The first work attributed to Patrick is a short open letter, directed against a British chieftain, Coroticus, and his armed followers, in which Patrick excoriates and excommunicates them for having slaughtered some and kidnapped and enslaved others of his newly baptized Irish converts to Christianity’.
The second work is a far more informative source (essentially Patrick’s biography): Patrick’s Confessio. Described as an outstanding and exceptional piece of Latin literature, having been written outside the pale of Roman civilization, between antiquity and the Middle Ages. It is an open letter apparently written to ecclesiastical superiors in Britain in answer to unspecified charges.
Patrick really existed. We can say this because these writings allow us to define the historical Patrick as the author behind these fifth-century texts. Everything one might state about the historical Patrick – any theory or historical statement – must at least be in line with what can be deduced from either of these works – or, if not, any discrepancy or contradiction must be explained.
Facts about Patrick
Some generally accepted facts in brief are as follows: Patrick was born in Britain, probably in the south-western region or Wales (Confessio 1, cf. 23). When he was nearly sixteen, his family’s estate was raided by Irish pirates and he with many others was taken to Ireland as a slave. There he was set to work as a herdsman and during that time an inner conversion towards the Christian God took place. He escaped after six years. He became a Christian priest and his belief that he was exceptionally blessed by the grace of God grew constantly until it formed a firm conviction.
Encouraged by a vision in a dream – by the so-called ‘call of the Irish’ – he returned to Ireland as a missionary. He referred to himself as a bishop and played a major part in converting the Irish to Christianity (Confessio 51).
So much for the historical facts and deeds according to Patrick’s own writings. Among these facts there is nothing about Patrick banishing snakes from Ireland; nothing about victorious contests with the druids; nothing about overthrowing pagan idols and cursing kings and kingdoms – not even the shamrock is mentioned! But those elements are an important part of the popularly held image of Patrick. The point is that these elements and many others came to be attributed to the figure of Patrick in later times.
To put matters briefly, the historical Patrick – was a real man located in time and space, different from the figure of the legendary construct that grew over the centuries.
Patrick’s life is relevant to us today
One can get to know Patrick by reading his words and recognising the contribution of someone who answered the call of God to make Christianity alive and vibrant in a challenging and often-times treacherous and violent environment, with humility, passion and perseverance that came at a great price.
‘My name is Patrick…
I am a sinner, a simple country person, and the least of all believers. I am looked down upon by many.
My father was Calpornius. He was a deacon; his father was Potitus, a priest, who lived at Bannavem Taburniae.
His home was near there, and that is where I was taken prisoner.
I was about sixteen at the time.
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. Then he who is powerful came and in his mercy pulled me out, and lifted me up and placed me on the very top of the wall.
That is why I must shout aloud in return to the Lord for such great good deeds of his, here and now and forever, which the human mind cannot measure.
(From Introduction and #12, Translation of St. Patrick’s Confessio)
I pray for those who believe in and have reverence for God. Some of them may happen to inspect or come upon this writing which Patrick, a sinner without learning, wrote in Ireland. May none of them ever say that whatever little I did or made known to please God was done through ignorance. Instead, you can judge and believe in all truth that it was a gift of God. This is my confession before I die.
(#62, Conclusion of St. Patrick’s Confessio).
The image used is a stained glass window detail by Alfred Ernest Child in the east aisle of St. Brendan’s Cathedral, Loughrea, Co. Galway depicting Saint Patrick tending to the divine fire he ignited to celebrate Easter is : “Holy Patrick therefore celebrating holy Easter ignites the divine fire especially bright and blessed which shining back in the night by almost all those dwelling through the flatness of the plain was seen.“ (Quote from Vita Sancti Patricii, XV, lines 16–19, by Muirchú Moccu Macthéni, translated by David Howlett, ISBN 1-85182-980-6, p. 71.) This work was created in 1937 in the An Túr Gloine workshop in Dublin. (See Nicola Gordon Bowe et al, Gazetteer of Irish Stained Glass, ISBN 0-7165-2413-9, p. 57; St Brendan’s Cathedral, Loughrea, ISBN 0-900346-76-0.)
Andreas F. Borchert
- CC BY-SA 4.0
- File:Loughrea St. Brendan’s Cathedral East Aisle “Naoṁ Pádraıg” by Alfred Ernest Child Detail Easter Fire 2019 09 05.jpg
- Created: 5 September 2019
- Location: 53° 11′ 49.1″ N, 8° 34′ 0.95″ W
And Who was Patrick?
Also Patrick – making God known