St. Patrick's Day: His Real Story

Roundup: Talking About History

Gearóid Ó hAllmhuráin, in emediawire (March 2004):

On March 17, Irish people all over the world celebrate the patron who won the souls of their ancestors over fifteen hundred years ago. Celebrated in America since at least 1737, St. Patrick is still one of the most illustrious of the uncanonised saints in the Christian pantheon. An icon to schools and dance halls, public buildings and street names all over the world, his feast day marks a focal point in the cultural calendar of over forty million Americans who claim Irish heritage. And yet, despite the festivities and kitsch, there is much concern in the Irish-American community that modern-day ‘traditions' more often perpetuate derogatory cultural stereotypes of the Irish. As colorful parades make their way down international thoroughfares from Dublin to San Francisco, from Montserrat to Western Australia, the historic figure of Patrick himself remains mysterious. However, behind the crass frivolity of green beer and seasonal shamrocks lies a compelling humanitarian message of goodwill and social justice which is as valid today as it was fifteen centuries ago when it was first penned by a little known Roman cleric. ...

One of Patrick’s greatest adversaries was Coroticus, a British king who pillaged the north of Ireland and carried off thousands of Patrick’s converts ‘the chrism still fragrant on their foreheads.’ Patrick tried to have Coroticus condemned by the British bishops, hoping that isolation and excommunication would soften his resolve. The outcome of Patrick’s appeal is unknown; however, the saint seems clearly frustrated by the indifference of the British hierarchy. Basking on the dying embers of the Roman Empire, this clerical intelligentsia was asked: ‘can it be that they do not believe that we have received one baptism, or that we have one God and Father? Is it a shameful thing in their eyes that we have been born in Ireland?’

Contrary to popular opinion, Patrick was not the first Christian missionary to work in Ireland. Trade relations between Ireland and Gaul (modern France) exposed the island to new spiritual influences. Likewise, the barbarian invasions into Roman Gaul during the early fifth century sent a stream of refugees and scholars to southern Britain and Ireland. Early Irish historians have argued incessantly as to whether there were two Patricks or one. There is also doubt as to when Patrick arrived in Ireland - whether it was in 432 or 456? It is certain, however, that he did arrive. This fact is confirmed by Patrick’s own writings and especially in his Confessio, considered to be the first contemporary text in Irish history. This private document was one of the key sources used by his biographers Muirchú and Tíreachán in the second half of the seventh century.

Although Ireland lay beyond the civilizing influence of Rome, the Latin scholarship, which Patrick brought to the Gaelic speaking Irish, took less than two centuries to usher in its own Golden Age of learning. By the early Middle Ages, Irish literati plied their scholarship from Iceland to Kiev and from Iona to the Mediterranean.

In this modern era, it is worth noting that both Catholic and Protestant traditions in Ireland embrace Patrick’s philosophy. Perhaps now, as the country enters a new era of peace and prosperity, we might revisit that philosophy again. After centuries of what the Ulster poet Michael Longley referred to as the ‘abnormality of cultural apartheid’ in Ireland, it behooves Irish people everywhere to embrace the message of the abducted slave who could so easily have chosen to remain indifferent to their voices over fifteen hundred years ago.

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