The Story of St. Patrick of Ireland



John W. Cowart

This is chapter 3 of the book Strangers On The Earth, Bluefish Books, 2006.

              Magnus Sucatus Patricius traveled to Ireland twice. He went once because of Irish pirates; he went the second time because of God. He did not want to go either time.

              His first visit came at a time of great turmoil in Europe. The Roman empire was crumbling. For 470 years Roman legions had controlled Britain, holding back the barbarians and spreading Roman law, living standards and culture. While Roman garrisons manned the walls built across the island to separate civilized Britain form the Picts and the Scots, Roman ships thronged the harbors, bringing the goods of the Empire to Britain.

              Roman roads spanned the countryside. Roman baths, theaters and aqueducts graced the cities. But by A.D. 385, hostile barbarians, the Huns and the Goths, in other parts of the empire forced Rome to withdraw her troops, leaving British citizens to defend themselves.

              The last legion sailed from Britain in A.D. 400 and immediately the Norse, the Caledonians, the Saxons, and the Irish began to ravish the formerly protected towns and estates. Roving bands raped, looted and captured slaves for sale in their homelands.

              Irish pirates crept along the coast in curraghs, wicker frame-work boats covered with stitched cowhides. These lightweight boats were perfect for coastal raids. Powered by twelve oarsmen, the shallow-drafted curraghs could sneak up the estuaries silently for pre-dawn attacks.

              Patrick’s father was a deacon of the Christian church and a decurion, a local official of the national government. He was also a minor member of the nobility and owned a seaside villa which was particularly vulnerable to pirate raids.

              The attack came when Patrick was sixteen.

              Screaming barbarians charged up the slope from the sea, hacking down startled defenders and casting nets over fleeing victims. Although his parents and the rest of his family escaped, Patrick and many of his father’s servants were captured, bound and thrust into the bottom of a pirate boat to wallow in the bilge water as the raid continued along the coast.

              Saint Patrick was on his way to Ireland for the first time.

              In Ireland Patrick was sold as a slave to Miliucc of Slemich, a Druid tribal chieftain who put the boy to work herding pigs. Patrick felt lost and helpless; he had gone from being nobleman’s heir to swineherd overnight. Slavery beat pride and dignity out of him. He had no chance for education, no friends, no possessions, no name, no hope.

              He labored in filth and squalor among the animals. Finally, deprived of every human consolation, he turned to God. In his book Confessions, he wrote, “I was sixteen and knew not the true God but in a strange land the Lord opened my unbelieving eyes, and I was converted”.

              Patrick gives few details, but apparently his memory of Christian teaching he had learned as a child resulted in his conversion.

The new convert spent much time in the presence of the Lord and eventually came to thank God for his captivity as an opportunity to know Christ. He became convinced that his slave state was a gift from God, so he served his barbarian master well, laboring as unto the Lord. He said, “Anything that happens to me, whether pleasant or distasteful, I ought to accept it with equanimity giving thanks to God… who never disappoints”.

              Patrick learned to pray as he worked or walked or rested. He said, “Love and reverence for God came to me more and more, building up my faith so much that daily I would pray a hundred times or more. Even while working in the woods or on the mountain, I woke up to pray before dawn… Now I understand that it was the fervent Spirit praying within me”.

               His devotion to God earned him the teasing nickname “Holy-Boy” among his fellow slaves. He remained a slave of the Druid for six years. Then came escape.

              One night as he lay sleeping, Patrick heard a voice in a dream telling him, “Wake up. Your ship is waiting for you”. He sneaked away and struggled through two hundred miles of hostile territory to the coast where he found a curragh “of more than one hide” preparing to sail.

              The captain refused passage to the runaway slave, but as Patrick walked away praying one of the crew called him back to the ship. After an arduous voyage and near starvation, he arrived home. “Again I was in Britain with my people who welcomed me as their son,” he wrote.

              In his own mind Patrick was through

with Ireland and the Irish.

              At twenty-two, he had many opportunities before him: he could continue his education, catch up with his social life, assume his responsibilities as heir of a nobleman.

British family at the time

              Little is know about this time in his life. Patrick may have studied in France or Italy; he may have entered the priesthood at this time. He does not tell us. The nest event he relates in Confessions is how God called him to return to Ireland.

              He wrote, “I did not go back to Ireland of my own accord. It is not in my own nature to show divine mercy toward the very ones who once enslaved me”.

              Concerning his return to Ireland as a missionary he wrote, “It was the furthest thing from me, but God made me fit, causing me to care about and labour for the salvation of others”.

              This change in attitude toward his mission came in part as the result of another dream. He saw a messenger named Victoricus coming across the sea from Ireland bearing letters labeled “The Voice Of The Irish”.

              When Patrick began to read these letters he thought he heard the people in the Wood of Focluth, where he had been a slave, crying out to him saying, “Holy-Boy, we beg you, come walk among us again”.

              He awoke knowing he had to go back.

              Patrick still faced three major obstacles: his family, because they wanted him to stay home. The clergy, because they thought the Irish were not worth saving; and finances, because he wanted to pay his own way. His Confessions reveals how God dealt with each hindrance.

              “Since I was home at last having suffered such hardships, my family pleaded with me not to leave,” he said. They were justly alarmed. As an escaped slave, he faced horrible retribution. The Druids were known to weave criminals and runaway slaves into giant wicker baskets and suspend them over a fire to roast alive.

              Patrick often lovingly mentions his family, which had survived the pirate raid, and he refers to the pain of leaving them again. He said, “Leaving my home and family was a costly price to pay; but afterwards, I received a more valuable thing: the gift of knowing and loving God”.

              “Many friends tried to stop my mission. They said, ‘Why does this fellow waste himself among dangerous enemies who don’t even know God?’”

