St. Patrick: A Man on a Mission

So today is the feast day of St Patrick, Ireland’s national saint. It is incredible to think that celebrations in the saints name are taking place all over the world today.  This post was written by  Terry O’Hagan  blogger and archaeologist . Terry is near to completing a PhD thesis on St Patrick at the school of Archaeology at UCD and  is one of the country’s experts on the saint.  Many thanks to Terry for taking the time to write this post and share his knowledge of the saint with us.

St. Patrick: A Man on a Mission

St. Patrick is a man of many faces: missionary, mascot, legend, figurehead, saint, sinner, superhero and saviour. Over the 1500 years or so since his death; successive generations have chosen to remake and remodel his life according to ever-changing concerns and  climates. Ongoing adaptation, along with the passing of the centuries, has resulted in a gradual obscuring of the historical man beneath the heavy presence of later legend. Such is the level of later additions, some modern audiences are even sometimes surprised to discover that he actually existed at all.

He most certainly did, though. We know this because he left behind two surviving documents (the Confessio; and the Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus) which together form the basis for all subsequent understanding and appreciation of his life and work. Later medieval and early modern accounts of him are products of their own times; and as interesting as they are, they can tell us practically nothing about the man himself. The only certainties that we have for the historical Patrick are those which can be found within his writings; the earliest documents known to have been written in Ireland.

Patrick (or Patricius, as he called himself) was born into a middle-class family somewhere in western Roman-Britain at the end of the fourth century, or perhaps early fifth century. His says that his father was a deacon and a decurion; while his grandfather was a priest. They owned a villa/estate that was large enough to have slaves. In the earliest surviving copy of his Confessio (within the Book of Armagh) his home town is given as Bannavem Taburniae. Scholarly consensus is that this is a textual corruption; and the original name is more likely to have been rendered as something like Banna Venta Burniae. No solid identification has ever been made of such a location; but most scholars would tend to agree that it was somewhere near the western coast of Britain.

Patrick seems to have led a normal, carefree life (apparently without any firm Christian belief, despite his families occupations) until the age of 16, when he was captured by slavers, transported to Ireland and sold to a man who put him to work tending animals. Contrary to later legend; there is no hint within his writings that this was Slemish, Antrim, or anywhere else in north-eastern Ireland. In fact, it was almost certainly somewhere in Co Mayo. Patrick does not expressly say what kind of animals he worked with, but he does use a term that could equally apply to cattle, or sheep. Given that he says that he was out on mountainsides in all weathers; it is likely that he would have worked with several different animals, depending on the season.

From a Romano-British perspective, Ireland was viewed as lying at the edge of the known world; a wild and dangerous place beyond civilisation. The shock of kidnapping and enslavement seems to have had a profound effect on Patrick. Amidst the extreme hardship and lifestyle, he underwent an intense and personal religious experience which he credits as helping him to survive 6 years as a slave. Towards the end of this period; he tells us that he had several dreams concerning his escape and return to his homeland. Eventually running away from his captors; he says that he travelled across the entire width of Ireland, some 200 miles, in order to reach a port. There he found passage on a ship and following initial refusal, was eventually taken on board.

The next phase of his life is hard to assess; the relevant portions of his texts are obscure in their arrangement and subject matter. When Patrick was writing them, he was doing so with motivations other than simple linear narrative; seeking to frame his movements and events within ecclesiastical and biblical frameworks. What is suggested within though is a gap of a few years following his escape from Ireland, before his eventual return to his parents and home. He may have taken ecclesiastical orders during this time, or perhaps later; there is no definitive indication in his own words. After some years again, within Britain, he tells us of his famous dream; where he received a call from ‘The Voice of the Irish’. In his dream, he reads the start of a letter entitled the same, and hears the voices of people in Ireland who knew him as a slave in his youth. This is the only other occasion where he gives a placename in Ireland: that of Silva Vocluti, the Wood of Foclut (Near Killala, Co. Mayo). Modern scholarship tends to agree that his phrasing of details indicate that this was the location of his earlier captivity.

Despite being very personally affected by the dream; Patrick then alludes to even more years passing. He tells us that he was too afraid to put into action, what had apparently already started within his mind. During this time (at least several decades) he seems to have been ordained and sufficiently advanced to an age where it was possible for him to have been considered a bishop. Again, this period is very poorly rendered in his writings; but he alludes to several travels outside of Britain during this time and elsewhere speaks of peoples and ecclesiastical practices of Christians within Gaul (France). It seems likely that he may have spent a little time in a monastic environment there. Although he doesn’t expressly state it, he insinuates an admiration of monastic type lifestyles within his later Irish converts, something he may have experienced in Gaul.

