17 March 2021

Saint Patrick’s relevance to
cultural diversity, pluralism
and tolerance in Ireland today

Saint Patrick receiving his mission to Ireland from Saint Celestine … a stained-glass window in a church in Dundalk, Co Louth (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Wednesday 17 March 2021

Saint Patrick’s Day

10 a.m.: The Festal Eucharist

Saint Mary’s Church, Askeaton, Co Limerick

The Readings: Tobit 13: 1b-7; Psalm 145: 1-13; II Corinthians 4: 1-12; John 4: 31-38.

There is a link to the readings HERE.

Saint Patrick depicted on the cladding for current restoration work at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

May I speak to you in the name of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Saint Patrick’s Day is difficult once again this year. The stories of Saint Patrick’s years of isolation, herding swine on the slopes of Slemish, are no compensation for being unable, once again, to celebrate this national festival because of the Covid pandemic lockdown.

Of course, if normal circumstances had prevailed, the celebrations in Ireland today might have had little to do with the early arrival of Christianity in Ireland, and more to do with street festivals, music, parades, music and – to be frank – consuming large amounts of alcohol.

So, we may ask, what has modern Ireland to do with the story of Saint Patrick?

But, it is worth recalling, the story of Saint Patrick is one of cultural diversity, pluralism and tolerance that is relevant to today’s Ireland.

I am all too conscious that the name Patrick is regarded as quintessentially Irish wherever I go, even beyond the English-speaking world.

But, of course, neither the name nor Patrick himself is Irish.

The name Patrick is a given name derived from the Latin name Patricius, meaning a patrician or person of noble birth. According to Livy and Cicero, the first 100 men appointed as senators by Romulus were referred to as ‘fathers’ (patres) of Rome, and their descendants became the patrician class.

In the same way, the word Patriarch is derived from the Greek πατριάρχης (patriarchēs), meaning ‘chief or father of a family,’ a compound of πατριά (patria), meaning ‘family,’ and ἄρχειν (archein), meaning ‘to rule.’

But, even then, Patrick may not have been the original name of the saint. Various early biographies say he was also known as Magonus (famous, or servant), Succetus (god of war or swineheard), Patricius (father of the people), and Cothirthiacus (four places).

He was born not in Ireland but in Roman Britain, perhaps in Cumbria, near Carlisle, close to Hadrian’s Wall, or – in one opinion – in Bannaventa, a Roman town in the English Midlands. Other claims for his birth have been made for either present-day Scotland or Wales, or even present-day France.

No early sources ever suggest that he was born in Ireland, or that he had Irish family connections: his father Calpurnius was a decurion and deacon, and his grandfather Potitus was a priest from Bonaven Tabernia.

So, Patrick was born a Latin-speaker, of Roman ancestry, and after escaping from slavery in Ireland he was educated for the priesthood in present-day France, perhaps at Auxerre or at Lérins, off the coast of Cannes, and visited Marmoutier Abbey, Tours. He received the tonsure at Lérins Abbey, and Saint Germanus, Bishop of Auxerre, ordained him priest.

When Patrick returned to Ireland, he was not the first Christian, nor was he even the first bishop here. His mission was to unite the Church in Ireland and to convert people in places not yet reached by Christianity.

By the early fifth century, there was already a large number of Christians in Ireland. They included Romano-British slaves and their descendants and Irish-born converts who had encountered Christianity during trading and cultural visits to Roman Britain and Europe.

The first bishop sent to these early Christians in Ireland was Palladius, from Poitiers in present-day France, who had spent some time as a hermit in Sicily. His mission was to unite these Christians in Ireland in a church.

Prosper of Aquitaine records in his Chronicle that in 431 Pope Celestine sent Palladius as bishop to the Irish believing in Christ. Palladius landed at Arklow, Co Wicklow, and his assistants were Auxilius, Secundinus, and Iserninus.

Ireland was a continuing concern for the continental church, and these concerns were well expressed by the pontificate of Pope Leo the Great (440-461).

