Iain Donnelly is a second-year student of Evolutionary Biology and Celtic Studies at the University of Toronto, at least until he discovers what he wants to do with his life. He grew up in Southern Ontario and Prince Edward Island, which he still considers a second home. He is involved with the St. Michael’s Gaelic Athletic Association, and appreciates learning Irish as part of his studies. In his spare time, he enjoys skiing, is something of an avid reader, and is involved in his local Presbyterian Church.
Despite it being perhaps the most far reaching of all the saints’ feast days, most who celebrate St. Patrick’s Day know very little of who they celebrate. St. Patrick’s Day has evolved into an important celebration of identity, but it is still worth remembering the religious significance of the day, and the fascinating man that Patrick was.
Patrick was born to a well-off British family in the waning days of the Roman Empire, at the edge of a world in turmoil. The empire, which had long maintained stability in Western Europe, was crumbling as internal strife and waves of invaders whittled away at her borders. When the legions sailed from Dover for the last time in 410 A.D, they ended four centuries of Roman rule in Britain and left behind a people facing societal upheaval and the terrifying threats of invasion. This became all the more real to Patrick when, at 16, he was seized by Irish pirates and taken all the way to Ireland. To Romans, Ireland may as well have been the edge of the world. Never ruled by the empire, pagan and wholly foreign. Even the ethnonym ‘Gael’, from the Old Welsh ‘Guoidel’ (forest dwellers or wild men) reflects the ‘otherness’ of this place to the Britons. And yet it was here, of all places, where Patrick found God.
Patrick’s father had been a deacon, and his father before him a priest, but despite this Patrick was, by his own confession, not a devout man when he was taken. The pirates took Patrick to a hill called Slemish (Sliabh Mis), where he was sold to an old Druid named Milchu. There, in what is now County Antrim, Patrick was set to work tending his master’s herds of sheep. In the midst of his hardship, it was God in whom he found solace. Patrick took to daily devotion and prayer – by his account praying more than 100 times a day and night, in fierce cold and torrential rain. And so it was that after six years, God spoke to Patrick, telling him that he had done well, and that a ship was ready to take him home. Trusting in his faith, he travelled for 200 miles to the sea, only for the captain of the vessel to refuse him. Patrick retreated to pray and before long the captain relented and allowed him passage. In my favourite version, the hounds took to Patrick instantly and were distraught when he was sent away, calming only upon his return.
They sailed from Ireland and landed in Gaul, where they wandered for 28 days without food. When his companions challenged him, Patrick prayed for food, and a great herd of pigs stampeded across the path! After months of wandering, Patrick finally returned home to his family, who I’m sure had thought him long dead. I can imagine Patrick would have liked nothing more than never to think of Ireland again, but that was not to be. While furthering his study of Christianity, Patrick had a vision of a strange man named Victoricus, who gave him a letter titled ‘the voice of the Irish’. As he read, he heard voices calling out to him “We appeal to you, holy servant boy, to come and walk among us.” And so, he did.
That is how the traditional account goes, in Patrick’s own retelling. There are a slew of accounts and stories of Patrick’s missionary work in Ireland. Patrick was not, in fact, the first to bring Christianity to Ireland; historically there were already Christian communities in the south before Patrick’s time, although he was certainly instrumental in bolstering their numbers, and founding many churches and monasteries. He did not banish the snakes from Ireland either – the Ice Age did that for him about 10,000 years earlier (nor the pagans, who persisted long after Patrick died). It is impossible to separate truth from fiction in most of Patrick’s story, nor will I attempt to, as I feel it entirely misses the point. Stories, be they true stories or truth stories, have inherent value. Patrick’s life and works can certainly teach us a great deal.
Patrick’s enslavement denied him the official Latin education that a boy of his status should have received. While his peers studied Graeco-Roman rhetoric, Patrick tended sheep. By Patrick’s own confession he was “little educated” and “ignorant”. He doesn’t make use of other texts besides the Bible in his writings, nor is he renowned for sophisticated theological arguments of the like that characterised Pelagius or Augustine. And yet Patrick’s life still inspires yearly celebration.
Patrick’s Confessio is riddled with biblical allusions, weaving his life story into the motifs of the broader Christian narrative. His six years of servitude parallels laws of captivity in the Book of Exodus, and he frames his enslavement through the lens of divine punishment for sin, and his hardship as the vehicle of his “redemption,” a very traditional Christian framework. Clearly, Patrick was exceptionally skilled at speaking to his audience, and presenting a story through language that they would understand. His time in Ireland, under the eyes of a Druid no less, would have left him intimately knowledgeable of the Irish worldview, readily able to convey the Christian message through vehicles the Irish could appreciate. The stories of Patrick describing the Trinity using a shamrock, or laying the cross upon the circular sun, or celebrating Easter through the lighting of a bonfire on Slane Hill may indeed be just stories, but these reflect Patrick’s ability, and choice to preach to the Irish at their level—something Augustine, despite all his theological brilliance, could never have done.
I do not believe that God sells people into slavery to atone for sins – a point of theology where Patrick and I may disagree. But I do think that Patrick’s suffering molded him into exactly the right person to bring Christ to Ireland. His experiences were immensely valuable in ways which he could not have foreseen. Patrick suffered because of the cruelty of his fellow men, but through his faith in God he turned that experience into something powerful.
When the legions sailed from Britain forever and the lighthouse at Dover was extinguished for the final time, many must have felt that with it the light of learning and civilization in the Isles had gone out with it. And yet the light does not go out so easily. Patrick was born into a world in turmoil and swept into it at a terrible young age. Yet Patrick took the chaos he was drowning in and found in it the tools to transform himself into a bearer of the light. I think we can do much the same.
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