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The Death of Truth

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Saint Patrick: His Life and Beliefs

Dónal P. O'Mathúna

August 1992

Written for CH 501: History of Christianity I
at Ashland Theological Seminary, Ashland, Ohio


The name of Saint Patrick is today virtually synonymous with Ireland, and yet the historical details of Patrick's life are shrouded in legend. Studying for this paper has been a bitter-sweet experience for me. It has been difficult to accept that the Patrick whom I knew growing up in Ireland did not really exist. Due to the findings of recent scholars, gone is the bishop with miter and crozier marching all over Ireland; gone is the fire at Slane to challenge the High King of Ireland and his druids; gone is the battle of miracles by which the druids were single-handedly defeated; gone is Patrick reaching for the shamrock to explain the Trinity; gone is Patrick's banishment of snakes.1

Sadness creeps over me while learning that the historical basis of these cherished stories vanishes into murky myth. But as the fog of these legends is burned away, what appears is a fascinating story of an amazing man—a real man with whom I can identify. Later biographies glorified Patrick, but "the holy superman described in the 'lives' of Patrick is nowhere to be found in Patrick's own writings."2 The Patrick we meet in his own words is a man who deeply loves God and other people, who has to deal with his own sins and weaknesses, who is lonely and hurt, but who is also deeply thankful for all that God has given him.

The real Patrick is a humble man who can flame up in righteous anger at the murder of some of his recent converts. He is a man who is extremely successful in his missionary work, yet who attributes all the praise to God. He is a man who has been wrongly accused by his superiors, and finds that he needs to defend himself and his work. In short, we find a real person with whom we today can relate. He goes through the ups and downs of life like we do, and has to deal with both great successes and terrible set-backs. Pervading everything is his experience of God's caring presence and comfort. Although the Breastplate of Patrick was not written by him, Patrick's other writings reveal that this wonderful hymn captures his mindset accurately.

Christ beside me, Christ before me, Christ behind me,
Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ on my right, Christ on my left,
Christ where I lie, Christ where I sit, Christ where I arise,
Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of every man who speaks of me,
Christ in every eye that sees me,
Christ in every ear that hears me.3

So what can we know of the historical Saint Patrick? This paper will first deal with what we know reliably about Patrick, and will try to reconstruct his life from those sources. Unfortunately, there are still questions about a number of the major events in his life, some of which we may be forced to leave unsettled. Then we will look at what we can know about the man himself, his beliefs and his motivations.

The Sources

Currently there are only two documents which are accepted as being written by Patrick: his Confession and the Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus. There are three short statements called The Sayings of Patrick. One of these is taken from his Letter but the authenticity of the other two is disputed. There are two lists of canons of the early Irish Church which are attributed to Patrick. The 'First Synod' is regarded by some as authentically written by Patrick, but others claim a later authorship.4 The 'Second Synod' is accepted by almost all scholars as dating from the early eighth century.5

One of the earliest writings about Patrick is the Audite omnes, which has been dated to around 600, or slightly earlier. It is a hymn of praise, written in Latin, and attributed to Secundinus, a contemporary missionary to Ireland. It is extremely laudatory of Patrick, but only in reference to his character and life.6 No miracles are attributed to him. However, by the end of the seventh century the "lives" of Patrick written by Tírechán and Muirchú are of a totally different nature. What we are presented with is a Patrick who goes around performing miracles and pronouncing curses on people, especially pagans who refuse to believe in Christ.7

These books are examples of thaumaturgy, where the miracles of a saint are described, and hagiography, where the events of a saint's life are connected with biblical events. It is generally acknowledged that these were written in an attempt to exalt Patrick and Armagh "as a focus of power and authority"8 and bring the Irish church into conformity with Rome, rather than give an historically reliable account of Patrick's life. These works, and even more fantastic ones written in the ninth century, gave rise to many of the legends about Patrick. One of these later books, the Tripartite Life of Patrick, gives us the most famous poem about Patrick: St. Patrick's Breastplate, or the Lorica. This prayer is said to protect those who recite it from harm, as it protected Patrick from High King Laogaire. Legend has it that as soon as Patrick finished the poem, God turned him into a deer so he could flee the High King. Scholars today hold that someone other than Patrick composed the poem in the sixth century, and it was then passed down orally for centuries.9

Irish monasteries recorded the major events of each year in their annals, which include numerous references to Patrick. However, the first annals were written down in 740, so references to dates earlier that this are no longer regarded as reliable.10 Much of the literature about Patrick gives information about the era in which it was written, but has sadly resulted in a neglect of what can be learned about the real Patrick due to its unrealistic nature. The most reliable information which we can obtain will be from those texts known to be authored by Patrick himself.

An Overview of Patrick's Life

Patrick's life can be described briefly in a way which will give an opportunity to address each of the controversial questions. Patrick was born in Britain towards the end of the fourth century. He was the son of Calpornius, a deacon and decurion, and thus was of noble birth. He was a Roman citizen. At about age sixteen, he was taken captive by Irish raiders, taken to Ireland and there served six years as a slave tending sheep. It was during this time that he came to know God and to believe and trust in him. At the suggestion of divine messages given to him in two dreams, he traveled two hundred miles to get a ship leaving Ireland. After sailing for three days, they landed in a deserted place and wandered for twenty-eight days before meeting other people. After spending some time with his family in Britain, Patrick left, presumably to be trained as a priest. He received a dream whereby a man named Victoricus came to him with letters from Ireland begging him to return. While absent from Britain, he was elected bishop and sent to Ireland. He had great success in winning converts, particularly among the women and slaves. The sons of chieftains traveled with him. All was not pleasant, though, and he was at times imprisoned, and lived in fear of being attacked. At some point, his status as bishop, and honesty of character, was questioned by his superiors. This caused him great distress, but another divine message in a dream showed him that he was innocent in God's eyes, even if not in men's.

