The True Life of St Patrick

The whole world goes green. March 17 and everyone is Irish for the day. No other national patron in Christendom garners such global attention. Would the pious saint shudder in his grave at all the revelry? Or he would he revel in the annual limelight that shines on the little isle off Europe where he brought the light of God all those centuries ago? The world’s March party all started with St Patrick and a cult that has been created around this 5th century priest who brought Christianity to the heathen Irish.

Life of St Patrick

Most of what we know about Patrick comes from his own writings. No other written record of life in 5th century Ireland survived. His Confessio and Letters to the Soldiers of Coroticus were copied into the Book of Armagh four centuries later so there authenticity is in some doubt. The consistency of style and repetition of exact phrases mean both were likely written by the same man. If Patrick wrote them or not will probably never be proven. Written in a confusing vulgar, St Patrick’s writings say more about him than the time he lived in.

In his Confessio, he says he was born Maewyn Succat in Bannavem Taberniae, which is most likely near Carlisle near the Scottish border with England. Earlier theories that he was born in France, Wales or Cornwall in the Southwest of England seem to have been discounted. The exact date of his birth is unclear. He came from a wealthy family and his father Calpornius was a Decurion, which means he was a town councillor of upper class and a part of the Roman administration. So in his childhood he was not really short of money.

At 16 years of age, an atheist, he was taken as a slave to Ireland. Slavery was common and Irish pirates made frequent raids on Britain and mainland Europe. In Confessio, he mentions “the Wood of Vocult near the Western Sea” as being his place of captivity, which is now thought to be near Foghill in Killala Bay in County Mayo. After seven years in slavery he escaped and made his way across country, perhaps to Wexford. He couldn’t speak Irish, he calls himself uneducated, so he must have had a network of Christian contacts and safehouses, as the escape would have been very difficult otherwise. Someehow he secured passage in a boat across the sea. The boat may have gone to France, but after a brief time abroad he eventually returned to his British homeland. At some time later he dreamt the pagan Irish were calling him back to them: “We ask you, holy boy to come and walk among us.”

Patrick’s family references are to Britain, but his ecclesiastical references are to Gaul. After the dream he went to France for religious instruction and to study to be a priest. At the time, France was the great Christian centre of religious learning. French brotherhoods were sent to Britain to teach and sort out church problems.

Where he studied is still open to conjecture. The Monastery at Lerins off the coast of Cannes was the biggest school. The Briton Faustus was Abbott of the Lerins from 433 and St Patrick is thought to have visited there. Some historians feel he wasn’t clever enough for Lerins, as standards were very high. So he is more likely to have studied under St Martins at Tours or even St Germanus at Auxerre.

The French influence on early Christian Ireland is likely to have been more profound than just providing an education for St Patrick. There is evidence that St Patrick was not first to bring Christianity to Ireland. The first missionary may have been a French priest or monk. Palladius is a candidate and could well have been the first proselytising monk to land on Irish shores. According to Prosper of Aquitane chronicles (date to the 5th century) Palladius, a deacon at Auxerre), was sent to Ireland by Pope Celestine in 431 to be the “first bishop of the Irish believing in Christ”. Local Christians would have had to support him as bishop, so converts and Christian slaves may have been in Ireland as early as the 4th century.

Palladius’s mission to Ireland ended in ignominy and disaster and he has largely been forgotten. Other contemporary missionaries have also vanished into historic obscurity. In the annals, it is claimed Palladius returned to France one year after he arrived and died shortly after.

In his Confessio, St Patrick confirms his ties to France are obvious from his Confessio

“I came to the Irish heathens to preach the good news to put up with the insults of the unbelievers. How dearly would I love to go, like a man going to his homeland, and not only there but also to Gaul in order to visit the brothers.”

St Patrick’s return to Ireland

Patrick returned to the Emerald Isle when he was a bishop. He allegedly arrived in 432 sent by Pope Celestine, but it may have been as late as 460. As an ordained bishop he would have a catholic community to administer. Because of his close ties with the North and Armagh it has been suggested he became Bishop of Ulster.

