While I’m on the subject of British-Irish links, I might as well take the opportunity to blog my essay from the Irish World on that true Great Briton, St Patrick.
The Real St Patrick
In many ways we know a surprising amount about St Patrick, considering the obscure times in which he lived. He was born in Britain early in the Fifth Century AD, among the Romanized Celtic people who would later become the Welsh. At that time, the Britons as they were known, occupied the whole island from lowland Scotland southwards.
That was fast changing however, as invaders capitalised on the collapse of the Roman Empire.
Irish raiders, known as the Scotti, established a series of settlements on the west coast, one of which would eventually become the kingdom of Scotland. In the East, Germanic invaders established the kingdoms which would eventually become England.
The deepening chaos meant that most of the figures from this time are known to us through myth rather than history. They include semi-legendary rulers like the Irish Niall of the Nine Hostages, the English Hengist and Horsa, and the British Arthur.
St Patrick is exceptional because he left us his own written autobiography,
“I am Patrick, a sinner, most unlearned, the least of all the faithful, and utterly despised by many,” he tells us in its opening lines. “My father was Calpornius, a deacon, son of Potitus, a priest, of the village Bannavem Taburniæ; he had a country seat nearby, and there I was taken captive.”
“I was then about sixteen years of age. I did not know the true God. I was taken into captivity to Ireland with many thousands of people – and deservedly so, because we turned away from God, and did not keep His commandments, and did not obey our priests, who used to remind us of our salvation. And the Lord brought over us the wrath of his anger scattered us among many nations, even unto the utmost part of the earth, where now my littleness is placed among strangers.”
Patrick’s captivity inspired a powerful spirituality. He tells us that he prayed hundreds of times a day while working as a shepherd boy in the mountains. After six years of captivity, Patrick escaped and returned home to his family, but his awakened spirit would not allow him to rest, or to forget the country where he had been a slave.
The Confession includes a powerful description of the dream which inspired him to return to Ireland.
“I saw in the night the vision of a man, whose name was Victoricus, coming as it were from Ireland, with countless letters. And he gave me one of them, and I read the opening words of the letter, which were, `The voice of the Irish’; and as I read the beginning of the letter I thought that at the same moment I heard their voice – they were those beside the Wood of Voclut, which is near the Western Sea – and thus did they cry out as with one mouth: ‘We ask thee, boy, come and walk among us once “And I was quite broken in heart, and could read no further, and so I woke up. Thanks be to God, after many years the Lord gave to them according to their cry.”
Before he could begin his mission, Patrick had to go to a seminary and become a Priest. He succeeded in this, although he was always deeply conscious of his lack of education and his poor Latin, and faced opposition within the church.
On his return to Ireland, Patrick faced many difficulties and dangers, but ultimately succeeded in making many converts.
Soon, however, Patrick faced a problem he had not expected some of his new converts were captured and enslaved by one of his own countrymen, Coroticus, the British king of
Alcluid, around modern Glasgow.
Patrick’s scathing letter to Coroticus is the second major document of his life. Like the Confession, it shows the indifference of the civilised Britons towards Patrick’s mission to the pagan barbarians bearing down on the empire.
However, it was the barbarians who won out in the end, and as a result, Patrick’s mission played a vital role in preserving both Christianity and Latin civilisation.
Patrick’s message provided a spark, which fused with the native oral tradition of Ireland, to create within a few centuries a distinctive literate civilisation.
It is arguably thanks to Patrick that the Irish language possesses the oldest literature in Europe after Greek and Latin.
His influence was not limited to Ireland. His successors like himself, were not afraid to travel far or to preach to pagans. Unlike the Britons, they were willing to preach to the Anglo-Saxons. The Irish brought Christianity and literacy to Northumbria, the kingdom which produced the first English historian, the Venerable Bede. Irish influence on English literature is older than you might think.
The influence of Patrick’s Celtic Church stretched far and wide across Europe, until it was ultimately stemmed by a combination of Roman orthodoxy and Viking raids.
Nevertheless, the Celtic Church is still an important influence on Irish Christianity, both Catholic and Protestant, to this day.