He wrote his Letter in reaction to an attack on an Irish settlement by Coroticus, a British king, where many newly converted Christians were murdered, and others taken into slavery. He denounces the actions, and calls for the excommunication of the king and any of his soldiers who do not repent. The Confession was written later in response to the above inquiry. He did not want to write it, and had been putting it off, but felt obliged to vindicate his name since he was now close to death.

This seemingly straight-forward account shrouds many controversial issues. In the next section, a number of these will be addressed, with evidence from Patrick's writings and other verifiable details from that time taking precedent over contributions from later authors.11

The Major Questions about Patrick's Life

1. When did Patrick live?

This question has not been answered satisfactorily, but what is accepted is that he lived most of his life during the fifth century. His date of birth is usually estimated from dating some other time of his life. Patrick tells us that he was taken captive as a slave when he was about sixteen (1), and repeatedly mentions his lack of education. What he notes as lacking is his knowledge of elegant Latin, rhetoric, and the law (9, 10, 13). Hanson notes that this corresponds exactly with what would have been learned by a student in the third part of his Roman education, the rhetor, begun when the student was about sixteen. This suggests that the Roman system was still active in Britain at the time of Patrick's youth, which would place his captivity before 408, when Britain left the Roman Empire. Hanson thus dates Patrick's birth to around 390. This would be consistent with the traditional dates of Patrick arriving in Ireland in 432 and dying in 461.

His date of birth has also been estimated by dating the twenty-eight day wandering. The wilderness where this occurred has been identified as the path of destruction left by the Vandals in northwestern Gaul in 410, and would once again give Patrick a birth date around 390. This view of Patrick reaching Gaul is a disputed one, and will be considered below.

The other major view is based on a number of references in the annals to Patrick dying in 493, which would suggest that he was born around 420-430. The 17th of March is traditionally held to be the date of Patrick's death, and also that he died on a Wednesday. In that year, the 17th of March fell on a Wednesday. Also, many of those associated directly with Patrick died in the first half of the sixth century, suggesting that he ministered in Ireland in the second half of the fifth century. But, this does not correspond with a number of the details in Patrick's writings which would have been much more meaningful to an audience in 450-460, than one in 480-90. He mentions a coin, the solidus, which was not used in Britain after 410, and also to the practice in Gaul of ransoming Christian slaves from the Franks (Lett. 14), who themselves became Christians by the end of the fifth century. The church in Britain was in a very strong position spiritually and financially to support a mission to Patrick in the first half of the fifth century, but not in the second half when Britain was attacked by the Anglos and Saxons.

One of the suggestions that has been made to resolve this problem is that there were in fact two Patricks. There is evidence for this in the annals, and received much attention through the work of O'Rahilly12, but the evidence against it today is very impressive.13 The 493 date appears to have been created by the early hagiographers to have Patrick die at age 120, thus corresponding to Moses' age when he died.14 This has served mostly to cause confusion.

2. Where was Patrick born?

Patrick tells us that he grew up in Bannavem Taberniae (1), but efforts to locate this place precisely have so far failed. He tells us elsewhere that he was a Briton, and a Roman citizen (Lett. 2). One place suggested for this has been south-west Scotland, which would be close to Ireland for raiders, and would also explain how Patrick knew Coroticus, who is named as king of Dumbarton in the fifth century in Welsh annals. There is a tradition in this area that Patrick was baptized in Kilpatrick, and close-by is an area called Fintry. Muirchú, in a gloss, mentions that Bannavem Taberniae is Ventry, which would have sounded very much like Fintry.15 Hanson acknowledges this evidence, but favors a location on the south west coast of Britain due to the higher density of Roman villas known to have existed in that area.

An alternative location is that of modern Boulogne-sur-mer, in north-east France, whose medieval name was Tarvenna or Tarabanna.16 According to this view, Patrick was born in Britain, but his family moved to Gaul when he was young. This adds evidence to Gaul being his destination after he escaped from Ireland, and would allow for his Latin having a Gallic tone, which has been suggested.17 However, his family must have moved back to Britain again since Patrick spent time with them there after escaping from Ireland (23) and would not fit in with his wanting so much to visit Britain, "my country," and his kinsfolk (43). It seems to be a theory that requires much speculation and fits in with other theories about his life more than it does his own writings.

3. Where did Patrick serve as a slave?

The tradition location for Patrick's slavery in Slieve Mish, or Slemish, in Antrim. But, the first reference to this is in Muirchú. Patrick himself mentions that the letters that he received from Ireland entreating him to return came from the people by the Wood of Voclut, near the Western Sea. This seems to suggest a location on the Atlantic coast, and Tírechán (a native of Connacht) claims that it is near modern-day Killala in Co. Mayo. Another fact from Patrick's Confession (17) is that he had to travel two hundred miles to board his ship to freedom. This is very close to the distance from Killala to the east coast of Ireland, whereas if Patrick was leaving from Antrim if would seem completely unnecessary for him to travel that far to get a ship.

The tradition relating Patrick with Slemish appears to have arisen because that is general area to which Patrick went when he returned to Ireland as a missionary. Another explanation for Patrick going to the northeast could be that he wanted to go to the main center of the Ulaid, the clan which had once ruled all of Ulster and Meath, but were at this time loosing their territory to the Airgialla and the Uí Néill.18 The ancient royal center of the Ulaid was at Emain Macha, just a couple of miles from Armagh which has been regarded, without dispute, as the principle church founded by Patrick. He may have decided to go to the Ulaid because there were no Christians with them, whereas there is evidence of Christianity being present in the south and east of Ireland before Patrick (see below). Patrick makes it clear in his writings that he brought the gospel to those who had not heard it before (34, 38, 41). Muirchú gives the name of Patrick's supposed master in Slemish as Miliucc, but there is a place called Miliucc in the parish of Killala.19 This may reflect a distant memory of Patrick being a slave in the west of Ireland.

