A Tale of Two Patricks

Ancient Ireland, Early Celtic Christianity

Old Paddy. Patron Saint of Ireland (though we has never canonised). A bishop (though we don’t know how or where he was ordained), and a Snake Exterminator (though there never were snakes in Ireland).

What is history and what is fiction?

Historic Patrick

We’ve only two (reputed) writings by Patrick’s own hand: his “Confessio” (a brief account of his own life written in Ireland towards the end of his life), and “Letter to Coroticus” (an open letter to a British pirate warlord who had kidnapped and killed a bunch of his converts).

In his own words, he seems to be a grounded, kind and brave prophet of deep and true faith. He never tells us where he was ordained, and implies that he is acting freely, obeying no authority but his own visions from God. He claimes he had no sense of Christian faith until his time of slavery in Ireland.

He mentions no magic, no pagan idols, no shamrocks, no snakes. And the only Irish group giving him grief are actually Kings, not Druids. He appeases them by the sacred, ancient art of gift-giving, and gets their sons to join his retinue in a sort of “consensual hostages” kind of deal.

A smart strategist, he understands the native laws of the land, and even manages to get the Brehons to give him leave to practice and preach a religion which they themselves did not approve of.

Some Facts About the Historic Patrick

  • He was born in Roman Britain, probably Wales. Irish pirates raided his family’s estate and kidnapped him when he was about sixteen. After escaping Ireland and becoming a priest, he was encouraged by a vision (so-called “the call of the Irish”) to become a missionary and return to the land of his enslavement.
  • He calls the Irish “those pagans amongst who I live”, and implies that he had been granted leave to move about the land freely, which back in the day could only be done by Kings, high Poets and other people of importance. He could only have managed this by winning over the main judges in the island.
  • It is very likely that he had no formal endorsement from Rome or his British elders to be assigned as a bishop to the Irish, and that he might’ve been a rebel acting out of his own agency.
  • He claims he was uneducated (which would explain why he was never officially ordained as a bishop), though he could clearly write in Latin.
  • Most of his personal testimony was ignored, censored and edited by all his later biographers. Why?

Legendary Patrick

The main narrative (taught in Irish schools) about Patrick’s life comes from a biography by a historian and monk called “Muirchú”, written about 200 years after Patrick’s death. Other medieval authors like Tírechán left behind stories about him which were back then portrayed as actual history.

Muirchú loosely bases the beginning of his biography on the “Confessio”, but right away he starts making little changes here and there (like Patrick serving a King instead of a regular free man). After his escape from Ireland, though, Muirchú turns the creative freedom up to 11 and describes most fantastic events for which Patrick is nowadays known (though still no signs of snakes).

This Patrick reads like a deranged, arrogant crazy sorcerer that goes around terrifying the countryside and submitting anyone who dares oppose him. He uses some form of ever-powerful Christian magic to threaten, destroy and murder his opposers in a surprisingly un-Christian way.

Some Deeds of the Legendary Patrick

  • He challenges the King of Tara (described as “King of the Barbarians”) and lights the paschal fire in Slane.
  • He lifts one of the King’s “magicians” into the air and lets him fall onto a rock, breaking his skull.
  • When he finds some poor fellows building a rampart on a Sunday he just destroys it because how dare they be at work during the Lord’s day? How dare theeey!?
  • He holds a magical contest against another of the King’s magicians, which includes making it snow, befalling darkness onto the land, and locking some innocent boyo in a wooden house before setting it on fire.
  • After being run out of a field by a concerned farmer, Patrick floods his land with sea-water, effectively converting the field into a useless “salty marsh”.
  • He also punishes the aforementioned warlord Coroticus by turning him into a little fox.

What about the Dark One?

Another popular deed is the felling of Crom Cruach, a reputedly evil pagan god who was worshipped by way of human sacrifices. Patrick’s magic crozier destroys both the demon and the stone idol he resided in (other sources have him destroying the stone with a sledgehammer, viking-style).

Where are all the snakes!?

We find it in “Life and Acts of St. Patrick”, written in the 12th century. It explains how, during a 40-days fast atop a hill, he is attacked by snakes, which he then proceeds to erradicate from the land. Somehow, this uneventful episode of pest-control became a metaphor for the destruction of Paganism.

Conclusion

As with most things regarding the Gaelic tradition, you really need to go beyond face value to even begin to catch a glimpse of understanding. There is always more than meets the eye.

The popular legend of Patrick is, like most Irish mythology, possibly just that: a myth. Stories that arose around one remarkable event or individual, which in gaelic ireland were oftentimes used by later interested parties to boost, justify or back-up their own personal, political and ecclesiastical agendas.

This St. Patrick’s day, as the city of Chicago unnecessarily dyes its river green and millions around the world wave tricolor flags while overdoing it at the pub, try to read up or educate yourself on the possible realities beyond the legend.

If enough of us get a bit of cop-on, maybe some March 17th in the near future, instead of just celebrating him, we’ll be celebrating Ireland herself, her reds, her greens, her tragedies, her wonders, the inexplicable resilience of her Native language and the right of every irish person to develop, protect, interpret and own their culture.