12 March 2022
Saint Patrick: the myths, the legends
and his relevance to Ireland today
With St Patrick’s Day festivities expected to return to form this year, what do we really know about the ‘Apostle of Ireland’? Can we separate the man from the myth and discover a new relevance for Ireland today?Patrick Comerford
The promise of an extra public holiday next year to celebrate the life of Saint Brigid brings some balance not only to the celebrations of St Patrick but also an opportunity to ask who Saint Patrick is for us today and to ask about his significance. Is it possible to remove the saint from both popular celebrations and popular mythology and to ask whether his mission to Ireland was unique and what is his place in Irish Church History?
During the extended St Patrick’s Day festivities this year, there will be little if any mention of St Patrick, his spiritual message, or the unique experience of Christianity in Ireland and the Church in the centuries afterwards.
With the lifting of pandemic restrictions, most of the fun will be at parades and at fun fairs rather than in churches and cathedrals. It seems inevitable that we are going to be inundated with reports on public buildings and monuments around the world floodlit with fluorescent green.
In Ireland, Easter Day is hijacked by the 1916 centenary; St Patrick’s Day is hijacked by parades and pints; and Celtic Spirituality is relegated to the ‘New Age Spirituality’ shelves in our bookshops, or the glossy souvenirs in Dublin Airport’s duty-free ‘shopping experience.’ But what do we know about St Patrick, his life, his teaching, his writings, and his spirituality?
Early Christianity In Ireland
Traditionally and romantically, St Patrick is said to have converted the entire population of Ireland from paganism in a very short period between 432 and 461, less than the span of one generation. These dates are of significance in the history of the wider Church: Saint Augustine died in 430, the Council of Ephesus met in 431, and the Council of Chalcedon met in 451.
But putting aside myth and romance, it is important to recognise that there were Christians in Ireland before Saint Patrick arrived and that Irish mythology was long anxious to claim Irish connections with the Christian story before Patrick. These include the stories of Altus, said to have been an Irish witness to the passion and death of Christ; Conor Mac Nessa, King of Ireland, who died of a broken heart when he heard of Christ’s crucifixion; Cormac Mac Airt, who converted to Christianity in the third century; and Mansuetus, said to have been an Irish bishop in fourth century France.
But there is a realistic medium between these legends and the concept of a sudden conversion to Christianity at the hands of a single missionary. Tacitus (ca 55-120 AD) tells us that British or Gallic merchants had a reasonably good knowledge of Ireland’s ‘harbours and approaches.’ The ‘Celtic’ people in Ireland were traders, raiders and plunderers, and there is evidence of Roman traders reaching Irish harbours and beyond them up rivers such as the Nore and the Barrow, trading in wine, oil and wheat. The Irish imported pottery, metal-work and bric-a-brac from Roman Gaul and Britain, and exported copper, gold, slaves, hides, cattle and wolfhounds.
By the end of the third century, people from Ireland were establishing colonies in Wales, Cornwall and Scotland. By the third or fourth century, there was regular commercial, mercantile and social contact with Roman communities in Britain and Gaul. There have been abundant finds of looted Roman coins all along the north and east coasts of Ireland, and Roman silver ingots with similar Christian provenance have been found in Kent and Limerick.
Catherine Swift argues convincingly that many among the ruling class in Ireland adopted the cultural habits and social customs of Roman Britons. What is now Cathedral Hill in Armagh is an example of one of their temple sites.
Christianity probably arrived in Ireland in the fourth and early fifth centuries by a slow and gradual process from Britain and from Continental Europe, probably from Gaul and what we now know as Germany, and perhaps even from the Iberian peninsula, including present-day Spain and Portugal.
Niall of the Nine Hostages commanded several raiding expeditions across the Irish Sea. British captives carried off by Irish raiders may be yet another way of Christianity coming to have a presence on this island. Some educated continental Christians may also have sought refuge in Ireland during the barbarian invasions of the Roman Empire at the start of the fourth century, bringing their Christianity with them.
Other points of contact include the contacts made by the Irish migrants in Britain, and trade links with Roman Britain, Gaul and Spain. A gravestone for a fifth century Irish Christian has been found in a Christian cemetery in Trier, and fifth century Christians, some with Latin names, are commemorated on ogham stones in Carlow, Waterford, Cork and Kerry.
