17 March 493 AD Saint Patrick/Naomh Pádraig died on this day. Or as the Annals might say ‘according to some.’ For while Patrick is certainly the most famous saint associated with Ireland he remains something of a man of mystery to us – his persona and character definitive in some respects while his origins and obit remain a matter of some speculation to those who have written on him.
Patrick (Patricius) was born in Britain, as the collapse of Roman rule on that island began. He was from a settlement called Bannaventa, probably a locale near or beside the sea along the western coast. His father Calpurnius was a well to do landowner and a minor figure in the local administration called a ‘Decurion’. The father of Calpurnius was called Potitus, who had held the same administrative position in his own day. Calpurnius and Potitus were also Deacons of the Church. Thus Patrick would have been brought up in a household where Christianity was part and parcel of his life, however he was not very religious himself. When he was about sixteen Patrick was captured by Irish raiders and brought to Ireland as a Slave. Where exactly he spent his captivity is not known but the hills of Antrim and the coast of Mayo are the most probable locations. He worked as a Shepard while in captivity. In despair he turned to Jesus Christ to sustain him and heard his Voice speak to him. Eventually after about seven years he escaped and returned home. Patrick also followed his father and grandfather into the Church and became an administrator of ecclesiastical affairs. He may have spent time in France or indeed in Rome as he worked his way up the clerical ladder. He seems to have done well. The years drifted by but Patrick never forgot his time here and longed to return to preach the Word. In a dream he heard the Irish call to him and determined to go back.
By then the Papacy had taken an interest in the full conversion of the Gaels of Hibernia. Following the demise of Palladius, the first Bishop to the Irish, it was decided to send Patrick (presumably after some gentle lobbying on his part) to Ireland to continue the Mission. Later writers attribute his selection to the influence St Germain of Auxerre under whose patronage he studied for many years. He may indeed have already gained some missionary experience amongst the Morini of Gaul.
Though the evidence is loose it would seem that Patrick’s arrival ‘shook up’ a rather low-key effort to convert the Irish. While Palladius was dead by then or had perhaps fled there were more than likely a few centres of Christianity along the east coast. The names of such early missionaries as Auxilius, Secundinus and Iserninus are associated with sites that perhaps predate the Patrician Mission.
So when Patrick arrived a small Christian presence was already established here. He seems to have made a point of trying to win over the powerful kings and chieftains of Ireland to at least tolerate his proselytising. He had quite a success in getting many of the younger sons and daughters of these men to follow him. Legend has it that he lit the Paschal Fire at Easter on the Hill of Slane in defiance of the King Laoghaire of Tara – the most sacred site in Ireland. The King and his Druids were astounded by his temerity. St Patrick then proceeded to Tara where he challenged the Druids in magical displays and overthrew them. Now whatever the veracity or otherwise of these stories it would seem probable that Patrick did indeed follow a traditional Christian approach to missionary work in trying to win over or at least neutralise the Royal families of any area they entered. This was to allow a Mission to proceed without hindrance and such an approach served the Church well over many centuries.
Nevertheless Patrick did face many trails and tribulations in his years on the roads of Ireland. Twelve times he tells us that he was held in captivity and once in actual chains. He seems to have made a point of moving from place to place, baptising as many converts as he could and founding churches. He was greatly in favour of monasticism and a believer in celibacy.
He did three great things in his Mission: he ensured that Christianity went from a minor to the major religion of the Irish; he converted and ordained thousands of people and priests and spread the Word across the island to the furthest kingdoms of the western seaboard; and he ensured that Ireland, in its own particular way, through the medium of the Latin language, came within the fold of the wider Christian World.
Many places around Ireland are associated with his name incl St Patrick’s (Cathedral) in Dublin, Croagh Patrick in Mayo (on which he fasted for 40 days and 40 nights) and Saul and Downpatrick in Co Down. He never seemed to have founded a great monastery but in later centuries Armagh became closely associated with his name and its claim to fame is probably though by no means definitely based on good grounds. In recognition of its claim it is still holds the Primacy of the Irish Church.
Yet for all his great work the written contemporary record is meagre and all in his own hand. His 'Confessio' and the 'Epistola ad Coroticum' are the only extant documents we have by him. The first is a detailed confession and denial of unspecific charges against Patrick that he felt compelled to refute. It is written in plain but unsophisticated Latin and throws some light on how Patrick viewed himself spiritually and psychologically. The ‘Letter to Coroticus’ is a condemnation addressed to a British king excommunicating a group of his armed retainers for killing and kidnapping recently converted Christians. All else we have was written after the Saint passed from this World and while much of it is probably well founded there is no way to confirm or cross check the veracity of the material. Scholars are cautious to attribute ‘facts’ to Patrick’s Life that cannot be verified and with good reason – but while a critical approach is wise there is a line between Criticism and Cynicism that it can be useful to avoid as well.
Traditionally the Saint ended his days at Saul (Sabhall), Co Down. St. Tassach is said to have administered the last sacraments to him. His remains were then wrapped in a shroud woven by St. Brigid's own hands. The bishops and clergy and faithful people from all parts crowded around his remains to pay due honour to the Father of their Faith. Some of the ancient Lives record that for several days the light of heaven shone around his bier. His remains were interred at the chieftain’s Dun or Fort two miles from Saul, where in after times arose the Cathedral of Down where his reputed burial site can still be seen. But of Patrick nothing remains for his bones are long since gone from where he was laid to rest.