Rev. Stewart is a Protestant Reformed minister, presently working in Northern Ireland.
In connection with Saint Patrick’s Day, March 17, we thought that it would be worthwhile to contribute to the Standard Bearer several articles on the patron saint of Ireland. Patrick is undoubtedly the world’s most famous patron saint. Few know the patron saint of Spain or Poland outside of those nations, but Patrick has attained international fame. Patrick is also the patron saint of fishermen—and almost every other occupation—along the River Loire in France. There are churches named after Patrick all over the world, including in Rome itself.
The popular conception of Patrick is of the mitered bishop who illustrated the Trinity using a shamrock, drove the snakes of Ireland into the sea, and victoriously confronted Loeghaire (pronounced Leary), the High-King of Ireland, and the druids at Tara. He is seen as typically Irish and was dearly loved by the Irish populace of his day.
Saint Patrick’s Day is celebrated by many the world over, and not just by the Irish and those in the Irish diaspora. The parade in New York—the largest demonstration of its kind in the world—sees over 100,000 march up Fifth Avenue. Green beer; shamrocks; green, white, and orange flags; and public speeches are the order of the day. The world turns green, and everybody discovers that he has at least some Irish connections.
Patrick, apparently, was a colorful character, a fun-loving guy. One author lends some support to this conclusion. Thomas Cahill puts it this way: Patrick “didn’t take himself too seriously.”1
Many aspects of the “popular Patrick” are promoted not only by the Irish diaspora and the Irish tourist board and the Irish government, but also by the Roman Church. According to Romish reckoning, Patrick was sent to Ireland by the pope. Clerical vestments are his garb and he carries a pastoral staff. He is accompanied by a guardian angel and works miracles. He is, in short, a “holy man.” Thus when Pope John Paul II was in Ireland, he was allegedly walking “in the footsteps of Saint Patrick.” It is strange that Patrick has not been canonized by the Roman Church.
On the last Sunday of July, Roman Catholics are still to be seen climbing Croagh Patrick in County Mayo, some with bare feet. Allegedly, Patrick once spent the forty days of Lent on that mount, and the Roman Church promises the faithful access to his merits. The island on Lough Derg in County Donegal, on which Patrick allegedly had visions of purgatory, is another holy place that is frequented by pilgrims. In reality, however, the legend of Saint Patrick’s purgatory began with the pilgrimage to Lough Derg by a soldier known as the Knight Owen, in the middle of the twelfth century.
Not content with all this, the papal church even declares Patrick’s daily ritual. The Roman Breviary for March 17 tells us:
Every day he worshipped God three hundred times with genuflections and during each canonical hour he made the sign of the cross one hundred times. He divided the night into three periods, devoting the first into the recitation of one hundred psalms, accompanied by two hundred genuflections; the second to the recitation of the last fifty psalms, but immersed in cold water, holding the heart, the eyes and the hands towards Heaven; the third he devoted to a short rest, lying on the bare stone.
But is this a faithful presentation of the Patrick who labored in Ireland in the fifth century? Is thisreally the man who evangelized the Emerald Isle? And if it is, do we really want to know such a man, never mind make him the object of a special study? Ironically, the presentation of Patrick that embellishes his life with “pious legend” and papal fictions to make him appealing and interesting rather than making us admire him makes any real appreciation of this remarkable man impossible. Thankfully, as John T. McNeill points out, “The popular image of Patrick partakes largely of the legend and bears little relation to the historical person.”2
Thankfully, we possess two writings of Patrick which, incidentally, constitute the oldest existing Irish literature. First, in his Letter to Coroticus Patrick rebukes Coroticus and his soldiers for attacking some of his Christian converts. Some were slaughtered, but others were kidnapped to be sold into slavery. Second, Patrick wrote his Confession near the end of his life as a defense of his mission work in Ireland. Patrick’s two writings have been translated into English several times and exist in many editions. They are well worth obtaining and they make rewarding reading, taking us back to the work and world of a Christian missionary in fifth century Ireland.3
Papal writers sometimes betray a certain amount of disappointment with Patrick’s Confession and his Letter to Coroticus. They appear to be dissatisfied with the simple account of his gratitude to God and labors on behalf of the gospel of Christ. “Where are his miraculous works?” they seem to be thinking. “Where does he speak of the practices of the Roman Church?” Something more is expected of a saint, and so the myths and exaggerations of the centuries succeeding Patrick are latched upon and promoted.
Admittedly, there are several historical difficulties. Patrick’s writings are brief, and they were not intended to provide later readers with his “Life and Times.” They are occasionally ambiguous and can sometimes be interpreted in different senses. Our knowledge of the times during which he lived is still somewhat sketchy, and this provides further opportunity for an honest difference of opinion.
Patrick’s first two biographers, Tirechan (pronounced Teera-hawn) and Muirchu (pronounced Murra-hoo), both wrote in the second half of the seventh century, at least two hundred years after his death. Later works betray an even greater desire to heighten Patrick’s repute. It was one of these, the Tripartite Life, probably compiled near the end of the ninth century, which (sadly) became the most popular account of Patrick in Ireland until the twentieth century.
At the outset, we need to debunk some of the myths. First, Patrick was not Irish. He was born in Britain. Second, the tradition of Patrick’s driving the snakes out of Ireland is palpably false. Third, the shamrock story was first mentioned about one thousand years after Patrick. Fourth, the confrontation at Tara, though taken for truth by many, is mythical. R. P. C. Hanson states, “There was no High-King of Ireland in his day,” and “miters were not invented for at least 500 years after Patrick.”4 Fifth, the green beer is not of an old vintage.
Sixth, the claim of Patrick’s papal connections is denied even by some Roman Catholic scholars. Aidan Nichols, in a recent Vatican publication, states,
Patrick’s own writings … make no such pretension to papal support. It seems that the conversion of those Celtic areas that lay outside the civil zone of Roman Britain was initiated by British Christians themselves.5
It is highly significant that when Patrick was challenged as to his credentials for working in Ireland, he does not appeal to Rome (Conf 23ff.). Had Patrick been a papal missionary, such an omission would be unthinkable.
If this helps us in understanding what Patrick was not, we are still some way in understanding what he was really like. According to one scholar, Patrick “is one of the few personalities of fifth-century Europe who has revealed himself with living warmth, in terms that men of any age who care for their fellows can understand.” This quotation may serve to encourage us in our quest for the real Saint Patrick, the man behind the myth.
The Patrick portrayed in public celebrations and by the Roman Catholic Church is mythical and useless. In Patrick’s Confession and Letter to Coroticus we meet a godly Christian missionary who both commands our admiration and deserves greater attention. Thus we shall consider his life, his message, and his missionary labors, before concluding with an analysis of his significance. This we shall begin, God willing, next time.
1.Thomas Cahill, How the Irish Saved Civilization: The Untold Story of Ireland’s Heroic Role from the Fall of Rome to the Rise of Medieval Europe (USA: Anchor Books, Doubleday, 1995), p. 147.
2.John T. McNeill, The Celtic Churches: A History A.D. 200 to 1200 (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1974), p. 55; italics mine.
3.Patrick’s Confession and his Letter to Coroticus hereafter will be abbreviated Conf and Letter, respectively. The translation from the original Latin which is used in this article is that of R. P. C. Hanson (The Life and Writings of the Historical Saint Patrick [New York: The Seabury Press, 1983]).
4.Hanson, Op. cit., p. 1.
5.Aidan Nichols, “The Roman Primacy in the Ancient Irish and Anglo-Celtic Church,” in Michele Maccarrone (ed.), Il Primato del vescovo di Roma nel primo millennio (Vatican: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1997), p. 475.