Saint Patrick (5th century) is the best-known patron saint of Ireland and one of the most successful Christian missionaries in history. He is credited with expanding literacy in Ireland through the monastic orders he established, revising and codifying the Brehon Laws, and converting the country to Christianity.
He was a Roman citizen of Britain (known as Patricius) who was captured by pirates at the age of sixteen and sold into slavery in Ireland. He escaped back to Britain, became ordained as a bishop, and returned to the land of his captivity as a missionary in c. 432/433. He was not the first Christian missionary to Ireland but is the most famous.
His influence on the laws and culture of Ireland was enormous as he championed the causes of women, the poor, and slaves while conferring with kings and nobles. His death date is celebrated on 17 March but the year he died, as with his year of birth, is unknown. He is one of three patron saints of Ireland along with St. Brigid and St. Columba.
Early Life & Captivity
Nothing is known of Patrick's early life save what he mentions in his Confession (Confessio). He writes that he was born in Bannaven of Taberniae but this location has never been positively identified. Scholars have advanced claims for Dumbarton or Ravenglass in Britain, or regions in Brittany, Scotland, and Wales. His father was a magistrate named Calporn and, according to legend, his mother was Conchessa, a niece of the famous St. Martin of Tours (316-397).
When he was sixteen years old, Patrick was captured by pirates and sold into slavery in Ireland. Some accounts, such as that of the writer Probus, mention two women who were captured with him, Darerca and Lupida, referred to as his sisters but Patrick himself makes no mention of them and Probus himself doubts they were blood relations. If they existed, Probus claims, they were `sisters' in faith.
In Ireland, Patrick was sold to a local chieftain named Miliue of Antrim (also known as Miliucc) who sent him out to tend the flocks in the nearby Valley of the Braid. For six years he served Miliue, often herding the flocks nearly naked in all kinds of weather. Scholar Thomas Cahill describes the conditions:
The life of a shepherd-slave could not have been a happy one. Ripped out of civilization, Patricius had for his only protector a man who did not hold his own life highly, let alone anyone else's. The work of such shepherds was bitterly isolated, months at a time spent alone in the hills. The occasional contacts, which one might normally seek out, could bring their own difficulties...Like many another in impossible circumstances, he began to pray. He had never before paid attention to the teachings of his religion: he tells us that he didn't really believe in God, and he found priests foolish. But now, there was no one to turn to but the God of his parents. (101-102)
Patrick's belief in and reliance on God became stronger by the day. He writes how, "The love and fear of God more and more inflamed my heart; my faith enlarged, my spirit augmented, so that I said a hundred prayers by day and almost as many by night. I arose before day in the snow, in the frost, and the rain, yet I received no harm, nor was I affected with slothfulness. For then the spirit of God was warm within me." He continued on in this way until the night he received a message in a dream.
A voice spoke to him saying, "Your hungers are rewarded. You are going home. Look, your ship is ready." Patrick immediately set out on foot toward the sea, crossing over 200 miles as a fugitive slave to the coast, most likely Wexford. He tried to book passage on a merchant ship heading to Britain but was refused. He then recounts how he prayed for help and the captain of the ship sent for him to come on board. Three days later they landed on the shores of Britain.
Patrick's Ordination & Return
The spot where Patrick landed in Britain is unclear but he describes disembarking with the Irish sailors onto a land of desolation. It took them two weeks to cross a desert-like landscape during which time Patrick saved them from starvation. When they taunted him about his faith being of little use in finding food or water he encouraged them to pray and trust in God; and shortly a herd of pigs appeared to provide for them.
He traveled on with the sailors until they reached a town from which he then went on alone and finally came to his home where he was welcomed back by his parents. Cahill writes, "But Patricius is no longer a carefree Roman teenager. Hardened physically and psychologically by un-sharable experiences, hopelessly behind his peers in education, he cannot settle down" (105). Still, he remained at the home of his parents until another visionary dream moved him to leave.
He dreamed that a man he had known in Ireland named Victor came to him carrying letters:
And there I saw a vision during the night, a man coming from the west; his name was Victorious, and had with him many letters; he gave me one to read, and in the beginning of it was a voice from Ireland. I then thought it to be the voice of the inhabitants of Focluit Wood, adjoining the western sea; they appeared to cry out in one voice, saying, `Come to us, O holy youth, and walk among us.' With this I was feelingly touched, and could read no longer. I then awoke.
Patrick left his family, over their protests, and traveled to Gaul where, after years of study, he was ordained a bishop at Auxerre. He could have remained in Gaul or returned to his family in Britain but Patrick believed he had a mission to the people he had left behind; and so he returned to Ireland. Before leaving, he made confession to another at Auxerre of a sin he carried on his conscience from youth. The nature of this sin is never mentioned but his confessor later brought it to light, requiring Patrick to defend himself and resulting in his famous Confession.
When he arrived in Ireland he was hardly welcomed. He writes how, when he landed (probably at Wicklow) the people were so hostile to him he quickly moved on north. Patrick knew the language of the Irish from his years in captivity and, just as importantly, knew their beliefs. He seems to have been adept at sharing the Christian message in a way he knew the people would best understand and receive.