4. Where did Patrick sail to from Ireland?

After Patrick boarded his ship from Ireland, he sailed for three days and reached land in a desolate place where the ship's party wandered for twenty-eight days before meeting other people. There are two views as to where this wandered occurred: the traditional view that it was in the northwest of Gaul, and the other view is that it was in Britain. A wilderness area large enough to take twenty-eight days to cross could only be satisfied by some part of Gaul which had been decimated by raiding barbarians between 407 and 410.20 This would then provide a way to date Patrick's early life.

But, why would Patrick sail for Gaul, when his dream specifically told him that he would soon be going to his patria, or homeland (17)? It is also extremely unlikely that a small Irish ship (the ship's captain is called a gubernator, a term used for the master of the smallest of the four types of sea-going craft) could make the coast of Gaul in three days.21

Instead, the ship may have landed in Britain, and the men wandered through a heavily wooded area. The word for wilderness, desertum, simply means an uninhabited place. The firewood, shelter and wood-honey found by the men during the latter part of their wanderings all suggest that they were in woods (19). They could easily have walked in circles through the woods for days. The word used for the pigs they found is porcus, which is the word for domestic pigs. These would have been released to fend for themselves off the mast of oak and beech which fall to the forest floor in autumn.22

One criticism of this view is that it did not take three days to cross the Irish Sea, even in those days. This has been explained in two different ways. One views the ship as a trading ship with a cargo of dogs which end up lying half-dead during the wanderings. The word translated "dogs" is uncertain due to poor manuscript quality, and thus makes for shaky grounds to base a theory on. In addition, the captain is viewed as changing his mind to allow Patrick on board when he realizes that he would make a good interpreter to have with him in Britain. The ship then takes three days to reach Britain because it gets caught in a storm and wrecks on the coast. This is supported by the fact that many of the terms used by Patrick in his account (19) suggest that it took great effort for the party to reach land.23 Also, Patrick later states that he only just escaped from Ireland (61). If this is what happened, it would seem to be a glaring omission on Patrick's part not to mention anything about the storm, especially since his theme in this section of the book is God's deliverance, and the reality of answered prayer.

The other view is that Patrick boarded a raiding ship, which took a circuitous route to its destination to avoid detection.24 This would explain why all the men left the ship in a deserted area, but then subsequently got lost. I find it very doubtful that a man of Patrick's integrity would board a pirate ship, especially knowing that these men were about to inflict on others what he had just endured for the previous six years. It is also questionable that raiders would have taken Patrick with them, either not trusting him, or more likely turning him in as a runaway slave in the hope of making some money from him.

This question particularly seems to lead to no clear answer, other than that Patrick's destination was Britain.

5. Where was Patrick educated?

After spending some years with his family, Patrick decides to answer the call of his dreams to go to Ireland. But first, he must have received some clerical education to become a priest and then a bishop. The traditional view is that this was received on the continent, either in Lérin or Auxerre, and that Patrick was then sent by Rome as a bishop to Ireland. But, recent studies are showing that this does not fit in with Patrick's writings or the policies of Rome in those days. Unfortunately, the information about the strength of the connection between Ireland and Rome is over-shadowed by the biases of the researchers:

The debate [over the extent of differences] is complicated by the ecclesiastical views of the writers, modern Roman Catholics tending to emphasize the Roman connection and Anglicans to belittle it.25

On the issue of Patrick's writings, it is now recognized that these represent the earliest significant works known in the Vulgar Latin of Britain, and not of Gaul, as earlier thought.26 In fact, Patrick provides a unique, early source of information on British Latin which has been neglected until recently because of the view that his Latin was of Gallic origin. If Patrick had been educated on the continent, he would be expected to have a very polished Latin, and great knowledge of the Church Fathers and his contemporary, Augustine. In fact, Patrick reveals none of this. According to two recent scholars, the first in the area of literary knowledge and the second in linguistics:

[I]t would seem to the present writer that, so far as literary (as distinct from linguistic and other) evidence is concerned, the testimony of the Confessio is almost decisively against Patrick (who was clearly no dullard) having been exposed over a long period, not only to the Confessiones [of Augustine], but to any literary influence in any relatively cultured ecclesiastical centre such as existed at the time in Gaul.27

There are, as far as I can see, in Patrick's works no traces of quotations or borrowings from any other book than the Bible. We can assert that Patrick was, so far as we can gather from his works, a man unius libri. His only book was Holy Scripture.28

Since Patrick did not have a solid education in Latin or the church Fathers, it is very unlikely that he would have been appointed by Rome for any episcopal task. In addition, Patrick makes it very clear that his mission is to the pagans in Ireland, missionary activity to the barbarians was not carried out by the church in Rome at that time, and was even frowned upon due to the view that the barbarians were less than fully human.29

So, it appears more likely that Patrick was educated mostly in Britain, and that upon their suggestion and funding, he was sent as a missionary to Ireland. There is precedent for the British church doing this in sending Ninian to evangelize in southwest Scotland during the first half of the fifth century.30 Patrick addresses much of the content of his Confession to the elders in Britain, and it is to them that he appears to be accountable. Also, when his authority as bishop was questioned, if he had been appointed by Rome, he would only need to have referred to this, and the issue would have been settled once and for all. But he does not do this.

The tradition of Patrick's connection with the continent, and Rome, did not arise until late in the seventh century when the Irish church was being brought into conformity with the Roman church. There appears to have been substantial differences between the two which led to the excommunication of the Irish church by the Pope according to Cummian of Iona in a letter written early in the seventh century.31 Many of the practices of the two churches were different, with the dating of Easter being the issue that received most attention. In addition, the power in the Irish church lay in the hands of the abbots, whereas in the rest of the Western church the power lay with the bishops. The church in the southern part of Ireland appears to have conformed by 640, but the northerners held out for another fifty years. Part of this settlement seems to have involved granting Armagh the primacy of Ireland, based simply on its unquestioned association with Patrick. It was at this point that Tírechán and Muirchú wrote their lives of Patrick which sought to portray Patrick as a bishop sent by Rome, and adhering faithfully to Roman practices. It is also at this point that events in Patrick's life may have been mixed up with events in the life of Palladius, another bishop sent to Ireland.

