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St Patricks Day

March 17, 2012

I wrote most of this a few years ago but it’s still relevant

March 17th is known world wide as the celebration of Ireland’s patron Saint, Patrick. People gather in force to emphasise their Irish heritage and to get extremely drunk. Parades are held and pubs are packed. But aside from all the fun, there is the celebration of the legend that surrounds St. Patrick.

Almost everyone will be familiar with the basics of the story of St. Patrick. He was born somewhere in Britain of Roman stock and then came to Ireland c.432AD in order to convert the pagan Irish to Christianity. In the process he is also said to have driven the snakes out of Ireland and used the three leaved shamrock as a means of explaining the concept of the Holy Trinity to the pagan Irish.

Not surprisingly, the truth is a somewhat more complicated than that. Although Patrick was a real person who embarked on a mission to Ireland sometime in the 5th century, he wasn’t wholly responsible for the emergence of Christianity in Ireland.

The first mention we have of Christianity in Ireland is in the chronicle of Prosper of Aquitaine. In his entry for 431, he writes “Palladius was consecrated by Pope Celestine and sent to the Irish believing in Christ, as their first bishop” (Ad Scotum in Christum credentes ordinatur a Papa Celestino Palladius et primus episcopus mittitur) Bishops were somewhat thin on the ground during this period and would only have been sent out if there was a large enough Christian presence to justify it. The Pelagian heresy in Britain was also possibly a reason for Paladius being dispatched to the Irish, as there may have been fears that the Irish Christians could also be ‘contaminated’ by this heresy. Very little is known of the outcome of Palladius ministry in Ireland. Some of the later biographers of Patrick claimed that Palladius had encountered stiff resistance in his ministry in Ireland and had abandoned it, clearing the way for Patrick.

However, there are indications in some later Lives of Patrick that the achievements of Palladius may have been absorbed into the later cult of Patrick. Evidence seems to suggest that Palladius’ ministry was concentrated more in the East of the country, around the Leinster region, where he founded a number of churches. Considering its proximity to Britain it shouldn’t surprise that there may have been a Christian presence in this part of the country. Although Ireland was outside of the Roman Empire it still had strong political and economic links with Britain during this time.

If Patrick wasn’t the first to bring Christianity to Ireland then what do we know about him? What little information we can be certain of in relation to Patrick comes from his own writings, two documents of which survive to this day, his Confessio and the Letter to the Soldiers of Corroticus. Patrick opens the Confessio with a brief autobiography, “I am Patrick, a sinner, the most rustic and least of all the faithful, the most contemptible in the eyes of a great many people. My father was Calpornius, a deacon and the son of the presbyter Potitus. He came from the village of Bannaventaberniae where he had a country residence nearby. It was there that I was taken captive. I was almost sixteen at the time and I did not know the true God.” From this opening paragraph, Patrick establishes his identity. He was a Briton and both his father and grandfather had been priests before him. It should be noted that clerical celibacy was not as strongly enforced at this time and some of the lower ranking priests were allowed marry.

Patrick goes on to recount his capture by Irish slave traders and his subsequent captivity in Ireland for a number of years. During this time he became Christian or at the very least rediscovered his Christian beliefs. As Patrick tells us, “The Lord there made me aware of my unbelief that I might at last advert to my sins and turn whole-heartedly to the Lord my God.”

Patrick doesn’t tell us exactly how long he was in captivity in Ireland for, only that he was with his last master for six years before he found an opportunity to escape. He gained passage on a ship and eventually managed to reach his homeland. Although Patrick puts his escape down to the work of God, it is unlikely he managed it on his own. Chances are that during his time here he built up a number of contacts amongst other Christian slaves and may have used their help in making his escape. From this point on we are told little of what Patrick did before he returned to Ireland, only that he received a letter with the words, ‘The voice of the Irish’, which called to him to return to Ireland. Later tradition has it that Patrick intended to travel to Rome to complete his training but stopped upon reaching Gaul and underwent training there instead. References to Gaul in the Confessio would seem to indicate that he spent at least some time there.

During his mission in Ireland he endured captivity once again and numerous threats of violence but still persevered with his preaching. As Patrick tell us, “Let me tell you briefly how the most gracious God often freed me from slavery; how he rescued me twelve times when my life was in danger, as well as from numerous conspiracies and things which I cannot put into words.” He also tells us of the hardships endured by his converts, especially those who became nuns, much to the disapproval of their fathers.

Besides dangers from the Pagan Irish he was trying to convert, Patrick also faced dangers from abroad. The Letter to the Soldiers of Corroticus is a condemnation of a raid by a Pictish chieftain who killed and enslaved a number of Patricks converts. Coroticus and his soldiers were nominal Christians and the letter was written for the purposes of excommunicating Coroticus.

Patrick also received criticism from the ecclesiastical authorities in Britain who seemed suspicious of his mission to Ireland and his success there. It is believed that the Confessio was addressed to these men and was meant by Patrick as a defence of his mission.

The Patrick we see in these writings is a genuinely humble and pious man who believes that he is merely an instrument of God. Patrick goes to great lengths throughout the Confessio to stress his orthodoxy and to make certain that everything that goes on in his mission is above board so that nobody can accuse him of misleading his converts.

As far converting the whole of Ireland, Patrick makes no such lofty claims. Many of the later writings on Patrick indicate that his mission was located mainly in the North of the country, which was still predominantly pagan. It is unlikely that he was the only Christian Bishop on the island and there is a good chance that there were Bishops working on converting other parts of Ireland who had their own territories. Patrick may even be seen as part of a concerted British mission to convert the Irish. We can also be sure that it wasn’t until the 6th century with the work of individuals such as St. Colum-Cille (who was responsible for founding many of the great monastic houses such as Iona, Kells, Durrow and Derry) that Christianity began to consolidate its position in Irish society.

It was only when the church of Armagh (which had been founded by Patrick) began to claim primacy of all the Irish churches, that claims of Patrick converting all of Ireland began to circulate.

Although Patrick may not have been responsible for all that was attributed to him, he still endured much in pursuit of what he saw as a divinely inspired mission to spread Christianity to the farthest edges of the known world. As such, he is certainly deserving of the title, The Apostle of Ireland.

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