Above the door in one of the classrooms of the primary school that I attended as a child was a picture of a man dressed in the robes of a Roman Catholic bishop of the late 19th century. His left hand held a crozier, while his right pointed towards the ground, upon which numerous snakes were depicted crawling towards the sea; in the background there was an image of a monastic round-tower. The bishop was said to be St Patrick (circa 387 – 493), and the painting represented a fusion of a politicised Roman Catholicism and a romanticised Nationalist Ireland. From this conjunction (with the added influence of the nostalgically “Irish”-in-America and, in more recent decades, the Americanised Irish-within-Ireland) emerged the modern representation of St Patrick.
These influences needed to be bypassed before I was somewhat able to approach with new interest the question, “Who was St Patrick?” Patrick is, in my view, and to the extent that my understanding will allow, the most pivotal figure of Ireland’s record since the 5th Century and one of the most important in Europe, yet not a great deal is known about him.
An Orthodox Byzantine Icon
I cannot rely solely on history to try to locate Patrick, although his life did coincide with a recorded Irish history of sorts. But it also flourished during the latter period of Ireland’s last mythological cycle, sometimes referred to as the “historical cycle” or the “Cycle of the Kings”. It is not known with any certainty where Patrick was born; it may have been in either the Roman province of Briton or Gaul, although it is most likely the former. Patrick informs us that his father, Calpornius, was a deacon and also an official of the empire in the town of Bannaventa Berniae. Though there is some debate about the possible existence of two Patricks who came to give impetus to the outpost of Christianity(1) that had been established in Ireland years earlier, but the evidence upon which this is based has no validity.
Most scholars accept there was but one remarkable man (“the Great Initiate”) who was the author of two short pieces of writing: the Epistola and the Confessio. A Confessio is a literary genre, and the Confessio of St Patrick, along with the Confessions of St Augustine, is among the finest extant examples of this form in ancient literature.
As a youth Patrick was captured by hostile marauders at his father’s country estate, transported along with many other captives to Ireland, and sold into slavery. Muirchú, one of the saint’s hagiographers, declares that Patrick tended sheep; other sources claim that Patrick was a swineherd, one of the lowest placements in the society of his exile. Here, through hardship and suffering, he came to recognise his lowly state and began to pray for help and guidance; as the years passed his prayer deepened and was answered. He escaped and returned to his home, where in response to an inner call, he undertook years of study and initiation into the priesthood at St Martin’s Monastery at Tours, at the island sanctuary of Lérins, and with St Germain of Auxerrre. Later, in a dream, he received a summons from an angel, Victoricus, to return to Ireland: “The sons and daughters of the Forest of Foclut call to you.”
Accompanied by a group of companions, he returned and disembarked at Inber Sláine, circa 433 AD. Gradually he traveled inland towards the household of the chieftain, Miliucc, whom he had served while held captive. Miliucc, hearing of the approach of his former servant, committed an apparently strange action: he immolated himself along with all of his possessions, and from the slopes of Slíabh Mis where he had arrived ‘in a state of grace’, Patrick witnessed the funeral pyre.
Gradually as I explored the Confessio of Patrick, it began to dawn on me that the writings could be, like many other literary efforts, allegorical(2). With this in view, let us examine again the opening part of Patrick’s return. He comes no longer a captive. Through effort and guidance, the inner man Patricius(3), father of the Nation, has become free of his former master, his outer man. Whereas Miliucc is consumed with fire, his descendants submit to the new inner man and Patrick utters these words: “I do not know, but God knows,” and of Miliucc declares, “His seed will serve instead of being served for all time.”
The Confessio concludes with the declaration that what was accomplished in Ireland was “the ‘Gift Of God’, and this is my confession before I die.” After his death, Patrick’s “children in the faith” consolidated his extraordinary missionary initiative. In a time of disintegration and darkness, Ireland became known as “the island of saints and scholars”, a place of refuge and a light to Europe and beyond, and remained so through periods of inner renewal for several centuries.
(1) Palladius was the first bishop sent by Pope Celestine I to ‘the Irish believing in Christ’ in 431′.
(2) Origen (A.D. 185 – 254?) utilized his sermons and writings to illustrate his view that there are at least three levels of meaning in any biblical text; the literal sense, the moral application to the soul, and the allegorical or spiritual sense, referring to the mysteries of the Christian faith. Origin was influenced by Plato, Pythagoras, Gnosticism, Jewish exegetical traditions, eastern teachings particularly those of Persia and India, and drew upon those when he advocated two varieties of religion for different types of people — an esoteric and an exoteric.
(3) His birth name may have been Maewyn Succat, the name Patricius or Patrick (Irish Pádraig) was bestowed on him by Pope Celestine I. By the 8th century he had come to be revered as the patron saint of Ireland.