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St Patrick And Christianity In Ireland

St Patrick is the beloved Irish Chief Patron Saint, often lovingly called St. Paddy or St. Pat. Who was Saint Patrick, and what was his role in early Christian Ireland?

"Most people think that St Patrick brought Christianity to Ireland. But most people are wrong."

When Patrick arrived in Ireland to do his missionary work, there were already Christians living here. The Pope had sent a bishop to Ireland in 431 AD.

Replica of an interior of a wooden early Irish Christian church 

Find links to more Saint Patrick articles below!

This bishop was Palladius, sent to the ‘Irish believing in Christ’ Rome sending a bishop would testify to sufficient numbers of Christians already living here to warrant such a gesture.

Although we cannot be certain, the generally accepted consensus among scholars these days on the basis of supporting evidence is that Saint Patrick lived and worked in Ireland AFTER the Palladian mission, probably some 50 years after Palladius.

Portrait of Saint Patrick.

My art student, 10 year old Maeve, produced this lovely embossing, a portrait of St Patrick.

So then, how did Christianity arrive in Ireland?

One possible route that has been suggested is through slaves.

Slaves? That’s right.

Think of Saint Patrick’s story. He, already Christianised, was captured and brought to Ireland. It has been said that here wasn’t a huge slave trade in Ireland before the arrival of the Vikings, but there were slaves, often from other cultures. Saint Patrick himself testifies in his surviving document entitled  ‘Confession’ that there were thousands who shared his fate (tot milia hominium). These would have been slaves who had been captured at raids, also prisoners of war. For example, Saint Brigid’s mother was said to have been a Christianised slave, Pictish originally, now enslaved to an Irish king who may have fathered Brigid.

Model of an early Christian Irish community. People lived in round houses, but the church was rectangular.

An early Irish settlement from 1,000 years ago, exhibited at Clonmacnoise.

Saint Patrick tells us in his ‘Confession’ that the experience of being a slave strengthened his Christian faith. Stop for a moment and think about what being kidnapped to become a slave really means to a person: everything they have previously known is gone in an instant, taken away from them. Their loved ones, family, children, friends, neighbours. Their belongings, taken. They are brought aboard a ship and their homeland disappears on the horizon. What can you hold on to? What will keep you strong and help you survive? It makes perfect sense that slaves would have held on to their Christian faith if they were already Christian, or, if they were pagan, would have been very receptive to being converted. Christianity gives solace. Missionaries might have been the only caring people around them that showed an interest, and they promised salvation.

Early Christian cross found at Clonmacnoise monastery, County Offaly, Ireland.

Early Irish Christian Cross at Clonmacnoise.

Saint Patrick managed to escape slavery and, after a series of adventures, to return home to Britain. But, most likely, most of the other slaves would not have. They continued to live in Ireland, had children and passed on their Christian faith.

The archaeological site at Caherlehillan in County Kerry shows us a second route by which Christianity may have arrived in Ireland. Caherlehillan may be the earliest Christian settlement in Ireland. It was a monastic site which held a small wooden church, just big enough to hold perhaps a dozen people. Some of the archaeological findings at Caherlehillan point to the possibility that these monks may have come from the Middle East, the birth place of the Christian faith.

The site has grave stones with a cross that also show a peacock. This type of art is an unusual finding. There were no peacocks in Ireland until the 18th century. The peacock is a Middle Eastern symbol, originally pagan. The peacocks flesh was thought to never decay while its’ feathers were thought to ward off evil spirits, and the thrones of royals were decorated with them. Many Middle Eastern exotica were absorbed into very early Christianity. Saint Augustine spoke of the peacock, adopting the pagan beliefs around the bird that his flesh never decays and said this makes this bird immortal, just like the Christian soul. That's how the peacock became Christianized. To this day, the Pope’s throne features a peacock feather above his head.

Early Christian Irish monks, artist impression.

An artists' impression of medieval Irish monks at Clonmacnoise.

A third route by which Christianity started to arrive in Ireland was through trading links and the movement of tribes between the two British Isles. Ogham stones in the East of Ireland and in Wales testify to the presence of originally Irish tribes in Wales, and although these people themselves may not have converted to Christianity, it may have been through their connections to the homeland that the new faith travelled across the water.

So, when St Patrick came to Ireland as a self-appointed missionary to bring the Christian faith, the Christian faith was not entirely unheard of, although the numbers of believers were likely a tiny minority.

This is where St Patrick was different to any missionaries who had gone before. He ventured out into unchartered territory where no missionary and perhaps no Christian had set foot before him. He lived among Irish tribes, where he often had to bargain, give gifts to win someone over or simply pay up in order to be tolerated.

Everything About Saint Patrick:

But what made St Patrick different?

Here is what made St Patrick different to all the missionaries who had gone before. He ventured out into unknown, unchartered territory where no missionary and perhaps no Christian had set foot before him. He lived among Irish tribes, where he often had to bargain, give gifts to win someone over or simply pay up in order to be tolerated, spared his life and allowed to do his work.

His 'Confession' talks of being put in chains on one occasion, perhaps to be executed, but Patrick prevailed because, through his prior experience of slavery, he was more skilled than most, and, one must conclude, he was also very lucky.

In this way, he became successful and, according to his confession, managed to convert thousands, starting with the most vulnerable and receptive in society first, namely poor women and slaves. Later he was approached by rich women, daughters of chieftains who often offered him their jewellery as gifts, and who may have gone on to lead nunneries, in the same way that Saint Brigid did.

In his own writings, Patrick sounds vulnerable, like a man who lived on the edge. Quite literally, he lived on the edge between the Christian and non-Christian worlds. The people that surrounded him were mostly recently converted Christians, converted by Patrick himself.

A couple of hundred years after his death, Patrick started to be mythologized. Dates and supposed history records appeared, such as the supposed year of Patrick’s death of 493 AD for which there is no actual proof. Legends developed around Patrick, making him appear like a fearless warrior and preacher, one who used magic to defeat paganism. These became powerful folk legends, but the reality of St Patrick's life was very different.

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