[This blog posting is heavily in debt to Thomas O’Loughlin’s Discovering Saint Patrick (New York NY/MahwahNJ: Paulist Press, 2005). If you are serious about Patrick you’ll read this book]
There are few historical figure burdened with more legends, myths, and traditions than St. Patrick. The first life of Patrick was written a couple of centuries after the saint died, by the Irish monk Muirchú moccu Machtheni in the 7th century.It seems at times that you cannot throw a rock in Ireland without hitting some landmark associated with Patrick – a well, a church, a hill, a cross, an island, or a lake. Ask about what he did and people will say that he converted all of Ireland from pagan ways to Christianity; that he used a shamrock to explain the Trinity; and that he drove the snakes out of Ireland. They will say that he wrote several hymns, including the one known as St. Patrick’s Breastplate. The Irish diaspora turned his feast day, March 17th, into a celebration of Ireland complete with marching bands, leprechauns, green beer, and in Chicago, a green river. In response to the demands of American tourists Dublin began holding St,. Patrick’s Day parades in 1931; it is only recently in Ireland that the day morphed from a religious celebration to a secular celebration. As important as all this is, it is doubtful that it bears much relation to the historical Patrick.
The interesting thing about Patrick is that we do have an historical core – two writings by the man himself. One is the Confessio in which he gives an account of his life, as a defense against his detractors. The other is the Epistola Militibus Corotici or The Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus; to call them soldiers is not quite right, as they were really Pictish and Irish slavers. The letter is itself an excommunication of Coroticus and an appeal to the soldiers and all faithful Christians to abandon him. For obvious reasons there is more biographical information in the Confessio, but nothing that can be pinned down in terms of dates. As best as we can tell, Patrick lived in the 5th century, but some scholars push him back into the fourth century, and it is possible he worked into the sixth century. We really do not know when he lived, and precise dating is at best an informed guess.
What we do know is this. He was born and raised on the west coast of Britain and raised as a Christian. His father was a deacon and his grandfather a priest. They owned property. It is likely that at that time the Roman authorities and their armies had left Brittannia, but Romanized Britons were the dominant population; the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes had not yet arrived to make most of Britannia into England, and the Scots were still in Ireland. Christianity was reasonably well established in Britain for over a century, although it lived alongside older Celtic religions, Roman cults, and religious practices brought from across the Empire and beyond. Ireland had never been part of the Roman Empire, and was considered a barbarian land, like the highlands of what became Scotland.
Patrick likely spoke an archaic form of Welsh, and he knew how to speak and write late Roman Latin (the two works we have are in Latin). At the age of sixteen his learning came to a sudden end when he was captured by an Irish raiding party, and he and others were taken to Ireland and sold as slaves. For many years he worked as a shepherd, and learned the Irish language. While not a particularly devout teenager, he fell on the God of his youth while in slavery, and God directed him in a vision to escape to a ship that was by the shore. He made his escape, and the ship took him away, perhaps to what is now Brittany or Normandy. After many adventures he eventually he made his way home. In the years that followed he deepened his faith and was made a bishop. It is not clear if he would have gone through a cursus honorium of being a deacon and priest or any other rank – it was not yet a requirement. Further, while later generations assumed that as a cleric he would have been celibate, such a practice was by no means universal at the time – most bishops were married and had children, as Patrick’s grandfather had been. Patrick might have been married at some point, but as he makes no mention of a spouse or children, it is reasonable to assume that he was following the newer trend advocated by St. Jerome and others that clergy should leave such earthly attachments behind. Likewise, while Irish Christianity became centered on monasticism (derived from St. Martin of Tours and the Egyptian Fathers and Mothers), Patrick gives no indication of being a monk himself.
While in Britannia Patrick received the call to go to Ireland. It appears that this was as much an internal, spiritual call, one which he did not really want. The call was confirmed by the Christian community around him, and it may have been on this basis that he was made a Bishop. He left for Ireland, and proceeded to travel around preaching the good news in Irish, making disciples, and baptizing them. In all probability Patrick was neither the first Christian nor the first missionary in Ireland. The fifth century author Prosper of Aquitaine noted that his near contemporary Palladius was ordained a bishop and sent by the Bishop of Rome to Ireland. As well, other Christians were undoubtedly brought in as slaves or came as merchants, and they may have made converts. However, as none of them left a written record but Patrick did, Muirchú chose to write a life of the saint that portrayed him as the apostle to all Ireland. Patrick’s own writings do not have such a portrayal – he is simply sent to the Irish who have not heard the good news. Patrick never identified any places where he ministered, but it is clear that he was itinerant and travelled widely. Undoubtedly the apostle Paul was the model for his work, as well as the itinerant ministry of Jesus himself.
And Patrick had great success. God only knows what the population of the island was then – 200,000 to 500,000 might be a good guess – but he says he baptised several thousands. This suggests that the island was very receptive to Christianity, and within a few generations it was the dominant religion, focused on monastic communities. Like compound interest that accumulates slowly but surely over the long run, so the individual conversions to Christianity grew.
One of the ironies of Patrick’s writings is that he apologises for the quality of his Latin as compared with his contemporaries in Britain. However, his are the only writings that have survived from Roman Britain and the immediate post-Roman Britain (apart from inscriptions and occasional scraps of merchant’s records) – everything else has perished. We have only the vaguest idea of who the people were and what they thought, and we do not even know the names of Patrick’s eloquent detractors. Such is history.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about Patrick was his theology of mission. Patrick understood himself to be an instrument of God. At the end of the Gospel according to Matthew the disciples of Jesus are commanded to
Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.
Thomas O’Loughlin argues quite persuasively that Patrick believed that “the end of the age” would come when the gospel had been preached to the ends of the earth. Once all had heard it, and those who accepted it had been baptised, there would be no reason for the divine to delay the coming of the Son of Man. For Patrick, a civilized Roman Briton, Ireland was at the ends of the world. His efforts were not to enfold Ireland into the bosom of Rome, but to hasten the day of Judgement, after which justice would reign, Christ would be seated in the New Jerusalem, and God would be all in all. A bit of a ways, methinks, from green beer and leprechauns.