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In search of Saint Patrick

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It’s Saint Patrick’s Day – the day when the Irish celebrate their Irishness by drinking and… er… well, that’s about it really.

The truth about Patrick is intriguing.

He wasn’t Irish. Nor was he Catholic or Protestant. He was English. Or Welsh. Or, at least a Romano-Briton. The only real information we have about him comes from two letters in Latin: the Declaration or Confession and the Letter to the soldiers of Coroticus. The Bible quotations these contain come from Jerome’s Vulgate edition, which was only finished in 405 AD and probably took some time to filter north. He also refers to the Franks as pagans and their conversion is dated to the period 496–508. So he was probably active in Ireland in the second half of the fifth century and died c.493.

He certainly doesn’t appear to have the Irish gift of the gab. In his old age he described himself as feeling ‘ashamed and I am mightily afraid to expose my ignorance, because, [not] eloquent, with a small vocabulary.’ And he wasn’t very complimentary about some of the people he was living among: ‘I live among barbarians, a stranger and exile for the love of God,’ he wrote.

Patrick was born in Roman Britain at Bannavem Taberniae. Various suggestions have been given for this place, including Barnstaple in North Devon, St David’s in Wales, or as the Oxford Dictionary of Saints puts it, ‘somewhere in the west between the mouth of the Severn and the Clyde.’ That’s narrowed it down a bit, then. I think a southern location more likely, since that had the more heavily populated Romano-British settlements. His family were Christian: his father was a deacon and his grandfather a priest.

Elsewhere he describes himself as ‘freeborn according to the flesh. I am the son of a decurion. But I sold my noble rank… for the good of others.’A decurion indicates his father had some noble rank and was a kind of local town official.

When he was sixteen he was captured by a raiding party and taken into slavery in Ireland.  Patrick worked as a herdsman, remaining a captive for six years. In captivity he prayed daily and his faith grew. After six years he heard some kind of voice telling him that a ship was waiting to take him him. He escaped and travelled to a port, which according to his own statement the port was 200 miles away, which means that at the very least he must have been in the west of Ireland. (He was probably at a place called Foclut, since some years later he had a vision where he saw a man called Victoricus coming from Ireland  with letters, and he seemed to hear the voice of ‘those very people who were near the wood of Foclut, which is beside the western sea’. The exact identification of Foclut is unknown. Two centuries later, Patrick’s 7th-century biographer, Tírechán, suggested that it was in County Mayo, near the modern village of Killala.)

Where the sea voyage took him is uncertain: ‘And after three days we reached land, and for twenty-eight days journeyed through uninhabited country’ he wrote. He was later captured again, but escaped and eventually returned home.

Many years later, after becoming a priest, he had the vision of the Victoricus with the letters – which appealed to Patrick to come and help them. (Victoricus may be  Saint Victricius, bishop of Rouen, who was a strong advocate of the conversion of pagans: he visited Britain in an official capacity in 396.) So he did. And, according to his own testimony, many people, including the nobility, were converted.

The interesting thing is that his Confession also defends his conduct. He has been brought into disgrace by his fellow Christians, particularly, by one ‘friend’, to whom he confessed something he had done thirty years before, and who chose to use it as evidence against Patrick. He seems to have been accused of profiting from his position: in the Confession, Patrick declares that he returned gifts given him by wealthy women, that he was never paid to administer baptisms or ordain priests. According to his own testimony he was once beaten and robbed, and put in chains.

The Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus, is a powerful, urgent letter which excommunicates Coroticus for butchering and slaughtering some of Patrick’s male converts and taking the women into slavery, selling them to  ‘the Scots and Apostate Picts’.

‘This is the custom of the Roman Christians of Gaul,’ he writes, ‘they send holy and able men to the Franks and other heathen with so many thousand solidi to ransom baptized captives. You prefer to kill and sell them to a foreign nation that has no knowledge of God. You betray the members of Christ as it were into a brothel.’

Over and over, he emphasises the sacrifices he has made, the hardships he has endured for the greater goal.

‘I am forced by the zeal for God,’ he wrote, ‘and the truth of Christ has wrung it from me, out of love for my neighbors and sons for whom I gave up my country and parents and my life to the point of death. If I be worthy, I live for my God to teach the heathen, even though some may despise me.’

Like Saint George and the English, then, Patrick has little to do with Irishness. He was a British missionary, from what is now South-West England, called to the Barbarians. And despite attacks by fellow Christians, despite the hardships of his life and despite the barbarity of some who claimed to be Christian, he persevered to the end.

And that, is something worth celebrating.