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Fr Billy Swan

The celebration of St Patrick’s Day and Easter are only a few weeks apart in any given year. In the Irish Christian tradition, St Patrick’s association with Easter comes from the legendary story of him lighting the Easter fire near the hill of Tara in defiance of the pagan king Loegaire. The scene is recorded in the Life of Patrick – a work composed sometime around 700 AD by a man named Muirchú who was a significant figure in the Irish Church at the time the text was written. Artistically, the scene is represented in a painting by the Irish artist Sean Keating (1889-1977) which hangs in the library of the Pontifical Irish College in Rome (posted here).

The story of Patrick and the Easter fire is significant despite the absence of the event recorded in the two letters of the historical Patrick who had died sometime towards the end of the fifth century. In fact the letters that came from Patrick’s own hand over two centuries earlier– the Confessio (a confession of faith or testimony of praise to God for his life as it draws to a close) and his Epistola ad Coroticum (a letter from Patrick of excommunication of a bandit named Coroticus and his soldiers for the murder of fellow Christians), never mention the incident at all. Why then did Muirchú compose it and what does the story mean?

In Muirchú’s story, the pagan king Loegaire is based at Tara which historically was the seat of power of Irish pagan principalities. In the story, Loegaire is surrounded by his ‘seers and magi’ who foretold the coming of ‘another way of life…like a kingdom…that would overthrow kingdoms…and be a kingdom that would have no end’ (Life of Patrick, Book I, 10). Most significantly, these pagan rulers prophesy that ‘when all these things happen, our kingdom – which is pagan – shall not stand’ (Life of Patrick, I, 10). The story then progresses to the main event. On the same night that Loegaire and his pagan followers were celebrating their festival, Patrick celebrated the Easter Vigil ‘in the plain of Tara’. The king had decreed that it was strictly forbidden, under pain of death, for anyone to light a fire that night before he would light his own fire. In defiance of the king, Patrick lit the Easter fire that, we are told, was seen by all and ‘viewed it with great wonder’. The wise men of the king warned him that this act of defiance was more than an act of disobedience for ‘if it (the fire) is not put out tonight, it will never be extinguished! You should know that it will keep rising up and will supplant all the fires of our own religion. The one who lit it, and the kingdom he is bringing upon us this night, will overcome us all – both you and us – by leading away everyone in your kingdom’ (Life of Patrick, I, 15).

This is a brief summary of the story written by Muirchú. But what does it mean? In a nutshell, it is about the subversive power of Christianity, represented by the figure of St Patrick, over other deities and authorities in Ireland. It announces the arrival of Christ’s Lordship over sin and paganism in Ireland as well as the appropriation of all other kingdoms into the kingdom of God. The story also confirms the inclusion of Ireland as an elect people or nation among the family of nations who would know God’s salvation at the end of time. This is why the drama of Patrick versus the king is set in the context of Easter in general and the Easter Vigil in particular with the lighting of the Easter fire.

Then as now, at Easter the Church celebrates the victory of Christ that ‘dispels wickedness, washes faults away, restores innocence to the fallen…drives out hatred, fosters concord and brings down the mighty’ (The Exsultet). Reference in the story to the fire never going out is an expression of the faith of Muirchú and Irish Christians at the end of the seventh century that because of the Lordship of Christ, all things become subordinate to him with the eventual transfer of all peoples from other kingdoms into the kingdom of light within the Church. The everlasting fire represents the permanency of the Christian faith that was here to stay. It should be noted here that Muirchú’s narrative is modelled on similar stories in Scripture where there is a contest between a pagan deity and the God of Israel with the triumph of the latter (See 1 Kings 18; Daniel 3:1-24; Matt. 2:1-6). Muirchú’s aim in composing this story is to show how the triumph of faith in Christ, recorded in Scripture, was now being fulfilled here in Ireland through the Apostle Patrick.

If this is what the story means, how is it relevant to Irish Christians today? The story of St Patrick and the Easter fire expressed the faith of our ancestors at the turn of the eighth century that Christ was Lord over every aspect of life if he was to be Lord at all. In Christ, God’s triumph over every adversary, idol and foreign god is complete. His death and resurrection was a triumph destined to endure for all the ages and be present to all peoples down to the present day. This was made possible by Christian missionaries like Patrick who brought us the Gospel back in the fifth century. Its light, hope and victory over sin and death continues to be proclaimed by the sons and daughters of Patrick who witness to the Gospel and live their Easter faith today. Here is a message of hope for St Patrick’s Day this year - that despite the apparent weakening among the Irish of their Christian faith that Patrick brought us, the prophesy announced by Muirchú of Christianity’s permanence will endure and be fulfilled. We are an Easter people. May the Easter fire of hope and faith that burns in the hearts of baptised Irishmen and women, never be extinguished.


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