At some stage in his middle years, he decided to come back to Ireland. His subsequent mission seems to have been viewed with some suspicion by fellow British Christians; and he spends a lot of his writings defending his actions. It must be remembered that at this stage of early Christianity; large-scale efforts to convert pagans was almost unheard of within Romanised provinces of Europe. The very idea of attempting to do so in Ireland, outside the frontiers and untouched by Roman administration, would have been considered highly dangerous and illogical to a fifth century Christian mindset. Many would have no doubt imagined that his efforts would have been short-lived and his life expectancy even shorter. Patrick’s survival and relative success seems to have surprised many; and his actions and methodology appears to have been questioned by some.

Patrick of course was a perfect candidate for attempting such a mission. His years in captivity left him more knowledgeable than most concerning insular Irish society. He spoke the language and had first-hand experience of the cultural habits and makeup; as well as an awareness of the workings of the hierarchical social structure of Ireland. Although he doesn’t give much details concerning his methods; he does hint at certain aspects; such as protection payments and hiring the sons of chieftains as royal bodyguards. He stresses the need to appear ‘above board’ when dealing with pagans at all times; for fear of retribution on his mission and converts.

The people he focused on were both high and low status. He mentions a daughter of a noble as well as female slave and children raised from an early age; implying that he worked at many different levels of society. Clerics ordained by him are referenced several times, illustrating the likelihood that his converts included men of similar varied classes. Taken altogether, it appears as if Patrick was focusing on establishing small communities of converts, along with a native clergy to tend them.

Patrick seems to have been active in extremely remote regions. He states that he had gone where nobody had ever brought the gospel to before.  Scholars have seen this as reflecting an awareness of other missionaries or Christian activity elsewhere in the Island; but he makes no further references to any such people. He was certainly in touch with a wider network of Christians both in Ireland and in Britain. The surviving documents testify to this; being open encyclical type letters intended for multiple recipients on each island.

Contrary to later legend, he makes no claim to have converted the entire country. Indeed, at the end of his documents, he appears to hold a rather pessimistic view on the future success of his converts. He considered their situation within Irish society as being precariously balanced to say the least; so much so that he was afraid to leave them for long periods. This fear was horribly realised when a group of recent converts were attacked by slavers. Many were killed and many more enslaved and sold on. Patrick’s second document, the Letter to Coroticus is a passionate plea to both free them and gain recognition from fellow British converts. We have no indication if it was ever successful. The last we hear of the historical Patrick (in his second document) is a man in his later years who expects to be killed at any moment; despairing for the safety and souls of his fledgling converts.

Within three-to-four generations of his death; Christianity had made serious inroads into Irish society. Latin literacy and the earliest strata of Irish monasteries were already established and in full flow. Within another generation after that, Irish Christianity was producing people of the calibre of Columbanus who went to Europe. Famously popular for his learning and piety in Merovingian Gaul; Columbanus was a man who would write to the Pope of the day (using floral Latin, with some choice Greek thrown in for good measure) in order to (politely) suggest that he was wrong on certain ecclesiastical matters!

I’d like to think that Patrick would have approved.

If you want to read more of Terry’s writings check out his blog

Further Reading:

De Paor, L (1993) (Ed. and trans.) Saint Patrick’s World. Blackrock and Dublin: Four Courts Press.

Patricks Confession (Trans: Padraig McCarthy); available at:

Patricks Letter to the soldiers of Coroticus (Trans: Padraig McCarthy); available at:



4 comments on “St. Patrick: A Man on a Mission

  1. It’s good to get a dispassionate and realistic picture of the man himself. I spent many years in the firm belief that he was a totally fictional character. Thanks for posting and Happy St Patrick’s Day .

  2. Reblogged this on A SILVER VOICE FROM IRELAND and commented:
    For those who wish to know something of the REAL St patrick, Pilgrimage in Medieval Ireland blog has posted this essay from Terry O’Hagan, who is doing a PhD on Patrick at the moment. It is a ‘potted history’ of what is known about the real St Patrick.

  3. Jim O'Connor says:

    Thanks for that: but it does not add a jot to what already is known about St Patrick. How much more interesting it would be to see more research about pre-patrician Christianity in our sainted isle. Let’s finally attack the ridiculous notion that it took four and a half centuries for Christianity to reach our shores when one could sail – given fair winds and currents – from the Levant to Beara in four and a half weeks! Methinks there is much to do in that direction, and looking for the reasons – other than pimping Armagh’s position.- that Succat/Patrick was reinvented. There is one reason that is patently obvious.
    And, BTW, Bannavem Taburniae is likely to have been in Scotland. Research the place names. And look for the remains of the original wooden religious structures. Follow the Díseart trails. There is much to be yet discovered.

  4. Judy McCabe says:

    Thank you Terry for this concise writing on St. Patrick. So refreshing in this day & age of secularism & anti- Catholic press.

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