Christ beside me, Christ before me, Christ behind me, Christ within me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me – Patrick of Ireland
Excavating the life of Saint Patrick unearths a diverse range of anecdotes and myths. His dates, origin, and career have long provoked controversy among historians. The only reliable sources of information are his own short writings The Confession and The Letter to the Christian Subjects of the Tyrant Coriticus (Blair, 1978). Farmer concedes that the exaggerated popular view of him as the only true apostle of Ireland, who converted the whole country single-handed, has given place to a widespread conviction that nearly all that can be known of Patrick comes from the aforementioned writings.
In contrast, however, Thomas Cahill’s work ‘How the Irish saved civilisation’ highlights how through Patrick’s legacy, Ireland grew civilized even while civilization elsewhere in Western Europe collapsed. The achievements of the historical Patrick were no less miraculous than the legendary one. Christianity in Ireland was organised and established mainly by the efforts of one man, a Roman citizen of Britain, who devoted his life to the task (Bury, 1998).
Patrick was born, the son of a Roman magistrate (Calpurnius), who additionally served as a deacon (Blair, 1978). Pinpointing the exact dates of his birth is elusive; however, C.390-461 is most cited. In Patrick’s confessions his place of birth is referred to as Bonavem Taberniae, though contention exists whether Dumbarton on the Clyde (Scotland) or Cumberland to the south of Hadrian’s Wall was his exact birthplace (Walsh, 1991).
His given name was Latin Patricius, which means “Highborn”. With a father that was magistrate, landowner and aristocrat it seems he was indeed born into British Roman privilege (Rogers, 2010). This privileged birthright, however, may have ultimately led to his captivity and initial sojourn to Ireland.
In his seventeenth year, Patrick was carried into captivity in Ireland – “To the ultimate places of the earth” Patrick wrote, as if Ireland were severed by half the globe from Britain (Bury, 1998). Thompson (1999) states “Irish Marauders carried Patrick off forcibly from his home. In Ireland they sold him and their other prisoners as slaves to different purchasers, and the prisoners were transported as far from Britain as possible. In this way their chances of escape were reduced”. The all encompassing Roman Empire was Patrick’s world, outside its fringe was in darkness, thus his description ‘the ultimate places of earth’ spoke of his initial view of this new home (Bury, 1998).
Exactly where he was sold is contested. Blair (1978) states he became a slave in East Antrim, near a hill called Slemish, to a farmer called Milchu. Bury (1998) affirms this; however, he raises other records that point to the Wood of Fochlad in north-western Connaught as Patrick’s dwelling.
Thompson (1999) proposes that here in the extreme north-west of the country near Kilala on the borders of Co Sligo, he was put to work as a shepherd in woods and on a mountainside in a remote part of the country. There is no indication that he suffered the barbaric cruelties which are the normal lot of slaves. Little is known of the man he laboured six years for. However, it was during these lonely years he found God.
“While he ate the bitter bread of bondage in a foreign land, a profound spiritual change came over him. He had never given much thought to his religion, but now that he was amid strangers, the Lord, he says opened the sense of my unbelief. The ardour of religious emotion, the love and fear of God, so fully consumed his soul that in a single day or night he would offer a hundred prayers; and he describes himself, in woodland or on mountain-side, rising from his bed before dawn and going forth to pray in hail, or rain, or snow (Bury, 1998).
Amid the bodily hardships of this bondage his soul grew in holiness (Walsh, 1991). Patrick writes of his conversion during this time; “The Lord opened to me the sense of my unbelief that I might remember my sins and that I might return with my whole heart to the Lord my God” (Blair, 1978). Thus the years of his bondage were also the years of his conversion, and he looked back upon this stage in his spiritual development as the most important and critical in his life (Bury, 1998).
From this time on, Patrick’s life became marked by times of intense and persistent prayer. He became conscious of the Holy Spirit’s voice within him. It was this voice that spoke to him, after six years, beckoning within a dream to escape and make his way to the sea-coast where he found a ship that took him to freedom (Frederer, 2002). The authenticity of this occurrence is recorded within Patrick’s own writings. In his confession he wrote “And there one night I heard in my sleep a voice say to me; It is well that you fast, soon you will go to your own country’.
At the age of twenty-two or three, providence orchestrated his escape; Patrick was restored to his family (Walsh, 1991). His time in Britain seems to have led him to some form of priestly training. Rogers (2010) states Patrick wrote nothing about his training for the priesthood. There were no seminaries in the fifth century, so he would have trained under a bishop in a mentor setting. Later legends, however, often have him training in Gaul under Bishop Germanus of Auxerre. Freeman (2004), conversely, shines light on Patrick’s possible training. In Patrick’s era one of the islands off the Mediterranean coast of Gaul was home to the great monastery and teaching centre of Lerins. Many leaders of the fifth century church lived and studied here. Often it is argued that Patrick received seminary training here also.
By the time he had written his confession, Patrick was recognised as bishop of Ireland by both the natives of Ireland and by the Church authorities on the continent. To this end it is certain that his stay in Britain would have included theological training in one form or another prior to his mission to Ireland.
Patrick’s return to the land of his captivity is well documented within his confessions. After a while, in the depth of night, in the depth of the night, new visions came to him. He heard “the voices of those who dwell beside the wood of Focult cry as one mouth, ‘We beseech thee, holy youth, to come and walk among us once more‘”. With regard to the order of events which followed there is no certainty and to trace in detail the course of his heroic labours in Ireland is impossible. We are left to the confused, legendary and sometimes contradictory data supplied by his later biographers (Walsh, 1991).
Samaha (1999) alternatively suggests Patrick’s years as a slave had uniquely moulded his attitude to mount a daring mission to reach the minds and hearts of these pagan clans. Patrick apposed slavery, and he may have been the first Christian leader to speak out unequivocally against it. The Church did not formally condemn slavery as immoral until the late nineteenth century. Patrick had experienced this suffering, knew how to suffer with others, and understood the suffering of others. Compassion was his strong point.
Blair (1978) agrees that his ministry and wanderings in Ireland for the next thirty years are obscure, and although the subject of many legends; it may be accepted that he had a considerable influence on the Irish chieftains of his day. There is no doubt that he broke the power of heathenism in Ireland and that his teaching was scriptural and evangelical, and that the church he founded was independent of Rome.
Patrick’s writings are the first literature certainly identified from the British Church and reveal a scale of values and a type of which are full of interest. He was concerned with abolishing paganism, idolatry, and sun-worship; he made no distinction of classes in his preaching and was himself ready for imprisonment or death in the following of Christ (Farmer, 1979). At the time of his death human sacrifice had ceased, the Irish people had abandoned the slave trade, and, although they had not stopped warring with each other, the battles were more restrained. Patrick knew these people would not change overnight (Samaha, 1999).
Bury (1998) highlights three areas of significance that he attributes to Patrick’s efforts. he organised the Christianity which already existed; he converted kingdoms which were still pagan, especially in the west; and he brought Ireland into connection with the Church of the Empire, and made it formally part of the universal Christendom. His achievements as organiser of a church and as propagator of his faith made Christianity a living force in Ireland which could never be extinguished.
Perhaps the most miraculous thing of all was that, even as he brought the gospel of Christ to bear on the Irish, Patrick left their Irishness intact. The Irish did not have to become Roman in order to become Christians; that may seem obvious from where we sit, but was not at all obvious in Patrick’s time (Rogers, 2010). This in itself was groundbreaking.