The Apostle of the Irish.
Saint Patrick is, at best, an enigmatic figure, mostly myth and very little fact. The apparition of this historical character which is held in the public mind is vague at best, and there are many half- and mis-truths circulating on the Internet and the bookshelves about him. While several of the fantastical elements of his legend have been dismissed from popular consciousness, many more persist, and while there has been a substantial amount of investigation as to who the ‘real’ Patrick was, the myth is sustained. This is, to a certain degree, understandable; fantasy is sometimes more fun than reality, that’s why we made it up. I believe, however, that the history of Patrick, and the manner in which his myth has been used, is far more interesting than the myth itself.
A Guide for the Perplexed.
If you find any of the following ‘facts’ in a book, put it down and walk away; if someone informs you of them, please enlighten them;
1. Patrick was born in Scotland on a specific date (385 is the popular one), began his mission to Ireland on a specific date, and died on a specific date. Sorry, but no; there are no dates for Patrick or anything he did, except that his conversion efforts probably began after 431. He was born in Roman Britain, somewhere on its north-west coast, which includes bits of modern-day England and Wales. And the year of his death is recorded four times in the Annals, which is impressive, since even Jesus (supposedly) only rose from the dead once.
2. He studied at the monastery of Lérins in France, or was a student of St Germanus of Auxerre. No proof for this whatsoever. Not a shred. This little ‘fact’ was invented hundreds of years later to provide this rogue preacher with an honorable pedigree, and to ‘prove’ that he was a legally ordained bishop, and not just some random guy who heard voices.
3. Patrick’s mission covered the whole island of Ireland. Sure, but only if by ‘the whole island’ you mean ‘Connacht and Ulster’. There is no good reason to believe he ventured into Leinster or Munster. Again, this was inserted hundreds of years later by the writers of Armagh who were doing their level best to make themselves top dog over all the Irish churches.
4. He converted all of the Irish to Christianity. Nope. Wrong again. There were already Christians in Ireland, so many in fact that Pope Celestine dispatched a bishop from Rome to rule over this flock in 431, a man named Palladius, who is specifically referred to as ‘the first bishop of the Irish’ by the chronicler Prosper of Aquitaine. These Christians were in Leinster, and so the theory goes that the mission of Palladius was subsumed into the myth of Patrick over hundreds of years so that Armagh could claim the entire island as being under their authority.
5. The shamrock/trinity thing. Again, no evidence. Or for the snakes thing (but nobody ever really believed that one anyway, right?), or for his battling with druids, or converting High-Kings at Tara (there weren’t any High-Kings at the time, and they wouldn’t have lived at Tara, it was a ceremonial site). Some reckon that the banishing of snakes is symbolic of his getting rid of the native paganism (which he didn’t, it survived til at least the 7th century) because the druids painted snakes on their bodies. There is no evidence for that, and since there were no snakes in Ireland that image may have been unfamiliar to the native population anyway. He didn’t invent the Celtic Cross (I really don’t know where a certain channel that specialises in history got that one from), and he didn’t superimpose Easter over native traditions, but this would, in fairness, at least follow the well-established pattern of how Christianity co-opted local traditions, although the Paschal celebration had a habit of wandering, and no-one knows what calendar Patrick used.
6. He’s a saint. Oh no wait, he isn’t. Not officially anyway. He was never canonised, but that’s just the old-school way of doing things; many saints were never officially canonised, but given a blanket get-into-heaven-free card. And once he began appearing in stained-glass windows in churches, and people started having parades, and naming things after him, it would have been rather hard for the Vatican to say “ah, hang on, he’s not on our list”, so Patrick is, in a sense, a saint by popular consent, which is how sainthood was decided before the Church started taking the fun out of faith with rules, tithes, and sin.
7. Patrick cunningly converted the Irish with wordplay by replacing their worship of the sun with veneration of the Son. That is just stupid; neither he nor the Irish spoke English, no-one did, it hadn’t been invented yet. And you can’t change any combination of grian or sol into mac or filius (the Irish and Latin for sun and son respectively) by any stretch of the imagination. And besides, the worshiping of things would have been anathema to a Christian; the sun may have been a symbol of Christ or God, but to worship it as God would have been heretical.
8. He was the first Protestant. Again, not invented yet. There have always been schismatics, heretics, dissenters, and reformers in the Christian Church, but Protestantism refers to a very specific movement which began when a man nailed his thoughts to a door over a thousand years after Patrick died. To call Patrick a Protestant is deeply historically inaccurate. He is venerated by the both the Catholic and Orthodox Churches (to varying degrees), and several Protestant Churches, and was accepted as a saint long before all these Churches formally split up to pursue their own careers.
Patrick wanted Us All Dead.
What do we really know about Patrick? Very little, but enough to build a historical figure more interesting than the myth. His second appearance in Ireland seems to have been due to a personal call from God, rather than being dispatched on an official mission from Rome. So right from the start, Patrick is a free radical in the Christian Church. He did convert people, build churches, and all that, but may not have been a popular figure after his death as his cult largely vanishes until Armagh stoke the fires a few hundred years later for their own ends. The most fun possibility about Patrick, in my opinion, was that he was trying to kill everyone. Seriously. Apocalypticism was really popular in the 5th century; some missionaries hoped to accelerate the return of the Messiah by going to the extremes of the Earth to convert whoever they found. Patrick, considering that he wrote a letter defending his actions in Ireland against the disparaging remarks of bishops, might well have been one of these apocalyptic charismatics, not unlike certain elements of American TV evangelism. What may be a wonderful irony is that, because of this letter, Patrick was remembered while the bishops, who may have been the true founders of Christianity in Ireland, were forgotten. Patrick was probably an evangelical Christian who went rogue, a fact that Armagh airbrushed out in their great myth-building books about him, inventing a good and orthodox Christian hero who performed magic tricks. And he didn’t wear a pointy hat.