St. Patrick: The man and the myth

By C. Austin

Patrick, sometimes reviled, often revered, was a man who became a saint and in the process lost his identity as a man.

Myth tells extraordinary stories surrounding Patrick's life: captured at sixteen, he served as a slave in northern Ireland and later left to receive his religious training in Gaul. Having been anointed and sent to Ireland by the Pope, Patrick used the shamrock as a symbol of the Trinity, thereby saving Ireland from her heathen ways. Adorned with miter and staff in hand he drove the snakes from Ireland, ousted the High King at Tara, communed with God atop Crough Patrick and performed other wondrous feats.

However, a critical evaluation of history finds no truth to these fantastic stories.

Patrick was born in southwestern Britain around 390 A.D. in his wealthy upperclass father's villa. He lived a childhood as any other of the day and engaged in the sins that young people do. He confessed these sins to a beloved friend who later in life exposed him and cast question upon his legitimacy as Bishop of Ireland. Kidnapped by Irish pirates at sixteen, he spent six years as a slave tending sheep in County Mayo near Sligo. As noted by R.P.C. Hanson in The Life and Writings of the Historical Saint Patrick, "the people of the diocese of Killala can boast their territory saw Patrick's captivity with much more probability than those who live near Mount Slemish in County Antrium".

Patrick probably made his escape from Mayo to the coast of Wexford and returned home to Britain. Upon his return, Patrick received his theological training in Britain, not Gaul. Patrick was not sent to Ireland by the Pope, but by church authority in Britain. Patrick did not introduce Christianity to Ireland as this had been done by earlier missionaries and the first Bishop of Ireland, Palladius, who was ordained and sent to Ireland in 431 A.D. by Pope Celestine. Patrick wore no miter as they weren't invented for another 500 years and the anecdote about the shamrock as a symbol of the Trinity was tacked on a thousand years after his death. Patrick never climbed Crough Patrick nor met a High-King at Tara as there were no High Kings in Ireland during his lifetime.

There are probably at least two sources for the snakes which Patrick "drove" out of Ireland. A symbol for the goddess worship practiced in Ireland prior to Christianity was the snake or serpent. The conversion of Ireland to Christianity symbolically banished the "snake" from the land. Secondly, the bloody cult of Crom Cruaich in County Caven demanded human sacrifice to a serpent deity and the dismantling of this cult by Christianity is now remembered as the "snakes being driven from Ireland."

Upon Patrick's arrival in Ireland, he led a successful mission, anointing clergy and baptizing thousands. An outcast among the stratified classes of Irish society he endured many hardships and wrote "I daily expect either assassination or trickery or reduction to slavery".

Patrick did not enjoy much influence in Irish society and in many ways, it was the similarity of the Christian myth to existing pagan beliefs that gradually made converts ofthe Irish people. Both systems believed in a supreme spirit and taught survival of the soul after death. The pagan druids had a spirit named "Hesus" who, being associated with the oak tree, was remarkably similar to Jesus on the cross. The old goddess Maire became Mary and the essence of the Celtic goddess Brigit evolved into the christian St. Brigid.

The defining event of Patrick's life was his abduction. Ripped from a comfortable upbringing and forced into servitude, Patrick never recovered from the trauma. Upon his return to Britain many of his friends had gone on to fine educations and prominence whereas Patrick, an outsider as a slave in Ireland, became an outsider in his home society. To his dismay, Patrick was neither a great orator nor did he have a facility with the written word. He wrote late in life "that is why I am now ashamed and am seriously afraid of revealing my unskilfulness, the fact that I cannot hold forth in speech to cultivated people in exact language." As an older man he still regarded himself as a "poor ignorant orphan" and an "exile and refugee" who was "very little educated". After returning as Bishop to the land that had once considered him a slave, he never left again, becoming more closely identified with the Irish people than the British.

As a man, Patrick was devastated by captivity. In his years of slavery he developed a deep faith and sense of conviction in his God which provided him tremendous missionary zeal. Perhaps finding more acceptance among the society of his captors, Patrick dedicated his life's energy to the Irish christian mission and he died there around 460 A.D. with no ordained successor.

As a saint, Patrick is larger than life for those who need him to be. Perhaps this March 17 we can forgo the green beer and the snake charming and remember just the man who overcame great odds to carry out his life's work on the beautiful and cruel island of Eire.