Celtic Hero

  • 15 March 2006
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St Patrick is misrepresented in his present day image; by looking at his writings, we can learn the fascinating truth about the patron saint of Ireland. Padraigín Clancy profiles him.


Mention St Patrick and most of us conjure the traditional image of him enshrined in stone; an authoritarian figure, complete with bishop's mitre, holding the shamrock in one hand while brandishing a crosier in the other, ready to cast out snakes and to bring us all to account. This representation is in fact more of a reflection of the nineteenth century Roman Catholic Church in Ireland than it is of the man himself. Sadly, the real Patrick has been lost in time, in legend and in ecclesiastical patriarchy. The man Patrick reveals to us in his own writing is one of deep faith and humility with a passionate love of Christ. He is hardworking, longsuffering, a champion of women's rights, anti-authoritarian and driven by a strong sense of personal mission. While he is continuously conscious of being a foreigner among his flock, he nonetheless is a true lover of Ireland and her people.

Patrick gives us two manuscripts. These are among our earliest historical documents. The first is a letter written in anger to a Pictish or Scottish king called Coroticus whom he castigates for having captured and slaughtered recently baptised men and women.  The second is the “Confessio” which he writes in semi-retirement, looking back on his life's work and explaining his mission.

While the actual biographical content in his writing is minimal, Patrick gives us some idea of his background. His father is Calpurnius, a deacon with an estate of land at the village of Bannavem Taberniae in Britain. This is thought to be on the west coast of England. His family are Romanised Celts and he probably enjoyed an upper class existence. He tells us he is captured at just 16 years of age and taken to Ireland. Raids such as those led by Niall Naoi-ghiallach (Niall of the Nine Hostages) from Ireland were a common occurrence in the 5th century AD.

Traditionally folklore has it, as do our school books, that he is taken to Slemish in County Antrim but he tells us he is held captive at “the wood of Foclath by the western sea”. This is understood to be near the village of Meelick in County Mayo. Scholars suggest that he may have retired in old age to Slemish, hence that mountain's introduction to his legend.  

Already a Christian, Patrick relates that it is only when alone as a youth in the wilderness in Ireland that he truly encounters God, “but when I had come by ill luck to Ireland – well everyday I used to look after sheep and I used to pray often during the day, the love of God and fear of him increased more and more in me and my faith began to grow and my spirit to be stirred up so that in one day I would say as many as a hundred prayers and nearly as many at night even when I was staying out in the woods or on the mountain and I used to rise before dawn for prayer in snow and frost and rain and I used to feel no ill effect and there was no slackness in me (as I now realise it was because the Spirit was glowing in me)”.   

Following six years in captivity, Patrick escapes, returning to his parents. He subsequently trains to be a priest both in Britain and in Gaul. He returns to Ireland against the wishes of his kin, having been inspired by a vision one night in which an angel comes towards him bearing a letter entitled ‘The Cry of the Irish'. He hears the people by ‘the wood of Foclath' calling to him to walk with them. “I was struck deeply to the heart and I was not able to read any further.”
Although folklore maintains Patrick was in every parish in Ireland, his mission in fact is centred on Connacht and Ulster. (We know that there were other missionaries in Ireland most especially in the Leinster region at that time.) He tells us that he travels about “in the company of the sons of kings converting thousands for Christ”.  He is clearly humbled by the success of his mission. He also writes justifying this success to those who sent him from the church in Britain. He explains that he spent their money to finance his mission rather than accepting the many gifts he is being offered by those he has converted.

Patrick reveals that he has survived a scandal. It seems he was betrayed by a friend regarding a misdemeanour he committed as a youth. He also apologises throughout his text for his poor standard of Latin owing to his interrupted education. (His first language would have been Brythonic, the precursor of modern Welsh, and doubtlessly he would have acquired Irish.)

In his writing, Patrick champions the freedom of slaves and the conversion of women. In early Ireland, women were expected by their kin to marry and the church offered what must have seemed for some an attractive alternative. The biographies of the early holy women such as St Brigid and Ita show that their families were initially displeased with their decision to establish monastic foundations.  

Patrick's impact as a missionary was evidently remarkable. It is hardly surprising therefore that folklore portrays him as a true Celtic hero. He casts monsters into lakes such as at Lough Derg. He contests and beats the druids at Tara. He is attributed with the abolition of snakes. He advocates the Gaelic princely virtues of hospitality and generosity. Finally and famously, he refuses to come down from Croagh Patrick until God allows him to judge the Irish on the day of Judgement. Hence salvation is secured for one and all, such is the extent of this man's love for Ireland and her people.

(Extracts from the ‘ Confessio' are from RPC Hanson The life and writings of the historical Saint Patrick, New York, 1983.)