Who Was Saint Patrick?
Today we are going to ask: who was St. Patrick? And what amazing thing did he do to be still so famous? Well, here’s a wee taste—not only is Patrick famous for helping Ireland become the ‘Island of Saints and Scholars!’ he also kick-started the movement that saved Christian learning and civilization from the barbarians after Rome fell in 476 A.D. (Cahill, 1995). And remember, Christian civilization is what went on to become our modern Western civilization. So, Patrick’s legacy is extremely important. I should add that much of this article is based on Thomas Cahill’s best-selling, non-fiction history named How the Irish Saved Civilization (1995). But first, a bit about Patrick’s life. Irish slave traders captured Patricius or Patrick—a Romanised Briton—in the vicinity of Wales, probably in the year 401 A.D (Cahill, 1995, pp. 40-41). According to former Harvard researcher Philip Freeman in his book St. Patrick of Ireland—a Biography, Patricius was brought to Ireland where he worked as a shepherd slave near Killala, in this very county of Mayo (2004, p. 25). Imagine Patrick as a shepherd slave—constantly cold and hungry, and isolated in all ways. He didn’t speak the language, he was alone, and he didn’t understand the Irish culture, or the pagan, warring way of life but he remembered the stories his mother told him about God loving him, and he began to pray-- both day and night. After six long years, when Patrick was in his early 20’s, Patrick had a dream, where he was told: Your hungers are rewarded, you are going home, look- your ship is ready. Patrick walked 200 miles to the East coast of Ireland to find a ship waiting (Cahill, 1995, pp. 97-98). While at home in Britain, Patrick had another vision where he heard the Irish people calling him back to Ireland to convert them to Christianity. At this, Patrick went to France to train to become a bishop (around 430 A.D.). Patrick then returned to Ireland when he was in his forties (Cahill, 1995, pp. 101-109).
As a brief side note, a modern trend in history has been to place importance on understanding the motivations of historical figures—or, in other words, making an attempt to understand ‘what made them tick?’ When studying Patrick’s autobiographical essay, named his Confession, (Royal Irish Academy, 2011) it becomes clear that Patrick felt that God had chosen him—a “sinner, a simple country person, and the least of all believers” for a reason. Patrick writes in his Confession, “Let every tongue confess that Jesus Christ, in whom we believe and whom we await to come back to us in the near future, is Lord and God.” Indeed, Patrick made it clear in his essay that his mission was to spread the Gospel—not only to the Irish, but if he could have, to the whole world. His passion was on full display when he wrote, “Again, he says: “Go out therefore to the whole world and announce the Gospel to every creature. Whoever believes and is baptised will be saved; whoever does not believe will be condemned”” (Royal Irish Academy, 2011). Evidently, Patrick sensed that he was on a mission from God.
The Practical Result of Patrick’s Ministry
Patrick was said to have converted many of the Irish chieftains to Christianity, along with many of the Irish people (Coyle, n.d). Through Patrick, tribal warfare decreased significantly. He is also credited with virtually ending human sacrifice and the slave trade in Ireland (Cahill, 1995, p.138). But what did Patrick kickstart that was so very special? You will see in one short moment!
The Barbarians Invade
Thomas Cahill muses—beginning in 406 A.D. came the barbarian invasions of Western Europe (1995, p. 17). Rome was seen as the height of wealth and civilization and when Rome finally fell in 476 A.D. it led to the Dark Ages. Learning (education, the arts, reading, literature and libraries) were decimated by the barbarians and these institutions were almost lost in Western Europe (Cahill, 1995, p.59) --except for here in Ireland. Just as the rest of Europe was forgetting Christianity and even how to read, the Irish were becoming ever more literate, and as we will see they were also learning to become Christian (Cahill, 1995, pp.146-159).
Patrick’s Fearless Monks
Cahill goes on to write that Irish monks, following in step with what Patrick had taught them, subsequently brought learning and Christianity back to Britain and to the European continent in what was a massive revival of Christian learning (Cahill, 1995, p. 170). But, how did all this happen? Irish monks planted monasteries all over Ireland. Many were planted in Patrick’s lifetime and these spread rapidly. Cahill writes that these monasteries became "hubs of unprecedented prosperity, art and learning" (1995, p.144). Something like university cities sprang up around these monasteries, where thousands came to be schooled in faith and learning – “first, from all over Ireland, then from England, and at last from everywhere in Europe” (Cahill, 1995, p. 146). The monks saw their job as copying books (both the Bible and religious texts and the Greek classics as well as the Irish legends) and they were very serious about their job (Cahill, 1995, pp. 147-148). And it was these Irish monks, following the teachings of Patrick, who went on to bring Christian civilization back from the brink in the British Isles and in Europe (Cahill, 1995, pp. 155-173).
