Some Irish People – St. Patrick

There are conflicting views as to who St. Patrick really was. The most recent and increasingly consensual view is based on the Latin document ‘Confessio’. Essentially this is an autobiography, and it is generally accepted as having been written by St. Patrick. I base this short summary on it – but you are bound to find very credible evidence for variations on the theme.

He was born in a place called Banna Venta Berniae, but we don’t know exactly where that was. There has been lots of research, and there are lots of opinions, but most seem to agree that it was somewhere near Carlisle in north west England, possibly on Hadrian’s Wall. Hadrian’s Wall was already ancient by the time of Patrick’s birth around 415 AD. One authority suggests that it was in Scotland, near Dunbarton, also on the west coast, but this seems unlikely to me. The Romans never really settled that far north, and he was certainly Romanised, if not of Roman blood.

The Romans who built the Wall would have been withdrawn shortly before Patrick was born. They were withdrawing from England for ever then, so his family is likely to have been a British one rather than a Roman, although educated and Romanised. His father, Calpornius, was a Church Deacon and his Grandfather was a Priest. Not, in those days, a contradiction in terms because the concept of a celibate clergy was only just being developed. When he was 16 years old, he was captured by a by a raiding group from Ireland and taken as a slave. These Celtic raiders from Ireland had been common for a long time – Scoti, the Romans called them. In Ireland, possibly in Antrim, he worked as a herder. He writes only that he was there for six years, he prayed daily and his faith grew, and that then he heard a voice calling to him and saying that he would be going home soon. Later a voice advised him that his ship was ready. Thereupon he fled, travelled to a port at the other end of Ireland, and eventually got back home to his family.

There he seems to have stayed for some years, until one day he heard, as he put it, the Voice of the Irish. He identified the voice as being of the people of Foclut, which may be near Killala Bay in Mayo.

So he went back to Ireland, but exactly what he did there is not clear from his own ‘Confessio’, much of which is taken up with defending himself against allegations which are not defined. His defence however is largely related to financial matters – how he returned gifts, paid for guides, did not accept money for baptisms, and so on. He does say that he baptised thousands of people, so his work was obviously missionary in nature. The missionary work may well have involved him in physical conflict with Druids and their followers, and one report describes him as “Succetus”, the Latin name for an old Celtic God of War. That is from Tírechán, one of two independent biographers known as Tírechán and Muirchu. Tírechán lived about two hundred years after the death of St. Patrick and would have related folk stories rather than history. Muirchu was closer in time, writing between fifty and a hundred years after St. Patrick’s death. They also lay emphasis on his conversion of mainly female converts, often of noble birth, some of whom went on to found convents.

There are literally hundreds of stories about St. Patrick, particularly of churches he is said to have founded, and many may be true. Most are written as though they are undeniably true, but the evidence they cite, if indeed they cite any, is oblique at best. One for example says he was “actually born in Scotland as Maewyn Succat, and appears to have been Roman by ancestry, with the Latin name Magonus Succetus”. But I have been unable to find any supporting evidence for the claims. Many may be about other missionaries, in particular one named Palladius, a Gallo Roman who was working in Ireland before Patrick’s arrival and whose achievements have often been attributed to Patrick. These and other stories associate him with many of the leading Christian figures of the time. His owner when he was a slave was supposed to have been a Druid High Priest, he is supposed to have been trained as a Christian Priest on his flight from slavery in St Martin’s Monastery at Tours, and at the island sanctuary on the Isles de Lérins in the Mediteranean, and under St. Germain who was Bishop of Auxerre in France. He is supposed to have worked as a Missionary among the Morini in France between the Seine and the Rhine. He is supposed to have been entrusted with the evangelisation of Ireland by Pope Celestine I. And so on. Maybe.

He was never canonised by a Pope, for that was not a requirement for Sainthood in the fifth century or indeed for some time afterwards. It was all done locally. If people considered that someone who had died was an exceptionally good and Holy person, the local Church would in due course confirm that they could be liturgically celebrated as Saints. And he didn’t banish snakes from Ireland! The story possibly refers to his driving out Druids whose symbol was “the snake of wisdom”, and even that is not clear cut.

So, in summary, a man called Patrick certainly existed as here described. He was certainly an active disseminator of the Christian beliefs which overcame the beliefs in the old Celtic Druidic Gods in Ireland during his times, and he certainly baptised a great number of people and ordained men as priests to start their own congregations. Quite a few of the stories told by later writers like Tírechán and Muirchu may well have some substance, since the concept of detailed verbal recording was practiced by Druid Bards to a quite incredible degree. They developed prodigious memories. But we don’t really know any more than was described by Patrick himself in his own writing.

The Book is called ‘The Story of Ireland’. It is available either as a paperback, an ebook, or a much smaller “pocket” sized paper back edition (4.2″ x 6.8″) for travellers.

Buy the paperback The Story of Ireland online here.

Buy The Story of Ireland E-book here.

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