Saint Patrick made no claim to preach to the whole island or to be its only missionary, but only to have worked where no other missionary had gone before. In his Confessio, Patrick shows he is aware of episcopal activity in other parts of Ireland, including baptisms, confirmations and ordinations. His Confession is his defence of his personal integrity and his mission when they are criticised by other bishops in Ireland.

There is a strong tradition that six or more saints were bishops in Ireland before Saint Patrick: Saint Ailbe of Emly, Co Tipperary; Saint Ciaran of Seir-Kieran in the Diocese of Ossory; Saint Abban of Adamstown, Co Wexford; Saint Declan of Ardmore, Co Waterford; Saint Ibar or Iberius of Wexford; and Saint Meltioc or Multose of Kinsale, Co Cork.

These claims may originate as anti-Patrician propaganda written to counter the claims of the church in Armagh to primacy over the whole of Ireland in the seventh and eighth centuries. But they also point to persistent claims of a strong presence of an organised church in pre-Patrician Ireland.

So, Saint Patrick comes to Ireland as outsider, a Latin-speaker, and comes to a Church that is already dispersed and diverse. His writings show a particular interest in the rights of slaves, women and the oppressed.

If anything, the story of Saint Patrick paints a picture of an Ireland that is greater than the green, Catholic Ireland he is often used to bolster. That background and those concerns make Patrick a saint who addresses many of the agendas in Ireland today, and who gives us an opportunity to be thankful for the pluralism, diversity and tolerance that is emerging in Ireland today.

And so, may all we think, say and do be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Seamus Murphy’s Saint Patrick (1949), a sculpture in polished limestone win Saint Patrick’s College, Maynooth, Co Kildare (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

John 4: 31-38 (NRSVA):

31 Meanwhile the disciples were urging him [Jesus], ‘Rabbi, eat something.’ 32 But he said to them, ‘I have food to eat that you do not know about.’ 33 So the disciples said to one another, ‘Surely no one has brought him something to eat?’ 34 Jesus said to them, ‘My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work. 35 Do you not say, “Four months more, then comes the harvest”? But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting. 36 The reaper is already receiving wages and is gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. 37 For here the saying holds true, “One sows and another reaps.” 38 I sent you to reap that for which you did not labour. Others have laboured, and you have entered into their labour.’

The Breastplate of Saint Patrick on the doors of Saint Vedast Foster Lane or Saint Vedast-alias-Foster in the City of London … Bernard Merry’s glass doors allow the inside of the church to be seen from Foster Lane, even on cold and dark evenings (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Liturgical Colour: White.

Penitential Kyries:

O taste and see that the Lord is good;
happy are those who trust in him.
Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

The Lord ransoms the live of his servants
and none who trust in him will be destroyed.
Christ, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.

Come my children, listen to me:
I will teach you the fear of the Lord.
Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

The Collect of the Day:

Almighty God,
in your providence you chose your servant Patrick
to be the apostle of the Irish people,
to bring those who were wandering in darkness and error
to the true light and knowledge of your Word:
Grant that walking in that light
we may come at last to the light of everlasting life;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Introduction to the Peace:

Peace be to you, and peace to your house, and peace to all who are yours (I Samuel 25: 6).


To this land you sent the glorious gospel
through the preaching of Patrick.
You caused it to grow and flourish in the life of your servant Patrick and in
the lives of men and women, filled with your Holy Spirit,
building up your Church to send forth the good news to other places:

Post Communion Prayer:

Hear us, most merciful God,
for that part of the Church
which through your servant Patrick you planted in our land;
that it may hold fast the faith entrusted to the saints
and in the end bear much fruit to eternal life:
through Jesus Christ our Lord.


God, who in days of old gave to this land the benediction of his holy Church,
fill you with his grace to walk faithfully in the steps of the saints
and to bring forth fruit to his glory:

Saint Patrick … an icon received as a present in Crete and now in the Rectory in Askeaton, Co Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)


611: Christ be beside me (CD 35)
322: I bind unto myself today (CD supplied)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

Material from the Book of Common Prayer is copyright © 2004, Representative Body of the Church of Ireland.

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