The 'historical' Saint Patrick. Approaching the Life of Ireland's Patron Saint

Term Paper (Advanced seminar) 2015 35 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Culture and Applied Geography


Table of contents

I. Introduction

II. Sources
1. The Letter to the soldiers of Coroticus
2. The Confession
3. Other sources

III. Patrick´s early life

IV. Patrick´s enslavement

V. The time between his escape and his consecration

VI. Patrick´s mission

VII. Death and burial

VII. Conclusion

IX. Works cited

I. Introduction

When hearing the name 'Saint Patrick', people nowadays think of a bearded, often staff- bearing, Irishman who was the first to introduce Christianity to the Emerald Isle, who chased the serpents out of Ireland, and who made use of a shamrock to explain the Holy Trinity. This is the conventional representation of Ireland´s National Apostle, and this is what a very high percentage of Saint Patrick's Day visitors would give as an answer if you asked them who Saint Patrick has been. However, this depiction of Ireland´s patron saint is as different from the 'real Patrick' who lived most likely between the end of the fourth and the middle of the fifth century A.D. as is the modern, secular way of celebrating March 17, 'Saint Patrick's Day', with parades, rugby matches, and green beer from its traditional, religious origins, the feast of St. Patrick's 'falling asleep', which had been celebrated as early as the ninth century.1 Neither was he Irish, nor was he the first to introduce Christianity on the island, nor did he chase any of the poisonous snakes out of Ireland as there simply were none in the country after the most recent Ice Age.2 So, in fact, the prevailing popular image of Saint Patrick is - at least historically speaking - distorted and inaccurate.

What may be the reason for such a misrepresentation of the 'real Patrick'? Allanah Hopkin gets to the core of the problem by stating that “[m]any people still confuse the Saint Patrick of legend with the very different historical figure.”3 In her work The Living Legend of Saint Patrick, she points out the different developmental stages of the representations of Patrick over the centuries. According to her, even Patrick's earliest biographers elevated Patrick´s life to that of a secular hero. Then, in medieval times, his life was depicted in order to confirm to the continental idea of sainthood, and the modern image, which seems to have emerged from the late eighteenth century onwards, was the result of adopting Patrick as a symbol of the nationalist movement.4 In other words, many different interest groups tried to use Patrick and his achievements for their own purpose and, thereby, distorted the depictions of Patrick with additions and embellishments of any kind in order to make their respective points. Following the argumentation of Mike Cronin, “[d]ifferences between the Patrick of history and legend can also be attributed to political strategies on the part of the churches.” He is referring to the fact that the Church of Ireland made an attempt to trace back its origins to Patrick in the seventeenth century, and to a concerted effort of the Catholic Church to link Patrick´s success with the sanction of Rome.5

Needless to say that this kind of practise leads to a further problem: there exist numerous hagiographies and biographies on Saint Patrick and his deeds, however, the “legends of Patrick´s life [are mostly] mixed inextricably with the truth,”6 and Ludwig Bieler is certainly right when he concludes that “our problem is not so much: ' what do we know about St. Patrick?' as: ' how certain is our knowledge about him?”7 Directly linked to Bieler´s question is the “Two Patricks Theory”, which has been proposed by Thomas O´Rahilly. It suggests that many of the deeds and traditions later ascribed to Patrick may have actually concerned Palladius, a missionary who was allegedly sent to Ireland by Pope Celestine in 431.8 By mixing up the lives of Patrick and Palladius, new legends were created. This, again, makes it quite difficult to answer Bieler´s question about how certain our knowledge of the 'historical Patrick' can be.

Another big problem for the historian interested in approaching the 'real Patrick' is the paucity of historical evidence. There is not much known about Ireland in the fourth and fifth century, and even the two surviving letters by Patrick´s own hand, although incredibly valuable, only tell his story in a fragmentary manner and many questions remain unanswered. Nevertheless, they are the crucial documents when it comes to an investigation of the 'historical Patrick'.

