In about 432 AD, Pope Celestine I elevated an unknown priest to bishop and gave him a mission. He sent him as a bearer of the Gospels, or good tidings, to an island steeped in mystery and considered a place of hellish paganism. The man was of Roman heritage, called “Patricius” or “patrician one.” The mysterious place was Ireland.
From what historians and archaeologists have been able to determine, the island that the Romans named “Hibernia” was a world so protected by fierce clan warriors that the emperors chose to stay on the larger island of Britannia and the European mainland. Few remnants of the Italian marauders . . . um, the proud Roman armies . . . are found throughout the island that its inhabitants proudly call Éire.
Why did the Pontiff choose Patrick? It is a matter of historical record that as a youth, Patrick himself had been taken from his home somewhere in Britannia—possibly Wales, or even Scotia—by a band of freebooters or pirates and taken to the island called “Hibernia.” He was about 16 years old, a pious young fisherman whose father and grandfather before him had been priests. Once in Ireland, probably in modern County Antrim, he lived in slavery for six or seven years.
Once taken, Patrick was sold to a clan chief, supposedly a druidic high priest. Patrick became both his lowly shepherd and possibly even his unwilling acolyte. In those several years, the young man learned the language and the beliefs of the druids—both of which would stand him in good stead much later, when he returned as a missionary.
According to his own published Confessio, Patrick lived among the people and spoke to them every day of the man named Christ. He says that he prayed to God hundreds of times every day, trying to maintain the utmost humility and love, even for his captors.
In a young adult novel called HIDDEN BY THE ROSE (to be published March 22), the authors Bil and Bon Franks recount his life as a slave. Here he is talking to a young girl whose mother, too, has been taken by slave-holders to Hibernia, and he is trying to comfort her with his own story of captivity. During the telling, his own voice begins to take on the lilt of the Éireannach people:
“Knowing me end had come, I collapsed to me knees and began to pray. ‘Lord, me Father,’ I whispered, ‘I come to thee with glad heart. If I cannot spread thy word abroad to the heathens, let them hear me now.’ I raised me voice in joy as the wild men gathered ‘round me. ‘Love thy God, thy father, with all thy heart, with all thy soul, with all thy mind.’
“The savages stopped in their tracks. They exchanged looks of wonder at the strange young man on his knees, laughing and smiling at their imminent attack.
“Slowly, they lowered their barbed spears and talked among themselves. I continued me prayer, for I understood not a word of their gentle conversation.
“At last, two of them seized me, one on each arm, and dragged me to the water’s edge. One of the oarsmen reached over the side and hauled me into the currach. Thus I became an unwilling passenger on what turned out to be a slave ship. . . .
“I spent the next few days in ropes, alternately praying and vomiting, while the vagabond slavers made their way back to the Isle of Hibernia.
“I will tell you only that I was able to survive quite well during the seven years of thralldom that followed. Me captors soon sold me to a chieftain named Milchu, whose land lay on the hills of Slemish and down into the valley of the Braid. Milchu was a high priest of the group they call ‘Druids.’
“Thus I learned their strange beliefs, and I also learned their melodious tongue perfectly, and whenever I could, I taught the word of God to anyone who would listen. I spread glad tidings, and I prayed hundreds of times every day, not once failing to thank God for me good fortune.”
Patrick finally managed to escape on a boat that was bound for Britannia. After his return, he studied to become a priest somewhere in Gallia (modern France) and served as parish priest somewhere in Britannia before being called to Rome.
He recounts, again in his Confessio, how he was convinced in a dream to return to Éire, for he heard the children calling. Whether or not one believes in miracles, the outcome of this dream is one of the astonishing facts of history. For the lowly priest not only returned to convert the “children,” he lived a long and productive missionary life in Ireland and was beatified some centuries later as Saint Patrick.
If one can differentiate the legends from the facts, it is safe to say that Patrick sent for scores of bishops and other priests to join him in Ireland, and that he insisted the ancient scrolls and scriptures be brought with them, copied and protected. This dedication to ancient learning is what “saved” the world from the dark ages of ignorance after the retreat of the Romans in the fifth century. Thomas Cahill’s best selling book How the Irish Saved Civilization is a great one to read in this context.
There is not a place in Ireland that does not boast of Paddy’s footprints somewhere on its soil. In the novel WAKENING FIRE by Erin O’Quinn, the people of modern Coleraine (Northern Ireland) trace the name of their town to a visit by the latter-day saint:
The brothers O’Cahan lived some ten miles north of Limavady, near the mouth of the River Bann. . . I gathered it was near a settlement called Cúil Raithin, or Coleraine, once visited by Father Patrick himself. Brion told me how his own grandfather, a chieftain, had offered Patrick a portion of land near the river overgrown with great ropy ferns that had to be burned to the ground each year. After Patrick left, the residents then adopted the name, meaning “ferny backwater” . . .
This was not the first folktale I had heard about Father Patrick in the northern part of this island. I began more and more to realize that Patrick’s influence was beginning to be felt in many places besides Armagh, even if he had never set foot near most of them.
Every place name in Ireland bearing the root word “kell” or “kil” can in a sense be traced to Patrick or his later followers, for the name means “church.” And St. Patrick’s day has become a celebration not just of the man, but of Ireland itself.
Patrick has put his stamp so firmly on the Emerald Isle that to think of him is to think of that charmed place, no matter what may be one’s religious denomination.
One last blessing to all: HAPPY ST. PADDY’S DAY!
Books noted here:
A tale of tempestuous romance and blazing fervor in the Ireland of St Patrick.
WAKENING FIRE tells the story of several fires:
The one that flares between Caylith and Liam, as they find that married life is just the beginning of hot desire…
The burning zeal of imprisoned Owen Sweeney to find the long-held secret of his birth, held only by his mother, now on her deathbed…
The ritual fires of pagan Ireland, set for purification in honor of the mighty god Bel, the symbol of the “Sun of God.”
The smoldering flames of Christianity that Father Patrick is beginning to light across the landscape of Old World Ireland, culminating in the famous Easter fires of 433 AD.
And there is yet another fire quickening, this one a surprise, revealed only at the end of Erin O’Quinn’s smoldering second novel in The Dawn of Ireland trilogy.
Other photo credits: Wikipedia.
St. Patrick art:
‘ST.PATRICK’ © Hamish Burgess 2012. Original Celtic and folk art by Hamish Burgess, a piece for the cover of The Celtic Connection newspaper in Vancouver BC and Seattle, the March issue.