Arts & Books Books

The forgotten forerunners of St Patrick

St Patrick

The Apostle of Ireland built on the work of other intrepid men, says David Platzer

Saint Patrick Retold
By Roy Flechner
Princeton, 320pp, £22/$28

The Irish have a talent for promotion in a way their Celtic cousins – the Welsh, the Cornish, the Bretons or even the Scots – do not. Irish pubs and shops dot the world and St Patrick’s fame far exceeds Wales’s St David or Scotland’s St Andrew. Even without having appeared in Renaissance paintings in the way of Ss Jerome and Sebastian, St Patrick is a legend.

Not that many people know much about him. The stories concerning the shamrock and St Patrick supposedly ridding Ireland of serpents – “the medieval myth of Patrick as saintly pest controller”, as Roy Flechner writes in this new book – are almost certainly apocryphal. He is usually assumed to have been born near the end of the 4th century and dying somewhere in the middle of the 5th, and much of his life is shrouded in the mists of antiquity.

Still, there is enough known about him, due in large part to Patrick’s autobiographical Confessio and his letter to the soldiers of Coroticus. This allows Flechner, a lecturer at University College, Dublin and author of The Introduction of Christianity into the Early Medieval World and The Irish in Early Medieval Europe, to give as clear a picture as we are likely to have of Patrick, in the context of the Ireland of his time, and also in regard to the legend that developed after his death,

The “Apostle of Ireland” was born not in Ireland but in Roman Britain. The locality is unknown but Flechner thinks it must have been in the west, whether near Glastonbury, not far from Wales (often assumed to be his birthplace), or perhaps the western end of Hadrian’s Wall.

The child Patrick was nurtured by the Roman culture that continued to dominate Britain in the immediate years after the Romans left, around the time of Patrick’s birth and early life. His father was a deacon, his grandfather a priest, and Patrick was raised a Christian as well as a Roman citizen. The family was well-off enough to have houses in both town and country and own slaves, as rich Roman citizens usually did.

Despite (or perhaps because of) this background in the church, Patrick, according to his confessions, was indifferent to religion in his childhood (or to use his words, “ignorant of the true God”). Patrick’s memoir claims that all that changed after he was captured by Irish marauders when he was 16 and taken as a slave to Ireland.

There he was made a shepherd, prayed constantly, and found a faith strong enough to become a cleric when he escaped after six years and made his way back to Britain. It makes a good story with biblical undertones, but it failed to convince Patrick’s enemies when he was tried, much later in life, in Britain for offences which may have concerned money.

Flechner tends to agree with the sceptics after weighing the probabilities with regard to the ways of the time. The likelihood of a slave escaping captivity and Ireland was slim, Flechner tells us, and the more so if he had no family in Ireland to help him. Added to that, Roman law, still effectively in force for a time after the Romans left, was harsh on Romans falling into slavery, stripping of them of legal rights and citizenship. Patrick’s tale is likely to be more one of poetic than actual truth. Nevertheless, it could be turned into a good historical novel or film.

Patrick, who rose to be a bishop, knew his Scriptures and enjoyed considerable success as a preacher. His popularity among women, especially aristocratic ones, whom he urged to become nuns, indicates that he was a personable man as well as holy.

He wrote in his Confessio that he never kept for himself the many donations given to him by rich women, nor charged for baptisms or ordaining priests. He used his own family money for his great work of converting the Irish, something that he found the more urgent in relation to the end of time, which he believed was near.

Flechner points out that though Patrick is the most celebrated of the missionaries who converted the Irish, the work had already begun before he arrived.

In his Ecclesiastical History, Bede ignored Patrick and gave credit to Palladius, a papal emissary, for converting the Irish. Flechner, who devotes a chapter to the legend about St Patrick that sprung up in the immediate centuries after his death, tells us that Bede, ever deferential to papal authority, though fully aware of Patrick’s work, excluded him because Patrick went back to Ireland of his own volition rather than on the pope’s orders. For Bede, Patrick lacked the right stamp on his documents.

Still, time has given St Patrick the legend and relegated Palladius to obscurity. This book, scholarly and yet accessible to general readers curious about the man behind the St Patrick’s Day parades, is likely to hold the field for a long time.