Ireland's Avatar: Saint Patrick



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Ireland's Avatar: Saint Patrick

Irish king Loegaire, from the province of Meath, lived atop a majestic hill in Tara. He’d heard bad news. Loegaire was one of the High Kings from one of the mightiest of Irish dynasties, the Ui Neill, or as they were later known, O’Neill. Still secure in his position, the news of a man passing from kingdom to kingdom (Ireland was a patchwork of petty kingdoms, kings and warlords), spreading tales of a false new religion concerned him. He summoned the Druids: the most powerful religious, legal and spiritual leaders in Celtic Ireland, for advice. The druids were instructed to perform a ritual known as the ‘Imbas forosna’ – “the knowledge that enlightens” – to determine whether this stranger posed any threat to Tara and the supremacy of the O’Neills. What the druids told Loegaire did not please him. This stranger, the ritual revealed, would bring a “foreign way of life” to Ireland.

Though this is a conversation between the druid and Loegaire, which was invented 100’s of years later, the meaning is clear enough. The stranger the druid predicted would change the old ways was a Briton named Patrick.

Patrick’s’ missionary work among the Irish, which probably took place in the middle of the 5th century, would indeed change everything. Much of the Celtic character of Ireland would endure, as Patrick cleverly combined local religious practices and traditions with his Christian teachings.

Those who did not fare well under this new beliefs brought by Patrick, were the druids themselves. Chased out of Britain by the Romans after Boudicca’s revolt in the first century, Ireland was the last bastion of druidic influence. They were a complex combination of many things: priest, prophet, astrologers believed to possess mystical abilities and they were highly favoured by kings. They were even thought to know spells, which were greatly feared by enemies. Such was the power, real or imagined, of the druid that they were second only to the highest of kings and until the arrival of Patrick, they served every Irish High King. But before we view the druids only as mystics (a tempting idea often encouraged even today), it is vital to understand they were equally known for their abilities as educators, judges, lawyers, herbal healers, and keepers of the calendar. They had been of indispensable value to Celtic kingdoms for centuries.

Although vestiges of Irish paganism would survive the coming of Christianity, the impact of Patrick and his teachings would change the country profoundly. His mission lasted only 30 years, but within decades of Patrick’s death, Ireland was firmly Christian in character. Many of its kings came to embrace the new religion, and it’s druids – vilified by Christian clergy and discriminated against by Irish law – faced decline and eventual eclipse.

Patrick left behind two accounts in his own words that give us some idea of the man and his work. One was his own biography, “Confession” and the other was “Letter to Coroticus”, which describe his experiences.

“I, Patrick, a sinner, quite uncultivated and the least of all the faithful and utterly despicable to many.” These are the first words of Patrick’s autobiography “Confession”, written in his old age, at a time when the fruit of his labours must have been evident to him; it was also a time when he faced grave accusations of wrongdoing from elements within his own church. His words clearly convey one of Patrick’s abiding characteristics – humility. The missionary always felt himself unworthy of any personal laurels for his accomplishments in Ireland, believing he was only doing God’s work and making amends for his own misspent adolescence.

Born in Britain, which at the time was a province of the Roman Empire, he was named Patricius Magonus Sucatus. His grandfather had been a priest (at a time when celibacy was not a requirement much less a vow) and his father (Calpurnius) a deacon, a member of the town council, and a modestly well off landowner. In Patrick’s’ biography “Confessions”, he admits he did not take the teaching of the church to heart when he was young. Instead, he took to the teachings of the Roman Empire. Like most Britons (it is believed by some scholars that his family was from Wales), looked to the Legions of Rome for protection from foreign invaders.

When Patrick was 16 years old, working at his father’s estate, he was seized by Irish raiders who frequented the shores of Britain in search of slaves. These same raiders may have been the forefathers of the later Scoti. He was carried across the sea to Ireland and sold to a chieftain named Milchu. For the next 6-7 years he toiled as a Shepard, probably tending his masters flocks on wind-swept hills near the Atlantic ocean, or as Patrick knew it, the “Western Sea”.

According to “Confession”, after six long years of hardship a voice spoke to him in a dream, telling him it was time to go home. Without hesitation, Patrick slipped away from the docks and set out on a dangerous trip to Ireland’s east coast.

Finally arriving on the east coast of Ireland, he was turned away by the crew of the ship; by people, he later called pagans. Dejected, Patrick appealed to God for guidance. But before he even finished his prayer, the crews called him back. For whatever reason the crew seems to have had a change of heart, which Patrick naturally puts down to divine intervention. The young fugitive clamored on board and set sail. Whatever Patrick’s motivations to run away, one suspects that six years of hard slave labour would convince any pious and humble man to seek a better life. The trip was eventful, for soon, they’d run out of food and Patrick describes how he prayed for nourishment in return for his shipmate’s salvation. Soon they were feasting on pigs and lamb ostensibly provided by God, and afterward the crew treated him with newfound respect.