In other words, many factors indicate the arrival of Christianity in Ireland long before Patrick was captured as a slave, and there was a considerable Christian presence on this island before Patrick began his mission in 432.
Patrick’s life and mission
The traditional account of the life of St Patrick says he was born about 372 in Roman Britain in Bannavem Taburniae, perhaps in Cumbria or at a Roman outpost at Dumbarton in Scotland. He says his father Calpornius was a deacon and his grandfather Potitus was a priest; both were from a relatively prosperous class of Romans.
At the age of 16, the young Patrick was captured in a great raid along with ‘many thousands of people’ [Confessio 1]. According to his own account, some of them were lukewarm Christians, and some could also have been committed Christians, perhaps even priests. His account of his escape from slavery at the age of 22 may be evidence of an escape network for fugitive slaves run by concerned Christians, more than 20 years before Patrick began his own mission [Confessio 17 and 18].
After his escape, Patrick had visions in which he heard the cry of the people in Ireland pleading to him to come back. It is an image that may have drawn on Saint Paul’s vision in Troy of a man calling him across the sea to Macedonia (see Acts 16: 9-10). Most of the details we have of his life are from his Confessio, written in reply to the attacks on his character brought against him in England, and from his Letter to Coroticus.
Patrick arrived back in Ireland from Britain around 432. According to JB Bury, he landed in Wicklow, at the mouth of the River Vartry. Traditions associate his early mission with the islands off the Skerries coast, Co Dublin, and Saul, Co Down. But there are traditions too of Irish saints who preceded St Patrick: St Ciaran of Seir Kieran, Co Offaly; St Ibar or Iberius of Begerin, Co Wexford; his nephew, St Abban of Adamstown, Co Wexford; St Declan of Ardmore, Co Waterford; St Declan’s friend, St Ailbe of Emly, Co Tipperary; St Meltioc or Multose of Kinsale, Co Cork; and so on.
Most of these saints are associated with the south and the south-east. Although there is no primary evidence to support these largely unreliable traditions, they underpin a truth that Christianity was in Ireland for generations before Saint Patrick arrived and that he was not the first person to bring Christianity to Ireland.
The background to St Patrick’s mission includes the presence of perhaps three heresies in Ireland – Arianism, Priscillianism and Pelagianism. Palladius was ordained by Pope Celestine, perhaps in 431, and was sent as the ‘first bishop’ on a mission to ‘the Scotti [Irish] who believe in Christ.’ So, from at least the third decade of the fifth century, Irish Christians were numerically large enough to have a bishop sent from Rome, and Palladius is associated with a number of church sites in Leinster. His work was continued, perhaps, by figures such as Secundinus, Auxilius and Iserninus. His mission activities and those of Patrick may have been confused in later writings, so that much of the work and success of Palladius was attributed wrongly to Patrick.
The late Professor Patrick Corish of Maynooth, in The Irish Catholic Experience (1985), links the mission of Palladius in Leinster with, perhaps, three churches in Co Wicklow. The circular letter known as The First Synod of Saint Patrick seems to provide evidence of a second-generation missionary Church in Leinster, and this stream of Christianity in Ireland has been associated with the Church in Kildare.
By the time Patrick began his mission, the foundations had been laid for a Church in Ireland that in the centuries that followed became a vibrant missionary Church. But, while the missions of Palladius and Patrick may have overlapped, Patrick does not refer to Palladius. Patrick was working in fresh territory, while Roman missionaries in Leinster were consolidating the work of Palladius and others who, by 431, had ensured that there were many people in Ireland who were Christians.
Two Latin works survive that are generally accepted to have been written by St Patrick. These are the Declaration or Confession (Confessio), and the Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus (Epistola), from which we have the only generally accepted details of his life.
In his Confessio , Patrick shows he is aware of episcopal activity in other parts of Ireland, including baptisms, confirmations and ordinations. But he says he travelled to places in Ireland ‘where no one else had ever penetrated, in order to baptise, or to ordain clergy, or to confirm the people’ – suggesting there were places that had received episcopal ministry from other, earlier sources.
