On March 17 each year, the Irish and would-be Irish around the world celebrate the figure of St. Patrick.
Remarkably few, however, choose to explore beyond the caricature of a bearded, shamrock-bedecked prelate, bearing a crosier that spells disaster for any snakes that care to cross his path and whose latter-day disciples have a propensity for dyeing rivers green in his honor.
This is a pity — because both of those traditions associated with Patrick occur quite late: The legend that he banished snakes from Ireland is first encountered in the 12th century, and it will be the late 17th century before St. Patrick will appear with his most iconic symbol, the three-leafed shamrock. As well, the fifth-century Patrick is a far more interesting figure and, indeed, speaks much more clearly to some of the most-pressing concerns of our modern world.
In order to meet this historical Patrick, we need to hear him in his own words. And it’s an extraordinary thought that this is even possible, for we possess two surviving documents that were composed by Patrick himself in the fifth century: the so-called “Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus” and his more famous Confession.
In fact, the tale that Patrick relates in these documents is simply unique in the historical record, and, thus, Patrick is of huge interest to historians of the late Roman period quite apart from his religious significance. Indeed, he is the only individual that we know of who was a citizen of the Roman Empire (he was from Roman Britain) and was taken into captivity in one of the lands of the barbarians (Ireland was never part of the Roman Empire) and actually lived to tell the tale of his experiences.
So, how can this historical Patrick speak to us who live nearly 1,600 years later?
Patrick relates how he was raised in a relatively affluent family: His father was a member of local government (and a deacon), and his grandfather had been a priest. And yet, despite these deep Christian family connections, Patrick professes not to have known God around the time of his capture by Irish pirates, when he was 16 years of age.
Although nominally Christian, he indicates that he had no living relationship with Christ. It was only when, having been brought as a slave to Ireland and serving for six years, largely in solitude, minding flocks on an Irish hillside, that he first learnt to pray.
This did not lead him to accept his lot, however; indeed, he escaped when the opportunity arose and returned to his family in Britain, who, understandably, having feared the worst, begged him to remain close by them.
And yet, while aware of their anxieties, Patrick discerned another calling: The voice of the people who had first enslaved him invited him to walk among them once more; this time, though, he would consciously and freely enter a different form of “slavery” — the self-imposed exile of Christian mission. He notes: “Now, in Christ, I am a slave of a foreign people, for the sake of the indescribable glory of eternal life, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Patrick was not responsible for bringing Christianity to Ireland — there was a small community of Christians living in Ireland before his arrival — but he was a key figure in its development. And this was no easy mission.
Patrick relates how he was well aware of the dangers he and his new converts faced. His “Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus” is a response to a raid on his community by a British warlord and his thugs, who put some of his new converts to the sword and took others captive, to be sold as slaves among the pagan Picts of modern-day Scotland.
Patrick notes, poignantly, that the “perfume of chrism” was still on their foreheads when this raid occurred. What was most troubling, though, was the fact that the raiding party themselves were, at least nominally, Christian, and they were selling their fellow Christians to a pagan land.
He uses the language of St. Paul when he rails against these “ravenous wolves,” accusing them of “handing over the members of Christ’s body, as it were, into a brothel.” Less dramatically, Patrick also references the opposition that he encountered from the non-Christian families of newly baptized converts, and especially the resentment of the fathers of women who chose to become “virgins of Christ.”
In one place, he marvels at the fortitude of these converts: “These women suffer persecution and false accusations from their parents, and yet their number grows!”
Opposition also came from unexpected quarters. Patrick’s Confession is, in part, a defense of his own ministry against what appear to be ecclesiastical superiors in Britain who have accused him of embarking on the Irish mission for personal financial gain. He also mentions a certain sin, which he committed in his youth and which he had confessed to a friend (and repented of), but which came back to haunt him decades later, when the same friend betrayed his confidence and his past was now being used against him.
But Patrick never denied his own human frailty, and he began his most famous work with the words Ego Patricius, peccator (“I, Patrick, a sinner”). Deeply human, while in Ireland, he confesses to missing his family terribly and longs to see them; but he is aware, nonetheless, of his call to mission.
Patrick had an intimate knowledge of Scripture, and biblical verses are to be found interwoven throughout what he writes. Like St. Paul before him, he believed he was living in the last days and interpreted passages such as “Those who were not my people I will call my people” (Romans 9:25 quoting Hosea 2), as referring to the newly converted Irish.
As we remember the figure of St. Patrick this year, we could do worse than afford this flesh-and-blood saint from the fifth century the courtesy of listening to his story, told in his own words.
Salvador Ryan is professor of ecclesiastical history
at St. Patrick’s College, Maynooth, Ireland.
He has recently edited Death and the Irish: A Miscellany
(Dublin: Wordwell Books, 2016).
For more information on St. Patrick and to
access the documents discussed above, log on to Confessio.ie.
Editor's Note: This was originally posted March 17, 2017.