There has been much written about the famous episode in which Patrick explains the Trinity using a shamrock, for instance, and historians, scholars, and theologians have debated whether the event actually happened. Whether that event ever took place is not as important as what the story says about Patrick's method of reaching the people. The concept of the triple deity, a supernatural being represented in three aspects, was well known in Ireland. The ancient goddesses Eriu, Fodla, and Banba, although not written about until the 11th/12th centuries, were known through oral tradition for centuries as the three sisters who gave their names to Ireland.
They were, in effect, three aspects of the spirit of the land. The goddess Brigid, likewise, was represented as three sisters who embodied the life force through healing, creativity, and productivity. The story of St. Patrick and the shamrock would have reflected how St. Patrick drew upon the spiritual and physical world the Irish knew to explain the gospel in familiar terms.
St. Patrick was not the first missionary to Ireland nor was Ireland a pagan wilderness when he arrived. Palladius was the first Christian missionary to Ireland and the first bishop. There were already Christians in Ireland upon Patrick's arrival and Christian communities were well established. Patrick did not so much bring Christianity to the island as popularize it and, according to legend, he began with a flourish which has become one of the best known tales concerning him.
He arrived in either 432 or 433 and announced the coming of Christianity dramatically. The pagan festival of Ostara was to be celebrated and the High King of Tara had decreed that no fires should be lit in the land before the great bonfire on the Hill of Tara initiated the holiday. Patrick and his followers climbed the Hill of Slane, directly across from Tara, and lit their own bonfire. When the king saw the flames, in defiance of his ordinance, he sent soldiers to put it out and arrest whoever was involved. By chanting the poem now known as Saint Patrick's Breastplate (a lorica also known as Faed Fiada or Deer's Cry) Patrick and his followers were able to pass through the soldiers undetected, as though they were a herd of deer.
They came to Tara where Patrick defeated the druids in debate and won the right to preach to the court of the king Laoghaire and his queen and chieftains. At this same time the soldiers who had been sent to arrest Patrick appeared, reporting that they could not extinguish Patrick's fire. The story concludes with many of the court converting to Christianity and the king, who refused, respecting Patrick well enough to free him to continue his mission.
The theory suggested by scholar T.F. O'Rahilly that there were two St. Patricks - one Palladius and the other Patrick whose stories were combined - is untenable in that Palladius' mission never generated the kinds of stories and legends which Patrick's did nor does the archaeological evidence support the kind of wide-spread Christian conversion during Palladius' mission that it does following Patrick's. Palladius came as a representative of the Christian church to convert the pagans; Patrick came as a friend of the people to introduce them to a friend who had helped him when he needed help most.
Cahill comments that Patrick "transmuted [the Irish people's] pagan virtues of loyalty, courage, and generosity into the Christian equivalents of faith, hope, and charity. But, though this singular display of virtue would have made friends, it would not necessarily have won converts - at least, not among a people as stubborn as the Irish" (124). St. Patrick succeeded in his mission by touching the people through a deep respect and love for them and a culture he had come to embrace. Cahill writes:
In becoming an Irishman, Patrick wedded his world to theirs, his faith to their life... Patrick found a way of swimming down to the depths of the Irish psyche and warming and transforming Irish imagination - making it more humane and more noble while keeping it Irish. No longer would baptismal water be the only effective sign of a new life in God. New life was everywhere in rank abundance, and all of God's creation was good. (115)
Later Life & Legacy
Patrick would go on to found Christian communities throughout Ireland, most notably the church in Armagh which became the ecclesiastical capital of the churches of Ireland and where Patrick would write his Confession, codify the Brehon Laws, and finally retire. The Celtic Church he founded, like that of the missionary Columba's in Scotland after him, differed in a number of ways from the church of Rome, most notably in its inclusion of women in church hierarchy, the dating of Easter, tonsure of monks, and the liturgy. Scholars are divided on how significant these differences really were and most now reject the claim that the Celtic Church was very different in vision than the Roman Catholic.
However that may be, in his time in Ireland St. Patrick changed the lives and futures of the people he had once walked among as a slave. Whatever successes the earlier missionaries such as Palladius, Ailbe, Declan, Ibar, and Ciaran had won, none advanced the causes of literacy, spirituality, and the dignity of the individual as Patrick did. Historian Murray Pittock cites the 19th/20th century scholar Eoin MacNeill's view that the Irish were "descended from a pagan warrior civilization who, when converted to Christianity, transformed Ireland into a unique island of sanctity and learning" which redefined the Celt and Celtic society (76).
The monasteries he founded or encouraged became centres of literacy and learning, sprawling universities devoted to knowledge, which would in time serve to collect and preserve the written record of western civilization after the fall of Rome. The Roman Empire had never invaded Ireland and so the land was relatively unaffected by its fall. In the Christian monasteries of Ireland the great written works of the past were copied and preserved for future generations. Through his vision and mission, St. Patrick changed not only Ireland, but the world.