12 March 2022

Saint Patrick: the myths, the legends
and his relevance to Ireland today

The cover of the March 2022 edition of Reality

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?

St Patrick … a stained glass window in Saint Edan’s Cathedral, Ferns, Co Wexford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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.

Saint Patrick seen in a window in Saint Bartholomew’s Church, Ballsbridge, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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.

Seamus Murphy’s sculpture of Saint Patrick in Saint Patrick’s College, Maynooth, Co Kildare (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick’s writings

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 [51], 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.

Saint Patrick with mitre, crozier, Bible and shamrock at the chapel in Saint Patrick’s College, Maynooth (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Praying with the Psalms in Lent:
12 March 2022 (Psalms 31, 32, 33)

‘Praise the Lord with the lyre; make melody to him with the harp of ten strings’ (Psalm 33: 2) … lyres in a shop front on a street in Rethymnon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Before today begins, I am taking some time early this morning for prayer, reflection and reading.

During Lent this year, in this Prayer Diary on my blog each morning, I am reflecting in these ways:

1, Short reflections on a psalm or psalms;

2, reading the psalm or psalms;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.

‘Take me out of the net that they have laid secretly for me, for you are my strength’ (Psalm 31: 4) … a maze of fences at Lëkurësi Castle near Sarandë, Albania (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Psalm 31:

Psalm 31 was often known in English by its first verse in the Book of Common Prayer ‘In thee, O Lord, have I put my trust.’ There, it was headed with the Latin opening words, In te, Domine, speravi, and it was one of the two psalms appointed for Morning Prayer on Day 6. The first line in Latin, In te, Domine, speravi, is also the final line of the canticle, Te Deum, ‘In you, Lord, is our hope, let us never be put to shame.’

This psalm has been set to music often, both completely and using specific sections such as Illumina faciem tuam (‘Let your face shine’). Johann Crüger, Heinrich Schütz, Joseph Haydn, Felix Mendelssohn, and others, have written choral settings.

In Jewish tradition, verse 5 is part of Baruch Adonai L’Olam in the evening prayer, part of the bedtime Shema, and it starts the last verse of the traditional hymn Adon Olam:

Into his hand my soul I place,
when I awake and when I sleep.
God with me, I shall not fear;
body and soul from harm will he keep.

In addition, verses 15 and 17 are part of the preliminary morning prayers.

The four evangelists each cite the last words of Christ on the Cross, which have traditionally counted as the ‘Seven Last Words.’ Saint Luke is alone in telling us that Christ cried out a second time: ‘Father, into your hands I commend my spirit’ (Luke 23: 46), quoting Psalm 31: 5, which says in full: ‘Into your hand I commit my spirit; you have redeemed me, O Lord, faithful God.’ Tradition also says that these were the last words of Saint Polycarp, Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, the Hussite martyr Jerome of Prague, Martin Luther and Philip Melanchthon.

The Hebrew incipit at the opening of the text of this psalm indicates it was composed by David: ‘To the leader. A Psalm of David.’ Perhaps it was written by David when he was fleeing from Saul. Other commentaries suggest the author knew Jeremiah, Isaiah, Ezekiel, and many psalms of the Persian period. This would mean it was written at or after the reforms of Nehemiah ca 445 BC.

In this psalm, David calls God his ‘rock,’ his ‘fortress’ and his ‘refuge,’ guarding and protecting him on all sides, even when he feels as though a ‘net’ waits to ensnare him – either death or his enemies.

He knows his destiny depends on God, and he prays for God’s blessing:

Let your face shine upon your servant;
save me in your steadfast love (Psalm 31: 16).

‘Do not be like a horse or a mule, without understanding, whose temper must be curbed with bit and bridle’ (Psalm 32: 9) … ‘The Gaelic Chieftain’ by Maurice Harron off the N4, near Boyle, Co Roscommon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Psalm 32:

Psalm 32 tells us that happiness is found in knowing that God has forgiven us, leaving us without guilt.

The psalmist was seriously ill and in pain, which were signs of being alienated from God, ‘day and night.’ But when he acknowledged his sin, acknowledged his transgressions, confessed to God, and God forgave him.

Now he is now protected by God, and God promises to lead him, guide him and teach him, showing him mercy. For this, the psalmist is glad and rejoices, and his shouts of joy should be echoed by all who worship God.

‘The war horse is a vain hope for victory, and by its great might it cannot save (Psalm 33: 17) … horsemen on the Parthenon frieze in the Acropolis Museum in Athens (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Psalm 33:

Psalm 33 praises the Sovereignty of God in creation and in history and a song of praise.

Psalm 33 does not contain an ascription to any particular author in the Hebrew text, although the Septuagint ascribes it to David. Some manuscripts join this psalm with Psalm 32. Some commentators even suggest Psalm 33 dates from the time of the Maccabees.

We may divide this psalm in this way:

1, A call to worship in the temple with song, music, and shouting (verses 1-3), because of God’s righteousness and kindness (verses 4-5).

2, All humanity is called to fear God, the creator of all things, and disposer of all nations (verses 6-10).

3, God inspects all humanity from his heavenly throne inspects all mankind (verses 13-15); and victory is not due to armies or warriors (verses 16-17).

4, God delivers those who fear him (verse 18-19); therefore his people long for him, are glad in him, and trust in his name for victory (verses 20-22).

In addition, a gloss praises God’s plans as everlastingly secure, and also the happiness of his people (verses 11-12).

Psalm 31 (NRSVA):

1 In you, O Lord, I seek refuge; do not let me ever be put to shame; in your righteousness deliver me.
2 Incline your ear to me; rescue me speedily. Be a rock of refuge for me, a strong fortress to save me.
3 You are indeed my rock and my fortress; for your name’s sake lead me and guide me,
4 take me out of the net that is hidden for me, for you are my refuge.
5 Into your hand I commit my spirit; you have redeemed me, O Lord, faithful God.
6 You hate those who pay regard to worthless idols, but I trust in the Lord.
7 I will exult and rejoice in your steadfast love, because you have seen my affliction; you have taken heed of my adversities,
8 and have not delivered me into the hand of the enemy; you have set my feet in a broad place.
9 Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am in distress; my eye wastes away from grief, my soul and body also.
10 For my life is spent with sorrow, and my years with sighing; my strength fails because of my misery, and my bones waste away.
11 I am the scorn of all my adversaries, a horror to my neighbours, an object of dread to my acquaintances; those who see me in the street flee from me.
12 I have passed out of mind like one who is dead; I have become like a broken vessel. 13 For I hear the whispering of many – terror all around! – as they scheme together against me, as they plot to take my life.
14 But I trust in you, O Lord; I say, “You are my God.”
15 My times are in your hand; deliver me from the hand of my enemies and persecutors.
16 Let your face shine upon your servant; save me in your steadfast love.
17 Do not let me be put to shame, O Lord, for I call on you; let the wicked be put to shame; let them go dumbfounded to Sheol.
18 Let the lying lips be stilled that speak insolently against the righteous with pride and contempt.
19 O how abundant is your goodness that you have laid up for those who fear you, and accomplished for those who take refuge in you, in the sight of everyone!
20 In the shelter of your presence you hide them from human plots; you hold them safe under your shelter from contentious tongues.
21 Blessed be the Lord, for he has wondrously shown his steadfast love to me when I was beset as a city under siege.
22 I had said in my alarm, “I am driven far from your sight.” But you heard my supplications when I cried out to you for help.
23 Love the Lord, all you his saints. The Lord preserves the faithful, but abundantly repays the one who acts haughtily.
24 Be strong, and let your heart take courage, all you who wait for the Lord.

Psalm 32 (NRSVA):

1 Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.
2 Happy are those to whom the Lord imputes no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit.
3 While I kept silence, my body wasted away through my groaning all day long.
4 For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer. Selah
5 Then I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not hide my iniquity; I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,” and you forgave the guilt of my sin. Selah
6 Therefore let all who are faithful offer prayer to you; at a time of distress, the rush of mighty waters shall not reach them.
7 You are a hiding place for me; you preserve me from trouble; you surround me with glad cries of deliverance. Selah
8 I will instruct you and teach you the way you should go; I will counsel you with my eye upon you.
9 Do not be like a horse or a mule, without understanding, whose temper must be curbed with bit and bridle, else it will not stay near you.
10 Many are the torments of the wicked, but steadfast love surrounds those who trust in the Lord.
11 Be glad in the Lord and rejoice, O righteous, and shout for joy, all you upright in heart.

Psalm 33 (NRSVA):

1 Rejoice in the Lord, O you righteous. Praise befits the upright.
2 Praise the Lord with the lyre; make melody to him with the harp of ten strings.
3 Sing to him a new song; play skilfully on the strings, with loud shouts.
4 For the word of the Lord is upright, and all his work is done in faithfulness.
5 He loves righteousness and justice; the earth is full of the steadfast love of the Lord.
6 By the word of the Lord the heavens were made, and all their host by the breath of his mouth.
7 He gathered the waters of the sea as in a bottle; he put the deeps in storehouses.
8 Let all the earth fear the Lord; let all the inhabitants of the world stand in awe of him.
9 For he spoke, and it came to be; he commanded, and it stood firm.
10 The Lord brings the counsel of the nations to nothing; he frustrates the plans of the peoples.
11 The counsel of the Lord stands forever, the thoughts of his heart to all generations.
12 Happy is the nation whose God is the Lord, the people whom he has chosen as his heritage.
13 The Lord looks down from heaven; he sees all humankind.
14 From where he sits enthroned he watches all the inhabitants of the earth—
15 he who fashions the hearts of them all, and observes all their deeds.
16 A king is not saved by his great army; a warrior is not delivered by his great strength.
17 The war horse is a vain hope for victory, and by its great might it cannot save.
18 Truly the eye of the Lord is on those who fear him, on those who hope in his steadfast love,
19 to deliver their soul from death, and to keep them alive in famine.
20 Our soul waits for the Lord; he is our help and shield.
21 Our heart is glad in him, because we trust in his holy name.
22 Let your steadfast love, O Lord, be upon us, even as we hope in you.

Today’s Prayer:

The Prayer in the USPG Prayer Diary this morning (12 March 2022) invites us to pray:

Let us pray for the Church of the Province of Central Africa and its churches across Botswana, Malawi, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

‘Sing to him a new song; play skilfully on the strings, with loud shouts’ (Psalm 33: 3) … street art near Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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