St Patrick And Christianity In Ireland
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."
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.
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.
My art student, 10 year old Maeve, produced this lovely embossing, a portrait of St Patrick.
So then, how did Christianity arrive in Ireland?
route that has been suggested is through slaves.
Slaves? That’s right.
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.
An early Irish settlement from 1,000 years ago, exhibited at Clonmacnoise.
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
Early Irish Christian Cross at Clonmacnoise.
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
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
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.
An artists' impression of medieval Irish monks at Clonmacnoise.
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.
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
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
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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