“God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise” (I Corinthians 1:27).
And like all good Irish heroes of the past, Patrick has been dressed in so many mythical suits that it is difficult to separate the true from the truly ridiculous.
I was unaware of the sport in which the Irish take with historic accounts until, on a recent trip to Dublin, I met an Irish tour guide who told me that “no fact is so impressive that the Irish cannot improve upon it,” his point of course was that the Irish are story tellers at heart (once this is understood one need not become overly frustrated with the seemingly endless versions of historical Irish tales).
On that account, this article will attempt to weed through the many tales of Saint Patrick and discover the truth behind the great fifth century Irish awakening.
The Making of Saint Patrick
The story of Saint Patrick is inextricably linked with the transformation of Ireland, and it is not a stretch to say that history is slow to produce a better portrait of a man and a nation more intimately interwoven than in the case of Patrick and Ireland. What was it about this man and his work that occasioned the transformation of a predominately pagan nation, equipped with druids and seers by the score, into one of the great Christian strongholds of the early church in less than 30 years? A look at Patrick’s formative years will bring the answer within reach.
It is generally agreed that Magonus Sucatus Patricius, later known as St. Patrick, was born in a Roman British town called Bannavem Taburniae around the year 385AD. Patrick wrote in his Confessio of his father, Calpornius, a deacon and a ‘decurion’ (an important official and partial ruler of his small district) and of his grandfather, Potitus, an ordained Christian priest. From this bit of information, combined with what we know of fifth century Britain, we have a setting that is not all together different from what the average boy of today might experience. “He lived in a pleasant and adequate civilization supplied with creature comforts such as central heating, glass windows, hot and cold running baths, warm woolen cloth, tools and utensils” and given a typical Christian upbringing. The privileged upbringing was not enough to satisfy young Patrick. He wrote of himself as an early teenager saying, “I did not believe in the living God, nor did I so from my childhood, but lived in death and unbelief…” Patrick was essentially a rebellious youth who took the advice and teaching of his Christian father and grandfather with little care.
His easy going life was to radically change at the age of sixteen when Irish raiders, in search of slaves, pillaged Patrick’s home town and carried him to Ireland in chains. He was to spend the next six years in slavery tending swine, sheep, and cattle for his new master. During this period Patrick had a personal awakening that would carry him through the rest of his life. He wrote:
But after I came to Ireland – every day I had to tend sheep, and many times a day I prayed – the love of God and His fear came to me more and more, and my faith was strengthened. And my spirit was moved so that in a single day I would say as many as a hundred prayers, and almost as many in the night, and this even when I was staying in the woods and on the mountain; and I used to get up for prayer before daylight, through snow, through frost, through rain, and I felt no harm, and there was no sloth in me – as I now see, because the spirit within me was then fervent.
Here we begin to see the first supernatural movement in the life of young Patrick. It is easy to miss the impact of this passage if you have never had the ‘pleasure’ of experiencing Ireland during its winter months. As an island, Ireland is bombarded almost year round with wind and rain. In the winter it has all the unbearable freezing temperatures of an arctic land with the added hail and sleet so iconic of Ireland. If Patrick was being genuine about his lack of physical suffering in the open wilderness during these times of his slavery, and there is really no reason to doubt his honesty, we may account this as the first of many miraculous acts of God to sustain Patrick for his work to come.
In the many folklore tales of Patrick’s miraculous life, his life of prayer is nearly always overlooked (perhaps because it does not make for heart pounding bedtime stories). Patrick’s life of prayer is invaluable to understanding the supernatural nature of his ministry. One will find that Patrick never wrote of any particular miracle he performed, but instead writes at length of his prayer life. Hear his revealing accounts of his time in prayer:
Whether within me or beside me, I know not, God knoweth, – they called me most unmistakably with words which I heard but could not understand, except that at the end of the prayer He spoke thus: ‘He that has laid down His life for thee, it is He that speaketh in thee’; and so I awoke full of joy.
I saw Him praying in me, and I was as it were within my body, and I heard Him above me, that is, over the inward man, and there He prayed mightily with groaning… at the end of the prayer He spoke, saying that He was the Spirit…
Notice the care with which Patrick took in explaining how his prayers were made within him by the Spirit and not by himself, how at times he was not even in possession of a conscious understanding of what was prayed, that this prayer was made “with groaning,” which at the end was revealed to be the Spirit making intercession within him. It was during these times in prayer that God showed him the miracles that he would experience later in life, which he noted in his Confessio: “I shall not be silent; nor shall I hide the signs and wonders which the Lord has shown me many years before they came to pass…” Patrick essentially testified through such writings that his conversion and growth in the faith was due to the power of the Holy Spirit. He experienced the signs of what the scripture calls the baptism in the Holy Spirit: he received prophetic insight, he was physically sustained during intense physical trials, he prayed in the Spirit “with groaning,” and at times, without his intellectual understanding.
