Following his conquest of Gaul, Julius Caesar led two legions to Britain in 55 BC, in 54 BC he returned with five legions believing the land to be rich in silver. Caesar’s expeditions had limited success and it wasn’t until 43 AD that Claudius established a stronger presence which would continue to grow for two centuries. The conquest however would never be complete, northern Caledonia in particular, would remain both wild and remote as would Hibernia, an island to the west. The Roman Empire’s presence in Britain began to dwindle in the latter half of the 4th century, the growing menace of Germanic barbarian tribes, amongst other factors, precipitated the contraction of Roman influence. It is during this period of decline that the son of ‘Calpornius’ comes to our attention.
St. Patrick is a subject where most researchers, academics and scholars tend to differ. Interestingly ‘Translatio Corporis’ or ‘Canonization’ never occurred, his status as a saint was endorsed by public opinion only. In mid-17th century however, when compiling the liturgical calendar in Rome, a Franciscan Friar from Waterford by the name of Luke Wadding would consolidate public opinion by listing 17th March as St. Patrick’s Day, formal recognition as a Saint was therefore established forevermore. Scholars continue to debate on many aspects of St. Patrick’s story but what is of substance is the collective admission that we are dealing with a man that did exist. His first biographer, Muirchu, commenced work over two hundred years posthumously. Patrick’s death is thought to be mid-5th century (17th March) and date of birth somewhere between 370 and 390 AD. Wales, Scotland and Cumbria are often thought to be the place of birth with the former being referenced most often. Britain’s first towns emerged during Roman occupation and Chester (Deva) in North Wales was a major Roman settlement. Patrick left two documents written by his own hand and both texts are consistent with the style of 5th century Latin which would have been used in colonized Britain. The documents, known as ‘Confessio’ and ‘Epistola’, give great insight into Patrick’s character. The existences of these two documents means that more is known about St. Patrick than any other 5th century figure from the region and it is in these documents that the authentic story is most likely to be found.
In ‘Confessio’ (Confessions) Patrick tells us that “My father was Calpornius. He was a deacon; his father was Potitus, a priest, who lived at Bannavem Taburniae. That is where I was taken prisoner”. Calpornius and Conchesca Succat are thought to be the parents and their son Maewyn would go on to adopt a new name in time. The village was likely to be on the west coast of Britain where raiding parties would ply their trade. Separation from his family, to whom he seemed very close, would of course be very difficult for a youngster and his writings certainly corroborate this “So I am first of all a simple country person, a refugee, and unlearned. I do not know how to provide for the future. But this I know for certain, that before I was brought low, I was like a stone lying deep in the mud”. He declares himself to be ‘peccator rusticissimus’ a ‘simple countryman and a sinner’. Maewyn was in no way partial to religion during his formative years despite there being a deacon and a priest in the family. The collective trauma of kidnap, separation, isolation and hardship tending livestock in the wild (possibly on Mount Slemish County Antrim) caused a spiritual awakening in the youngster “So I turned with all my heart to the Lord my God, and he looked down on my lowliness and had mercy on my youthful ignorance. He guarded me before I knew him, and before I came to wisdom and could distinguish between good and evil” Indeed he believed that his abduction was a form of divine retribution, punishment for his initial lack of faith “I was taken into captivity in Ireland, along with thousands of others. We deserved this, because we had gone away from God, and did not keep his commandments. We would not listen to our priests, who advised us about how we could be saved. The Lord brought his strong anger upon us, and scattered us among many nations even to the ends of the earth”.
Maewyn escaped from captivity and found passage to the continent and eventually back to Britain where he was reunited with his family, he states that “they welcomed me as a son and pleaded with me never to leave them again”. He claims that he was informed by way of a ‘dream’ that a boat was waiting for him on the coast and so he decided to make his escape. The call to flee was not the only nocturnal message that he was to receive, Maewyn claims that when back in Britain he was summoned, during his slumber, to walk among the Irish once more and to spread the word of God, ‘they cried out in one voice’ he states. He later claims to have been tempted by the Devil also as he slept. Upon returning home to Britain Maewyn decided to devote himself to the service of God and the study of Christianity, it was at this point that he adopted the name ‘Patricius’ meaning father figure. Maewyn mentions that he was challenged by some church superiors in later years regarding a terrible sin that he had committed (a sin that he had once confessed to a friend). Thomas Cahill postulates that the only ‘sin’ that could persistently haunt him to middle age and beyond would have to be the greatest sin of them all: ‘murder’. He claims he was fifteen and that time of this terrible sin, he also claims that he was sixteen when he was abducted therefore the ‘sin’ took place before he arrived in Ireland and before he found his faith in God.
