A legendary saint

So many legends have attached themselves to St Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland, that it might be well to begin by exploding a few myths. Patrick was not the first man to introduce Christianity to Ireland. The chronicler Prosper of Aquitaine recorded under the year 431: “Palladius, consecrated by Pope Celestine, is sent as their first bishop to the Irish believers in Christ.”

Ireland was never part of the Roman Empire. Evidently, though, its trading links with Britain (mentioned by Tacitus in the 1st century), as well as with Gaul, had brought a scattering of Christianity to the south-east of the island well before Patrick’s time. The story goes that Patrick used the leaves of the shamrock to expound the doctrine of the Trinity. Perhaps he did; there is, however, no record before the 17th century of his acting in this manner.

As for Patrick having rid Ireland of snakes, the Roman geographer Solinus had remarked upon the island’s colubrine deficiency in the 3rd century.

Kidnapped into slavery

Yet the facts of Patrick’s life, as related in his Confessio, are as winning as the legends. We discover that he regarded himself as an unworthy and ill-educated sinner, strangely honoured by divine choice. He had, he explains, been born a Roman Briton at “Bannaventa”, presumably somewhere on the west coast of Britain. His family was Christian; indeed his grandfather was a priest and his father a deacon. At 16, though, Patrick was kidnapped and carried off into slavery in Ireland. For six years he worked as a shepherd, an experience which “opened my mind to an awareness of my unbelief”.

Eventually Patrick escaped and seems to have spent some years in Gaul before returning to his family in Britain. A vision – “I saw Him praying within me” –inspired him to cross once more to Ireland, where he spent the rest of his life as a missionary.

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