March 17, St. Patricks day – But who was really St. Patrick?
Every year on the 17th of March thousands of people in Ireland, and people with Irish origin around the world wear green clothes and celebrate St. Patricks day. Green is the national color of Ireland symbolizes the landscape of the nation. Also associated with the day is the shamrock, a small three leaved plant. With this St. Patrick should have explained the Trinity, according to the legend. Real historians today tell us that St. Patrick never did explain the trinity with the help of the shamrock, but that might make us even more interested in finding out: Who was really St. Patrick?.
Sources for knowledge about St. Patrick
Our best sources for knowledge about St. Patrick are his two writings which we still have among us. They give us a first hand source as we look upon his life and what he did. The first is called „Letter to the soldiers of Coroticus” and the other „Confession.”
Other books containing history written from this period can help us to understand and see the society in which St. Patrick was living, though they can not tell us so much about the life of St. Patrick.
In addition several stories were written about him in the following centuries by well meaning monks, though some of those contain more legends than real stories. (Freeman  p. xvii). Among these are the story of how he drove the snakes out of Ireland.
The world St. Patrick was born into
St. Patrick, or his real name, Patricius was born in Roman England around 390. Since Romulus and Remus had ended up in Rome around 1000 years earlier, Rome and later, the Roman Empire had been growing and growing. In the mind of people, the Roman Empire had come to stay, and the thought that one day it could fall, did not exist.
Roman Britan (or today’s England) had since its invasion by emperor Claudius in year 43 AC been left more and more over to itself. The troops originally stationed in the nation were with time moved to more southern nations/territories.
As the barbarians started their invasion of the Roman Empire, the troops in Roman Britain was taken to for example Gaul to help protect their territories. And if this was not enough, in 410 what everyone thought would be impossible, happened. The Visigoths, lead by Alaric, invaded and robbed Rome for all its treasures.
Roman Britain, mostly left to themselves, had enough with their own problems. From the north the Picts were harassing their inhabitants, in addition the Saxons and the Irish were a big threat to the citizens of Roman Britain. Standing on their own legs the nation was lead by British noblemen, whom among them could be found St. Patricks father, Calpornius.
Ireland was during this period looked upon as a nation at the end of the world. Julius Ceasar called it „Hibernia,” which means winterland, and said it was the boundary of the „habitable world.” (Freeman  p. 122). It was not only known as the end of the world, but also for its evil people who invaded cities, stole everything of value and later sold their prisoners as slaves. It was not a part of the Roman Empire.
I am Patrick, yes a sinner, and the simplest of peasants, so that I am despised by the majority of men. My father Calpornius… was a deacon. We lived in the town of Bannaventa Berniae.” (Skinner  p. 26)
St. Patricks story
The exact year for St. Patricks birth we dont know, but the year normally used is 390. He grew up in Bannaventa Berniae, somewhere along the east coast of England. His father Calpornicus was a deacon in the church, and a decurion, whose task was to collect the taxes to the empire. Seeing St. Patrick born, he must have seen a great future in his son, following in his fathers footsteps.
Then one day the dream was stolen away. As the vikings would come hundreds of years later killing, taking slaves and ransacking their countrysides, the Irish came visiting St. Patricks home. He was taken captive and brought to Ireland, together with thousands of others. (Skinner  p. 26)
>He arrived to Ireland after two days of traveling. There he was later sold as a slave. His task became to watch out for the sheep of his master. Watching out for the sheep in the beautiful nature of Ireland, he finally had time to think through the bigger questions in life. From his childhood he had rejected much of the faith in God, but during his time in Ireland he explains how God came to him, shaping and molding him.
His escape from Ireland
After 6 years working as a slave he heard a voice speaking to him in a dream „You have fasted well – soon you will be going home.” The following night the same voice told him „Behold, your ship is ready.” Trusting in God he ran away from his master, and walked around 185 miles to reach the harbor where his ship would be waiting. This information tells us that he probably worked as a slave on the west coast of Ireland (Freeman  p. 24).
Safely arriving to the coast he saw a ship. First they did not want to take him onboard, but after a short prayer, the sailors changed their mind. We don’t know exactly where they brought him, because while David Bercot writes in his book (Bercot  p. 174) that it for sure had to be Gaul, Freeman in his book states that his guess is that they brought him to England.(Freeman  p. 39) Whether Gaul or England, God used St. Patrick together with the the men onboard. God showed his provision, and the fear of the Lord came upon everybody onboard as they saw the power of St. Patricks prayers. After some time together St. Patrick got permission to go home..