‘Episotla’ was, presumably, written much earlier than ‘Confessio’. It is a letter to the warlord ‘Coroticus’ who had kidnapped and enslaved a party of newly christened converts. Patrick is scathing in this letter.
“I declare that I, Patrick — an unlearned sinner indeed — have been established a bishop of Ireland.”
“With my own hand I have written and put together these words to be given and handed on and sent to the soldiers of Coroticus.”
“I cannot say that they are my fellow-citizens, nor fellow-citizens of the saints of Rome, but fellow-citizens of demons, because of their evil works. By their hostile ways they live in death, allies of the apostate Scots and Picts. They are blood-stained: blood-stained with the blood of innocent Christians, whose numbers I have given birth to in God and confirmed in Christ.
With the Roman legions returning home to Italy, law and order was on the decline and tribal Kings were at liberty to pillage and plunder, given Patrick’s personal experience of slavery it is of course no wonder that he would be so enraged.
It is interesting to note the things that do not appear in either ‘Epistola’ or ‘Confessio’. There is no mention of shamrocks, snakes, Paschal Fire or King Loíguire. The only events mentioned in these writings which borderline the supernatural are the messages he received by way of dreams, he also claims that it was by virtue of prayer that the sailors agreed to take him when he escaped and that they were starving when they landed on a deserted part of the continent but his faith was rewarded when a herd of pigs appeared. It’s difficult to surmise that the author would omit his greatest feats if in fact they had occurred.
‘Epistola’ and ‘Confessio’ reveal two things very clearly, the writer had both a sensitive personality and a deep conviction. The spiritual awakening may well have been trauma induced given his experience as a youngster “I didn’t deserve at all that the Lord would grant such great grace, after hardships and troubles, after captivity, and after so many years among that people” but what really is of more concern are the long-term consequences pertaining to this man’s life. The actual legacy of Maewyn Succat, Patricius or St. Patrick is not necessarily the introduction of Christianity to Ireland (surely that would have come sooner or later and it’s very likely that St. Declan was preaching in Ireland before St. Patrick and Palladius was a practicing cleric also before Patrick’s time, the ‘two Patricks theory’ concerning Palladius is also worth mentioning here), nor should his legacy be sought in the altogether intangible yet enduring mythologies that shroud him so. The fortuitous timing of when Christian doctrine arrived is perhaps the key.
The Dark Ages were about to descend on Europe yet Ireland would earn a reputation as being “the land of saints and scholars”, the scholarly element being the interesting one. Guardianship of classical texts, both Roman and Hellenistic coupled with an appreciation of knowledge and later the task of education itself became the defining characteristics of the Christian establishment in Ireland as the Roman Empire receded and fell. The European renaissance after the dark ages was galvanised by the re-emergence of classical texts and learning. This re-emergence owes a debt of gratitude to the missionaries that departed Ireland for mainland Europe establishing learning centres as they went. Visigoths, Vandals, Huns, Ostrogoths and various other waves of barbarian tribes pillaged Europe leaving little or no trace of Greco-Roman literature, improvements in agriculture and crop yields caused their numbers to swell. Irish monasteries were no stranger to similar raids by Vikings but the monks were well aware of how important it was to safeguard their literary treasures and to preserve them as they did. Dividends would follow, not so much to the custodians themselves, but to European civilisation in the dawning of a new era, this concept is thoroughly explored by Thomas Cahill in ‘How the Irish saved civilisation’.