Thus far we have the picture of an atheist teenager being ripped from his home and thrust into a life of miserable slavery where, in the quiet and lonely hours, freezing, tending swine, he encounters the living God amid cries of desperation; a youth that was changed so radically that at times he “awoke with joy” in the middle of what, for most, would be nothing short of hell on earth. Patrick received an active and enduring faith which never seemed to wane during his long and influential life.
The next season of his life was no less miraculous. His escape from slavery came as the result of a prophetic dream in which the Lord told him the specific day he was to leave his captor. Patrick wrote of his long journey of 200 miles on foot, which alone was miraculous. He was “in danger of recapture, of attack by men whose lands he crossed, or by wild beasts, hunger, thirst, and fatigue” all on the personal promise of God’s rescue. In another dream God told him the exact time and place in which he would find a cargo vessel that would carry him to freedom. Here begins an interesting story of Patrick and his encounter with the captain of the ship. At first the venture seemed doomed to failure when the captain refused to take Patrick onboard unless he performed the pagan ritual of ‘sucking the nipple.’ “It has been proved that sucking the nipples of a man was a manner, among the ancient Irish, of demonstrating and swearing faith and loyalty to the person whose nipples were sucked.” Patrick denied the captain the privilege because he clearly regarded the act as a pagan custom to which he would have no part. After some heated dispute the captain eventually allowed Patrick to board. This episode is important in that it demonstrated Patrick’s faith in God’s promise and steadfast resistance to achieving the plans of God through ungodly means.
The journey lasted 3 days before the ship ran aground off the Northern coast of Gaul. We know very little about this period of time between his escape and final return to his home except for a brief mention in his Confessio. Much could be said of this period even though we know very little. We do know that Patrick was taken captive again for 2 months and that he managed to meet some very influential church leaders in the region during a span of approximately 3 years. It is believed that during this period Patrick stayed at the monastery of Lerins founded by Honoratus. Here was where Patrick may have formed his love of monastic life and possibly where the well known Irish legend of him miraculously driving snakes from Ireland made its way into Irish folklore. It should be noted that it is an undisputed fact that Ireland was never inhabited by snakes, however the island of Lerins was and according to tradition Honoratus did drive snakes from it albeit by natural means.
Patrick knew through various prophetic dreams that God was calling him back to Ireland to spread the gospel among the pagan Irish, so upon his return to Britain Patrick entered the church (a British church known to be highly energetic) and became a priest. He reportedly studied under Bishop Germanus of Auxerre (present day Bourgogne region of north-central France), who was sent to Britain to confront the Pelagian heresy which spread rapidly throughout Britain. He received his first formal training in theology, Latin, rhetoric, and the like, but, due to the fact that he was denied an education during his early years in slavery, Patrick was far behind his contemporaries in his scholastic pursuits. He was viewed as a “half-educated,” rustic Briton by his superiors and when the Pope decided to commission a bishop for Ireland, Patrick name was circulated as a potential choice but was deemed unfit for the task. Undoubtedly, Patrick took this rejection to heart as is evident some 30 years later in his writings:
Be astonished, ye great and little that fear God, and you men of letters on your estates, listen and pore over this – who was it that roused up me, the fool that I am, from the midst of those who in the eyes of men are wise, and expert in law, and powerful in word and in everything? And He inspired me – me, the outcast of this world – before others, to be the man who, with fear and reverence and without blame, should faithfully serve the people of whom the love of Christ conveyed and gave me for the duration of my life…
Ultimately the decision was made to send a bishop named Palladius instead, but as fate would have it Palladius died within the first year of his bishopric making Patrick the only other candidate and finally around the year 432 he was commissioned by the church and sent to Ireland.
The Awakening Begins
By all accounts, and in the minds of those without the advantage of retrospect, Patrick should have been a complete failure in his mission. He lacked what most assumed to be essential in establishing and developing a church among pagans, that is – scholastic credentials. In reality this perceived lack became Patrick’s greatest strength. His “rustic” quality and lack of rhetoric made him a perfect match in a land of rustic and strictly non-rhetorical men. His knowledge of the local customs and his fluency in the local language (a Gaelic tongue similar to modern Welsh) allowed him full access to the heart and minds of the Irish people. He was what the late great missionary author, Roland Allen, might refer to as the perfect indigenous church leader. William Henry Scott, renowned scholar on St. Patrick, said that “nowhere does church history provide an example of an accomplished indigenous church of this kind equal to that of the Celtic Church which developed in Ireland in the 5th century.”
Patrick’s approach to evangelizing Ireland was proof of his deep knowledge of the customs and ways of the Irish people. Ancient Ireland was ruled by hundreds of chieftain like kings, each controlling separate regions in which the people of those regions had strict devotion, in all manners of life and religion, to their king. It was up to the individual kings to allow or disallow preaching on their estates. Patrick, already equipped with this knowledge upon his arrival, went straight to the kings and not the people to begin his ministry. By winning over the king of a region Patrick could gain access to the people and also the land in which to build churches. Many tales are related to Patrick converting the pagan kings by way of intimidation through elaborate miracles. Many of these stories are so farfetched that even the most faithful believer in the miraculous would turn a deaf ear. A work published in the late 7th century called Vita Sancti Patricii by Muirchu (the author who made famous the debunked tale of Patrick driving snakes from Ireland) told of St. Patrick performing signs and wonders in the sight of the high king Laogharie curiously similar to the account of Moses in his confrontation with Pharaoh in the book of Exodus, complete with a burning bush, floods, and the destruction of pagan idols by calling fire down from heaven.