6. Was Patrick the only missionary in Ireland?

An additional source of information on Ireland at this time is Prosper of Aquitaine. In his history of the church from 423 to 461, he records under 431: "Palladius, ordained by Pope Celestine, is sent to the Scotti who believe in Christ, as their first bishop."32 The Scotti are acknowledged to have been the Irish. Palladius was a highly influential priest in Rome at that time, and had been actively involved in suppressing the Pelagian heresy. It was at his suggestion that Celestine, in 429, sent Germanus to Britain to stamp out any Pelagianism there. The mystery is that Palladius disappears from history at this point. The only indirect evidence to his fate in Ireland is a later reference of Prosper's to the career of Celestine: "By ordaining a bishop for the Scotti, while he strove to keep the Roman island Catholic he also made the barbarous island Christian."33 This has been taken by one author to show that Palladius primary goal was to counteract Pelagianism by getting an orthodox bishop into a see in that area.34 Nevertheless, Palladius must have carried out his responsibilities in Ireland, and he is associated with some places in Leinster.

It is important to note that Palladius was sent to the Irish Christians. No pope before Gregory the Great (d. 604) took a lead in missions. Pope Celestine himself had declared that a bishop had to be wanted by a group of Christians before one would be sent.35 This implies that there must have been some sort of organization to the church in Ireland before 431. It is unlikely that this came about through the work of missionaries, but probably resulted from the bringing of Christian slaves from Britain. Patrick notes that many other slaves were captured with him (1), and there is evidence of Latin words entering the Irish language as earlier as the fourth century. It is possible that some of these slaves converted their masters to Christianity, as happened when the Goths took Christian slaves back to their homelands.36 In any case, these Christians were living in Ireland and received the first bishop to Ireland, Palladius. After that, nothing is known of him. But, the names of a number of clergy (Secundinus, Auxilius and Iserninus) which would appear to be of continental origin have been passed down in the names of places in Ireland, and later written records.37 Patrick himself, when he states that he went to areas where no one had penetrated to minister (51), implicitly suggests that there were other areas in Ireland which did have clergy baptizing and ordaining. If this is the case, there must have been other bishops present to do the ordinations. It is of interest that Patrick never claims to be the first bishop of Ireland, and even states that he is "a bishop" in Ireland (Lett. 1) not the bishop of Ireland. There is also a sense of isolation and single-handed leadership in Patrick's writings, which would have occurred if he was left to work in the north and west of Ireland, while the continental group focused on the south and east. This corresponds well with the pattern seen in the seventh century when the southern parts were quicker to align with Roman practices than the northern parts.

7. Why was Patrick's integrity questioned?

The sense of division between Patrick and the continental mission has been developed to the point of giving an explanation for the conflict which led to the inquiry which so devastated Patrick later in his life.38 It is suggested that Patrick's approach was so different to the continental approach, that conflict was inevitable. So, the 'First Synod' was drawn up to legislate primarily against Patrick! Patrick responds to many of these issues in the Confession, but also notes that he will not abide by some. This is certainly a novel theory, and even includes the suggestion that the conflict was covered up at the end of the seventh century for political reasons. At this time, the Uí Néill were taking over political control of much of the north and saw it in their interests to have Armagh established as the ecclesiastical primacy in Ireland. For this purpose, a heroic Patrick with firm ties to Armagh and Rome was needed, and they saw to it that any record of conflict between Patrick and the continental mission was suppressed. It is of note that in the Book of Armagh, copied in 807, those portions of Patrick's Confession which deal with this inquiry have been left out. This would also shed some light on the strange fact that there is almost no mention of Patrick during the sixth century, and that it is only during this seventh century controversy that mention of him reappears. It has also been suggested that Secundinus, one of the continental bishops, composed the hymn Audite omnes to atone for his criticism of Patrick during this affair.39

There have certainly been less extravagant theories as to what led to this inquiry. One is that Patrick's letter to Coroticus led to his authority being questioned, particularly if Coroticus was a king with influence in the British church.40 If Coroticus was a Scottish king, the bishop of his diocese may have been insulted that another bishop would excommunicate some of his flock, and thus brought up the issue with the other British bishops.41 Another possibility is that Patrick's handling of the finances were being questioned, and that this escalated into a wholesale questioning of his character and motivations.

In any event, it turned out that Patrick was vindicated, and his faith in God was strengthened (29). Nevertheless, it was an affair that deeply shook Patrick, and remained in his memory for the rest of his life.

8. Summary of Patrick's Life

From all of these controversies I will give what I see as a reasonable summary of Patrick's life. He was born around 390 and brought up in Britain, probably in southwest Scotland, but southwest England is also likely. He was taken to Ireland when he was sixteen, and tended sheep for six years near Killala. At the suggestion of a divine dream, he made his way across Ireland to the east coast and there caught a ship to Britain. After three days they made land, possibly being delayed by bad weather. After wandering in dense forest for twenty-eight days they were found by others and eventually Patrick made it home to his family. He remained with them for a few years, and then decided to pursue the priesthood in answer to dreams he had about returning to Ireland. After a number of years, while he was on a short visit to the continent, probably Gaul, his name was proposed to lead a missionary expedition to Ireland. He set out around 432 as a bishop, and went to the headquarters of the Ulaid in Emain Macha, and there established his first church at what is now Armagh. From there he traveled predominantly in the north and west and made many converts, and trained many priests. After some time, his integrity was questioned, resulting in an inquiry at the hands of the British bishops, but he was subsequently vindicated. As the Ulaid were pushed out of more and more territory, Patrick moved with them to spend his last days in Down, from which he wrote his Confession. He died around 460.

