Patrick's Life and Letters
Fifteen centuries ago an old man in Ireland wrote two of the most remarkable letters surviving from ancient times. Patrick had labored for decades as a priest and bishop on this island at the end of the world labored, in spite of constant threats of slavery and death, to bring a new faith to a people beyond the realm of the crumbling Roman Empire. He also faced harassment from church officials abroad who thought him inadequate to the task and were perhaps jealous of his success. In spite of these difficulties, he succeeded in bringing a new way of life to the Irish people. Today millions around the world remember him every year during celebrations on St. Patrick's Day.
Yet what is he remembered for? Driving the snakes out of Ireland, entering contests to the death with pagan Druids, using the shamrock as an aid to explain the Trinity all these are pious fictions created centuries later by well-meaning monks. The true story of Patrick is far more compelling than the medieval legends. This story is known best from two short letters written by Patrick himself, his Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus and Confession.
That we possess these two remarkable documents at all is the result of Patrick being forced in his later years to write, first, a letter of appeal and condemnation to a slave-raiding king and his band of mercenary pirates and, second, a defense of his work against accusations by fellow churchmen. Though Patrick wrote neither of these letters as history or autobiography, they contain fascinating and precious bits of information about his own life as well as about Ireland during a turbulent age. The two letters are in fact the earliest surviving documents written in Ireland and provide us with glimpses of a world full of petty kings, pagan gods, quarreling bishops, brutal slavery, beautiful virgins, and ever-threatening violence. But more than anything else, they allow us to look inside the mind and soul of a remarkable man living in a world that was both falling apart and at the dawn of a new age. There are simply no other documents from ancient times that give us such a clear and heartfelt view of a person's thoughts and feelings. These are, above all else, letters of hope in a trying and uncertain time.
The details that Patrick gives us of his life are few and often tantalizingly vague, but what we do know is this: He was born a Roman citizen in Britain in the late fourth century A.D. His grandfather was a priest, and his father was both a Christian deacon and a Roman decurion, an important local magistrate. He received at least a basic education in Latin, as would any son of the Roman upper class. As a teenager he committed an unnamed sin so horrendous that it almost destroyed his career decades later in Ireland. Soon after this sin, at the age of fifteen, he was kidnapped by Irish pirates from his family's villa in Britain near a place named Bannaventa Berniae, transported across the Irish Sea, and sold into slavery along with many of his family's servants. For six grueling years, he watched over sheep day and night for a single master. He experienced a gradual but profound spiritual awakening during these years as a slave. This awakening included visions and warnings that he believed came directly from God and that would continue throughout his life. He escaped from Ireland on a ship of pagan sailors and eventually made his way back to his family in Britain.
Later he returned to Ireland to spread the Christian gospel and was made a bishop. He preached in areas that had not previously known any missionary work, and he had many converts, including the sons and daughters of Irish kings, but many of his flock seem to have been female slaves. He experienced enormous difficulties, including threats, kidnapping, robbery, and other violence. At some point in his later years, a group of his newly baptized converts were killed or taken into slavery by a petty British king named Coroticus, prompting his Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus. Also later in his life, he was accused by his fellow churchmen in Britain of corruption. He vigorously refuted these charges in his Confession.
But the letters of Patrick are not the only sources available for uncovering the story of his life and times. Archaeological excavations and discoveries shed a great deal of light on Roman Britain and early Ireland. Greek and Roman writers, although they never specifically mention Patrick, are marvelous aids in fleshing out the world he lived in. Later Irish traditions on Patrick, though full of legendary material, also preserve bits and pieces of genuine information. Taken together with his letters, these sources tell the story of an extraordinary man living in a tumultuous age.
Copyright © 2004 by Philip Freeman