Who was Saint Patrick ?


And did he even exist?

It’s Saint Patrick’s Day today – I know because I really am half-Irish.  Not a fake ancestor or tenuous link to the Emerald Isle. No, my Pa is 100% Irish and no arguing. From an early age, I had a vague idea who St Patrick was and his main claim to fame – expelling all the snakes from Ireland!

But as with so many saints’ stories – one does begin to wonder, just how much is true and how much is good old fashioned Irish baloney. Most accounts of the years between which he lived would have him dying not far short of 100 years old – an extraordinary and dubious achievement for those times. Let’s take as a starting point that he was born in the late fourth century AD.

According to the Catholic Encyclopedia – he was born in what is now Scotland a place now called Kilpatrick, near Dumbarton somewhere around 397AD – but this date is not universally accepted.

This was a stormy time for the Roman Empire with Theodosius being the last man to rule a united empire – after him, it was divided permanently between east and west. Britain was a troubled province – likened by one historian to the Afghanistan of the empire but I think that’s pushing an analogy way too far. Parts of Britain were very prosperous and relatively well run. But the island was under increasing attack on the eastern side from Saxons and other ‘barbarians’. It also had a rather mutinous Roman administration unhappy with weak central control and prone to elevating their own emperor to rule over Britain and sometimes even Gaul and Hispania.

Patrick’s father was a man called Calpurnius – a native Briton and a deacon in the church. By now, Christianity had not only been tolerated by Rome but under Theodosius, the state began to be used more aggressively to bring pagans – who may still have numbered over half the empire’s population – in to the fold. His mother was a woman called Concess – a Frank and apparently related to St Martin of Tours (a ‘fact’ I’m heavily sceptical about).

The Wikipedia entry on St Patrick boldly declares that he was kidnapped as a teenager from Wales and taken to Ireland to be sold as a slave. Wales was part of the Roman empire while Ireland was not. This Wiki claim is flatly contradicted by other accounts that say he was grabbed off the coast of Brittany.  Whoever is right, the Venerable Bede, writing hundreds of years later, claimed this happened at a time when Britain was denuded of Roman troops – the legions had been ordered away to defend the emperor from internal and external enemies.  Those troops would never return to Britain which would effectively slip gradually out of imperial control forever.

Patrick was a model slave in Ireland – doing all his work and chores. This is interesting because it shows that the early church never advocated the end of slavery, as is sometimes erroneously believed. On the contrary, a slave in the new Christianized Roman empire should still know his or her place and be meek in the face of all authority – spiritual or temporal.

Here is one account of what happened next:

St. Patrick’s escape from slavery was accomplished with miracles. He was visited in a dream by an angel in the form of a bird, Victor, the conqueror, who arranged a miraculous escape. Patrick said that he needed his master’s permission to go home, but his master required a ransom of gold as large as his head. The angel told Patrick to follow a boar. The boar’s rooting turned up the gold which was to ransom him. The angel took him to the seacoast sixty miles in one day to meet a ship, but instead the lord of the port sold Patrick to others. Then the fee, a set of brazen cauldrons, tormented the betrayer and his family. When they were admiring the cauldrons, their hands stuck to the metal. The lord of the port repented, was forgiven by Patrick. He converted to the will of God, ransomed Patrick from the slavers, and sent Patrick home. He was baptized by Patrick later, when St. Patrick returned. St. Patrick had been a slave six years.

Patrick was now tutored for the priesthood by Saint Germanus – or St Germain if you prefer.  He soon discovered that Christianity was in a rather volatile state. The Romans had legalised the faith but this had revealed a whole host of divisions and enmities between rival groups in the church. And frankly, there was a lot of money at stake. Whoever convinced the emperor that their version of Christianity was the right one would receive considerable imperial largesse – that had once flowed to the pagan temples. So Patrick was soon enlisted to not only convert pagans – but also fight the heresies of Pelagius and Nestorius.  The former stressed the heretical idea that you and I could find our own way to grace – oh no you can’t said the church – while Nestorius preached a brand of Christianity that spread through the east as far as China.

Pope Celestine I then allegedly decided to send Patrick to Ireland. Another cleric, Palladius, had scarpered from the place when confronted by the fierce tribes (though some people think Palladius and Patrick were in fact the same person – confusing, eh?).  Patrick arrived and we get a familiar representation of Celtic pagans as mad, bloodthirsty druids – the Roman pagan Julius Caesar resorted to pretty similar stereotyping to justify his invasion of Britain four hundred years earlier.  But the druids were no match for the miracle performing Patrick.

Miracles were a key part of converting simple folk throughout the empire and in this case, just outside it. It really was a case of my god is better than yours. Patrick then had to confront his former slave master who, hearing that he was coming, heaped all his belongings in to his big house, set it on fire and threw himself on the pyre.

Fire played a part in Saint Patrick’s eventual victory against the druids and conversion of the Irish kings. The druids lit their Easter fires but Patrick went and lit his Paschal fire – needless to say the druids were incensed. Attempts to ambush Patrick and his fellow priests failed when they were disguised by God to look like passing deer (I’m not making this up!) and they got to see the king of the Irish. Then, the most almighty battle of magic took place between Patrick and the druids.

On Easter Day the missionary band having at their head the youth Benignus bearing aloft a copy of the Gospels, and followed by St. Patrick who with mitre and crozier was arrayed in full episcopal attire, proceeded in processional order to Tara. The druids and magicians put forth all their strength and employed all their incantations to maintain their sway over the Irish race, but the prayer and faith of Patrick achieved a glorious triumph. The druids by their incantations overspread the hill and surrounding plain with a cloud of worse than Egyptian darkness. Patrick defied them to remove that cloud, and when all their efforts were made in vain, at his prayer the sun sent forth its rays and the brightest sunshine lit up the scene. Again by demoniac power the Arch-Druid Lochru, like Simon Magus of old, was lifted up high in the air, but when Patrick knelt in prayer the druid from his flight was dashed to pieces upon a rock.

What I find interesting about this account is that the druids appear to have had similar – just not equal powers of Patrick. Something to ponder over!  So with Ireland converted, Patrick had fulfilled his mission. After his death, many places claimed to have his body – including Glastonbury abbey in England.  Useless concluding ‘fact’ about Patrick was that he apparently used to recite one hundred psalms a night – which must have made him the worst person in Christendom to share a place of sleep with.

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6 thoughts on “Who was Saint Patrick ?

  1. Thanks for the explanation! Was wondering about St Patrick’s Day yesterday (yes, here in Lebanon they all wear green too!) and haven’t found the time yet to look for it on wikipedia 😉

    1. I’m better than Wikipedia! Kidding – but people can’t agree where he was born, lived or died. Thanks for visiting the blog and hope the post helped. All suggestions for topics gratefully received.

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