Knowing St. Patrick

For the vast majority of us, March 17 — St. Patrick’s Day — represents a day of revelry. Every year those of Irish heritage gather together to celebrate their ethnicity using St. Patrick, Ireland’s patron saint, as a common symbol.

Cities such as San Antonio and Chicago dye their rivers green while countless saloons, bars and taverns serve hundreds of thousands of their patrons green beer, corned beef and cabbage. Together they sing Irish ballads like “Danny Boy,” and Gaelic folk-dance groups dance the Irish jig. Just about every major American city holds an annual St. Patrick’s Day parade — an event invented in New York City in 1762. At the time, New York was still a colony of England, as was Ireland. Today the New York parade is the world’s oldest civilian parade and the largest in the United States with over 150,000–250,000 participants.

But really, who was St. Patrick?

He was born in A.D. 390 in a village on the west coast of Roman Britain into an upper class family of Roman heritage. They were aristocrats who owned a substantial villa (farm) and a townhouse in the nearby village. At the time, Rome militarily and civilly controlled most of Britain.

Patrick’s grandfather had been a Catholic priest at a time when the Church’s discipline of celibacy had not yet been fully adopted. His father was a deacon in the Church. Both grandfather and father, in addition to their religious roles, were also local government officials in the Roman hierarchy. We know this because Patrick told us so in two letters he wrote shortly before his death in 461 at age 71. They are the “earliest surviving documents written in Ireland” revealing the life story of a devout missionary cleric, according to Philip Freeman in his book, St. Patrick of Ireland, a Biography.

In studying Patrick’s writings it is noteworthy that he was in his late 60s or early 70s when he wrote his letters. Patrick was likely one of the oldest clerics in Europe at the time. Life expectancy in Patrick’s time was 45 years. Becoming a priest in the fifth century required extensive study and service in various lay positions before ordination. “The minimum age for ordination as a priest was 30.” “Advancement to the final rank of bishop was long and slow, usually at a minimum age of 50” (Freeman, St. Patrick of Ireland, 64).

Patrick’s Two Letters

The two letters were his Denunciation of Coroticus and his Confession. The two are intertwined, and in them St. Patrick tells us the story of his life.

The Denunciation letter condemned the actions of a British tribal king named Coroticus whose kingdom was near present day Glasgow, Scotland. His soldiers had plundered an Irish village, killed a number of its inhabitants and taken others to sell into slavery.

It so happened that the village (somewhere on the shores of Lough Neagh in Northern Ireland) had just witnessed the baptism of several of its inhabitants by St. Patrick or his clergy. Patrick condemned Coroticus’ soldiers as “the worst barbarians” whose hands “drip with the blood of innocent Christians.” He grieves that many of his “newly baptized converts, still in their white robes, the sweet smell of anointing oil still on their foreheads” had been murdered by the soldiers.

The letter goes on to assert that Patrick had asked the soldiers to “return the surviving captives and plunder.” They mockingly laughed at his request. He accused them of living “like the worst barbarians” and their tyrant king of being “a man who has no respect for God or his priests.” Patrick alleged that he and his fellow clergy “were selected by God and given a great, divine, and awesome power — to make judgments here on earth that have the authority of God himself” (Freeman, 169-175).

Coroticus and his soldiers were Catholics. The letter was addressed to the general Christian community, which Coroticus governed. Patrick asserts Coroticus “is a betrayer of Christians” whose soldiers “slay and sell them to foreign nations that know not God.” He begged Coroticus’s followers to excommunicate the king (J.B. Bury, The Life of St. Patrick and His Place in History [New York: Book of the Month Club, 1905] 194).

In the fifth century, excluding a man from public worship through excommunication was considered “the worst punishment imaginable. Those excommunicated were godless criminals; all men must avoid and eschew any talk with them, less the infection be passed on” (Gerhard Herm, The Celts [New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1975] 149).

His Confession

Patrick’s second letter, his Confession, is the tale of his life. Why he wrote it is unknown but, coupled with the Letter to Coroticus, it appears to be a legal brief to his British bishop superiors who were seeking to recall him from Ireland. Patrick’s attack on the Christian king Coroticus likely brought down the wrath of his superiors in Britain. Church protocol of the time prohibited one bishop’s interfering in the matters of another bishop’s diocese. “The British Christians did not recognize the Irish Christians as full-fledged Christians or as human beings — because they were not Roman” (Thomas Cahill, How the Irish Saved Civilization [New York: Doubleday, 1995] 112). Ireland had never been conquered by Rome, and Roman Europe considered the Irish barbaric, uneducated savages.

In his Confession, Patrick reveals that he is a mystic who has communicated throughout his life with God who speaks to him through visions he has in his dreams. He believes his own life is his miracle. He asserts, “I wasn’t worthy, nor was I really the sort of person for God to choose as his servant.”

