(The Nationalist, 21 March 2003)
Saint Patrick was born about the year 385, at a place called Banaven Taberniae. No one knows where this was, but present-day opinion holds that it may have been near Carlisle in Cumbria, England, or, possibly, in Wales. He was born into a Roman family, his father, Calpornius, being both a Roman official and a deacon in the Church, and his grand-father, Potitus, a priest. In those days it was normal for priests to marry.
Patrick was not a model Christian child. Writing at a later date about his childhood, he said, ‘I did not believe in God’ , and about his friends and himself, he said, ‘ We had turned away from God; we neither kept his commandments, nor obeyed our pastors who used to warn us about our salvation’.
At about the age of sixteen, he was captured by Irish slave-raiders, along with, he says, thousands of others, and brought to Ireland. In slavery he was put to work for a chief called Milchu, herding farm-animals, on Slemish Mountain in County Antrim, or perhaps in the West of Ireland. He was reduced to a wretched state by hunger and poor clothing, but used to pray and fast, day and night, on the hill-side. He said, ‘ Even in times of frost or snow, I would rise before dawn to pray’.
In his sleep, he heard a voice say to him, ‘ Soon you will go to your own country’ . He made his escape and travelled some two hundred miles. He was given hospitality by the Decies, a people near Ardmore in West Waterford, among whom were Christian communities.
After some time, he found a boat that he hoped would take him home. At first, he was refused a passage because he was a Christian, but later the sailors relented and took him. During a voyage that lasted three days, followed by a walk with the boatmen for twenty-eight days, they ran out of food. He urged them to conversion and to trust in God. Food came. Many years later he was captured for the second time, but escaped after two months. He finally reached home to be welcomed by relatives who had probably lost hope of ever seeing him again.
One night, in a dream, he saw a man called Victor carrying letters, one of which was called The Voice of the Irish. Victor said to him, ‘We ask you, young man, to come and walk with us once more. He who has given his life for you, he it is who speaks to you’. Patrick says, ‘I woke full of joy’. He began to train for the priesthood in Gaul (France), perhaps under Saint Germanus of Auxerre. He became a deacon, then a priest, and later a bishop. He was given a mission “to the Irish believing in Christ” by Pope Saint Celestine I to follow Palladius, a bishop sent in 431, who had died after an unsuccessful mission. Patrick arrived, probably on the shores of Strangford Lough in 432.
Not long after landing, he lit a fire on the hill of Slane in County Meath. This was in contradiction to the orders of the high king, Laoghaire, who lived on the nearby hill of Tara, and who, following custom, had instructed that no fire should be lit until he, the king, had lit the fire of Baal – Beal Tine. Patrick was called to account for his actions, and it was said that it was while going there that he and his followers chanted the prayer which became known as The Breastplate of Saint Patrick. (See the end of this article.) This meeting became the opportunity he had sought of meeting the king and telling him about the Christian faith.
Most of his work was in areas near Armagh, which became his headquarters, and especially Saul, on the outskirts of Downpatrick, in County Down, where he is reputed to have celebrated his first Eucharist on Irish soil, and where he began and ended his missionary life. A local chief called Dichu gave him a building there.
Patrick first adopted and then adapted local traditions. As a basic plan of action, he set out to convert the chiefs, knowing that their people would likely follow them. He had no illusions about the kind of people he was working among, and he didn’t hesitate to spell it out in blunt language. He called them, heathens, dogs, sorcerers, murderers, liars and perjurers. Once he was jailed for fourteen days. He wrote, ‘ God rescued me twelve times when my life was in danger. I daily expected to be robbed or murdered or reduced to slavery in one way or another. I endured many persecutions, even to the extent of chains. I gave up my free-born status for the good of others’. In all of this, however, he identified with the people, speaking of ‘We Irish’.
One thing Patrick did not do was drive snakes out of Ireland; they were never there in the first place. Nor did he try to explain the Trinity by reference to the shamrock; that idea was unheard of until the seventeenth century. If he had tried to do so, he would probably have done no more than confuse issues.
Patrick felt lonely, and it weighed heavily on him: ‘How I would dearly love to be going to homeland or relatives, and also to Gaul in order to visit the brothers and to meet the Christian community. God knows how I longed for it; but I am tied by the Spirit’.
A sense of his calling kept him in Ireland: ‘My only prayer to God is that it may never happen that I should leave his people which he won for himself at the end of the earth. I ask God for perseverance, to grant that I may remain a faithful witness to him for his sake until my passing from this life’.
