Irish hagiographers' stock-in-trade. Section I introduces the genre of hagiography, its forms and conventions, and its place in the context of the Irish Church, with a cursory appraisal of the manuscript history of the Lives, as well as the milieu of their composition. Section II begins with an examination of the native Irish secular tradition and its influence in the Lives of the Irish saints. The first chapter discusses biographical romance and related narrative forms, and the idea of a "Heroic Age" in Ireland in its relationship to the series of texts commonly designated as heroic literature. The second chapter looks at the Christian elements in the saints' Lives, and the influences of Western Christianity in Irish ecclesiastical literature, in particular Biblical and apocryphal sources. The third chapter begins with a discussion of the status of the saint in Western Christianity as the Christian 'hero', drawing parallels with the Desert Fathers of the Eastern Church. The chapter concludes with a discussion of the concept of the Hero in Irish tradition, pointing out the apparently basic similarities between conventional heroes of native Irish tales and the saints of the Irish vitae. Section III examines in greater detail and depth the relation¬ ships between heroes and saints in the light of the international heroic biographical pattern, which is shown to be present in both hero-tales and saints' Lives. The first chapter describes the pattern, and past scholarship in the study of heroic "biographies. The "basic pattern is modified for the biographies of heroes of different cult¬ ures, and this process is shown to have been at work in Irish heroic cycles. Chapter two proposes a scheme for the "saintly biography", and it is demonstrated how the pattern works as a generative principle in the Lives of the Irish saints. The second part of the chapter discusses the canon of motifs used by the compilers of the Lives, and presents a thematic/functional analysis of the motif-stock found in the extant texts. Section IV combines the conclusions of the previous sections towards a re-assessment of the genre of hagio-biography in Irish literary tradition. It is argued that the Lives are to be interpreted in the light of Irish heroic tradition (as here defined) and that such an interpretation provides both a plausible scenario of the transfor¬ mation of the saints of history into the heroes of the Irish Church, and a reasonable basis for a literary appreciation of the genre as a whole.