St. Patrick’s Purgatory & Acallam na Senórach

Anne Connon
Ohio Dominican University

Of all the pilgrimmage sites in Ireland, St. Patrick’s Purgatory was by far the most well-known across Medieval Europe. The site owed its initial fame to the late twelfth-century Tractatus de Purgatorio de Sancti Patricii, a Latin text which related the experiences of the Irish knight Owain after he physically entered Purgatory through a cave in the northwest of the island. A few years later, L’Espurgatoire de Seint Patriz, a French translation of the text commonly attributed to Marie de France, became the first of numerous translations of the Tractatus into European vernacular languages. 

Despite the strong topographical bent of Patrician hagiography, however, there was no similar mention of the site within vernacular Irish lives of the saint (or indeed earlier Latin Patrician lives). Upon first examination, the Purgatory seems likewise absent from Acallam na Senórach, the long, early thirteenth-century text which related Patrick’s circuits around Ireland in the company of the last remnants of the legendary fíana warrior band. While the Acallam does not – deliberately, I would argue – mention the site of St. Patrick’s Purgatory by name, this paper will posit that the Acallam nonetheless incorporates a series of pointed allusions to the narrative of the Tractatus/Espurgatoire within an episode set very close to, but not actually at, the cave’s location. The paper will further argue that the same episode in the Acallam interweaves the Tractatus/Espurgatoire references with a series of allusions to a sequence set in the vernacular hagiography at Croagh Patrick, the pre-eminent Patrician pilgrimage sight before the rise of the Purgatory. A final argument of the paper will be that the Acallam’s intent may have been to make a rather subtle dig at Patrick’s Purgatory for trying to usurp the position traditionally accorded to Croagh Patrick.