The Bold and Influential St. Columba
Patrick might have started it all, but it was the devoted Irish monks who carried the torch. Cahill writes: “…the greatest Irish figure after Patrick”, [was] Columcille, (1995, p. 156). Cahill writes that Columcille (also known as St. Columba) was born in “521, less than ninety years after Patrick’s arrival as bishop,” (1995, p. 156) and it was through this remarkable St. Columba that Patrick’s legacy became international. But who was this powerful St. Columba, as he came to be known? Colmcille (or ‘Dove of the church’ as was his monastic nickname) was a charismatic, larger than life personality, who was able to skilfully communicate his message to the normally warlike Scots among others (Cahill, 1995, p. 170).
Columba’s High Calling
Cahill goes on to reveal that Columba was born into a royal Irish family, and it is said that he was in line to become High King of Ireland. Columba however had an even higher calling than kingship, as you will see (Cahill, 1995, p. 156). As a warrior monk he was once involved in a battle where over 3,000 men died. Feeling guilt over their lost souls, Columba vowed to win as many souls for Christ. He set sail with 12 others for a small island off the coast of Scotland- an island named Iona (Cahill, 1995, pp. 157-158). His renowned monastic community was established there and he would use Iona as a base to evangelise among the native pagan Scots (Johnson, n.d.). Columba even started to play a role in politics, and Iona became a very significant regional power base (Cahill, 1995, p 172). It is said that many kings came to be anointed in Iona, and it is a fact that 48 kings of Scotland (and 12 other kings) chose to be buried in Iona (Johnson, n.d.).
Again, referring back to St. Patrick’s autobiographical Confession, where Patrick writes “Those who wish may laugh and insult. But I will not be silent, nor will I hide the signs and wonders which the Lord has shown me…” (Royal Irish Academy, 2011). It is said that Columba performed significant signs, wonders and miracles to help with the spread of the Gospel (Cahill, 1995, p. 171). Columba started the international movement which reintroduced Europe to her own Christian and literate past, as Ireland became "Europe’s publisher" as Cahill writes (1995, pp. 169-170).
Going Back to Europe
The Irish monks would colonize barbarized Europe, bringing with them their Christian learning (Cahill, 1995, p. 170). Cahill continues on to write that just “as Columcille had baptized Scotland and taught it to read…”, so his spiritual son “…Aidan would do the same for all of Northern England” (1995, p. 173) through his island monastery of Lindisfarne. Many monks went their way to the continent of Europe, where Cahill writes, “they were more than a match for the barbarians they met" (1995, p. 173). Cahill goes on to say, "They, whom the Romans had never conquered… fearlessly brought the civilization back to its ancient home” (1995, p. 174). For example, Columbanus—rather than his predecessor Columba-- built in Bobbio the first Irish-Italo monastery. Columbanus alone may have opened under his name as many as 100 monasteries, in Germany, France, Italy and Switzerland. And some of these monasteries in Europe actually became cities—like Vienna, for example (Cahill, 1995, p.p. 177-179). We should add that it wasn’t only the Irish who planted monasteries, but it is understood that the Irish played a crucial role in the process as a whole.
The End of an Era
Beginning in the 8th Century, Vikings ravaged many of the coastal monasteries in Ireland and Britain (Cahill, 1995, pp. 194-195). And "Ireland would never recover its cultural leadership of European civilization" writes Cahill (1995, p. 196). But… the impact of these Irish men on Europe remains vast. “The weight of the Irish influence on the continent,” admits historian James Westfall Thompson, “is incalculable” (Cahill, 1995, p. 180). Patrick himself credited God for raising him up when he writes in his Confession, “But this I know for certain, that before I was brought low, I was like a stone lying deep in the mud. Then He who is powerful came, and in his mercy pulled me out, and lifted me up and placed me on the very top of the wall” (Royal Irish Academy, 2011). And so, Ireland’s Golden Age lasted for at around 300 years, and had massive ramifications for the entire continent of Europe. And its beginnings were with one godly yet humble man—St. Patrick of Ireland (Cahill, 1995).
Cahill, T. 1995 (2011 as an eBook). How the Irish Saved Civilization . First published by Hodder and Stoughton, an Hachette UK Company, A Sceptre Paperback. Published by arrangement with Doubleday—A division of Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc. Available at: https://www.amazon.co.uk/How-Irish-Saved-Civilization-Irelands-ebook/dp/B005CISJWG/ref=tmm_kin_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1671038526&sr=8-1 (Downloaded: 6th of September, 2017).
Coyle, C. (no date). The Irish Diaspora and St. Patrick’s Day. Available at: https://www.thehistorypress.co.uk/articles/the-irish-diaspora-and-st-patrick-s-day/ Accessed on 27th of December, 2022.
Freeman, P. 2004. St. Patrick of Ireland – a Biography. Simon & Schuster, New York.
Johnson, B. (no date). St. Columba and the Isle of Iona. Available at: https://www.historic-uk.com/HistoryUK/HistoryofScotland/St-Columba-the-Isle-of-Iona/ . Accessed on 27th of December, 2022.
Royal Irish Academy/(Saint Patrick). 2011. Saint Patrick’s Confessio. Available at: https://www.confessio.ie/etexts/confessio_english#01 . Accessed c. 11th of December, 2022.