One very reliable account of his gaining access to land comes from the story of how Patrick contracted the hill of Armagh, which became Ireland’s Christian headquarters. The deal was brokered not by scaring the local king through miracles but rather, after a long series of contracts with the original donor, in which Patrick demonstrated patience, mild temper and a willingness to turn the other cheek, the rich landowner finally broke down: ‘Thou art a steadfast and unchangeable man, moreover, as for that parcel of ground which thou didst once desire, I give it thee now.’ Much of St. Patrick’s most important and abundant ministry happened at this very site and even today the great ecclesiastical capital of Ireland, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, founded by Patrick himself, still stands.
One great obstacle to the spread of the gospel in Ireland was the deep seated religion of nature worship. This was enhanced by a quasi-priesthood of the Druids (though, properly speaking, the Druids were never priests). “They were interpreters, prophets, teachers, magicians, lawyers, judges, bards and poets – keepers of the Irish soul.” Nearly every function in Irish society was over sought by the Druids. Here is where the claim of “signs and wonders” being performed, according to Patrick’s own words, comes into serious consideration. Winning over the common man in Ireland required winning him over from nature religion that boasted of magic; a religion that emphasized above all else purification from spiritual corruption (two issues that the modern non-believer finds utterly irrelevant).
A Lasting Ministry
St. Patrick claims to have baptized literally thousands of people accompanied by the preaching of a solid orthodox gospel with signs and wonders following. As the St. Patrick scholar John Carey put it:
One of the features of Patrick’s religiosity that emerges most clearly is his passionate fidelity to the letter of the Scriptures, his conviction that the Bible is an expression of absolute truth beyond the possibility of qualification or compromise.
This means that Patrick was able to convert the Irish without compromising the gospel in a land where the gospel had no civil, ecclesiastical, or historical backing. One could say that it would have been a miracle if Patrick had the success he had without performing miracles. The preaching that belief in Jesus Christ and the washing of His baptism cleansed man from his sin was a welcomed message to a people who already believed in their corrupted condition. Patrick taught them about original sin, of the bondage of hell, and the paradise of heaven through faith in Christ. Patrick even adapted the places once used for pagan worship into Christian worship making the transition from paganism to Christianity all the more established.
Patrick’s impact was so profound that the office of the Druids virtually disappeared after his ministry. In fact, one hundred years after Patricks death the last great Druid king fell in a battle at Ben Bulben in 561 AD, and Druidism ceased to have any religious influence in any measurable way (Druids were active in Ireland in the 7th and 8th century but in name only as a para-religious role serving as guarantors of oaths in legal contracts).
Patrick’s legacy (besides those majestic folklore accounts) can be summarized as follows: he introduced the Latin alphabet, established schools, monasteries, a flourishing Irish priesthood, free of even a breath of heresy, the baptism and conversion of thousands of pagans, kings, princes, men and women to Christ and on the back of Patrick rested the light that burned in Ireland while all of Europe descended into darkness brought by barbarian hords. Patrick’s Ireland brought light back to Western Europe, and indeed all of Christendom.
Bieler, Ludwig. Ancient Christian Writers: The Works of St. Patrick. New York: Newman Press, 1953.
Carey, John. “Saint Patrick, The Druids, and the End of the World.” History of Religions 36 (Aug 1996).
Corfe, Tom. St. Patrick and Irish Christianity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1973.
Cross, F.L. Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.
Gallico, Paul. The Steadfast Man: Biography of Saint Patrick. New York: Doubleday, 1958.
Hanson, R.P.C. Saint Patrick: His Origins and Career. New York: Oxford University Press, 1968.
Knowles, David. Christian Monasticism. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1969.
Mc Dow, Malcolm and Reid, Alvin L. Firefall: How God has Shaped History Through Revivals. New York: Broadman and Holman, 2002.
O’Leary, Aideen. “An Irish Apocryphal Apostle: Muirchu’s Portrayal of Saint Patrick.” Harvard Theological Review 89 (July 1996): 287-301.
Scott, William Henry. “St. Patrick’s Missionary Methods.” International Review of Mission 50 (April 1961): 137-148.
(Obviously this article was written for academic purposes as is evident with the citations and bibliography. I wrote this article during my masters program for a class entitled, “History of Revival”. I decided to write about St. Patrick since I had a deep fascination with Ireland and always loved the stories of Patrick. I had no idea what I was going to discover when pealing back the layers of the man and the legend. I hope it was as inspiring for you as it was for me. Thanks for reading.)