St. Patrick became quite the hero in Irish folklore and no doubt the famed storytelling tradition among the Celts more than played a part in weaving the wondrous tapestry of these tales. Notable too was the church policy that when unable to deconstruct the pagan belief system they would simply integrate the Christian message into existing folklore. Very much a case of “if you can’t beat them, join them”. Little research is required to discover that behind every Christian feast day there previously existed a pagan feast day. In the adventures of Oisín, the son of Na Fianna’s Fionn Mac Cumhaill, we learn that upon returning from Tír Na nÓg our protagonist just so happens to bump into St. Patrick. Sufficiently compromised, we are led to believe, was the emotional well-being of Conor Mac Nessa, High King of Ulster, when one of his druids informed him of the crucifixion of Christ. Understandable his grief, despite the fact that no previous reference to Christianity is to be found in the Red Branch cycle but that, literally, is another story! Biogeography suggests that Ireland was never inhabited by snakes, this however was unlikely to let the truth spoil a good story and so a number of slippery characters from the Garden of Eden make an appearance in our hero’s tale. Across the Irish Sea the same phenomenon was at work for gallant King Arthur and the Knights of Camelot at some point decided that a quest for the Holy Grail would make for a splendid outing, we can be forgiven for suspecting that this particular adventure was not part of the original Arthurian Legend.
In Joseph Campbell’s ‘The Hero with a Thousand Faces’ a compelling argument is presented suggesting that every hero-story ever conceived in human history follows the same plot. It is the same basic tried and trusted formula that never fails to stimulate the imagination and captivate the audience. The archetypal hero invariably spends a period of time in isolation where an epiphany or some form of learning is achieved. He then returns to his people to fight against the incumbent corruption and evil. Always faced with insurmountable odds ever is he the embodiment of salvation and deliverance. These are but a few of the recurring similarities that Campbell alludes to and his theory, when tested, is quite robust (Luke Skywalker, Simba, Aragorn etc).
Campbell’s conclusions naturally pose a challenge to followers of religious icons. The narratives around many ‘historical’ religious characters tends to fit the bill by way of comparison and it is of course no wonder that many sceptics consider religion to be nothing more than deeply embedded cultural fiction. Archaeological excavations in Israel have failed to support scriptural depictions despite many attempts to unearth artefacts or reveal certain locations. Yadin, Finkelstein and Silberman were more than eager to verify events of the past by way of various digs across the holy land but the empirical evidence was not forthcoming. Surprising too, one must admit, that Egyptian chronicles also failed to corroborate the story of the Jews and the ‘Exodus’. The ancient Romans were well educated and intrepid travellers, naturally it followed that they were great travel writers too. Pliny the Younger mentions ‘Christos’ as a preacher who had gained significant traction in the middle east. Christ or Christianity is mentioned also by Tacitus and Suetonius. Both Tacitus and Suetonius were known to be quite pedantic and therefore would only record information that they had collated from reliable sources. Credible references such as these must be of great importance to those of a determined faith. Whether this man walked on water or not isn’t something that inspires rational debate. Establishing the existence of historical characters is a more straightforward task than the de-mystification of their legacies and a similar pattern unfolded regarding the Patron Saint of Ireland.
The myths and legends that are so inseparable from St. Patrick are indeed strange, so as Hamlet might say “therefore as a stranger give it welcome, for there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophies”.
© Johnny Codd
Sources and suggested further reading.
B. McCormack, ‘Perceptions of St. Patrick in Eighteenth-Century Ireland’ (Dublin 1998).
R.P.C. ‘Hanson, St Patrick: His Origins and Career’, (Oxford, 1968).
T. Cahill ‘How the Irish saved civilisation’ (Sceptre Lir 1995).
J. Duffy ‘Patrick in his Own Words’ (Dublin, 2000).
T. O’Loughlin ‘Discovering St. Patrick’ (London, 2005).
C. Mohrmann ‘The Latin of St. Patrick: Four Lectures (Dublin 1961).
M.B. De Paor ‘Patrick, the Pilgrim Apostle of Ireland: An Analysis of St. Patrick’s Confessio and Epistola (Dublin 1998).
D. Howlett, The Book of Letters od St. Patrick the Bishop (Dublin 1994).
D. Conneely St. Patrick’s Letters A Study of their Theological Dimension (Maynooth 1973).