Patrick's Character and Beliefs

An unfortunate fact of history is that Patrick's beliefs have been sought more often to justify the beliefs of the researcher than to honestly appraise what Patrick really believed. Thus he has been used to support the existence of a continuous link between the Irish church and Rome, and to show that there was great conflict between the two. Archbishop Ussher in the seventeenth century tried to establish that Protestantism was a return to the ways of Patrick, while others have claimed him for Catholicism. Patrick has also been claimed as a mystic, an ascetic, a Pelagian, and an anti-Pelagian. What is obvious is that the presuppositions of authors bear a major impact on what is interpreted as Patrick's beliefs. Therefore, it is with much caution that I attempt to extract some of the major themes in Patrick's writings, acknowledging that my own views will bias what I see, but praying that I can be as honest to the real Patrick as possible.

Patrick's Confession gives us most of the information about his views and beliefs. In the last two chapters, Patrick explains once again why he has written: to show that his motives in going to Ireland were only to spread the gospel (61), and to show that all the glory for what he accomplished should go to God because it was all a gift of God's (62). These themes reverberate throughout the book. Again and again Patrick thanks God for what he has given him. He is now able to see that even his being taken as a slave was done so that God bring him to a point where they could initiate a relationship (1-3). It was while a slave that Patrick was to be strengthened and comforted by God "as a father comforts his son" (2). Everything that Patrick did in Ireland as a missionary was a result of God's gift to him (51), and because of that Patrick wants to praise and thank God (3) and let everyone know of God's gift to them (14).

Patrick knows that much has been accomplished by his work in Ireland (38, 41), and yet we are struck by his humility. Nowhere does he try to hide the fact that he has made mistakes (46). He is open about the fact that early in his life he committed some sin that later got his superiors upset (26). He declares repeatedly that he is uneducated, and that his Latin is not polished (1, 9, Lett. 1). He claims to be completely unworthy of the fruit that has resulted from his work (55). Hanson interprets this humility as a strong sense of inadequacy and inferiority which was inflicted on Patrick's soul by the trauma of his slavery.42 While there may be some truth to this, it is more likely that Patrick is living out in his life the experience of 2 Corinthians 12:7-10. Jesus' words to Paul that "power is perfected in weakness" have spoken mightily to Patrick also, who now sees an opportunity to experience God working in his life when he thinks of his own inadequacies. Patrick knows how easily one can be deceived (44) and moved away from a proper attitude towards God, and hence his weaknesses and failings serve as continual reminders of his need for dependence on God.

What is of primary importance in Patrick's life is his relationship with God. What was missing in his early youth was that he "did not then know the true God" (1) but as a slave he came to know him. His goal in life since that point has been to grow in the love and fear of God (16, 44). His rule of faith (4) shows that he had an orthodox view of God, but scattered throughout the rest of the book we pick up traces of the depth and intimacy of Patrick's relationship with God. Patrick sees him as a father (2), as one who protects him from all evil (33), as one who gets him through tough times (34), as a forgiving God (44, 46), and as faithful (54, 56). In summary, God is someone whom you can cast your cares upon, and trust to nourish you (55). This depth and intimacy was been a characteristic feature of the early Irish church, and was probably helped by the fact that a king in Irish society was at least physically close to the people, and not the distant, unfamiliar type of person suggested by modern royalty.43

Patrick communicated with God through prayer, dreams and the Bible. Prayer was of central importance to Patrick. As a slave he prayed a hundred times a day, rising before dawn regardless of the weather (16). This chapter seems to start a section of the book which culminates in his amazing experience of seeing the Holy Spirit pray within him, just as Paul did (Romans 8:26). What becomes clear from this section is that God truly does answer prayer, particularly in difficult situations. Patrick then immediately jumps into the section about the inquiry into his integrity (26-34), when he was most depressed, and shows that it was God who got him through this. Since Patrick tells us later that the converts in Ireland were enduring suffering (42), he may be letting them know how they can endure through these, and in fact grow closer to God as a result of prayer. In fact, his whole story would be an encouragement to Christians, like those carried off by Coroticus, who were enduring tough times.

Patrick tells us that he received a number of divine dreams which O'Donoghue claims were, for Patrick, part of the normal Christian life.44 While we today may reject alternate modes of communication with God too quickly, all of these dreams occurred at important points in Patrick's life. In an age when the Bible, or missionaries, were not as accessible as they are today, it is reasonable to assume that God worked more often in this way, but does not require that they be a frequent event. O'Donoghue does point out that Patrick's dreams were very different from those written about the later saints. The latter were often mysterious and fantastic, but Patrick's dreams are clear and concise, needing no interpretation. They were heard and not seen. Also, the word used for all but the first dream is responsum, which suggests a divine response to prayer, and thus links these in with Patrick's prayer life.

What is most clear from Patrick's writings is that he had an intimate knowledge of the Bible. His Confession is full of quotations from, and allusions to, the Bible. For Patrick there was only one book, the Bible. He states that he believed the Bible was given by the Spirit (11), that it foretells things about the future (34), and that there is nothing untrue in it (Lett. 20). This would count as an orthodox statement of inspiration. Patrick's knowledge and love of the Bible is one of the two features repeatedly praised in the hymn Audite omnes.

