by Pat Liddy
St. Patrick, whose Feast Day on the 17th March has become in modern times an almost international event, is the Patron Saint of Ireland. Less well known is the fact that he shares this honour with two other Irish holy people of the early Christian period (5th/6th centuries); the missionary St. Columba (also called Colmcille) and the abbess Brigid (known as Bride in England). Along with these three, there are at least 300 other saints in the Irish religious calendar but, of all of them, only five have been formally canonised. Surprisingly this official ‘approval’ does not apply to the three luminaries mentioned above. In fact, the first officially canonised Irish saint was St. Malachy, Archbishop of Armagh, who was only elevated to that status in 1199.
St. Patrick’s origins are very obscure. He was born in Roman Britain but exactly where cannot be ascertained. In his own writings he called his birthplace Bannavem Taberniae, which doesn’t appear on any old maps or medieval references. Some say this location may be near Dunbarton in Western Scotland or, maybe more likely, in Wales. So he is a Briton and not an Irishman which may come as a surprise to some people. The Latinised version of his name was Magonus Sucatus. He only became known as ‘Patrick’ after his consecration as a bishop around 431 when Pope Celestine conferred on him the title Patricius (meaning ‘Father of the People’ or ‘Noble One’, terms deriving from the Roman days).
According to Patrick’s own account on his life in his famous Confessio, he was abducted by Irish pirates from his home when he was sixteen years old and served as a slave on what is believed to be Slemish Mountain in County Antrim in Northern Ireland. He escaped after 6 years taking a ship back home by a convoluted route. Eventually pursuing the life of his grandfather, Potitus, who was a priest and his father Calpurnius, who was a deacon, Patrick was himself ordained, possibly in France. Priests were allowed to be married then so, if they had not been, we would have had no St. Patrick.
Patrick was not the first missionary to come to Ireland. Indeed, there were probably already some Christian settlements along Ireland’s east coast which would have been influenced by traders from other lands. This is why, in 431, the Pope sent a bishop called Palladius, not to begin the conversion of the Irish, but rather to establish the first diocese for existing Christians. Unfortunately, Palladius died a year later and Patrick, who had a deep knowledge of the Gaelic language and of the Irish people from his days as a slave, was then chosen to replace the deceased bishop. Patrick decided not to come to the eastern province of Leinster as Palladius had done but rather to go back to Ulster where he was familiar with the people and the countryside. Thus began his outstanding missionary work which, in a relatively short time and against many odds and hardships, converted much of the northern half of Ireland to Christianity.
It is hard to grasp how he could be so successful at a time when communication through the heavily forested landscape, with rivers and rudimentary roads the only connections between scattered communities. The population of Ireland then is reckoned to have been around half a million. Knowing the language was a huge asset but familiarity with the governing structures was his main advantage. Patrick knew that converting a chieftain first meant that his people would follow almost automatically. It was dangerous work. His life was threatened continuously especially by the pagan druid priestly class. They saw their power dwindling with the introduction of Christianity and didn’t give up easily. In fact, the often-misquoted fact the St Patrick banished snakes from Ireland (there were never any snakes in the country) actually refers to serpents and not snakes. The serpents alluded to here were the druids who were considered evil and serpent-like by the common folk.
His later years were a life of hard labour, frustrations and jealous accusations (his autobiography, the Confessio, was really a defence to show that he had not abused his position to gain wealth and favours from the aristocracy but that instead he remained poor and at the total service of the Irish people). He finally died around 462 (typically, even that date is disputed) and is reputedly buried at Downpatrick Cathedral, just south of Belfast.
What then was Patrick’s legacy (apart from the shamrock which he is said to have used to explain the three persons of the Trinity but even this is likely to be a myth!)? For one thing, his work was continued by his energetic disciples in Ireland until the whole land was Christianised. Then his monk-followers gradually spread across Great Britain, France, Northern Italy, Germany, Switzerland and Austria, opening monasteries that became renowned as centres of learning (the renowned Book of Kells is a prime example of this flowering of scholarship). Some claim that these foundations became the first proto-universities of Europe and helped to enlighten the so-called Dark Ages after the fall of the Roman Empire.
In Dublin, the largest church in Ireland, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, is situated on a site where a wooden church stood from the mid-5th century when St. Patrick came to this area and baptised the locals. The location of the well he possibly drew the water from is indicated just inside the main gate of the adjoining St. Patrick’s Park.
For the Irish today, even for those who don’t subscribe to Christian belief, St. Patrick is somehow the embedment of the nation, the connection that has united us with and has informed the rest of the world on who we are for many centuries, especially on St. Patrick’s Day, and will hopefully continue do so into the far future.