March - Saint Patrick

17th March (460)

I, Patrick, a sinner, am the most unlearned and the lowest of all the faithful, utterly despised by many. My father was Calpornius, a deacon, and my grandfather Pontius, a priest.

So begins St Patrick’s Confession, one of the earliest of Celtic writings with a known author. A fascinating document, being a defence against a charge of misusing funds and therefore containing autobiographical detail. Apart from this personal history very little is known for certain about Patrick, some has been guessed and much invented, so that his story is mixture of fact, fantasy and legend.

Born in 389, he is believed to have come from northern Britain. At the age of 16 he was taken as a slave by pirates, like many other young men in those days, and sold to an Irish Chieftain. While herding cattle in County Antrim, and spending much time in prayer, he had a vision of returning home. Escaping after some six years, he caught a boat to France where he trained as a priest and was much influenced by the monastic system developed by St Martin of Tours. After returning to Britain he had a prophetic dream in which the Irish people wrote to him and spoke to him, calling on him to ‘come and walk’ among them. After initial resistance he rest of his life was spent living out this prophecy.

Patrick arrived in Ireland in his early 40s, already consecrated as a bishop, and made his base in Armagh. The next thirty years saw him travelling on foot all over the island, bringing people to God with a gentle but effective evangelism and founding monasteries to nurture and maintain their faith. He was confident and energetic in his own faith and sure that God was with him and working through him, even when he faced serious opposition. Thus he gave God credit for his love of life and great enthusiasm - ‘The Spirit seethed in me’. While he never managed to establish the diocesan system of church organisation he learned on the continent, he died in 460 leaving a country with many flourishing Christian communities.

Of the stories about Patrick the best known are of him using the shamrock leaf to explain the mystery of the Trinity and banishing snakes from the island in honour of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Legend has him as a ‘shape-changer’, turning into a deer to escape when an army attacked him. (The hymn St Patrick’s Breastplate, attributed to him, was originally ‘The Deer’s Cry’). The most bizarre story tells of Patrick swimming across the Irish Sea carrying his head in his teeth. His own account of his life is decidedly more modest and ends:

I now commend my soul to God for whom, despite my obscurity, I have served as ambassador – indeed, in choosing me for this noble task, he has shown that he is no respecter of persons, because I am the least of his servants.

Jim McLean
St Peter's Church, Nottingham
Last revised 4th March 1998