Soon, however, the flow of his life and what happens next is confused and complex and, in fact, much of it is passed over and disregarded. It isn’t until several years later that we read next of Patrick. He is apparently returned home with his kinfolk (probably in Wales) and they welcomed him back as a son. We do not know where he spent those intervening years and he gives no hint of it in his biography. After spending some time with his family, who begged him not to leave, he had another dream. In this dream a man hands him a sheaf of letters and one of them, the only one he could make out, read the words, “The voice of the Irish.” At that moment, Patrick said he knew what he had to do. He had to save the people in the land of his captivity – his enslavers.

Patrick set about becoming a priest so that he could return to Ireland and preach the gospel to those that had held him in bondage. Although Patrick was a dedicated student, he himself admits he was never a man of letters. And indeed his writing (in Latin and archaic Latin) provides ample proof that his command of the language remained rough-hewn throughout his life. It is thought by some that he studied under St. Germanus at Aux Eerre, France and that his mission to Ireland was approved due to the early death of St. Palladius, who’d been sent as a bishop to the Irish in 431. Consequently, 432 is the traditional date given for Patrick’s voyage to Ireland.

Somewhere in the middle of the 5th century, Patrick returned to Ireland and found there were already small pockets of practicing Christians on the southeast of the Island because of the regions frequent contact with Britain. Patrick is often credited with being the first person to bring the religion to Ireland, but it was there when he arrived. However, it was isolated and needed a charismatic leader, which Patrick became. What Patrick saw when he arrived was that the majority of the Irish people were still strongly committed to the Celtic gods of old.

Cleverly, Patrick set about converting the local nobility before the peasants, confident that once the nobles and kings embraced Christianity their subjects would soon follow. It was a sound strategy. St. Columba would later employ this pattern on the Picts and Scots. In this way, Patrick was able to train the offspring of the young nobles and establish an indigenous clergy to spread the word farther.

Bravely, Patrick also ventured into parts of Ireland that other missionaries did not dare to go. He recounts more than once sitting in the countryside, unwelcome bands on all sides, praying for guidance and getting some manner of help or trust just in the nick of time. Not all kings were receptive to Patrick at this time, and he did face his share of dangers including the druids who were understandably hostile. In time, Patrick’s ministry among the Irish was a success and in recognition of this, the church made him Bishop of Ireland.

But it was in the midst of this phenomenal success that Patrick became entangled in a malicious controversy. It would remain with him for the rest of his life. Some, possibly within the church itself, launched a smear campaign against Patrick and rumours concerning misappropriation of funds began to make the round in British ecclesiastical circles. It got worse. His detractors even dragged up an incident from Patrick’s distant past – a sin that he had committed as a 15 year old, even before he was taken as a slave. Although this sin was never defined or explained by Patrick in his biography, it must have been something for which he was deeply ashamed.

Regrettably, shortly after this the historical record of Patrick stops. Whether this was intentionally done by those who intended to malign him, or whether this was due to a tragic lack of written history, is unclear. There are no surviving accounts of the final outcome of the charges leveled against Patrick or of whether, as tradition has it, he stayed on Ireland for the remainder of his days and never saw his home in Britain again.

The story of Patrick’s death was not recorded until more than 100 years after the fact, at a time when he’d already achieved great prominence in his adopted homeland. It seems to this writer that his critics must have done a good job of removing his name from the pages of history – for a time. Consequently, the accounts of his last days are filled with miraculous imagery reminiscent of the Old Testament, including heavenly visitations and even a burning bush! Also, credit has been given to Patrick for chasing all the snakes out of Ireland, and that he adopted the shamrock as a symbol of the Holy Trinity, despite obvious historical problems with the tales. Clearly, someone later tried to amend the wrongs of his exclusion from Irish history shortly after his death, but in so doing, created more of a myth of Patrick than a factual account. This has plagued Patrick even today, as the Church tends to look unfavorably on some of the more mythical aspects, dismissing his history as fictional. This strikes this writer as a curiosity, for if one studies a book of Catholic Saints, most of them have even more fantastical stories that his. If any story of a miracle can be believed by the Roman Catholic Church, then it seems logical that others might be just as well received, especially considering the historical rewrites and the ancient status of Patrick. However, in attempting to appeal to the more scientific minded, or perhaps better stated, historically valid versions, (something the Church is to be commended for), they’ve all but neglected the most important Saint in Irish history. Considering the mysterious disappearance of Patrick from written accounts, and given to understanding that some well-intentioned priest later on may have attempted to right the wrongs by some clever plot inventions, it seems forgivable to accept Patrick’s story even with the mythical tales. Others less deserved of sainthood have much more fantastic tales.

By the time of his death, written accounts then lacking, the details of St. Patrick’s burial have been forgotten, though legends persist that he is buried at Downpatrick. This leaves Ireland without the all important relics of its patron saint or the chance to erect an elaborate sepulcher to mark his final resting place. Tradition give the date of his death as 493 AD, but many say an earlier date of 461 is likely.

Perhaps the most fitting shrine to Patrick, given his self-effacing character, is simply the success of his life’s work. His successors would take Irish church in new directions. During the latter half of the first millennium, Christian clerics – not just in Ireland but throughout Europe – they increasingly turned inward, hoping to get close to God by shutting out the distractions and temptations of every day life. In the words of one Irish monk, dedication to God required, “stripping oneself of all desires and possessions which bind a man to the present world.”


©Skye-Net, R. Gunn, 1996/2009


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