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St. Patrick of Ireland: A Biography

St. Patrick of Ireland: A Biography

3.7 3
by Philip Freeman

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Ireland's patron saint has long been shrouded in legend: he drove the snakes out of Ireland; he triumphed over Druids and their supernatural powers; he used a shamrock to explain the Christian mystery of the Trinity. But his true story is more fascinating than the myths. We have no surviving image of Patrick, but we do have two remarkable letters that he wrote about


Ireland's patron saint has long been shrouded in legend: he drove the snakes out of Ireland; he triumphed over Druids and their supernatural powers; he used a shamrock to explain the Christian mystery of the Trinity. But his true story is more fascinating than the myths. We have no surviving image of Patrick, but we do have two remarkable letters that he wrote about himself and his beliefs -- letters that tell us more about the heart and soul of this man than we know about almost any of his contemporaries. In St. Patrick of Ireland Philip Freeman brings the historic Patrick and his world vividly to life.
Born in Britain late in the fourth century to an aristocratic family, Patrick was raised as a Roman citizen and a nominal Christian, destined for the privileged life of the nobility. But just before his sixteenth birthday, he was kidnapped by Irish pirates and abducted to Ireland, where he spent six lonely years as a slave, tending sheep. Trapped in a foreign land, despondent, and at the mercy of his master, Patrick's ordeal turned him from an atheist to a true believer. After a vision in which God told him he would go home, Patrick escaped captivity and, following a perilous journey, returned to his astonished parents. Even more astonishing was his announcement that he intended to go back to Ireland and devote the rest of his life to ministering to the people who had once enslaved him.
One of Patrick's two surviving letters is a declaration written to jealous British bishops in defense of his activities in Ireland; the other is a stinging condemnation of a ruthless warlord who attacked and killed some of Patrick's Irish followers. Both are powerful statements remarkable for their passion and candor. Freeman includes them in full in new translations of his own.
Combining Patrick's own heartfelt account of his life as he revealed it himself with the turbulent history of the British Isles in the last years of the Roman Empire, St. Patrick of Ireland brilliantly brings to life the real Patrick, shorn of legend, and shows how he helped to change Irish history and culture.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In this entertaining but slight history of the famous Italian landmark, Shrady (Sacred Roads: Adventures from the Pilgrimage Trail) quickly recounts the saga of the bell tower that was begun in 1173 and has captivated the world's imagination ever since. He summarizes the tower's history, including its importance for the city of Pisa, which was a great maritime republic during the Middle Ages; explains why the story of Galileo's use of the tower to conduct experiments on falling objects was probably fabricated by one of the master's disciples; discusses the 19th-century Romantic poets' fanciful idea that the tower's tilt was deliberate on the part of its anonymous architect; and tells the story of the tower's near destruction by the Allies in WWII after they discovered that the Germans were using it as an observation post. Because the tower is built on unstable subsoil, it started to lean toward the south soon after construction began, and over the centuries the tilt increased at an alarming rate. Shrady discusses the numerous commissions that have studied the problem and outlines unsuccessful stabilizing attempts, including a plan approved by Mussolini that nearly toppled it. Shrady's brief account of the tower's probable fate is concise and engaging, but it contains nothing new. It's the book's format that is unusual: the cover and the pages cut on a slant, like the tower, a marketing gimmick that will most likely relegate the book to the souvenir shelf. (Oct.) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Those seeking the reality behind the legends of Patrick of Armagh would do well to start with this useful and highly readable examination of the saint's life. Freeman (classics, Washington Univ., St. Louis; Ireland and the Classical World) roots his investigation in two authentic documents that come from Patrick himself-his Letter to Coroticus and the Confession, a defense of his ministry. The examination of these sources within the contemporary context of Patrick's era reveals no all-conquering demigod but a semi-educated man of tremendous faith and courage. We see a Patrick who shows great care and concern for his new converts (especially slaves and women), whose life was constantly in danger from pagan Irish chieftains, and whose position was undermined regularly by jealous colleagues in Britain. Freeman's imaginative but fact-based reconstructions of significant events in Patrick's life, such as his kidnapping, read like the most exciting popular fiction. For those who wish to read further, a six-page annotated bibliography is included. Highly recommended for all public libraries. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 11/15/03.]-Christopher Brennan, SUNY Coll. at Brockport Lib. Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
