Meet the real St Patrick, a man more interesting than the myth

It’s that time of year again when the Irish and would-be Irish around the world raise a glass to a shamrock-laden figure whose gifts are traditionally thought to span Trinitarian theology (explaining the Trinity by way of a small three-leaf plant) and herpetology (a legendary facility to deal effectively with snakes). More fundamentally, there is also the tradition that it was Patrick who first Christianised Ireland.

Unfortunately, for many, this is where knowledge of Patrick (or, more accurately, the legendary Patrick) stops. This is a great pity, for the man behind the legend is a far more interesting figure than he is given credit for. This article aims to peel away the layers of tradition in order to discover something about the historical Patrick himself. But in order to begin to learn about that individual, we must first unlearn what we think we may know about him.

First, the earliest tradition of Patrick banishing snakes from Ireland is found as late as the 12th century, some seven centuries after Patrick’s own lifetime. The Welsh cleric and propagandist, Gerald of Wales (c.1146-1223), mentions the tradition in two of his works, in one casting doubt on it, and in the other accepting it as fact. It also appears in a life of Patrick written in the late 12th century by the Cistercian monk, Jocelin of Furness.

And what of the shamrock? Evidence for Patrick’s association with the shamrock is much later still, the first image of Patrick holding a shamrock dating from as late as 1674 on a half-penny coin minted in Dublin. The wearing of shamrocks on St Patrick’s Day was widely attested in the 18th century, but was somewhat looked down upon, being associated with the poorer classes.

Lives of Patrick emerge in the late seventh century, and these emphasise a supremely confident wonder-working saint, a Moses-like figure.

As for Patrick being the first to bring Christianity to Ireland, the traditional date associated with this mission is the year 432. And yet, even here, there is a back-story. Why 432? In fact, this date takes its cue from another date in the historical record – and one which isn’t associated with Patrick. A fifth-century continental chronicler called Prosper of Aquitaine, who was a friend of the pope, recorded the following entry for the year 431:

“Ad Scotos in Christum credentes ordinatur a papa Coelistino Palladius, et primus episcopus mittitur” (Palladius, ordained by Pope Celestine, was sent to the Irish who are believers in Christ as their first bishop).

In recording what comes to be the first reliable date in Irish history, Prosper speaks not of Patrick but of a figure named Palladius who is commissioned by the Pope to be Ireland’s first bishop. More interesting still, he is sent to the “Irish believing in Christ”, something which makes sense as the ancient Church didn’t usually send a bishop to a territory where there was not already a community of Christians.

Thereafter, however, the figure of Palladius got largely airbrushed from Irish history as promoters of the Patrician cult (most notably the church at Armagh) strove to emphasise Patrick’s contribution instead. The traditional start-date of 432 for the Patrician mission, is, therefore, no accident. The implication was that Palladius, if he stayed in Ireland at all, didn’t stay long, certainly not long enough to make a real impact; it was left for Patrick to stamp his own character on the Irish Church. But this was a church that he himself did not establish.

Lives of Patrick, such as those written by Muirchú and Tírechán, emerge in the late seventh century, and these emphasise a supremely confident wonder-working saint, a Moses-like figure who faces down pagan kings and their magicians and bests them on every occasion. In one instance, for example, Muirchú tells how Patrick prays for the death of a wicked magician who is subsequently raised up into the air and then propelled downwards and “with his head turned down [was] crushed on a stone and died … and the gentiles feared greatly”. One clearly did not trifle with Ireland’s chief apostle.

The Patrick which emerges from these writings is, in fact, a far more compelling figure than the Patrick of later legend.

Illuminating as these traditions are in showing us the values of seventh-century hagiographers, they tell us little about the real Patrick. Thankfully, though, we are not reliant on these, for Patrick has left us two documents which he wrote himself: a letter of ex-communication addressed to the soldiers of a British warlord called Coroticus, and a later work called the Confessio or “Confession”, a declaration of Patrick’s faith in God and a defence of his ministry in Ireland. The Patrick which emerges from these writings is, in fact, a far more compelling figure than the Patrick of later legend.

The first document, the letter to Coroticus, arises when this warlord’s men make a raid on Patrick’s new converts, killing some and enslaving others. Patrick poignantly notes that the perfume of the chrism of anointing was still on their foreheads when they were “put to the sword”. What Patrick cannot fathom is that these raiders were also Christian, nominally at least. Those who were enslaved were sold to the pagan Picts in what is today Scotland and this leads Patrick, using Pauline imagery, to lament that they have handed over members of Christ’s body “as it were, into a brothel”. In his letter he asks that Coroticus’ men should be boycotted by the Christian community and that one should not sit at table with them.

Patrick’s second document, known as his Confessio, is better known and was composed near the end of his life as he looked back on his ministry. It is here that we learn something of his upbringing. He was born in Britain, in a place called Bannavem Taburniae, the son of a deacon, Calpurnius, and grandson of a priest, Potitus. When he was barely 16 “and did not know God” (even though he was Christian, he professed to have had no real faith), his father’s estate was attacked by Irish raiders and he and many others were taken into captivity. It was in Ireland, while herding flocks for six years, that he came to know God in solitary prayer. When he eventually managed to escape, he returned home to his family who, understandably, did not wish him to ever return to Ireland again. However, not long after, Patrick discerned in a dream or vision that his future ministry lay back in the land of his captors and returned to spend the rest of his life there.

The historical Patrick is under no illusions regarding his weakness.

The human side of Patrick leaps off the pages of the Confessio when back in Ireland he states how he would still dearly love to see his family at home but willingly accepts his self-imposed exile for the sake of the gospel. Patrick also conveys a sense of the very real dangers associated with his mission. He is taunted for being a foreigner and is frequently persecuted, as are many of his followers, particularly female converts who chose to make religious vows in the face of strong opposition from their families.

There is also a darker side to Patrick’s Confessio, and yet this is also the side which reveals Patrick’s spiritual assessment of himself. Contrary to later hagiography, the historical Patrick is under no illusions regarding his weakness; he begins the work with the words “I, Patrick, a sinner” and speaks of himself of having been “a stone in deep mire” before the Lord raised him. Tantalisingly, he also refers to a certain unspecified sin which he committed in his youth and which he had confided to a close friend before becoming a deacon, only to have that friend later betray his confidence. The sin was again raised some 30 years later among Patrick’s ecclesiastical superiors who were anxious to quash his mission in Ireland. While questioning his motives, they also accused him of pursuing financial gain. Patrick uses his Confessio to vigorously defend his ministry and to clarify that the sole motivation for his mission was to preach the gospel. In one moving passage, he writes “may it never happen to me that my God should separate me from his people which he has acquired in the outermost part of the world”, even if this means that he ends up forfeiting his life for a people who once enslaved him.

This, then, is the saint we celebrate on 17 March: not a plaster-cast figure to whom few can relate, but a flesh-and-blood individual of some substance; indeed, a real saint, i.e. a sinner who realises profoundly his need of God.

This article is republished with permission from The Catholic Weekly.