Reading Seosamh Ó Dufaigh’s magnificent book, and his discussions of the difficulty of researching the first centuries of Christianity in Ireland I wondered if a solution to the problems they present might not be partially found already.
We have of course Pádraig Ó Riain’s Dictionary of Irish Saints (Four Courts Press, 2011, still available at €65.00/£55.00), a fine and always informative book. His 700 pages cover a thousand saints or so.
This many seem a great number, but the late Hubert Butler estimated (perhaps incautiously) that there might well have been in those days some 100,000 saints; not that he could put names to them all.
O’Hanlon’s great work was a calendar of saints, arranged by their feastdays, as befitted long ecclesiastical tradition. However, modern needs would be better met by having the saints arranged in alphabetical order (as the Dictionary is).
Perhaps what we need is a biographical dictionary or rather encyclopaedia say in four or five volumes, which I think might well be based on a thorough revision of O’Hanlon’s work, the great task of his life too. (This was the great task of his life too, but left unfinished; though for the last two months of the year some material he had at hand seemed to have survived, only to later disappear).
There is such a considerable amount of textual and archaeological information now to hand, as well as newly developed techniques for interpreting them.
In such a work we might at last be able to cast light on the incursion of Christians into Ireland, and the hints of pre-Patrician activity which has become obscured over time as the cult of the ‘national saint’ developed in the North.
Such a work could not be the work of one man; it would have to be a concerted project. This would have to be seen (like other projects such as those of the Royal Irish Academy has in hand) as being a national project.