At times, setbacks were severe. Some of his converts in Britain were killed by a local chief called Coroticus. Patrick sent messengers to him calling on him to repent; Coroticus insulted them. Patrick wrote him a letter, which is the second of his writings to have come down to us. In it he expresses his anguish at the killings: ‘The newly baptized in their white garments had just been anointed with chrism. It was still giving forth its scent when they were cruelly and brutally murdered’. The men were killed, and the women sold into a brothel or to slavery. Patrick said of the soldiers of Coroticus that ‘They make their living on plunder, they fill their houses with the goods of dead Christians’. His letter condemned Coroticus, threatening him with hell, and calling on Christians to isolate him, giving him neither food nor drink until he repented.
Patrick’s difficulties came also from his fellow clergy in Britain. He wrote, ‘They think it a disgrace that we are Irish,’ and they despised him for his lack of education, which he admitted freely. He had studied little before his capture, and not at all during it. He opened his autobiography, The Confession, with the words, ‘I am Patrick, a sinner, the most unlearned of men, the lowliest of all the faithful, utterly worthless in the eyes of many’. He said he was not good either at theology or the Irish language, though he may have understated his ability, because a study of his writings shows many references, both direct and indirect, to the letters of Saint Paul. He described himself as ‘unskilled in every way, an unlettered exile’. His colleagues also belittled his ignorance of law and literature.
They questioned his mission, saying, ‘Why does he throw himself into danger among enemies who have no knowledge of God?’ But Patrick saw it differently, ‘I myself failed to realize in good time the grace that was then in me. It is obvious to me now that I should have seen it earlier’, and ‘Let anyone laugh and revile me who wants to. I will not keep silence, nor will I conceal the signs and wonders which have been shown me by the Lord’.
They also questioned his morals, and in the most shameful way imaginable. Thirty years after the event, a close friend, a deacon to whom he had confided himself, revealed in public a confession which Patrick had made to him about something he had done as a boy of perhaps fifteen, before he came to faith. It is not known what this was, but scholars think it may have been that he ate food that had been offered to a pagan deity, thereby implicating himself in pagan worship. ‘To him I had confided my very soul’, wrote Patrick, deeply hurt, especially as he had been tried in his absence. ‘On that day’, he wrote, ‘the impulse to fall away was overpowering, not only here and now but forever’. He was condemned.
But he was not abandoned. In a vision he saw a document with the charges against him listed on it. God said to him, ‘I have seen with disapproval the face of the chosen one deprived of his good name’. Patrick was encouraged: ‘I now felt a great strength in me, and my confidence in myself was vindicated before God and man. I say openly that my conscience is clear and God is my witness that I have told no lies in my account to you’.
Despite these setbacks, Patrick had his moments of success. ‘I am very much in debt to God, who gave me so much grace, that through me many people were born again in God and afterwards confirmed, and that clergy were ordained for them everywhere. All this was for a people newly come to belief, whom the Lord took from the very ends of the earth’. He was able to feel that his efforts had met with success, writing, ‘How, then, does it happen that, in Ireland, a people who, in their ignorance of God always worshipped idols and unclean things in the past, have now become a people of the Lord, and are called children of God? How is it that sons and daughters of Irish chiefs are seen to be monks and virgins dedicated to Christ? Indeed the number of virgins from our converts is beyond counting’.
He was proud of the courage of his converts: ‘Of them all, the women who live in slavery suffer the most. They have to endure terror and threats all the time. But the Lord gives grace to many of his servants and, although forbidden to do so, they follow him courageously’.
Towards the end of his life he expressed his determination to continue, ‘I have kept faith with the heathens among whom I live, and I do not intend to let them down now. Although I am unskilled in every way, I see that, even in this world, I have been exalted beyond measure by the Lord’.
Patrick died at Saul in 461 and was buried nearby at Down Patrick in County Down. His feast is celebrated each year on 17 March.
The following prayer is known as the Lorica (or Breastplate) of Saint Patrick: –
I bind unto myself today the power of God to hold and lead,
His eye to watch, his might to stay, his ear to listen to my need.
The wisdom of my God to teach, his hand to guide, his shield to ward,
The word of God to give me speech, his heavenly host to be my guard.
Christ be with me, Christ within me, Christ behind me, Christ before me.
Christ beside me, Christ to win me, Christ to comfort and restore me.
Christ beneath me, Christ above me, Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of all that love me, Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.