Six Years a Sheepherder

At age 15 he was kidnapped by Irish pirates who sold him into slavery in Ireland. For six years he was a sheepherder near present day Ballymena in County Antrim (Edmund Curtis, A History of Ireland [London: Methuen & Company, Ltd., 1936] 9). It was during this period of his life that his religious fervor grew. He claims he said hundreds of prayers each day and night — so much so that he became mockingly known as the “holy boy.”

At age 22 he had a vision, which directed him to flee his master and walk 180 miles to a port on the east coast of Ireland where he gained passage as a deckhand on a ship. “Even though Patrick scarcely realized it at the time, all his experiences as a slave on an Irish farm were training for his future career” (Freeman, 28) He learned the Irish language and customs and especially about their pagan gods.

Patrick returned home to a loving family. While there he had another vision in which he saw Irish peasants calling to him: “We beg you, holy boy, come here and walk among us!”

Patrick left his home and, for the next decade or so, studied for the priesthood. He doesn’t describe this period of his life in any detail other than that he traveled around Europe as part of his religious training.

When or how he returned to Ireland is vague but most historians generally agree it was around 432 when he would have been 42. He does tell us that after his return he traveled throughout Ireland preaching the Catholic creed to the local population. In order to do this he made “payments to the local kings” and their sons. There were an estimated 150 kings in Ireland at the time and these gratuities enabled him to build churches and preach the Gospel to the various kings’ subjects.

Despite these bribes, he was from time to time seized and threatened with death. It was in “this piecemeal fashion, moving from king to king, he slowly but surely spread his ministry to dozens of tribes through the north of Ireland” (Ibid., 92).

It is worth noting, too, that Ireland at the time was considered a hinterland at the ends of the earth — a last frontier. North and South America, Australia and large parts of Asia were essentially unknown in the fifth century. “Ireland was the last stop in the inhabited world for anyone heading north” (Ibid., 122).

‘God Chose Foolish Little Me’

When he went back to Ireland, he did so with the greatest humility, telling us in his Confession, “God chose foolish little me. . .He picked ignorant Patrick. . .to go forth with fear and reverence. . .to serve the Irish faithfully.”

Patrick seems to have been particularly fond of Irish women whom he convinced to dedicate themselves to a life of poverty, chastity and obedience to God — an early form of cloistered orders. He wrote that the number of women choosing “this new life continues to grow so that I can’t keep track of them all.”

As noted, his Confession was written as a defense against accusations which had been made against him. His first obstacle was to address a charge that he had sinned as a teenager. He never tells us what the sin was but acknowledges a betrayal by a childhood friend who revealed the matter to those who sought his removal. This was followed by the more serious accusations of greed and corruption.

Patrick asserts that he “lived in honesty and truth” and denies that he ever “cheated” any Irish convert. He acknowledges that some wealthy converts offered him “small gifts and placed their jewelry on the altar as an offering,” but asserted that he always returned those offerings. According to one scholar, Patrick’s accusing British bishops “were shocked because they saw these donations as legitimate offerings to the Church to fund its expenses.” They believed Patrick should have accepted the gifts and sent a portion on to the British Church. Patrick explains that he returned the offerings to avoid criticism by vigilant pagan priests who challenged and criticized his Catholic teachings (Ibid., 146-147).

His payments to Irish kings for permission to preach in their kingdoms were also questioned by the British bishops. Patrick boldly defended these gratuities, claiming he had “paid out enough to buy fifteen slaves.” Still he wasn’t “sorry that I paid out bribes — in fact, I’m not finished yet,” asserting he had every intention of spending “even more.”

Patrick ends his Confession by pleading with his British bishop superiors that he “might be allowed to die in Ireland with his converts and the slaves” to whom he ministered. It was “a heartfelt appeal of an old man that he be allowed to finish his task and live out what remains of his life among his beloved Irish” (Ibid., 149).

Over the centuries a number of legends have grown about St. Patrick, e.g., he drove the snakes from Ireland and used a three-leaf clover to teach about the Holy Trinity. These popular legends have endeared the saintly man to the Irish. The monks who wrote such dramatized stories about St. Patrick “were guided by their knowledge of what popular taste demanded.” Those monks have been likened to novelists who “provided literary recreation for the public” (Bury, 205).

Despite these literary inventions, St. Patrick was nevertheless a saintly man who followed a belief that God chose him to convert a nation. His writings demonstrate that he was a strong, energetic and confident man. They also reveal that he was full of self-doubt; too, he was a man of compassion and humility. His life was indeed what he perceived it to be — a miracle.

MR. DEMERS is a semi-retired businessman from Guerneville, California, whose hobby is researching and writing about 19th- and 20th-century historical events and personalities.

St. Patrick's Breast-Plate
The beautiful prayer of St. Patrick, popularly known as “St. Patrick’s Breast-Plate,” is supposed to have been composed by him in A.D. 433 for divine protection before successfully converting the Irish King Leoghaire and his subjects from paganism to Catholicism. The following is a literal translation from the old Irish text: