On 17 March the world celebrates Irishness, but who was Saint Patrick? The bare details of his life are known, but have been added to over the centuries as legends and myths attached to his name.
Remarkably, we have two letters written by Patrick ourselves, which give us some insight into his life. But even then, the details are vague. Patrick wasn’t writing for historians, but for people who lived in his own time, so he assumes that the people reading the letter know a lot about him. As a result, details are at one precise an frustratingly vague.
The first letter, the Confesio (confession), a defence he wrote to answer charges placed against Patrick during his lifetime, illustrates the problem. Nowhere in the letter do we get any hint of the charges Patrick felt he had to answer.
What we do get from the letter are the familiar bones of his biography. Patrick was captured, enslaved and brought to Ireland when he as about sixteen years old. Eventually he escaped, made his way back to his family, entered the church, and returned to Ireland as a bishop to minister in the north and west of the country.
Contrary to legend, Patrick was not sent to convert the Irish, and he was not the first bishop sent there from Rome. A Vatican document shows an earlier bishop, Palladius, assigned “to the Irish believing in Christ”.
The lives of both men merged over the centuries, so that the Annals of Ulster list several years as the date of Patrick’s death, first in 457 or 461, then again in 492 or 493. The first probably marks the death of Palladius, the second the death of Patrick.
So we know Patrick died on 17 March, but not the year he died. We can only be certain of 17 March, as Irish saints’ days were always marked on the anniversary of their death.
We also know he came from somewhere called Bannavem Taburniae, probably in Wales or northeast England. His father was a deacon called Calpurnius, and his grandfather was Potitus, a priest.
Patrick believed his ordeal in Ireland “and that of his fellow captives” was a punishment from God because he was not obedient to priests. In captivity he prayed, and believed his faith sustained him. He says he decided to make his escape after hearing a voice in the night telling him a ship was waiting to make him home, and had to travel 200 miles to reach it, which would mean travelling the entire country north to south.
The ship sailed for three days, following which he travelled for 28 days over land. Patrick was then captured a second time, and again had to make his escape after two months, before finally making it home to his parents “many years later”.
Thirty years after his ordination, Patrick was accused by church elders of “an occurrence I had confessed before becoming a deacon”. He gives no details of what the crime was, assuming his readers are already familiar with the story, but whatever it was, it happened before he was captured and brought to Ireland. The story hints that the old confession may have been written to answer rumours that he fled to Ireland rather than face charges, and that his story of slavery was a lie. Whatever it was, Patrick was successful in clearing his name.
Patrick also uses his confession to criticise his confessor, a “very close friend… to whom I entrusted my soul”, for breaking the confidence of confession.
The second letter, written to a Romano-Briton called Coroticus, lashes out at an attack by soldiers on newly ordained Christians by soldiers under the command of Coroticus. In effect, Patrick excommuicates Coroticus and his men, calling on all to shun them until they repent.
On to the bare details contained in these letters, legends, stories and myths have accumulated over the centuries. Patrick ministered in the north and west of Ireland, and so he was adopted as a patron saint by the powerful Ua Niall sept as they pressed their claims to the kingship of Ireland. One of the earliest embellishments is the identity of his kidnapper, named as Niall Naoighiallach (Niall of the Nine Hostages) in the legends. Niall was the founder of the Ua Niall, and associating his name with Patrick increased his stature.
Other stories show Patrick accepting tributes from Brigit of Kildare, an important legend to get out, as Armagh and Kildare quarrelled over which was the primary ecclesiastical authority in Ireland. Later, the mission of Palladius, another bishop sent to Ireland in the years before Patrick, also merged into the biography of the more famous bishop. Yet more tales were simply added to the legend as it grew, and the feats of lesser saints transferred to Patrick.
Oddly enough, the legend of the shamrock, used by Patrick to explain the concept of the trinity to Irish converts, is a very late addition to the tale. The Irish of Patrick’s time had their own native religion, and triple gods were a common feature of Celtic mythology, so they would have had little difficulty grasping the idea of a trinity.