The following is an excerpt from my book St. Brigid, the Celts & the Early Irish Church.
It’s possible that Palladius himself brought Patrick to Ireland as part of his missionary team. At the time Palladius arrived in Ireland, Patrick would have been about thirty years old with a good knowledge of Irish geography, culture, and language– an ideal candidate for the mission.
We are fortunate to have two documents written by Patrick. The first is a semi-autobiographical work known as the Confession. The second is a letter written by Patrick to a warlord named Coroticus. In this letter, Patrick condemns Coroticus for murdering and enslaving Celts that Patrick recently converted to Christianity.
In these writings we get a strong sense of who Patrick was as a person. In many ways he was a humble and somewhat insecure man. He describes himself as rustic and uneducated and he frequently expresses embarrassment for his poor grasp of the Latin language in which he wrote. Yet a much different Patrick is perceived when reading his sharply worded letter to Coroticus. When provoked Patrick became a bold and passionate defender of his faith and its adherents.
Patrick was born on the west coast of Britain sometime in the early 400s. Although his father was a deacon and his grandfather was a priest, Patrick did not have much respect for Christianity in his youth. He tells us “I did not know God…and did not keep his precepts, nor obey our priests who used to remind us of our salvation.”[i] In response to Patrick’s contempt for the church, God “brought down his fury” upon him.
One night, when Patrick was sixteen years old, Irish pirates invaded his village, kidnapped him, and sold him into slavery on the west coast of Ireland. He spent six years of his life in slavery working on a pasture.
During those years, Patrick turned to the religion that he had disregarded in his youth.
More and more did the love of God, and my fear of Him increase, and my spirit was moved so that each day I said up to a hundred prayers and up to a hundred more each night. I used to stay out in the forests and on the mountain and I would wake up before daylight to pray in the snow, in icy coldness, in rain, and I felt neither ill nor any slothfulness because the spirit of God was burning within me.[ii]
One evening, after fasting and prayer, Patrick heard a voice in his sleep. (This is one of several dreams mentioned in the Confession. Patrick’s dreams must have been extremely vivid. He writes of them as being a source of both horror and inspiration.) The voice told Patrick that it was time for him to leave Ireland and return home. He must act immediately because his ship was ready.
As mentioned earlier, Patrick was on the west coast of Ireland and, at the time of his escape, there were no ships on his side of the island that sailed directly to Britain or any other port in Europe. So Patrick, who was then about 21 years old, escaped from servitude and, as a fugitive, walked across the breadth of Ireland until he arrived on its eastern coast. It was an extremely dangerous thing to do. If Patrick had been captured during the journey, the punishment for his actions would have been severe. Patrick tells us that God watched over him during his escape and directed his route until he finally reached a ship that was about to sail for Gaul.
The day I arrived, the ship was about to leave the place. I said I needed to set sail with them, but the captain was not at all pleased. He replied unpleasantly and angrily: “Don’t you dare try to come with us.” When I heard that, I left them and went back to the hut where I had lodgings. I began to pray while I was going; and before I even finished the prayer, I heard one of them shout aloud at me: “Come quickly – those men are calling you!” I turned back right away, and they began to say to me: “Come – we’ll trust you. Prove you’re our friend in any way you wish.”… This is how I got to go with them, and we set sail right away.[iii]
Patrick then adds, “I refused to suck their breasts, because of my reverence for God.”[iv] Patrick makes this bizarre statement in a matter-of-fact way, as though it was a common initiation among pagan sailors. Although some scholars believe that the statement is being used figuratively, it seems more likely that Patrick was speaking literally and that Celtic mariners sucked the nipples of the other crewmen before joining a ship.
We have no other details of the voyage except that it lasted for three days and that dogs were included as part of the cargo. During this time Irish wolfhounds were highly valued in Europe. They were used primarily to protect dwellings and to hunt game. The hounds were so massive—“each as big as a mule,” according to the Book of Lismore—that they were even deployed against enemy combatants in war.
There is also a story in the Book of Lismore of one of these hounds wandering into Brigid’s home when she was a girl. The dog walked into the kitchen where Brigid was preparing bacon for her father and his noble guests. The dog seemed miserable and hungry so Brigid happily fed every last piece of meat to the hound. When her father went to the kitchen to check on the dinner the bacon miraculously reappeared.
A few years after fleeing Ireland, Patrick was once again home with his family in Britain. He tells us that he was “welcomed home as a son” and that his family pleaded with him never to leave again. When we consider what Patrick risked and endured to return home, we can easily assume that he wanted to be there—safe from harm and living as a free man with his loved ones. But again Patrick received a powerful message in his dreams that he could not ignore.