School Library Journal
Adult/High School-Readers will be drawn into the story of St. Patrick by the short preface that tells how the teen Patricius, accustomed to a life of ease and luxury in Roman Britain, was surprised and subdued in his parents' villa by Irish slave traders who led him and household servants in chains to boats that took them to the feared barbaric island. Freeman has based his biography on medieval copies of two letters written by Patrick near the end of his life. Each chapter opens with a few lines from one of them. The author has fleshed out the story using information from archaeological finds, Roman and medieval records, and Papal documents. When discussing Patrick's home, education, or experiences in Ireland, Freeman notes that he is describing what was typical in the fifth century. As readers learn about Patrick's captivity, servitude, and escape, they also find out about life in Roman Britain and Ireland. Marriage, fostering, the role of kings, and the practices of the druids are only a few of the topics covered. This is not a heavy academic tome; explanations are simple and clear. A time line, pronunciation guide, and 13 black-and-white photographs of archaeological sites and artifacts are included.-Kathy Tewell, Chantilly Regional Library, VA Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A slim, top-drawer chronicle of Pisa’s wonderful, drunken campanile. For more than 800 years, the Romanesque bell tower "has teetered on the brink of oblivion, but neither earthquakes, war, misguided architectural interventions, nor the relentless onslaught of contemporary tourism has ever managed to topple it," writes Barcelona-based journalist Shrady (Sacred Roads, not reviewed) in this clear-eyed yet delightfully infatuated tribute to the tower. He sings its praises—the lustrous marble, the weightless open galleries: a column of columns—while at the same time sending a few of its myths to the trash bin. It lists, for instance, not because of devious laborers or incompetent craftsmen or God, but because it was built on the shifting ground of a bog; nor is it likely that Galileo ever threw anything more than a gaze from the top of the tower. Still, there are mysteries: Who was the architect, why did construction start and stop and start and stop again and again, and why, with its progressive degrees of inclination—slowly, implacably on the move until it was over five degrees out of plumb—has it not simply gone south? Helping to make sense of this unintentional folly, Shrady situates the campanile within the sublime landscape of the Campo dei Miracoli, with its cathedral, hospital, baptistery, and graveyard, and also within the greater context of Pisa’s rise and fall as a city-state and maritime power. We also meet the many individuals who had a hand in the centuries-long construction of the tower, and the commissions seeking to right the tower’s skew, including Mussolini’s near-disastrous tinkerings (Il Duce hated the tower, making it that much more lovable). Andrunning through the story is the tower’s evolution from civic embarrassment to a source of pride: "this tilting, defiant campanile symbolizes all that is wondrous and strange in a world that is fast losing good measures of both." Comfortably erudite, Shrady covers the tower’s history without diminishing its gratifying improbability. (17 illustrations; the book itself will be printed in a slanted format) Agent: Christy Fletcher/Carlisle & Co.
From the Publisher
"Lively and lucid."
The New York Times Book Review

"With uncommon insight and clear, unadorned prose, Philip Freeman supplants old myths with a true-life tale no less wondrous....[A] fine biography."
— Tim McNulty, The Seattle Times

"Mr. Freeman's book succeeds where others have failed by giving us a wholly human portrait of Patrick the boy, the slave and the missionary."
— Michael Judge, The Wall Street Journal

"Freeman's imaginative but fact-based reconstructions of significant events in Patrick's life, such as his kidnapping, read like the most exciting popular fiction."
Library Journal

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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

Meet the Author

Philip Freeman is Qualley Professor of Classics at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, and a former professor of classics at Washington University in St. Louis. He was selected as a visiting fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton for January 2012. He earned the first joint Ph.D. in classics and Celtic studies from Harvard University, and has been a visiting scholar at the Harvard Divinity School, the American Academy in Rome, and the Center for Hellenic Studies in Washington, D.C. The author of several previous books including Alexander the Great, St. Patrick of Ireland and Julius Caesar, he lives with his family in Decorah, Iowa. Visit him at PhilipFreemanBooks.com.

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