Finding the Real ‘St Patrick’s Chair’

St Patrick's Chair

St Patrick’s Chair ©David Radcliffe

Finding a site clearly labelled on a map would seem like a no brainer to most, but St Patrick’s Chair is one of the sites that is complex and shows how traditions change and develop through time.[1] The ‘current’ St. Patrick’s Chair, which stands in a field called Magher y Chairn (‘Field of the Lord’) on the Garth in Marown (SC3165577946), has long baffled Manx archaeologists and antiquarians. For those who haven’t visited the monument it is formed from a mass of earth and stones into which a series of stone slabs have been set on edge (see picture). While the monument has been heavily damaged by later activities, the keen observer will notice that the mound hides evidence of a roughly rectangular structure constructed from dry-stone into which three slabs have been placed vertically. The earliest description comes from a local antiquarian Joseph Cumming who reports:

…near the Garth in Marown (the central parish of the Island), occur five upright stones of a gneissose rock or metamorphic schist, standing on a platform of blue clay schist. The two tallest stones are inscribed with crosses deeply cut, like the British crosses in Cornwall and Wales… The lengths and breadths of the shaft and arms of the inscribed crosses are fourteen inches by twelve, and twelve inches by nine respectively. The length of the platform of the crosses is eight feet six inches, and the breadth four feet. The height of the erect stones from three feet to five feet six inches. The whole pile is known by the natives as St. Patrick’s chair… .[2]

Early drawing of Patrick's Chair, ©Cumming 1857: fig. 45

Early drawing of Patrick’s Chair, ©Cumming 1857: fig. 45 [2].

That two of these slabs are carved with simple, roughly cut crosses provide something of a hint as to the Christian function of this monument, but the form is something unique in the Isle of Man. Some have interpreted the remains as a prehistoric burial, probably dating from the Bronze Age, from which much of the original mound had been removed and which was later transformed into a Christian monument during the Early Medieval by the placement of Christian cross slabs. Unfortunately there is little physical evidence to substantiate this claim. What currently survives has often born comparison with the leachta, a fairly common monument found throughout Ireland and western Britain. The leacht functioned as a memorial to those saints or holy people regarded as important to the early church and are typically found at important religious sites, or placed on routes of pilgrimage where they functioned as an ‘open air’ altars or prayer stations for passing pilgrims. Certainly the relative proximity of the modern Millennium Way, a route believed to follow a medieval roadway between northern and southern parts of the island known as the Via Regia may lend some credence to the this suggestion.[3]

A further interpretation comes as result of the earliest description of the site offered by Robert Patterson. He reported that “an abundant spring of pure water gushes from the ground at the one side of it”. [4] Such natural springs were widely venerated by the early church, adopted from earlier traditions, and were often marked or augmented through the use of formal markers. Certainly the Manx landscape is littered with many similar ‘holy springs’ and ‘holy wells’, now largely forgotten but recorded by keen antiquarians and folklorists in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.[5] Unfortunately, the spring noted by Patterson has now disappeared, disturbed by the drainage and deep ploughing techniques of modern agriculture, but after a particularly heavy storm water certainly rises to the surface in this area. At the same time the ephemeral remains of another well can still be traced in the south-east corner of the field (called Chibber y Chiarn, ‘the Lord’s Well’).

St Patrick's Chair, Greeba

St Patrick’s Chair, Greeba, Taken from the Manx Note Book website.

The second St. Patrick’s Chair is noted in earlier eighteenth-century sources and is positioned on the slopes of Greeba Mountain (c. SC31328070). Located close to the boundary between the parishes of Marown and German it is first recorded by Rev. Thomas Christian (1754–1828), vicar of Kirk Marown, in his account of the parish boundaries during the 1780s. Unfortunately I haven’t had the opportunity to examine the original document so cannot quote the exact description, but is recorded in secondary literature as ‘St Patrick’s Chair’.[6] Much later, the formation was photographed by antiquarian William Cubbon in the 1930s, and described by another Philip Kermode.

Mr. W. Cubbon has recently identified this with a large boulder of local slate, 5-6ft. long by 3-4 ft. high, weighing some 8 tons, having a flat top, and built into position with upright stones at the back of it. On the W. side of the stream passing on to Pear tree Cottage, and about 100 yards N. of the highroad.[7][8]

By the mid nineteenth century it seems to have been largely forgotten as the formation was not recorded by the Ordnance Survey, and is entirely absent from the first edition (1868-70). The site is certainly illustrative of the modern reliance on maps for recording locations and boundaries, highlighting how the creation of these documents involved ‘editing’ the landscape and the loss of many other landmarks, places and traditions. At the same time while mapping these spaces serves to preserve the physical situation and extent of these names, they invariably ignore the social production of places.

Having two monuments identified by the same name, particularly when they are so close together, certainly fosters some confusion. Significantly the name ‘St Patrick’s Chair’, in its present location, seems to a fairly recent name with little documentary evidence of it before the mid nineteenth century (1850s), but once placed on the Ordnance Survey map (1868-1870) the name became fossilised and written into the landscape in its present location. Certainly local place name specialist J. J. Kneen agreed on its current location.[9] Tellingly neither field, nor the associated holy well, make reference to the saint, perhaps lending weight to the supposition that this may be a recent imposition. These may also support the notion that some of the traditions associated with the Irish saint are similarly modern first documented in the mid nineteenth century. Again Patterson is one of the first to record that this was the place where the,

…Patron Saint of Ireland is said to have sat in this chair to bless the people. It is not unlikely that he may have rested here during some of his missionary excursions through the island, and have taken advantage of the crystal fountain at his feet to administer to his early converts the sacrament of baptism.[10]