In applying the Bible, Patrick is very straight-forward, and practical, though at times he does stretch the meaning of the text (e.g. 11). This became the standard method of interpretation and exegesis used in the early Irish church. While the rest of the church was interpreting the Bible allegorically, the Irish church remained faithful to literal-historical interpretation.45 While allegory was sought to some extent, the emphasis was on what the text had meant originally, and on how it applied in a common-sense, practical manner to the life of the Christian.46 In addition, there was great respect for the Bible, and it was the main book studied in Irish monasteries to the neglect of philosophical theology. It must be one of the great tragedies that this did not continue, but faded away as the monasteries in Ireland were ransacked by the Vikings and the allegorical and philosophical emphasis gained greater influence on the Continent.

Another unique aspect of Irish biblical studies was their frequent use of the works of Pelagius at a time when no other interpreters were using him. Pelagius (d. 444) was a Briton living in Rome who rejected Augustine's notion of predestination and his negative view of human nature.47 He promoted the idea that all people are born in a morally perfect condition, and have the potential to live sinless lives if they consistently use their free will to choose good. He thus emphasized good works, and promoted asceticism, claiming that our tendency to sin comes from bad habits and bad example. In 418 his works were declared heretical and he was excommunicated.

Pelagius' works were avoided by all except the Irish monks. In fact, the Irish have been linked to every reference to Pelagius in the early Middle Ages. It has been suggested that this was due to a Pelagian stronghold in Ireland, some even suggesting that Pelagius was Irish. Pelagianism was present in Britain early in the fifth century, though to what extent has been difficult to ascertain.48 It did necessitate the sending of Germanus in 428, and possibly again in 444, to eliminate it. Since this is the period when Patrick would have been educated in Britain, it has been suggested that Patrick may have been influenced by Pelagianism, even bringing it to Ireland and thus giving it credibility among later Irish monks. This theory has been rejected by a study of the citations of Pelagius' works in Irish manuscript.49 In this study, Kelly claims that Pelagius was used because his exegetical methodology was favored by the Irish, but that nowhere was his theology promoted. In addition, Pelagius was known to have lived a virtuous life, which even Augustine, his archrival, acknowledged. This was very important to the Irish monks who were renowned for their emphasis on inner moral transformation, asceticism, and strict penance.50

Although Patrick does not claim to have been an ascetic, or a monk, he notes that many were committing themselves to that lifestyle and is very positive towards them (41-2). He does emphasize the need for action on the part of Christians. But what we have in Patrick is not the emphasis on works by human effort that was found in Pelagianism, but rather he saw everything as a gift of God's. The opportunity to come to Ireland as a missionary was a gift (15) and all the works he accomplished were gifts (37, 51) done by the power of God (30). Patrick even asks why he would be given the honor of serving people in such a profound way (36), and his only conclusion is that it had nothing to do with him, only God (37). All that was required of Patrick was that he focus on his relationship with God (42) and be willing to serve (57). This would bring inner transformation (13) and would draw people to Christ (30). With this attitude there is no way that Patrick could have seen his salvation as having anything to do with his good works, but being yet another gift from God (Ephesians 2:8-9).

What we see here is not the works mentality of Pelagianism, or the irresistible grace seen in Augustine, but rather something that comes closer to what became known in the seventeenth century as semi-Pelagianism. Much of what constitutes this view was developed by John Cassian (d. 433) while he lived in Marseilles.51 He was definitely not a Pelagian, but he reacted to Augustine's view of predestination because he felt that it violated the need for effort on the part of Christians. He placed a heavy emphasis on asceticism and good works, but in almost contradictory terms stated that everything was done by God's grace. What is needed is our desire to do good, and then God does it all:

It is given to them that ask, and opened to them that knock, and found by them that seek... For [God] is at hand to bestow all these things, if only the opportunity is given to him by our good will.52

In many ways, Cassian's views are lived out in Patrick. Cassian believed that asceticism led to the removal of obstacles in our lives which hinder the flow of grace to us from God. Whenever pride attacks, the soul needs to realize that it depends on God, which is almost exactly what Patrick did (37). The grace of God leads to a strong emphasis on prayer (16-25). Cassian even spoke highly of dreams as a means by which God communicates messages to individuals, and gave them interpretations of Scripture.53 Cassian had been a disciple of John of Chrysostom, and came from the east in 405. With him he carried the traditions and theology of the Eastern monks, which has been noted to be curiously present in Irish monasticism. Cassian's impact on later Irish monks has been noted,54 but I have not read of his impact directly on Patrick. Cassian is associated with Vincent of Lérin, and Faustus, abbot of Lérin and later Bishop of Riez. Lérin is one of the continental sites that has traditionally been associated with Patrick. It may be that he did spend some time with these men, or at least was influenced by their works. Since they did not emphasize complicated theological doctrines, but a way of life, it would not have been necessary for Patrick to have spent a long period of time with them to have grasped much of their ideas. He may also have picked up their emphasis on Scripture too, and thus would have had the same source materials as they. Another quote from Cassian will serve to show how much Patrick's life-style reflects Cassian's teaching:

We may first show to our brethren true humility from the very bottom of our heart, assenting to nothing which will sadden or hurt... Then, next after this, we must maintain with the utmost firmness this same humility towards God. And this will be fulfilled by us in such a way as not only to acknowledge that we are powerless to accomplish anything relating to the perfecting of virtue without his assistance and grace, but we also believe honestly that our being worthy to comprehend this is in fact a gift from him.55

What results from this in Patrick is a deep concern for others, but also a realization that only God can meet their true needs. From this comes his missionary zeal. While still a non-believer, Patrick saw that God had taken notice of him, and pitied, protected and strengthened him so that he would come to see his sin, repent and believe in the Lord (2). This was reflected in Patrick's attitude towards the pagan Irish, as he saw them as people needing Christ, not as evil barbarians beyond redemption. This attitude remained in the early Irish church, but had changed to one of intolerance by the end of the seventh century.56

This attitude, coupled with an emphasis on God's grace, prayer and Scripture must have accounted for much of Patrick's success. For him, what was most important was not strategies or structures, but that he present an image which reflected God's image and was one that should be imitated (47). Thus he reflects Paul's command to imitate him as he imitates Christ (1 Corinthians 11:1). That Patrick was a virtuous man is the second of the main themes developed in the hymn Audite omnes. This now makes it even more apparent why the inquiry into Patrick's character so devastated him. He had lived his adult life pursuing Christ and thus becoming more Christ-like, and saw this vindicated in the fact that thousands had come to know Christ and be born again in Christ as a result of his witness (38, 42). Now, some others were apparently claiming that all this had occurred from selfish motives and for personal gain, while claiming that Patrick was a liar. Not only must this have hurt, but it must have caused Patrick to question whether his whole life really was the way he had been looking on it. If Patrick's character was defamed, he must have feared that much of his effectiveness as a missionary would be lost. But once again, God comes through in a dream to vindicate him completely and show him that in God's eyes he had been faithful (29).

