Saint Patrick the Welshman

Saint Patrick the Welshman

Now that I have your attention with such a blasphemous title, let me clarify. Saint Patrick was not Irish, nor Welsh. Not exactly.

We have very little written documentation from the time of St. Patrick, who is believed to have been born at the end of the fourth century. What we do have, includes two documents written by Patrick, himself. His autobiographical Confessio, and his damning Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus. (Readers of The Retreat to Avalon may recall the role this letter played in the story.)

In his Confessio, Patrick says that he was born in Bannauenta Berniae, the location of which is unknown today, but was definitely in a region of Roman Britain. Some have made claims for his home to have been in Wales or Scotland, but it is most likely that it lay somewhere in the north-west of England. So Patrick, or Pātricius, (the Latin name he used), was not Irish, but a Briton. The Britons of that time spoke a Celtic language that would evolve, centuries later, into Welsh. But at this time, neither Wales, nor England existed, and Britons lived in all of Britain.

Patrick says that his father, Calpurnius, was a member of the town council, and a deacon of the church, both of which were important positions in the local Roman government. His grandfather, Potitus, was a priest. Being of a Romano-British aristocratic family, Patrick would have spoken Latin, most likely as his primary language, as well as the Brittonic of his homeland. He would have been educated, but says that he did not take his education seriously, and that it hampered his writing in later years. Patrick describes himself as being a poor Christian and something of a spoiled brat in his early years. Perhaps even worse…

Until he was about sixteen and his life changed. Patrick was captured by Scoti (Irish) pirates and taken to Ireland as a slave.

This was a common threat at the time, with Irish and Pictish raids notoriously devastating the Britons. The Britons, for their part, were not innocent of conducting similar raids against Ireland, as Patrick’s Letter to Coroticus demonstrates. But for Patrick, he says that he spent the next six years tending the animals of his Scoti master, praying and coming to an understanding of his sins and to a new understanding of faith and God.

One night he had a dream that it was time to leave and board a ship. Patrick ran away and travelled two hundred miles to a town with a port and convinced the sailors to let him go with them. Patrick describes some adventures over the next months or years in which his future with the Church was further foreshadowed, before finally making it home to his own people, where he was joyously welcomed.

He continued to study Christianity and eventually crossed to Gaul to study at Auxerre and other places, eventually being ordained by St. Germanus (the same Germanus who plays a part in the events of the beginning of The Arthurian Age). Inspired to bring Christ to the pagan Irish, Patrick returns to the land of his captivity.

It is not an easy time.

Patrick was not the first Christian missionary to Ireland. A bishop named Palladius was sent from Gaul by Pope Celestine, but it appears that the mission failed, and Palladius left, banished by the King of Leinster. Patrick did not have an easy time of it. At various times, Patrick was held captive, beaten and robbed of all he had. His refusal to accept gifts from kings left him without the patronage vital to status in Irish society and likely was taken as an insult. In fact, the High King of Ireland, Lóegaire, is said to have actually sought to kill Patrick. But Patrick survived, performed miracles, and quickly gained converts by his ability to speak the language and understand the culture.

Saint Patrick the Welshman's bell
Bell said to belong to St. Patrick, and the reliquary made for it.

The legend of the Shamrock is an example. The number three was sacred in Celtic paganism, but the Christian Trinity may have been a confusing concept. Patrick is said to have used the three-leafed sprig to demonstrate the concept of God as three divine natures having a single divine being.

Some thirty years after Patrick had been enslaved, it appears that some charges were brought against him by members of the Church in Britain, which oversaw his mission. This, in fact, appears to be the purpose behind his writing of the Confessio. The charges he refers to imply accusations of using his position as Bishop for personal gain, and that some particularly damaging crime he committed against a close friend at the age of fifteen had been brought back against him.

Rock of Cashel, from my visit in 2008. This is where Patrick is said to have converted the King of Munster.

Whatever the details, it appears that he prevailed against the charges, and went on to a long, successful life. Bishop Patrick died in Ireland, probably around mid 460 AD. While unproven, his grave is said to be at Down Cathedral beside Saint Brigid and Saint Columba.

You might be surprised to learn that St. Patrick was never officially canonized by a Pope! In the first millennium of Christianity, it was the local or regional diocese that would determine, often soon after the passing of the holy person, whether they were saints. Patrick falls into this timeframe, and is considered a saint within the Catholic Church, where the official canonization process was not in place until the 12th century.

Saint Patrick the Welshman's gravestone
Reputed gravestone of St. Patrick at Downpatrick.

Thanks for stopping by, and Lá fhéile Pádraig sona dhuit!

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