Today is publication day for my new book Athassel Priory and the Cult of St Edmund in Medieval Ireland with Four Courts Press. The book is simultaneously a monastic history of one of Ireland’s greatest monastic houses, a study of an unusual cult of an English saint in Ireland, and a dynastic history of the De Burgh/Burke family which largely sustained interest in St Edmund in Ireland. The book emerged from writing my earlier book Edmund: In Search of England’s Lost King, since that was when I became aware that the Irish cult of St Edmund had received no attention.
The Irish cult of St Edmund was intimately bound up with that rather anomalous national group, the ‘English of Ireland’, who were the often heavily gaelicised late medieval descendants of the original Anglo-Norman invaders – and whose insistence on their Englishness was matched only by their embrace of Gaelic Irish culture. A central argument of the book is that the ‘English of Ireland’ secured their otherwise elusive English identity by engaging in distinctively English devotional practices; this was certainly more straightforward than speaking the largely forgotten English language or displaying genuine loyalty towards the distant English crown. ‘Devotional Englishness’ involved, among other things, veneration of English saints – including St Edmund. Yet the Irish cult of St Edmund also had an impact on Gaelic Ireland, as the book shows.
Athassel Priory, founded by William de Burgh, seneschal of Munster, in around 1200, is one of Ireland’s best kept secrets. The monastic ruins on the bank of the River Suir, not far from the iconic Rock of Cashel, are seldom visited by tourists and many people do not even know of the site’s existence. In 2004 the ruins were added to the list of the world’s one hundred most at risk heritage sites, but basic stabilisation work was finally undertaken in 2008 and the ruins were closed to burials. A vast monastic enclosure once contained a town with two parish churches, but the combination of Edward the Bruce’s invasion of 1315, the Black Death and the resurgence of Gaelic Ireland finished the town of Athassel, with a new town springing up around a bridge and fortified house at nearby Golden instead. The priory, whose priors sat as peers in the Irish Parliament, was not technically dissolved until 1552, although it had been a moribund institution long before that. The book catalogues the seemingly endless disputes over papal appointments to the priorship of Athassel in the fifteenth century, which sapped the life from the monastery. Yet in its glory days Athassel was home to a miraculous statue of St Edmund, at a time when the English of Ireland even made a brief attempt to install Edmund as a patron saint of Ireland itself.
The cult of St Edmund in medieval Ireland was a failure – but a failure that left behind all sorts of interesting flotsam and jetsam, such as Athassel itself and the proliferation of the personal names Éamon and Edmond – which led, in turn, to a large number of Irish place names derived from the personal name Edmond. Irish monastic history carries with it some difficult challenges: although Ireland’s monastic ruins are generally better preserved than England’s, this richness of material remains is not matched by the documentary record. Most previous studies of Athassel have focussed on the architecture because constructing a narrative of the monastery’s life from the surviving evidence is far from straightforward. The latter is, nevertheless, what I have attempted to do – in a conviction that medieval churches and monasteries cannot be understood properly apart from the cults and devotions they promoted. This has certainly been the case with the history of the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds, whose history is inseparable from the cult of St Edmund it promoted. The new book applies that methodology in an Irish context – although in the end I reach the conclusion that Athassel should not be viewed as just an ‘Irish Bury St Edmunds’.
While it was a challenging project, I had a great deal of fun writing Athassel Priory and the Cult of St Edmund in Medieval Ireland. Part of the book was even written in Ireland when I was carrying out a field visit there in the summer of 2018 – a summer now immortalised in the book’s cover image, which was taken by me on a visit to Athassel. There are not many scholars who work on late medieval Irish history, and I have found them an extraordinarily welcoming and supportive community who really create the impression that the writing of Irish history is a collaborative endeavour.