What we see in Patrick is a man with deep affection and respect for all people. He saw the pagans as people in need of Christ. This was given an urgent appeal as he saw Ireland as the last place on earth to be reached for Christ (38), which would then result in the end of history (34). He was also deeply respectful of women, and mentions them specifically in admiring ways (41, 49, Lett. 12, 14). He has none of that "neurotic fear of and contempt for the feminine"57 which entered the church so early. His life was changed when he came to believe in God. He knows that he will spend eternity with God (12) and is overcome with thankfulness. His works are seen as a gift and privilege, not as a way to win God's favor or his salvation (15, 38). Ó Raifeartaigh summarizes Patrick's life well:

In short he was the ideal missionary, highly successful but never for a moment attributing to himself the credit thereof.58


Bradshaw, Brendan. "The Wild and Woolly West: Early Irish Christianity and Latin Orthodoxy." In The Churches, Ireland and the Irish, ed. W. J. Sheils and Diana Wood, 1-23. Studies in Church History, no. 25. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1989.

Bieler, Ludwig. Studies on the Life and Legend of St Patrick, ed. Richard Sharpe. London: Variorum Reprints, 1986.

Binchy, D. A. "Patrick and his Biographers, Ancient and Modern." Studia Hibernica 2 (1962): 7-173.

Binchy, D. A. "St Patrick's 'First Synod'." Studia Hibernica 8 (1968): 49-59.

Boyle, Alexander. "The Birthplace of St Patrick." The Scottish Historical Review 60 (October 1981): 156-60.

Chadwick, Owen. John Cassian. 2nd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1968.

Corish, Patrick J. "St. Patrick and Ireland." Paper presented at a Symposium on St. Patrick, Armagh, 17 March 1961, 9-14.

Duffy, Joseph. Patrick: In His Own Words. Dublin: Veritas, 1985.

Gilliard, Frank D. "Senatorial Bishops in the Fourth Century." Harvard Theological Review 77 (1984): 153-75.

Gwynn, Aubrey. "St. Patrick and Rome." Paper presented at a Symposium on St. Patrick, Armagh, 17 March 1961, 3-8.

Hanson, R. P. C. The Life and Writings of the Historical Saint Patrick. New York: Seabury Press, 1983.

Hanson, R. P. C. "The Mission of Saint Patrick." In An Introduction to Celtic Christianity, ed. James P. Mackey, 22-44. Edinburgh: T & T Clarke, 1989.

Hanson, R. P. C. Saint Patrick: His Origins and Career New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1968.

Hardinge, Leslie. The Celtic Church in Britain London: S.P.C.K., 1972.

Hood, A. B. E., ed. and trans. St. Patrick: His Writings and Muirchú's Life, with an introduction by John Morris. London and Chichester: Phillimore, 1978; Totowa, N.J.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1978.

Hughes, Kathleen. "Synodus II S. Patricii." In Latin Script and Letters: A.D. 400-900, ed. John J. O'Meara and Bernd Naumann, 141-7. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1976.

Kelly, Joseph F. "Pelagius, Pelagianism and the Early Christian Irish." Mediaevalia 4 (1978): 99-124.

Kelly, Joseph F. T. "The Attitudes toward Paganism in Early Christian Ireland." In Diakonia: Studies in Honor of Robert T. Meyer, ed. Thomas Halton and Joseph P. Williman, 214-23. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1986.

Kelly, Joseph F. T. "The Escape of Saint Patrick from Ireland." In vol. 1 Studia Patristica XVIII, ed. Elizabeth A. Livingstone, 41-5. Kalamazoo, Mich.: Cistercian Publications, 1985.

Kelly, Joseph F. "The Hiberno-Latin Study of the Gospel of Luke." In vol. 1 Biblical Studies: The Medieval Irish Contribution, ed. Martin McNamara, 10-29. Proceedings of the Irish Biblical Association, no. 1. Dublin: Dominican Publications, 1976.

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Ó Raifeartaigh, Tarlach. "The Enigma of Saint Patrick." Seanchas Ard Mhacha 13 (1989): 1-60.

Ó Raifeartaigh, Tarlach. "The Life of St Patrick: A New Approach." Irish Historical Studies 16 (September 1968): 119-37.

Ó Raifeartaigh, Tarlach. "Saint Patrick's Twenty-Eight Days' Journey." Irish Historical Studies 16 (September 1969): 395-416.

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1 R. P. C. Hanson, The Life and Writings of the Historical Saint Patrick (New York: Seabury Press, 1983), 1.

2 Noel Dermot O'Donoghue, Aristocracy of Soul: Patrick of Ireland, The Way of Christian Mystics, vol. 1 (Wilmington, Del.: Michael Glazier, 1987), 59.