He later adopted a missionary role to convert the heathens of the West where he was held captive as a slave and this may not have been popular with his superiors. When he was about 60, some senior British clergy accused him of some crime. Trumped up charges against him were fuelled by jealousy, intellectual superiority and the impression that he was not fit enough to bring Christianity to the heathens. He underwent some form of trial. One of his accusers was a close friend who had had recommended him as a bishop. The case was based on some minor misdemeanour he committed as a boy and prompted him to write his Confessio.

“The charge against me which they discovered, after 30 years, was a confession which I made before I became a deacon. In the anxiety of a troubled mind, I confided to my dearest friend what I had done in my boyhood days, because I had not yet overcome my sinful ways.”

He was accused of accepting bribes from Irish chieftains, but Patrick claimed he never received any money. He had some of his own funds as he had inherited money and also he sold his noble title for a not inconsequential sum.

Propagation of the Cult

There was a need for a central focus to Irish Christianity and Patrick was chosen. The Irish annals and the two 7th century biographers Tirechan and Muirchu did most to propagate the cult around the simple pious priest who became Apostle of Ireland. They based their accounts of his life on his Confessio and other contemporary writings that have long ago disappeared.

Some claim the motives of Patrick’s biographers were the cynical promotion of Armagh to the primacy of Ireland and the exaltation of Patrick as founding father of Irish Christianity was politically motivated. Armagh did become the focus of Irish Christianity since then and no doubt benefited from its association with the patron and some historic fudging. Although claims by Armagh to be his burial place have been supplanted by Saul near Downpatrick this remained within the realm of Armagh and fuelled pilgrimages to the area.

Patrick and Tara

Tara was the place of High Kings. Patrick needed the support of King Laoghaire and on March 25 he allegedly lit a fire on Slane Hill opposite Tara to provoke the king. It was Easter Sunday which clashed with the ancient Celt festival of Bealtaine. Laoghaire’s anger was quelled when he met the saint and he converted and granted him freedom to preach his message.

On The Reek

Croagh Patrick, Ireland’s Holy Mount, has been a sacred site for at least 5000 years and was associated with the Celtic god Lugh. St Patrick fasted for 40 days and 40 nights on the pinnacle of the Reek, as the mountain is also known, and slept on a bed of rocks. During his stay on the windswept summit black birds that turned into satanic serpents tormented him. Ancient chroniclers say he chucked his bell at them. On Reek Sunday at the end of July barefoot penitents climb the ancient mountain to this day.

St Patrick’s Purgatory

Patrick also spent 40 nights fasting on Station Island in Lough Derg in County Donegal frustrated by the pagan Irish and their refusal to be won over by the proselytising priest. Here he had a vision of hell and since then it has become a place of significant pilgrimage particularly between June and the middle of August.

The Greatest Myth

No greater myth has created the persona of Patrick the superhero than the banishment of snakes. It sets Ireland up as an idealistic Eden. Patrick drove all reptiles out of Ireland not just snakes but frogs as well.

Geographical events and not our omnipresent patron are more likely to have kept the reptiles off the Emerald Isle. Indeed Solinus remarked in the 3th century 200 years before St Patrick had even set foot on the island.

“In that land there are no snakes, birds are few and the people are inhospitable and warlike.”

It was not until the late 17th century that frogs were introduced and legend has it that it was down to a mythical Dr Gurruthers, an English fellow at TCD, who has been labelled the “frog introducer to Ireland”.  It is most likely they came over by ship.

The myth of Ireland’s soil being poisonous to snakes spread to England according to Bede writing in the 8th century.

“We have seen the scrapings of the pages of the books from Ireland soaked in water which was given to people bitten by snakes. Immediately all the spreading poison was removed and the swelling was assuaged.”

Perhaps this is the true reason why a website selling lumps of Irish turf is proving particularly lucrative.


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