„So after many years, I finally returned home to my family in Britain. They took me in, their long lost son, and begged me earnestly that after all I had been through, I would never leave them again.” (Skinner  p. 45)
Safely home, the joy was great as his family had received their kidnapped boy back. After many years of waiting the son they thought were lost forever turned up again. We can only imagine the joy and happiness experienced in the house!. The once destroyed plans about St. Patricks future might have been growing in Calpornius again..
Not long after his return, something very surprising happened to St. Patrick. In a dream, he saw a man, Victoricus, arriving from Ireland. He gave St. Patrick a letter, and the content was „The voice of the Irish,” followed by the text „Come and walk among us again.” St. Patrick understood the message. God wanted him to go back to Ireland. He knew the language, the culture and the people. God had everything carefully planed and prepared. But would his family understand?
Assuming that his birth was in 390 AC, that he was taken captive at the age of 15, followed by 6 years of prison, and then coming back to England, he would have returned in year 411-412 AC. That gives him a period of around 20 years before he would go back around 431-432, as is generally assumed. This time was filled with learning and preparation, and some sources also tell that he was travelling to Gaul serving during this waiting time.
Back to Ireland
After years of preparation and waiting St. Patrick was finally sent back to Ireland, as the second bishop sent to the nation. Before him the Romans had sent Palladius (431) to Ireland. He was sent as an answer to a request for a bishop, earlier sent by Irish Christians. If Palladius knew St. Patrick, worked together or if they had no contact at all we do not know. The early Irish historians wanted to give all credit to St. Patrick, so they wrote that Palladius failed his mission and left the island in 432, followed by St. Patrick. (Freeman  p. 71). We will probably never know the truth about this, but what we do know is that St. Patrick is never mentioning Palladius in the two writings he left behind for us to read.
Patricks time in Ireland had a two-winged focus. He wanted to give a solid foundation to the believers on the Island, at the same time as he reached new people with the gospel. To do so he had to travel around, and that could be dangerous as well as exciting.
„I used to make payments to the local kings. In addition, I also gave money to their sons who accompanied me on my journeys. But that did not stop them from seizing me one time along with my companions. They were eager to kill me.” (Freeman  p. 69)
During this time Ireland was not a united nation, but built up by many small kingdoms. The different kingdoms had their own ruler, so as St. Patrick traveled he had to pay taxes to the local ruler to pass through their land. No doubt this could be dangerous, and he is writing in his confession „On one occasion they took me and my companions prisoner, and were all set to kill me. But my time had not yet come. They laid hands on everything we had, put me in irons, and only after fourteen days did the Lord free me from their power.” (Skinner  p. 69). Probably the lack of unity between the kingdoms was what made it possible for St. Patrick to escape the Island during his time as a slave. As the different kings did not necessarily want to help their neighbouring clans capturing fugitives, St. Patrick did not need to be so afraid as he ran away.
The letter to soldiers of Coroticus
„The very next day after my new converts, dressed all in white, were anointed with chrism, even as it was still gleaming upon their foreheads, they were cruelly cut down and killed by the swords of these devilish men.” (Skinner  p. 3)
For long time the Irish were feared for their raids on the English coast. One of the writings St. Patrick left behind was his letter to the soldiers of Coroticus. This was written as a result of the Englishmens revenge. One day after baptizing many new converts Coroticus and his soldiers come, and they killed many of the newly baptized believers. Some girls were not killed, but taken as prizes to the soldiers, or brought as slaves back to England. There they would later be sold as slaves to some of the barbaric tribes.
Provoked by this he wrote this St. Patrick wrote his letter to the soldiers of Coroticus. It was warning the soldiers not to enjoy fellowship with such devilish men. They should repent from their sin and send all the captives back again. (Skinner  p. 16). Whether the letter really caused any change we do not know.
St. Patricks work was carrying much fruit. He himself said that he was baptizing thousands of people. (Skinner  p. 68) Though he had big success, he later had to write his „Confession” in order to defend himself against accusations set up against him. We have to assume that accusations was set against him from Christians in England.
In his early childhood he had done an awful sin (that is everything he writes about it.). Maybe he killed someone, or had sex outside marriage? This sin he had confessed to his closest friend. Now his friend had told in public about St. Patricks sin, and the church leaders of England brought accusations against him.Not only this created problems for St. Patrick, but they also accused him of asking money, being greedy, and using the work for his own pleasure. This he strongly opposes saying „Or when the Lord ordained his priests in every part, through my feeble efforts, and as i exercised my ministry freely aong them all, did I ask for so much as the price of a pair of shoes? Just let me know, and I will repay you.” (Skinner  p. 68).