Considering the problems mentioned above, it seems quite natural that “hundreds of biographers stepping in chronological quicksand, have struggled to accurately reconstruct or agree upon his movements during tantalizing gaps in the puzzle of his life.”9 Approaching the 'real Patrick' is a challenging and - with the given problems and the material available - an almost impossible task. Nevertheless, it is the aim of this paper to provide an image of Ireland´s patron saint which is as realistic and as close to the 'historical' Patrick as possible. The first step of disentangling the hidden truth from the invented fables has already been made: the distinction between the 'historical Patrick' and the Patrick of legend is essential. For this reason, the following reconstruction of Saint Patrick´s life will be based on Patrick´s own accounts, especially on his Confession, in which he gives a brief summary of his life and a defence of his mission. However, whenever Patrick is not precise about chronologies, geography, or specific events, probable interpretations or other sources can and will be used in order to fill the gaps.

Given the nature of such a reconstruction, it is quite clear that it cannot be expected to establish an image of Patrick which is a hundred percent correct. Approaching the 'historical Patrick' is like putting together several pieces of a jigsaw puzzle: every tiny, interlocking piece brings us closer to the overall picture. However, in opposite to the puzzle, there is, due to a shortage of reliable historical sources, no obvious and definite solution at the end. Therefore, a reconstruction of the truth cannot be expected, whereas the reconstruction of probabilities and possibilities is the declared goal. For this reason, the labels 'historical Patrick' and 'real Patrick' are used in inverted commas, as no absolute truths can be established in this investigation.

In the following lines, a brief overview of the sources on the 'historical Patrick' will be provided. Then, a chronological reconstruction of Patrick´s life and mission will be attempted on the basis of the saint´s Confession. It is also an aim of this paper to find out what kind of man Patrick was and what role he played in the conversion of Ireland to Christianity.

II. Sources

After he excluded the material which led to the development of the Patrick legend from the eighth century onwards, Ludwig Bieler classified the sources for the 'historical Patrick' into two groups: “the saint´s own writings on the one hand, and the 'Patrician documents' of the seventh century and related material on the other.”10 By using the label 'Patrician documents', he is referring to the works of Muirchú and Tírechán, Patrick´s earliest hagiographers which will be introduced in more detail below, and the works which rely on them.

Without a doubt, Patrick´s own writings are the most important sources for the purpose of this paper, and Newport White is right when he concludes that “[a]ny satisfactory answer to the question 'who was St. Patrick, and what did he do?' must begin with the two short Latin writings”11 of Ireland´s national apostle, the Confession and the Letter to the soldiers of Coroticus. These two letters are in fact the earliest surviving documents written on the Emerald Isle, and they are of immeasurable value for an approach of Saint Patrick´s life and fifth-century Ireland as well.12 It is important to consider the context in which these works were composed. Neither of the two can be seen as history or as an autobiography, they are rather written reactions to certain events and attacks. In his Confession, he defends himself and his mission against accusations from fellow churchmen, and in the Letter, he condemns and excommunicates Coroticus, most likely a British prince, who had killed and abducted some of Patrick´s recently converted Christians. The authenticity of both letters is generally accepted, mostly because they share Patrick´s rough and rusty use of Latin and because the style of both documents seems to be consistent. As Allanah Hopkin put it, the two letters are “too clumsy, too vague and too idiosyncratic to be the work of a forger.”13 For an approach of Patrick´s life and personality, these letters are the key works. Most scholars would definitely agree with the statement of AliceBoyd Proudfoot, who claims that Patrick “has stamped his image forcefully in these writings for they convey the sort of man he was.”14

In the following lines, the Letter to the soldiers of Coroticus, the Confession, and some other important sources for the 'historical Patrick' will be introduced briefly.