3 Ludwig Bieler, trans. "The Breastplate of Patrick," 60-61, in The Works of St. Patrick; St. Secundinus: Hymn on St. Patrick, Ancient Christian Writers, no. 17, ed. Johannes Quasten and Joseph C. Plumpe (Westminster, Md: Newman Press, 1953), 71. (JOS 230.1 314 Q1 v.17)

4 D. A. Binchy, "St Patrick's 'First Synod'," Studia Hibernica 8 (1968): 49-59.

5 Kathleen Hughes, "Synodus II S. Patricii," in Latin Script and Letters: A.D. 400-900, ed. John J. O'Meara and Bernd Naumann (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1976), 141-7

6 Bieler, 57-65.

7 A. B. E. Hood, ed. and trans., St. Patrick: His Writings and Muirchú's Life, with an introduction by John Morris (London and Chichester: Phillimore, with Totowa, N.J.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1978). (60 pages OSU BX4700 P3A21 1978)

8 Patrick J. Corish, The Irish Catholic Experience (Dublin: Gill and MacMillan, 1985), 15.

9 Noel D. O'Donoghue, "St Patrick's Breastplate," in An Introduction to Celtic Christianity, ed. James P. Mackey (Edinburgh: T & T Clarke, 1989), 45-63.

10 Hanson, 18.

11 References to Patrick's Confession will be given in brackets, e.g. (4), whereas references to his Letter will be given as (Lett. 4).

12 T. F. O'Rahilly, The Two Patricks (Dublin, 1957).

13 Tarlach Ó Raifeartaigh, "The Enigma of Saint Patrick," Seanchas Ard Mhacha 13 (1989): 1-60.

14 Aubrey Gwynn, "St. Patrick and Rome," Paper presented at a Symposium on St. Patrick, Armagh, 17 March 1961, 3-8.

15 Alexander Boyle, "The Birthplace of St Patrick," The Scottish Historical Review 60 (October 1981): 156-60.

16 Joseph Duffy, Patrick: In His Own Words (Dublin: Veritas, 1985), 53-4, 62-4.

17 Christine Mohrmann, The Latin of Saint Patrick (Dublin, 1961).

18 Ó Raifeartaigh, "Enigma," 48-60.

19 Ó Raifeartaigh, "Enigma," 25.

20 J. F. T. Kelly, "The Escape of Saint Patrick from Ireland," in vol. 1 Studia Patristica XVIII, ed. Elizabeth A. Livingstone (Kalamazoo, Mich.: Cistercian Publications, 1985), 41-5. (JOS 230.1 11 L786s v.18)

21 Ó Raifeartaigh, "Enigma," 33.

22 T. Ó Raifeartaigh, "Saint Patrick's Twenty-Eight Days' Journey," Irish Historical Studies 16 (September 1969): 395-416.

23 Ó Raifeartaigh, "Enigma," 27-34.

24 Kelly, 41-5.

25 Leslie Hardinge, The Celtic Church in Britain (London: S.P.C.K., 1972). 28, n. 158.

26 Hanson, 27-30.

27 J. O'Meara, "Patrick's Confessio and Augustine's Confessiones," in Latin Script and Letters: A.D. 400-900, ed. John J. O'Meara and Bernd Naumann (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1976), 44-53.

28 Mohrmann, 8.

29 E. A. Thompson, Who Was St Patrick? (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1985), 58-65.

30 Hanson, 11.

31 Hardinge, 23-8.

32 Prosper, Chronicon, quoted in John R. Walsh and Thomas Bradley, A History of the Irish Church: 400-700 AD (Dublin: The Columba Press, 1991), 6.

33 Prosper, Contra Collatorem, quoted in Walsh, 6.

34 John Morris, introduction to Hood, 5.

35 Thompson, Who Was St Patrick? 61.

36 E. A. Thompson, "St Patrick and Coroticus," Journal of Theological Studies, New Series 31 (April 1980): 12-27.

37 Ó Raifeartaigh, "Enigma," 7.

38 Ó Raifeartaigh, "Enigma," 51-60.

39 Bieler, 57.

40 O'Donoghue, Aristocracy, 81-2.

41 Thompson, "St Patrick," 19-20.

42 Hanson, 36-7.

43 Harold Mytum, The Origins of Early Christian Ireland (London and New York: Routledge, 1992), 46.

44 O'Donoghue, Aristocracy, 11-23.

45 Brendan Bradshaw, "The Wild and Woolly West: Early Irish Christianity and Latin Orthodoxy," in The Churches, Ireland and the Irish, W. J. Sheils and Diana Wood, ed., Studies in Church History, no. 25 (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1989), 1-23; Leslie Hardinge, The Celtic Church in Britain (London: S.P.C.K., 1972), 29-51.

46 Joseph F. Kelly, "The Hiberno-Latin Study of the Gospel of Luke," in Biblical Studies: The Medieval Irish Contribution, ed. Martin McNamara, Proceedings of the Irish Biblical Association No. 1 (Dublin: Dominican Publications, 1976), 10-29.

47 B. R. Rees, Pelagius: A Reluctant Heretic (Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell Press, 1988).

48 R. A. Markus, "Pelagianism: Britain and the Continent," Journal of Ecclesiastical History 37 (1986): 191-204.

49 Joseph F. Kelly, "Pelagius, Pelagianism and the Early Christian Irish," Mediaevalia 4 (1978): 99-124.

50 Bradshaw, 10-2.

51 Owen Chadwick, John Cassian, 2nd ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1968).

52 John Cassian, Institutes XII, 14, quoted in Chadwick, p. 113.

53 Hardinge, 33.

54 Hardinge, 29-35.

55 Cassian, Institutes XII, 32f., quoted in Rees, 107-8.

56 Joseph F. T. Kelly, "The Attitudes toward Paganism in Early Christian Ireland," in Diakonia: Studies in Honor of Robert T. Meyer, ed. Thomas Halton and Joseph P. Williman (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1986), 214-23.

57 O'Donoghue, Aristocracy, 73.

58 Ó Raifeartaigh, "Enigma," 37.


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