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(Saint) Patrick - The Bits They Left Out

Documents and archaeological evidence paint a picture of the man behind the legend.

Source: Terry O'Hagan via Vox Hiberionacum

WHAT COMES TO mind when you think of St Patrick’s Day? Memories of crepe paper shamrocks and rosettes? Adult nightmares of freezing parades and grey skies?

Tractors and flatbed lorries. Church hierarchies and saintly authority. Tradition and legitimacy. Diocesan diasporas. Politicians and foreign junkets. Corned beef and cabbage. Fakelore and frothy shamrocks. Leprechaun hats. Tourists. Dollars. Green beer and now even green sausages. Anywhere up to seventy million Irish identities vying for meaning, flag and nation. Validation once again. Or not.

Whatever you’re having yourself.

St Patrick and Irishness have been intimately entwined since the seventh century AD at least – when the earliest surviving hagiographies of the man who would be patron saint were first put together by medieval scribes. In the next few centuries which followed, several Irish Lives of the Saint include practically everything you’ve ever heard about ‘Saint’ Patrick: Druids. Paschal fires. High kings. Magic. Miracles. Mayhem.

None of it is true, of course. We know this, because against all odds, the very same efforts which went into transforming Patrick into a Super Saint, also happened to preserve copies of two documents written by the real figure behind the myth.

Patricius. A fifth-century Romano-British missionary. The real person behind the legend, aka, the ‘Historical Patrick’. The documents from his own hand (widely available online) provide a very different picture to that traditionally presented to most of us.

The Historical Patrick was born into a Romano-British middle class family, probably somewhere near the north-western coast of modern day Cumbria. At the age of sixteen, he was taken captive in a slave raid and transported to the west coast of Ireland, near modern day Killala Bay, Co Mayo. There he spent six years as a slave before managing to escape.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Source: Terry O'Hagan via Vox Hiberionacum

In later life, plagued by dreams, Patrick, now a priest, started contemplating the prospect of returning to the people who had once enslaved him. This was met with some bemusement in British Christian circles and amid a certain amount of moral scandal, his candidacy for the rank of bishop was formally rejected.

Patrick, like the honorary Irishman he would eventually become, nevertheless decided to stick it to ‘the man’ and come back anyway. Burning his bridges, ignoring his superiors and selling his inheritance, he embarked on a personal mission as a self-appointed bishop to the furthest regions of Ireland – into the west – which in the fifth century was considered to be, ‘the very ends of the earth’.

This was apparently met with much suspicion and derision from his fellow Britons, who would go on to accuse him and his mission of illegitimacy, wrongdoing and financial irregularities.

Patrick wrote his primary document in direct answer to such accusations emanating from those who held him in disdain.

The historical Patrick tells us of numerous difficulties of evangelising fledgling Christians in fifth century Ireland. He was constantly concerned with appearing above board regarding his dealings with pagans.

He showered kings with gifts, employed their sons as bodyguards and gave payments to judges who allowed him access to new territories. He focused on high and low status people – in particular women – with female slaves and widows being singled out for their importance and dedication, even when threatened.

He was occasionally imprisoned himself. Towards the end of his life, he seems to have been struggling with social recognition from all sides. A group of his converts were attacked and killed – with others kidnapped into slavery by British based slavers. Patrick wrote an open letter, seeking justice and support from other regional Christians, begging for the return of his people. We have no idea if it was ever successful.

Perhaps more intriguing, is what the historical Patrick does not mention. Aside from his home town in Britain, and the scene of his youthful captivity in Mayo, there are no other place names mentioned. There are no dates. No foundation of churches. No Armagh. No Downpatrick. No Slemish. No Tara.

Source: Terry O'Hagan via Vox Hiberionacum

Almost everything purporting to detail his activities are a product of later centuries and fertile imaginations. Two centuries after he lived, his surviving letters and identity had been appropriated, recreated and redeployed by those seeking to secure all Ireland primacy for their regional churches and dynasties.

That initial effort has residual echoes to this very day, with various ecclesiastical authorities claiming unbroken succession and authority from Patrick himself – despite his silence on such matters.

You can discover more about the historical Patrick in ‘Patrick; Six Years a Slave’ a new audiobook on CD released by Abarta Audioguides. To order your copy please visit abartashop.com 

Terry O’Hagan is an archaeologist, historian and researcher at UCD focusing on Early Irish Christianity and Early Medieval Ireland. He blogs at voxhiberionacum.wordpress.com

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Terry O'Hagan

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