We tend to think that such traditions are the remains of some ancient genuine custom, but St. Patrick’s Chair certainly reveals traces of embellishment and elaboration of its traditions by successive generation. More recently some sources have even claimed this as the location where Patrick first preached the gospel to the local population.[11] Pragmatic antiquarian’s long ago recognized that the association with the saint was almost certainly false; some even went as far as to claim the monument a modern fabrication.[12] Confusingly, many of the traditions associated with the modern St Patrick’s Chair are also associated with the Greeba rock formation.[13]

So, which is the ‘real’ St Patrick’s Chair? We will probably never know unless some long lost historical record comes to light. Certainly the origin of both sites was a principal concern for nineteenth and twentieth century antiquarians, while some followed Thomas Christian and identified the monument as the natural formation above Greeba as the ‘real’ St Patrick’s Chair, others preferred the archaeological site. It is, perhaps, easy to see why tradition and archaeological remains became linked; with a Christian monument with no associated tradition, and seemingly ‘lost’ place name and tradition, the connection may have seemed obvious to early scholars. Of course the association could have been unintentional, as before modern maps describing geographical locations was often problematic. That the earliest documentary reference to the name comes from the natural rock formation above Greeba certainly lends support to the notion that this is the original St Patrick’s Chair. Yet, when considering the fact that the association with Irish saint is probably equally spurious in this location, does pinpointing the ‘real’ St Patrick’s Chair really matter?

If you know anything about either monuments please let me know, or leave a comments below.

—–
References:
[1] The title for this blog is derived from a newspaper article of the same name, Anon. 1940, ‘Ancient Baronies in the Isle of Man’, Isle of Man Weekly Times, 21 September 1940, pp. 7, col. d.
[2] Cumming, Rev. J. G. 1857. The Runic and Other Monumental Remains of the Isle of Man. Bell and Dalby: London, pp. 41.
[3] http://www.gov.im/lib/docs/highways//themillenniumwaytext.pdf; Cubbon, W. 1934. ‘The Royal Way’. PIOMNHAS 3, pp. 217-222. http://www.isle-of-man.com/manxnotebook/iomnhas/v033p217.htm, accessed 26 January 2014
[4] Patterson, Robert 1863. Manx Antiquities, or remarks on the present condition of the Antiquarian remains of the Isle of Man, Especially those situated around its coast line. St Andrews University Magazine: Cupar, http://isle-of-man.com/manxnotebook/fulltext/ma1863/index.htm, accessed 29 January 2014.
[5] See, for example, Gill, W. W. 1929. A Manx Scrapbook. Arrowsmith: London.
[6] If anyone has the time and the wherewithal to search out this document in the Manx National Heritage Library a transcript would be most appreciated.
[7] Kermode, P. M. C. 1930. List of Manx Antiquities. Louise G Meye Ltd: Douglas, pp. 1.
[8] Unfortunately, I have not been unable to ascertain the ownership and gain permission to search out the forgotten rock formation.
[9] Kneen records the name as being “probably a modern name”. Kneen, J. J. 1925. The Place-Names of the Isle of Man with their origin and history. Yn Cheshaght Ghailckagh: Douglas, pp. 168.
[10] See note 3.
[11] Most recently http://www.iomguide.com/historical-sites/st-patricks-chair.php and http://thejournalofantiquities.com/2013/06/02/st-patricks-chair-marown-isle-of-man/ accessed 29 January 2014.
[12] Barnwell, E L 1868. ‘Notes on the Stone Monuments in the Isle of Man’. Manx Society 15, pp. 92-107)
[13] See note 1.

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5 thoughts on “Finding the Real ‘St Patrick’s Chair’

  1. AN EIGHTEENTH CENTURY
    LOCAL LEGEND OF ST PATRICK
    FROM THE ISLE OF MAN

    The following was recorded in the late eighteenth century entered into a commonplace book kept by one of the Kewley family, the proprietors of Ballafreer farm in the parish of Marown in the Isle of Man (MNHL, MS 37 A). It reads as follows:

    [interlined Tradition] An Old Saying Concerning S[ain]t Patrick
    As Saint [interlined Patrick] Pass’d through the fflat of Our ffarm East Side of the Haggard it is said that a Briar caught hold of his foot and tore some of the foot and Stocking, so that he was a little passionate and said. Let not this Field produce any kind of Grain that will make a man Drunk That he may be sober to avoid thy Briars and to take Care to keep his feet from thy Dented Prickles. This was about the year 444 He at that Time was going with Disciple Saint Jerman to appoint a place to build a Chappel Therein which s[ai]d Chappel was built There and the Ruins of it Remains to This Day

    Whilst undated, the style of the language indicates the eighteenth-century. By chapel is meant a keeil, which are scattered over the Island and date to the period of Christianisation of the Island by Irish monks. There is one such keeil on Ballafreer, known as Keeil Pherick (‘Patrick’s Keeil’ or Church of Patrick).

    Stephen Miller

  2. I know the location of St Patrick’s Chair. Please contact me if you would like the location. I have posted photographs under my Facebook profile, Sam Hudson.

    • Thank’s Sam. Has certainly changed a bit over the years. Any chance I could copy the images and add them to the post (full credit to you of course). Did you get a map reference for it, would be good to see it in the flesh, as it were. Much appreciated.

      • Yes, you can use the photos. I can mark it’s location on a map. I suspect that the site is on private land, however. It is where Kermode described it in List of Manx Antiquities.

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