There, in a vision of the night, I saw a man whose name was Victoricus coming from Ireland with innumerable letters, and he gave me one of them. I read the beginning of the letter: ‘The Voice of the Irish’ and as I was reading I heard the voice of those who were beside the forest of Folcut near the western sea. They were crying as if with one voice: ‘We beg you, holy youth, that you shall come and walk among us again.’ And I was stung intensely in my heart so that I could read no more, and thus I awoke.[v]
He first traveled to Gaul where he received his religious education and became a member of the clergy, quickly earning the title of bishop. Sometime in the 430s he arrived in Ireland and began his missionary work.
Fifth century Ireland was a wild and dangerous place and many of the Irish would have perceived Patrick as a direct threat to their way of life. He tells us that he “daily expected to be murdered or betrayed or reduced to slavery.”[vi] In fact, at one point he was captured, robbed, and confined in chains for two weeks. We’re not told exactly who seized him. But eventually he was released and his stolen items were returned to him. Patrick admits that he wished to abandon his mission and return home but he felt “bound by the Spirit” to stay with the Irish and complete his work. He would remain in Ireland for the rest of his life.
Although Patrick described himself in humble terms, he wrote openly about his success in converting Ireland to Catholicism. He tells us that through his work “thousands would be reborn in God” and “clergy would be ordained everywhere.”[vii] Such mass conversions were common in the early years of Christianity. In the Book of Acts, for instance, we read that Saint Peter made 3,000 converts after giving just one sermon.[viii] (Sadly most priests today could give 3,000 sermons and not get a single convert.) Given the speed at which Christianity spread throughout Europe, it seems these stories of mass conversions are legitimate.
But why was Patrick so successful?
It seems undeniable that he was a passionate advocate for the Church and that he possessed the charisma necessary to command the attention and respect of the unruly Celts.
Patrick preached to both rich and poor. He tells of his work with widows, slaves, and women. Many of them were receptive to the new faith which taught that all were equal in the eyes of God and that those who worshipped Him would ascend to an eternal paradise when they died. The women showed great affection for Patrick and frequently offered him gifts and ornaments as tokens of their appreciation. He mentions one female convert in particular, “a most beautiful, native-born Irish woman of adult age whom I baptized.” This was done “without her father’s consent and with the enduring persecutions and deceitful hindrances of her parents.”[ix]
Among the Celtic leaders Patrick used generous gifts and bribes along with his sermons to persuade their conversion. Patrick’s payroll included “those who were administering justice in all the regions” and he estimates that he paid to them “not less than the price of fifteen slaves”—a huge sum of money. If the king of a tribe embraced Christianity, it often meant that the members of the tribe would likewise become Christians. This could result in mass conversions of dozens or even hundreds of the Irish all at once.
Finally, the spread of Christianity in Ireland was largely due to Patrick’s tolerance of the native customs and his willingness to incorporate ancient Irish practices with the Catholic rites.
A similar approach was taken by the Church in dealing with the Anglo-Saxons in Britain. Consider, for example, the following quote from Pope Gregory I to his religious leaders in England in the year 601:
The temples of idols in that nation should not be destroyed, but…the idols themselves that are in them should be. Let blessed water be prepared, and sprinkled in these temples, and altars constructed, and relics deposited since, if these same temples are well built, it is needful that they should be transferred from the worship of idols to the service of the true God; that, when the people themselves see that these temples are not destroyed, they may put away error from their heart, and, knowing and adoring the true God, may have recourse with the more familiarity to the places they have been accustomed to.[x]
The Irish responded favorably to this lenient approach. In fact, it’s remarkable that the Irish Celts, who were known throughout Europe for their savagery, were Christianized within a few generations without the Church suffering a single martyr.
By the end of Patrick’s life, sometime in the late 400s, Catholicism had been established in Ireland, existing alongside the ancient pagan religion. Slowly Irish paganism faded away but many of its aspects merged into Catholicism and a unique form of Celtic Christianity prevailed over the island. It was during this time that Brigid lived her life and made her mark on Ireland and the Catholic Church.
[i] Saint Patrick, Confessions, Passage 1.
[ii] Id., Passage 16.
[iii] Id., Passage 18.
[v] Id., Passage 23.
[vi] Id., Passage 55.
[vii] Id., Passage 38.
[viii] Acts 2: 41-42).
[ix] Confessions, Passage 42.
[x] Pope Gregory I, Epistle 11, Passage 56.