II.1 The Letter to the soldiers of Coroticus

Both the Letter to the soldiers of Coroticus and the Confession were most likely composed in the middle of the fifth century. The Confession seems to be of a later date than the Letter, however, most scholars believe that not much time passed between the composure of the former and the latter.15 As mentioned above, the Letter was a reaction to the abduction and murdering of several of Patrick´s converts by Coroticus. Coroticus was “a nominally Christian chieftain, living either in Wales or, as modern academic tends to believe, in the Strathclyde area.”16 When reading the letter, it becomes evident that it is actually the reaction to a former letter which, unluckily, did not survive. Apparently, Patrick had previously sent a letter to Coroticus by messenger, with the request to return the kidnapped converts. Coroticus and his soldiers, however, had laughed at this request. Interestingly, Patrick´s emotions can be sensed in his writing. The tone of the Letter is harsh, and he definitely was enraged about the behaviour of Coroticus and his men, who were themselves, nominally at least, Christians. At the same time, the apostle´s grief about the loss of his beloved converts becomes evident as well. In the Letter, Patrick does not only demand the return of the Christians but he also urges Coroticus and his men to undertake serious penance in order to undo their wrongs. Using his authority as Bishop of Ireland, he declares the excommunication of the chieftain and his followers.17 According to Proudfoot, the “Letter was directed to be read in all the churches, and even in the presence of the prince.”18 This, indeed, may have put some pressure on Coroticus, however, it is not known whether this action had the desired effect. For Ludwig Bieler, the whole incident also wounded Patrick on a personal level. The fact that the followers of Coroticus and the prince himself had treated him in such a disrespectful manner might have “brought home to Patrick the realization of the contempt in which he and his work were being held by many at home.”19 Given the fact that the apostle was later forced to defend himself and his mission against several imputations by fellow churchmen, this may be a just claim.

In short, the Letter does not contain many biographical facts about Patrick, however, it brings the saint vividly to life, and shows his emotions and the problems with which he had been confronted. So, when it comes to approaching the character of Ireland´s patron saint and the evaluation of what kind of person he was, the Letter is a valuable piece of evidence. However, it is only of little use for reconstructing events, chronologies, and whereabouts of Patrick´s earlier life.

II.2 The Confession

Patrick´s other surviving letter, the Confession, provides more biographical information on the apostle than his Letter. In it, Patrick gives a short description of his early life and how God sent him on his mission. As mentioned above, it was probably written in the middle of the fifth century, shortly after the Letter, which makes the Confession “the only autobiographical writing surviving from those years in British or Irish annals.”20 For this reason, the Confession is an unbelievably valuable document, especially when we consider how few is known about Ireland in the fourth and fifth century. According to Proudfoot, the letter “was dictated to his scribe by the saint when he was aged.”21

In fact, the Confession is often described as the autobiography of Patrick himself, however, Bieler is certainly right when he concludes that “it is less and more than that. Less, because Patrick does not tell the story of his life in chronological order and plain narrative, more, because to speak of his life was not the author´s sole or main purpose.”22 The first fact Bieler addresses certainly means bad luck for the interested historian. Patrick used the Confession first and foremost to defend his deeds and his mission against the accusations of fellow churchmen. The definite accusations are not known, but it seems that simony may have been a prominent topic, which would explain why Patrick, in the Confession, several times stresses that he did not take any gifts for his work.23 Anyhow, Patrick wrote this letter for his fellow churchmen, people who already knew a lot about him, and he, therefore, is very vague about place names - if he gives any at all - chronologies, and timespans.24 This makes a reconstruction of his early life and his mission quite difficult. Concerning his second point, Bieler seems to be right as well: Patrick did not tell the story of his life for its own sake. It rather serves the purpose of supplementing his main argument in the Confession, the story of how God made use of “Patrick the sinner, (...) the most illiterate and the least of all the faithful, and contemptible in the eyes of very many”25, and how the Lord made Patrick convert the pagan Irish, although he was ' rusticissimus '. In this spiritual argument, he “only mentions his life history to stress that he was a free man of noble birth, (…) to explain his lack of education[,]”26 and, also, to elevate the way in which God had caused him to change his life. Closely linked to this spiritual argument is Patrick´s wish that his brothers and his family understand what kind of man he is, that they see “the desire of [his] soul.”27 So, in fact, describing his work, which had often been misunderstood, was also important to him.