The dates of Patrick’s life are the subject of conflicting traditions. His own writings provide nothing that can be dated more precisely than the fifth century. Although Patrick’s writings quote from the Acts of the Apostles as they are rendered by the early fifth-century Bible translation known as the Vulgate, these quotations may have been added later to replace other quotation from an earlier Bible version and can therefore not be used securely to fix dates for Saint Patrick or his writings. For example, the Letter to Coroticus implies that the Franks were still pagans at the time of writing. Their conversion to Christianity is dated to the period 496-508.
In his writings, Saint Patrick makes no references to the shamrock or snakes being driven out of Ireland, nor does he name of the mountain where he tended animals as a slave.
St Patrick did not teach about the Trinity using the shamrock. If he did use the shamrock, he was perilously close to the heresies of either tritheism, at one extreme, or modalism at the other.
The banning of snakes from Ireland is not mentioned by Saint Patrick in his own writings and does not appear in the stories about him until the 11th century. But, in the building of the nation myths, Saint Patrick was seen to need a legend parallel to Saint George slaying the dragon and Saint Marcel delivering Paris from the monster.
The Hill of Slemish and Croagh Patrick are not named, and Lough Derg is not mentioned either. Nor is there any allusion to the Paschal Fire on the Hill of Tara near Slane, Co Meath. There is no reference to King Laoghaire either, nor to the baptism of his daughters.
All these elements in popular stories about Saint Patrick come from later writing and traditions. Over time, the cult and status of Saint Patrick took on such proportions that we depend less on historical narrative and more on hagiography for these folk tales and legends.
I could go on … St Patrick did not wear a mitre and green liturgical robes – certainly not in Lent – he probably never carried a crozier, he did not turn the people of Skerries into goats, he did not fetch water from a well in Nassau Street, Dublin, and he certainly did not build St Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin … nor, for that matter, any St Patrick’s Cathedral.
There is a theory that there were two Patricks, although this may arise from a misreading of ‘the elder Patrick,’ who died in 457, where elder might also be read as bishop or priest. Neither the canons attributed to him nor the Breastplate of St Patrick is his work. Later seventh-century documents speak of Patrick as the successor of Palladius. However, the O Neill dynasty had Tireachan and Muirchu write spurious accounts of Patrick’s life to establish Armagh’s claims to primacy in Ireland.
When Brian Ború became High King ca 1000 AD, he had his secretary write into the Book of Armagh a confirmation of the right of Armagh to all church revenues in Ireland. It was at least another century, however, before Armagh’s claims to primacy were recognised throughout the Irish Church.
St Patrick’s relevance today
Our images of Celtic spirituality are often shaped by Victorian romanticism. Saint Patrick’s Breastplate, as we know it, is based on a manuscript from the late 11th century now in the Library of Trinity College Dublin. But it was only published in 1897 by John Henry Bernard (1860-1927), later Church of Ireland Archbishop of Dublin (1915-1919) and Provost of Trinity College Dublin (1919-1927).
Sometimes, our images of Celtic Spirituality are intricately linked with the nation-state-building myths created by an Irish nationalism that was often narrow in its vision. But when we consider the long run of Christian history over 2,000 years, St Patrick’s Day is a reasonably late innovation, dating from only the 17th century, and has only been a public holiday since 1903. Indeed, the first St Patrick’s Day parade in Dublin was not held until 1931.
St Patrick’s Day is a good day for parades and parties, for trying to show each other we have a cúpla focal, for singing a few hymns and songs in Irish, and for breaking our Lenten fasts and forgetting our Lenten resolutions.
But St Patrick is more relevant to Irish identity today, and too important to be relegated to revelries on a long bank holiday weekend.
St Patrick was a unifying force for the varying strands of Christianity in Ireland. So often, every one of the Churches in Ireland is so insecure in its identity, that we cling too often to the little things that make us different instead of rejoicing in the truly important things that we have in common. However, St Patrick is a shared figure in our ecumenical endeavours, celebrated not only by all Church traditions, and even revered among Muslims as a pre-Islamic holy figure. He stands out too as a reminder of the benefits of welcoming immigrants, challenge exploitation and celebrating our centuries-old links with our neighbours in Britain and across Europe.
Revd Canon Professor Patrick Comerford is a Church of Ireland priest in the Diocese of Limerick, and a retired adjunct assistant professor in Trinity College Dublin
This five-page, cover-story feature is published in the current edition of Reality (Redemptorist Communications), March 2022 (Vol 88 No 2 ISSN 0034-0960), pp 12-16.