Reading Room Log: Images of St. Patrick from the Burns Library’s Irish Collection

Frontispiece from William Fleming's The Life of St. Patrick, Burns Library Call #BR 720 .P26 F5 1905b Irish.

Frontispiece from William Fleming’s The Life of St. Patrick, BR720 .P26 F5 1905b Irish.

Images of leprechauns, shamrocks, and shades of green flourish on St. Patrick’s  Day.  Rarely do people see images of  St. Patrick, who is the namesake of this   holiday. Although St. Patrick’s Day is a largely commercialized holiday in the United States, it is a national holiday in Ireland; people do not work and many attend Mass in honor of St. Patrick.  Such honor and reverence gives insight into the saint’s charismatic leadership and love for the Irish people.  Perceptions of what St. Patrick looked like while serving as bishop in Ireland can be seen through images placed in books that attempt to record both myths and truths of his life.  The Burns Library is fortunate enough to have many such books in its Irish Collection.  In the book, The Life of St. Patrick, Apostle of Ireland (Burns Library Call Number = BR1720 .P26 F5 1905b Irish), by William Fleming, there is a black and white stamp print of a middle-aged Saint Patrick wearing the robes of a bishop and a mitre or bishop’s hat.  The artist uses ornamentation and a halo to remind us not only of his rank as bishop, but also of his sanctity.  In one hand there is a shepherd’s crook with a cross on it.  The crook represents the role of a bishop as a shepherd of his people and may call to mind the time St. Patrick spent as an enslaved shepherd. The other hand points towards the snakes at his feet, illustrative of the legend of the miracle of St. Patrick casting snakes out of Ireland.  In the background, cliffs look out over the sand and the water, and a Celtic cross stands slightly behind St. Patrick.  The cross is beautifully decorated with smaller crosses, insular detailing, and images of people, who might represent biblical scenes.  Both the coastline and cross are distinctively Irish.

Page 17 from The Rhymed Life of St. Patrick, Burns Library Call # PR 470 .H3 R59x Irish Oversize.

Page 17 from The Rhymed Life of St. Patrick, PR470 .H3 R59x Irish Oversize.

The Rhymed Life of St. Patrick (Burns Call Number = PR4790.H3 R59x Irish Oversize) is a collection of poems written by Katherine Tynan and illustrated by L. D. Symington.  The poems and illustrations portray various excerpts from the life, teachings, and miracles of St. Patrick.  One of the images features a haloed St. Patrick driving the snakes out of Ireland.  St. Patrick is represented as an old man.  Staring pensively downwards, St. Patrick is trying to shake the snake off of his shepherd’s crook, cursing the snake and all of the other snakes within the pit.  The accompanying poem  “Snakes young and snakes old,/ Snakes crimson and snakes gold,/ All in a mighty pother and hurry,/ For that deep lake in the hills of Kerry,/ Which holds them all till Judgement Day,/ St. Patrick, keep all evil away!” (17).

From All That Is Known of St. Patrick, Burns Library Call # BR 1720 .P26 M6 1902 Irish.

From All That Is Known of St. Patrick, BR1720 .P26 M6 1902 Irish.

Last but not least, All That is Known of St. Patrick, (Burns Call Number = BR1720.P26 M6 1902  Irish) a book which had its seventh printing in 1902, features several illustrations, two of which pictured here.  The first print, which you see on the left, is labeled “the Saint Patrick of Our Time”.  This print was believed to have been taken from an old Irish prayer book believed to have to have been 300 to 500 years old. His clothes are very simple, except for the cape, which is adorned with a pattern of swirls and clover and is held together by jeweled clasps.  The mitre is highly decorated with jewels and embroidery. St. Patrick holds a book with a jeweled clasp in his left hand and a shepherd’s crook in his right hand with elaborate detailing at the top.  St. Patrick appears quite elderly as though he is at the end of his life.

Facing page 73 from All That Is Known of St. Patrick, Burns Library Call # BR 1720 .P26 M6 1902 Irish.

Facing page 73 from All That Is Known of St. Patrick, BR1720 .P26 M6 1902 Irish.

The second print, which you see to the right, is labeled “The Saint Patrick of Ancient Times”. This print was believed to have been an engraving by Messengham “with the approbation of the French King and the Archbishop of Paris”, circa 1629. Pictured with a long, straight beard the clothes and hat of the saint are simple.  The only decoration he wears is a circular brooch with an off-center swirl.  His left hand holds up a three-leaf clover, a symbol used to teach the meaning of the Holy Trinity, three persons in one God.  His right hand holds a shepherd’s crook with a simple hook at the end.   St. Patrick appears more energetic, optimistic and looks up in hope or perhaps in prayer.  The study of images in the various texts reveals the evolution of perceptions of the saint and how different artists might use contemporary dress and objects to portray him.   It is interesting to compare and contrast different images, but, in spite of differences in the artists’ renditions they serve to remind us of the efforts of St. Patrick to bring Christianity to Ireland.   These books and more at the John J. Burns Library at Boston College commemorate and celebrate his contribution to the church and his life.  Come to the library, and see the true reason behind the holiday, a day that not only celebrates Irish ethnicity, but also a day that recalls the rich history of St. Patrick in Ireland.

  • Kathleen Williams, Irish Studies Librarian, Burns & O’Neill Libraries
  • Danica Ramsey-Brimberg, Burns Library Reading Room Student Assistant & History and Irish Studies, 2013

About John J. Burns Library of Rare Books and Special Collections at Boston College

The University’s special collections, including the University’s Archives, are housed in the Honorable John J. Burns Library, located in the Bapst Library Building, north entrance. Burns Library staff work with students and faculty to support learning and teaching at Boston College, offering access to unique primary sources through instruction sessions, exhibits, and programming. The Burns Library also serves the research needs of external scholars, hosting researchers from around the globe interested in using the collections. The Burns Library is home to more than 200,000 volumes and over 700 manuscript collections, including holdings of music, photographic materials, art and artifacts, and ephemera. Though its collections cover virtually the entire spectrum of human knowledge, the Burns Library has achieved international recognition in several specific areas of research, most notably: Irish studies; British Catholic authors; Jesuitica; Fine printing; Catholic liturgy and life in America, 1925-1975; Boston history; the Caribbean, especially Jamaica; Nursing; and Congressional archives.
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