To sum it up, the Confession is the most important source when it comes to approaching the life, the character, and the mission of the 'historical Patrick'. Despite its vagueness and its chronological inaccuracies, it provides valuable first hand knowledge and gives important information on Patrick´s early life and his family background. Nevertheless, one has to bear in mind that the information given in the Confession was, most likely, selected and arranged in order to fit and to support the argument Patrick was willing to make. Therefore, it is important to use this document and the information it provides with caution.

II.3 Other sources

a) Documents of uncertain authorship

While the two letters above are generally accepted as Patrick´s works, there are also other documents which have been attributed to the saint, however, their authorship is uncertain, and some of them have been wrongly accredited to him. Such documents with uncertain authorship do not play any role in the investigation of this paper, however, they will, for the sake of thoroughness, be mentioned briefly.

The very famous Lorica, or Breastplate of Saint Patrick, is a prayer in early Irish and was composed as an invocation of the Holy Trinity against evil. This prayer was first ascribed to Patrick in the Book of Armagh, a ninth-century manuscript mainly written in Latin and compiled by a scribe named Ferdomnach.28 Interestingly, the Book of Armagh is sometimes also called the Canon of Patrick, as it contains early documents about the saint. Among them are the works of Patrick´s earliest hagiographers Tírechán and Muirchú, which will be introduced below, Ferdomnach´s Liber Angueli, which is highly fictional and does not meet the purpose of this paper, an abbreviated form of Patrick´s Confession, and some other documents.

The Canons, which include pastoral instruction for the organisation of the Irish Church are another interesting work. They bear the signatures of all the bishops of the Church in Ireland during that time, namely Auxilius, Secundinus, Benignus, and Patrick. However, Alice-Boyd Proudfoot is certainly right when she concludes that Patrick´s signature does not automatically make him the author of the document. He seems to have approved of the contents of the Canons, but we cannot tell whether they were composed by him or another bishop.29

Another document which can be found in the Book of Armagh is the “Sayings of Patrick”, or the “Dicta Patricii”. Proudfoot rates this work as “probably authentic” as the pious sayings in the documents resemble Patrick´s style in the Confession.30

According to Ludwig Bieler, “we [perhaps] possess also two fragments of two other letters which cannot be identified.”31 It is quite clear that several letters were written by Patrick during the performance of his pastoral duties. Nevertheless, most of them did not survive, and the few that did often cannot be identified with certainty. This leads to another problem: texts that were mistakenly ascribed to Patrick. Among them are the tract “De duodecim abusivis saeculi”(“On the Twelfe Abuses of the World”), a theological work called “De tribus habitaculis”(“On the Three Dwllings”) and several poems. Most likely, both the poems and the work “De tribus habitaculis” were composed by Bishop Patrick of Dublin, which would explain the misattribution.32

b) Archaeology and the Greek and Roman writers

Depending on the object of investigation, the field of Archaeology can also play an important role and provide valuable information through excavations and discoveries. In this way, a glimpse can be caught on Patrick´s environment and the living conditions during his time.

However, it is not only the archaeological findings that help to shed light on Roman Britain and early Ireland, but also the Greek and Roman writers who sketched their world view and their knowledge about the islands in the west. A lot of information can be inferred from such works, however, the historian has to deal with utmost caution in order not to get lost in fables and fiction. Be that as it may, one still tends to agree with Philip Freeman, who argues that the “Greek and Roman writers, although they never specifically mention Patrick, are marvellous aids in fleshing out the world he lived in.”33

In short, both the archaeological findings and the surviving works of Greek and Roman writers can also be valuable sources when it comes to a reconstruction of the living conditions of Ireland and Roman Britain around the fourth and fifth century. Although they do not mention Patrick and his work, they still reveal a lot about the contemporary mindset of the people and their way of life.