Geography, druids and St. Patrick’s death
It is hard to place his work geographically in the nation, as St. Patrick never mentions city names in his writings. It is still generally assumed that his work was in the northern parts of Ireland. (Freeman  p. 73). It would though be wrong to say he was only working there, as we can read about his traveling, visiting many kings and crossing the borders inside Ireland.
Before Christianity arrived and was planted into Ireland, the druids had great power in the nation. The legends tell about St. Patricks fights and battles with these. Though they are legends, they might give us a taste of reality in the fact that Patrick really met with them, and as he led such a growing work, he for sure met some opposition from them.
The druids believed that life is eternal, and that the human spirit is reincarnated. Their rites existed of human sacrifices, medical treatment with mistletoe, creation of good-luck amulets and fortune telling (Freeman  p. 99).
From St. Patrick first arrived to the Island, he stayed there for the rest of his life. He looks upon himself as a „prisoner by the Spirit” so he could not see his family. (Skinner  p.7)
Around 472 AC Patrick’s life reached its end. As with the rest of his ministry in Ireland, we don’t know exactly where this happened. Behind he left a nation changed. Today as the Irish celebrate St. Patrick’s day 17th March we can see that Patrick’s heritage is still visible in the nation.
How the Irish saved civilization
During the time St. Patrick worked and ministered in Ireland, the Roman Empire fell apart. The Germans were invading all parts of the empire. As Odoacher was elected emperor in 476 the Roman Empire with its mighty rulers was made history, and together with the Roman Empire, much of the civilized world. Literature was burnt and learning was no longer so strongly in focus. These were some of the facts leading to what we often know as the start of the „Dark Middle Ages.” In this darkness light was shining in Ireland. „For it was Patricks Christian mission that nurtured Irish scholarship into blossom. Patrick, the incomplete Roman, nevertheless understood that, though Christianity was not inextricably wedded to Roman custom, it could not survive without Roman literacy.” (Cahill  p. 150).
Unique in its kind, Ireland is the only nation to which Christianity was spread without bloodshed. As a result the Irish came up with what they called „Green Martyrdom.” The Green Martyrs were those who „leaving behind the comforts and pleasures of ordinary human society, retreated to the woods, or to a mountaintop, there to study the scriptures and commune with God.” (Cahill  p. 151) These peoples later gathered in groups, which formed monasteries, among them the famous monasteries of Iona and Lindisfarne.
With their love for all kinds of literature, they read and translated it in the monasteries. While Jerome was afraid to burn in hell for reading Cicero, the Irish put into their libraries everything the could get hold of. According to John T. Mcneill the breadth and richness of Irish monastic learning, was what gave the Irish such a unique role in the history of Western culture. (Cahill  p. 159).
One of the things in which the Irish monasteries differed from other monasteries, was that a monk was not bound to one monastery (building) for the rest of his life. The Irish monks were joining for lifetime as they joined the monastery movement, but they could, more or less, freely travel between the different monasteries. This lead to a strong mission spirit, that later would make them bring their monasteries, and also the literature throughout all of Europe. In this way you can say that the irish saved civilization, in a time of despair and destruction.
Freeman does not agree with Cahill in this thought as he sais: „The Irish did not save civilization – it had never been lost. The vibrant monasteries and learned nobility of western Europe, not to mention the entire eastern Roman Empire, would have laughed at the notion that the Irish were rescuing them from barbarism. What the Irish who settled in Europe were known and admired for was their careful scholarship and fierce dedication to the rigors of monastic life.” (Cahill  p. 160).
Whether they saved civilization or not, we can conclude that Irish inheritage is still upon us today. I do not think the old classics would have been lost without them, but that the Irish had great impact in sharing the gospel and spreading both the old classics and new literature across Europe, is sure. For all of this, much honor should go to Patrick. For the Irish he is know as their patron saint. But even more than this, he took part in changing the nation, and leaving something behind that have definitely had a bigger impact on our continent than most people would think.
Bruce L. Shelley Church History in a plain Language (2. edition). Nelson Reference
David W. Bercot  Let Me Die in Ireland, The True Story of Patrick. Scroll Publishing Company
John Skinner  Confession of Saint Patrick. Image
Mike Cronin  A History of Ireland. Palgrave Macmillan
Norman Davies  Europe: A History. Oxford University Press
Philip Freeman  St. Patrick of Ireland: A biography . Simon & Schuster
Thomas Cahill  How the Irish Saved Civilization. Anchor