In the Words of St Patrick

First of all, Happy St. Patrick day! Where I am, the only sign of the festivities is likely to be Google’s daily logo, celebrating Christian book arts in Ireland, but readers in Ireland itself, or across the United States, will probably get to enjoy any number of celebrations. To help you get into the spirit of the day, I thought I’d talk a little about Saint Patrick, who is a very interesting saint for a number of reasons.

The major kingdoms of early mediaeval Ireland. Patrick would have encountered many such small political units during his mission. (http://www.robertsewell.ca/medireland.html)

First of all, he’s one of the very rare early British saints. On the whole, we know very little about individuals in Britain in this period (the 5th century), so St Patrick, who was born in Britain but worked in Ireland, is a priceless source of evidence. A second point, one that reinforces his value to historians, is that he authored two documents that have survived the tests of time. More valuable still, one of these texts is even biographical. His writings can tell us not only about his individual experiences, themselves quite interesting, but also about his broader environment.

He opens up with quite a compact statement of his origins that introduces his social status, early life, and piety in a single stroke:

“I, Patrick, a sinner, a most simple countryman, the least of all the faithful and most contemptible to many, had for father the deacon Calpurnius, son of the late Potitus, a priest, of the settlement of Bannavem Taburniae; he had a small villa nearby where I was taken captive. I was at that time about sixteen years of age. I did not, indeed, know the true God; and I was taken into captivity in Ireland with many thousands of people….”

Although his place of birth–Bannavem Taburniae–has not been located by historians, there is some valuable information here. The names of his father and grandfather, for example, are quite Roman, and they give us a sense that romanitas, or Roman-ness, was still alive in Britain in the 5th century. His captivity as a slave also vividly illustrates a dangerous world, one where Britain lay vulnerable to the raiding parties active across the Irish sea.

In the next passages, Patrick also develops his theme of spiritual awakening, explaining his regimen of prayers and devotions during his captivity and explaining how an angel helped him to escape back to his family. Despite his family’s happiness at seeing him return, however, Patrick soon starts thinking again about Ireland, even receiving a letter from the Irish in a vision in which the island cries out ‘We beg you, holy youth, that you shall come and shall walk again among us.’

Because of these and others signs, he pursued the livelihood of a priest, with the aim of returning to convert the Irish. Not all went smoothly for Patrick, however. Some sections, by far the most obscure in the text, tell a story of his desire for promotion and his chastisement at the hands of other clergy for some unnamed indiscretion. Although these are the most difficult to interpret, these passages also give clues for why Patrick wrote his text. His whole biography, detailing his career in holy orders, seems to be responding to accusations by other churchmen. They give a vague, but valuable, sense of Church hierarchy in post-Roman Britain.

Having made his mission to Ireland despite these troubles, he set out to tell “how it is that in Ireland, where they never had any knowledge of God but, always, until now, cherished idols and unclean things, they are lately become a people of the Lord, and are called children of God; the sons of the Irish and the daughters of the chieftains are to be seen as monks and virgins of Christ.”

In fact, Patrick almost certainly converted fewer people than his grandiose claims might indicate, and resistance to his activities was at times fierce. One paragraph is particularly telling in this respect:

“From time to time I gave rewards to the kings as well as making payments to their sons who travel with me; notwithstanding which, they seized me with my companions, and that day most avidly desired to kill me. But my time had not yet come. They plundered everything they found on us anyway, and fettered me in irons; and on the fourteenth day the Lord freed me from their power….”

Here, we get a strong sense of his activities and insecurities, relying on the many petty kings of Ireland and their warbands, making alliances, and being persecuted. His text, with its many references to slavery and harassment, and to Patrick’s own inferior learning, serves to highlight the difficulty of his mission to the Irish, and the instability which characterised British society at this time. His highly individual voice, furthermore, gives us a direct insight into the commitment, and piety of one of the Middle Ages’ most famous saints.

No where does he express this self more clearly than in his second extant text, A Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus:

“If I have any worth, it is to life my life for God so as to teach these peoples; even though some of them still look down on me…”

Learn More:

A Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus is available in online translation here, and a copy of Patrick’s Confessio, the main text featured above, can be found here.

2 thoughts on “In the Words of St Patrick

    • I think you’re right! He’s a very complex character, and its a shame that we can’t understand his context more fully. In many ways, his own writings have to stand on their own, since his times were some of the ‘darkest’ in terms of source material. They do shine some light on his surroundings, though, and certainly help to bring Patrick himself into focus. It’s not often that such famous mediaeval people get to speak to us, in their own words.

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