Irish History Live

Saint Patrick

Patrick (Patricius, Patraic, Padraig) (c.420-490) patron saint of Ireland was born in fifth-century Roman Britain, Son of Calpornius a deacon and grandson of Potitus, a priest.[1] The place from which Patrick heralds is disputed. Patrick himself names it as Bannavem Taburniae[2] but this is hardly enlightening to modern scholars, and is likely to have meant just as little to Patrick’s contemporaries.

How do we know about Patrick?

Most of what we can reliably know about Patrick comes from his own writings, the Confessio and the Epistola ad Coroticum. These texts survive in the ninth-century Book of Armagh and are the only surviving texts from fifth-century Ireland. Patrick, however, is not known wholly through his own writings. The work of hagiographical authors, that is the authors of saints’ ‘lives’ (in Patrick’s case Muirchú and Tírechán), have imposed other elements into the common understanding of the life of St. Patrick. Scholars on the whole concur that additions to Patrick’s life that occur solely in hagiographical works have often been made with propagandist motives in mind, or in order to shape Patrick’s life story into a contemporary hagiographical model befitting the ninth century.

Patrick’s escape

Patrick’s own account of his arrival to Ireland is documented in the Confessio, which he is believed to have written late in life. Patrick tells us that he was kidnapped at the age of sixteen and taken into captivity in Ireland. During this time, Patrick worked as a herdsman.[3] His Confessio tells us that it was during the time that he spent ‘looking after flocks’ that his love and fear of God grew.[4] He recollects that he prayed up to one hundred times a day and almost as many times during the night.[5] One night Patrick heard a voice that encouraged him to flee from his master and return on a ship, which was being readied, to his homeland. Patrick reckoned this ship to be 200 roman miles away, which he nonetheless travelled ‘in the power of God’ who directed his path.[6] Patrick found the ship and thus returned to his homeland, an arduous journey that took a ‘few years’.[7] Patrick was welcomed home by his family who implored him never to leave again but a vision in the night in which Patrick ‘heard the voice of the Irish’ begging the ‘Holy boy’ to return to Ireland and ‘walk amongst them again’[8] , prompted Patrick to prepare to return to Ireland on a mission of conversion. Patrick, however, did not return to Ireland for several years. Scholars have suggested that he spent the years between his escape from slavery in Ireland and his eventual return to the country gaining ecclesiastical training, securing his ordination and the blessing of the church for his intended mission. It has also been suggested that Patrick spent some time in ascetic community in Britain or Gaul, although Thompson asserts that this was unlikely.[9] Patrick does not explicitly refer to this period of his life in his Confessio but there are a number of clues which make this a plausible theory. Patrick was not, it must be noted the most obvious candidate for a bishopric. In fact he lacked the necessary education for the post, even by contemporary standards. Yet it was not this but the mission itself which concerned Patrick’s contemporaries. Patrick was not the first to have attempted a mission to Ireland. In fact in 431AD Pope Celestine had sent Palladius to Ireland. Palladius was sent to the Christian community in Ireland whereas Patrick’s intention was the conversion of the heathen inhabitants of Ireland, an undertaking that no Catholic bishop had previously attempted. Historian Clare Stancliffe purports that a mission for the purpose of conversion of pagan peoples outside the Roman Empire was an alien concept to late Roman Christians.[10]

Patrick’s return

At the time of Patrick’s return to Ireland, the country was divided into a number of petty kingdoms, each governed by a king. This meant that Patrick’s mission to travel extensively throughout Ireland was rife with danger. He had to pay judges and gave gifts to kings in order to travel the country safely. Patrick also hired a guard of princes for his own protection, although these measures did not guarantee his safety. It is likely that Patrick’s Irish mission was funded by the Christian community in Britain, although not by the British church officially. Patrick also almost certainly sold his family estates in Britain in order to finance his mission. Patrick’s Confessio acknowledges that he had much success in his mission. By his own estimation, he converted ‘thousands’, including the sons and daughters of Irish chieftains who became monks and nuns. However, Patrick’s mission was not entirely easy and he met with much hostility. Patrick feared both enslavement and imprisonment.[11]

Patrick’s legacy

In the seventh century, Patrick was central to the primatial claim of the see of Armagh. Armagh’s primatial claim was based primarily on the argument that the bishops of the see were direct linear successors of the see that Patrick had established. The hagiographical work of Muirchú, which appears alongside Patrick’s own writing in the Book of Armagh (807 A.D), is heavily supportive of Armagh’s claim. Patrick’s reputation as Apostle of Ireland meant that he has gained worldwide notoriety and is arguably among the best known saints. He is the patron saint of Ireland and his feast day on 17 March, a national day of celebration in Ireland, is celebrated worldwide.

References

[1]Confessio § 1, (142/3). Extracts from Patrick’s Confessio are taken from Thomas O’Loughlin’s translation in Discovering Saint Patrick (London, 2005) and are given in (page/line number).

[2] Confessio §1, (142/5)

[3] Confessio § 1, (142/6).

[4] Confessio §16, (149/12).

[5] Confessio §16, (149/15).

[6] Confessio §17, (150/4).

[7]Confessio §23, (153/7).

[8] Confessio §23, (153/18).

[9] E. A. Thompson, Who was Saint Patrick? (Suffolk, 1985), p.3.

[10] C. Stancliffe, Patrick [St Patrick, Pádraig] (fl. 5th cent.), patron saint of Ireland in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

[11] Thompson, Who was Saint Patrick?, p.88.

Bibliography:

Dunville, et al., Saint Patrick A.D. 493-1993 (Suffolk, 1993).

O’ Loughlin, T., Discovering Saint Patrick (London, 2005).

O’ Loughlin, T., Saint Patrick: the man and his works (London, 1999).

Stancliffe, C., 'Patrick [St Patrick, Pádraig] (fl. 5th cent.), patron saint of Ireland' in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, available at: http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/21562?docPos=10 (15 Dec. 2011).

Thompson, E. A., Who was Saint Patrick? (Suffolk, 1985).

 

This article was written by Jael Craig. Jael graduated from Queen's University Belfast in 2011 with a joint honours degree in Modern History and Politics. A history module that Jael took explored St. Patrick and Ireland's early history, and allowed her to discover an era outside of her usual comfort zone. This opportunity allowed her to build a strong foundation for further study and inspired what she forsees to be a lifelong interest.

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