c) Patrick´s hagiographers

Coming back to what Ludwig Bieler called the 'Patrician documents', this section will deal with the authors of Patrick´s earliest Lives, Muirchú and Tírechán. As mentioned above, their works are also included in the Book of Armagh. They both composed their works around two- hundred years after Patrick´s death, and both “combine[d] biographical material selectively culled from the Confession with material, which had, in the course of those 200 years, grown up around the saint in oral tradition.”34 This method of composure is not uncommon for hagiographers in the seventh century, however, even though Muirchú´s Life of Saint Patrick seems to be relatively restrained, in comparison with the works of his successors at least, “many of the later extravagant stories can be traced back to them.”35 Following the common practise of depicting saints as super-humans and miracle workers with special powers, which is a typical feature of hagiographies, they inevitably created a platform for the following evolution of the Patrick legend. Nevertheless, Muirchú and Tírechán provide information on topics and questions Patrick does not address, and, for this reason, they are, on condition that these works are approached with the highest possible prudence, important supplements to Patrick´s letters. After all, “[h]agiography is neither history nor biography, but neither is it entirely legend and fancy.”36


1 Cronin, Mike; Adair, Daryl. The Wearing of the Green : A History of St. Patrick's Day. London: Routledge, 2002. p. xxix.

2 Owen, James. Snakeless in Ireland: Blame Ice Age, Not St. Patrick. In: National Geographic News. March 13, 2008. Online: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2008/03/080313-snakes-ireland.html.

3 Hopkin, Alannah. The Living Legend of St Patrick. London: Grafton Books, 1989. p. 9.

4 Compare to: Ibid. 9.; See also: Proudfoot, Alice-Boyd. Patrick: Sixteen Centuries with Ireland's Patron Saint. New York: Macmillan, 1983. p. 156.

5 Cronin, xxviii.

6 Scherman, Katharine. The Flowering of Ireland: Saints, Scholars and Kings. London: Gollancz, 1981. p. 83.

7 Bieler, Ludwig. The Life and Legend of St. Patrick : Problems of Modern Scholarship. Dublin: Clonmore & Reynolds, 1949. p. 7.

8 Cronin, xxviii; Hopkin, 151.

9 Proudfoot, 104.

10 Bieler, Ludwig. St. Patrick and the Coming of Christianity. In: A History of Irish Catholicism 1,1. Dublin: Gill, 1967. p. 9.

11 White, Newport J.D. (Ed.). St. Patrick: His Writings and Life. London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1920. p. 1.

12 Compare to: Freeman, Philip. St. Patrick of Ireland : A Biography. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004. p.xvii/xviii.

13 Hopkin, 11.

14 Proudfoot, 80; See also: Bieler 1949, 33; Hopkin, 31.

15 Compare to: Hopkin, 12-14.

16 Hopkin, 31. See also: Freeman, xix.

17 Letter 5. In: Skinner, John (Transl.). The Confession of St. Patrick and letter to Coroticus. New York: Image Book, 1998. p. 4.;See also: Hopkin, 30.

18 Proudfoot, 83.

19 Bieler 1967, 93.

20 Hopkin, 12.

21 Proudfoot, 83.

22 Bieler 1949, 36.

23 Confession 37. In: Skinner, John (Transl.). The Confession of St. Patrick and letter to Coroticus. New York: Image Book, 1998. p. 56.

24 Compare to: Hopkin, 14.

25 Confession 1. In: White, Newport J.D. (Ed.). St. Patrick: His Writings and Life. London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1920. p. 31.

26 Hopkin, 14.

27 Confession 6. In: White, 33.

28 Compare to: Proudfoot, 81.

29 Compare to: Ibid. 82.

30 Ibid. 82.

31 Bieler 1949, 34.

32 Compare to: Ibid. 35.

33 Freeman, xix.

34 Hopkin, 37.

35 Ibid. 37.

36 Ibid. 36.


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Saint Patrick Julian Binder history Christianity historical




Title: The 'historical' Saint Patrick. Approaching the Life of Ireland's Patron Saint