As the New Year begins, James Lloyd visits the Isle of Man, where a wastrel prince renounced his old life and began a new one.
Was it really a good idea to go through the wood? The eldest son was none too certain. He had heard storied that wolf-men had been seen hunting in these woods. His younger brother and sister were frightened but his parents told him not to spread their fear. It was broad daylight and this road was the quickest way to Armagh, where the holy Briton Patrick was building his church. They had only to trust in the gods – sorry, in God, this was taking some getting used to – and all would be well for them.
They were deep into the woods when it happened. The branches overhead were thick and it was almost as dark as night. The mother and father were themselves wondering if the forest route had really been the wisest, when they heard the roar. At first, they believed that it was an animal, a whole of pack of them by the sound of it, whooping and tearing the air with their bay. Then the monstrous creatures leapt from the trees. They were not quite men and yet they were not quite wolves either, though their hair was shaggy and they bore their teeth like fangs, which tore through the throat of first the father and then the mother.
The children scattered. The eldest son, his mind reliving the moment an hour earlier when he had begged his parents to take a different path, scurried through some undergrowth, praying to whichever god was real that they would not find him. His prayer went unanswered.
The second son ran back the way they had come, not thinking but only acting. The men-wolves had burst out on them from either side of the path, so his way was clear but only for a little while. There was a thud and a sudden rush of pain drew his attention to the spearhead protruding from the middle of his chest. His knees gave way but his little legs continued trying to run, thrashing in the dust, for a few second more.
The daughter stood where she was, transfixed by the sight of the abominations that stripped the flesh from her parents’ still moaning faces with their bare teeth. Then, one of the monsters, crouched over the body of her mother, noticed her presence and looked round at her. The cries of her brothers and the howls of their pursuers faded away into the background. From beneath a mountain of dirty, matted hair a man stared at her, not much older than her own brother but his face was hidden beneath the layers of caked mud that provided his only clothing. The mud cracked a little as he grinned and the girl started to back away but he leapt too quickly for her. She hardly had time to scream.
Early medieval Ireland had a novel way of dealing with teenage delinquents. By law, a youth had to be twenty years old to become a full member of his tribe but fosterage (a period of apprenticeship with another family) ended in the mid-teens. In the meantime, many youths would join a “fian”, a band of itinerant warriors or “fianna”. These “Fenians” (as they are Anglicized) would roam the countryside, supposedly protecting the tribe from attackers but some youths never left their band, as they should have done but, either from lack of opportunities in a family replete with heirs or just from love of freedom, they remained wanderers and degenerated into savagery. Such was their ferocity that they were commonly known as werewolves and, or so legend would have it, one such pack was so daring that it attacked Saint Patrick himself.
They placed one of their number in a shroud, told Saint Patrick that he was dead and begged him to revive him, hoping to expose his miracles as trickery. Patrick, however, perceiving their deceit, laid a hand upon the shroud and, when the ruffians unwrapped it, they found that their friend had in fact died. They submitted to Patrick and allowed him to baptise them, after which he obligingly resurrected their fellow conspirator.
The band’s leader was Maughold, a noble of the kingdom of the Ulaidh (pronounced “oo-lahth”, later known as Ulster). He asked Saint Patrick what he should do for penance and, on the saint’s instructions, went down to the shore of Lecale and placed himself in a small boat, without sail or oars. Patrick chained his wrists and threw the key into the sea. The teenage rebel was then cast adrift on God’s mercy, to live or die as it pleased the Almighty.
After several days, his boat washed ashore on an island, where he was found, unconscious, by two hermits, Romulus and Conindrius. They washed the mud off him, then took him to their cave, clothed him and cut his hair. When he awoke, they fed and watered him and explained that they were disciples of Saint Patrick, who had sent them to the Isle of Man (for there the boat had washed up) to preach Christianity to the natives.
They preached to him now. Freed from paganism and from the guilt of his past sins, he embraced Christ and joined Romulus and Conindrius in their mission to the Manx. In course of time, he became a bishop himself and founded a church, which still bears his name to this day. The point on which he landed is called Maughold Head and he is the patron saint of the Isle of Man.
The earliest source for the life of Saint Maughold is an episode in the Life of Saint Patrick, written by the seventh-century monk Muirchu. Muirchu was from Armagh, where Patrick had established his see and that church had a habit of inserting Saint Patrick into the lives of various saints in order to claim administrative control over the churches that they had founded too. The association of Maughold with Ireland may be another example of this practice.
Maughold’s life is certainly the stuff of legend. An alternative tradition, reported by the fifteenth-century English historian William Worcester, makes Maughold an Orkneyman of all things. A Manx folktale, drenched in Irish mythology and probably the youngest of all legends to concern the saint, makes him the reincarnation of a pre-Christian Irish deity, who unconvinced by the passive teachings of Christianity, runs away from the hermits and eventually discovers a city beneath the sea, where his fellow fallen gods scavenge shipwrecks to survive. Not fancying this life much, he returns to the surface, has himself baptized and becomes a bishop instead.
This myth does, however, have an appropriately violent climax, turning Saint Maughold’s old life on its head. While struggling to convert the Manx, Maughold aroused the ire of some thievish rogues, just as he himself had once been, who went to his church by night, hoping to make martyrs out of him and his disciples. Maughold, however, confronted them. Their captain identified him as the infamous Fenian but Maughold rejected his old identity, calling himself instead the Bishop of the Isle of Man. He gave the chief a tap on the chest with his pastoral staff, killing him instantly and prompting the on-the-spot conversion of the other thieves.
2016 has been a very unusual year, with more than its fare share of political earthquakes (seasoned with celebrity deaths), to the delight of some, the dismay of others and mutual recrimination. As the old year turns into a new, let us resolve, like Saint Maughold, to leave whatever nastiness and grief may lie in our past behind us and advance upon our new path with the unshakeable faith that, in God’s good time, all will be well.
Happy New Year.