St Patrick was born somewhere on (N) W coast of Britain. He had a Roman name; his father was a deacon, his grandfather a priest in the British church. They lived in a city, had some wealth, even a villa. At the age of 16 Patrick was taken captive by pagan raiders and sold into slavery in Ireland; he escaped, got on a boat, and eventually got back to Britain. He returned to Ireland many years later, with companions, as a missionary. He preached, baptised and ordained extensively.
He wrote a ‘Confession’ of faith and also a Letter ‘to Coroticus’. His ‘Confession’ provides perhaps the most original and vigorous testimony to apostolic labours since St Paul.
St Patrick does not tell us where he went overseas. A ‘Saying’ of his, apparently preserved, runs: ‘The fear of God I had as my guide through Gaul and Italy and the islands of the Tyrrhene Sea’. But where we do not know. Perhaps his travels in Gaul, which he mentions in his Confession, made him familiar with monastic life.
St Patrick’s two ‘Lives’ by Muirchu and Tirechan written possibly between 661-668 and 665-680 claim to be using oral tradition from known people; the ‘Tripartite’ Life (‘3 parts’, for public reading) is dated c 895-901. By this time Patrick attains a fame which eclipses that of all others. People now regarded him as intercessor and patron of all Ireland. He also became an extensive role model for the evangelisation of Europe.
St Patrick is said to have landed somewhere in the North. His reputed landing place is Saul in Co Down on the site of the barn (‘saul’) of Patrick’s first convert. There is a 20C ‘replica’ church on site. Not far away is Struell Wells, four ancient wells which St Patrick must surely have known.
At Downpatrick Co Down a stone in the graveyard of the Church of Ireland Cathedral marks the spot where, it is said, relics of Patrick, Bridget and Columba, were buried.
This may be a result of the gathering up of relics by Normans who wanted to show they were legitimate holders of authority. Traditions about his burial place however are late.
St Patrick worked for 30 years and is said to have founded many churches, bishoprics and monasteries. Not all these claims will be true. Patrick was little mentioned after his death. He later became famous through the promotion of his ‘cult’ – and that had a lot to do with political and church politics of the time. Then every origin-conscious Irishman wanted to claim him as founder of their church or monastery. Where saints’ cults were promoted, as they were by powerful sees or monasteries, they supplanted earlier dedications.
But he did have many years and Ireland is not too large a country.
‘I journeyed among you, and everywhere, for your sake, often in danger, even to the outermost parts beyond which there is nothing, places where no one had ever arrived to baptise or ordain clergy or confirm the people’ (Confessio, 51).
This need not to be taken as exaggeration.
At first Patrick may have had a small wooden church in Armagh and made it his centre at least for a time; later a stone one was built where the present Church of Ireland Cathedral stands.
Places mentioned so far are mainly in the North East. Places from Donegal to Tipperary lay claim to visits from St Patrick. Some 60 churches lay claim to have had bishops ordained by him.
Some deny he ever visited these places because, in their estimation, Patrick’s connection with them is a result of a later promotion of him by Armagh as apostle of ‘all’ Ireland, and to this end the traditions were fabricated.
The battle here is between ‘traditions’ which, allowing for the many legendary elements, are not impossible in themselves, and modern historical/critical sensibilities which cut out everything without hard evidence.
While St Patrick cannot be said to have travelled absolutely everywhere, yet he says himself he went far and wide. We shall never know how far. Many places mentioned are quite unidentifiable. But the material contained in the Patrick traditions is considerable. If we cut out the traditions as the historians now like to do (is this the current fashion?), St Patrick would have done virtually nothing in his 30 years or more. St Patrick also seems to have lots of sisters, nephews and nieces! The Irish love these stories. They will never be swept away. They will always tease us.
A dream (a real one, as told by Patrick himself) recalled his period of slavery as ‘by the Western Sea’. The place was also ‘200 miles’, i.e. a long way, from the port of his escape. This place to which the dream called him to return, is not unreasonably regarded as being in Co Mayo, though the old volcano top at Slemish in Co Antrim (complete with ‘footprint’ at Skerry) makes a rival claim. As for counties Donegal, Sligo, Mayo, Galway, Limerick, Tipperary in the end we all have to decide as we will.
Troparion Tone 3
Holy Bishop Patrick,
Faithful shepherd of Christ’s royal flock,
You filled Ireland with the radiance of the Gospel:
The mighty strength of the Trinity!
Now that you stand before the Savior,
Pray that He may preserve us in faith and love!