              These chruchmen considered the Irish to be barbaric enemies not worth saving. But Patrick attributes a more worthy motive to his detractors: “Their objection was not due to malice. The project just didn’t appeal to them. I believe it was because I am so uncouth”.

              His lack of education bothered Patrick all his life and he often apologizes for it in his writings.

              Because Patrick believed his enemies were worth saving, he could later say, “Once the Irish worshipped idols and unclean things, having no knowledge of the True God, but now they are among God’s own people. Even the children of their kings are numbered among the monks and virgins of Christ”.

              Patrick insisted on paying his own way. He wanted to give what was his and not what belonged to other people.

              He said, “Contrary to the desires of my seniors, when supporters offered me gifts, I refused to accept them, thus offending the contributors… Some devout women pressed me with gifts, even offering their jewelry, but I returned these love-offerings to them. They were also offended. The reason I acted thus was to demonstrate prudence in everything… I did not want to give the unbelievers even the smallest thing to criticize”.

              But if he refused to accept financial help from church or friends, how could he finance his endeavor?

              He said, “I was born free, the son of a decurion; but I sold my title of nobility – there is no shame nor regret in this – in order to become the slave of Christ serving this barbaric nation”.

              Patrick used his inheritance money to purchase a boat and finance his mission. He and his party sailed back to Ireland in A.D. 432. Landing at the port of Inver Dea, they were welcomed by a rock-throwing mob.

              They sailed along the coast of Ireland, landing and preaching along the way. Patrick preached at isolated farms, to hostile crowds on the beaches, to women and children drawing water at country wells.

              At one farm, tradition tells us, Patrick came upon an old man who was dying. Patrick sought to comfort him and lead him to salvation in Christ. The invalid argued for his old way of life. Finally Patrick asked him, “Why are you grasping at a life which is even now failing you? Why do you neglect to prepare for the life to come?”

              The old man pondered the questions. Then he repented, believed and was baptized. He eventually recovered from his illness and became one of Patrick’s staunchest followers. As Christianity became more established Patrick assigned this man, whose name was Ros, the task of codifying Ireland’s laws, bringing them into conformity with Christian belief and morality.

              Patrick’s attempts at evangelism were not always so successful. He returned to Slemich to confront his former owner with the claims of Christ. Rather than forsake his heathen gods, Miliuce sealed himself inside his house and set it afire. The Druid drowned out Patrick’s pleadings with screamed curses and invocations to his gods. He cremated himself and all his possessions.

              Patrick traveled over the Irish countryside in a chariot, spreading the Gospel and bringing with it social reform and a written alphabet. He conducted open-air schools to teach his converts to read and write.

              Until this time, writing was the jealously guarded secret of Druid wizards who used the Ogram script to inscribe pillars of stone. But Patrick believed in educating his converts to read the Scripture.

              A clash with the Druids was inevitable.

              The religion of the Druids was firmly entrenched in Ireland. They worshiped and tried to appease manifold spirits in the guise of stones, trees, storms and the sun. They may have constructed megalithic monuments similar to Stonehenge to aid in their style of astrology.

              Druid sorcerers claimed to be able to control weather, so it was important to them to be aware of celestial changes. One of their most important rites occurred at the vernal equinox when the sun begins its return to warm the Northern Hemisphere. In A.D. 433, the vernal equinox fell on March 25th, Easter Sunday.

              Patrick chose that day to challenge the wizards.

              At the time Ireland was a loose confederation of warlords under High King Leary. They all met to seek the blessing of the Druids on the vernal equinox at a hill called Tara.


              In order to call the sun back to the north, the Druids custom was to extinguish all fires in the kingdom. The chief wizard then ignited a bonfire as part of the ritual. Then runners bearing firebrands lit at this bonfire raced through the fields carrying new fire to each village. Thus the Druids showed that it was their enchantments which brought warmth back to the hearths of the nation.

              On the night of the ceremony, as the warlords and wizards worshiped in the darkness of their great stone circle, there was a huge bonfire already burning on the hill opposite their megalith. Patrick had lit a blazing Paschal fire this Easter to commemorate Christ, the Light Of The World.


Standing stone at Tara                        Aerial view of Tara

              The Druids were outraged. They dispatched troops to bring Patrick to the council and demanded an explanation for his blasphemy. Patrick spoke to them on the nature of the Trinity, the mystery of the Incarnation, and the triumph of Christ’s resurrection.

              Some believed.

              Others attempted to kill him.

              Legend colors this encounter at Tara with many fantastic incidents, including the burning of one of Patrick’s followers in a wicker bower as a human sacrifice by the Druids. No matter what actually happened that night, Patrick became a national figure, and his controversial message was discussed everywhere.

              Patrick believed that he was living in the last days before Christ’s return and that the Lord deserved to be worshiped by men from every nation even the barbaric Irish. So he felt responsible “to preach the Gospel to the edge of the earth beyond which no man lives”. He says that Christ called His people to be fishers of men. “Therefore, we must spread a wide net so we can catch a teeming multitude for God”.

              Patrick’s sense of gratitude to God for creating and saving him permeates his writings. “I was an illiterate slave, as ignorant as one who neglects to provide for his future. And I am certain of this: that although I was as a dumb stone lying squashed in the mud, the Mighty and Merciful God came, dug me out and set me on top of the wall. Therefore, I praise Him and ought to render Him something for His wonderful benefits to me both now and in eternity,” he wrote.

              This gratitude and burning love for Christ drove Patrick to challenge heathenism wherever he found it. He entered the stockades of the warlords, preaching to hostile warriors dressed in strips of fur or naked with their bodies painted with blue clay and scarred with whirling tattoos.

              He crisscrossed Ireland in his chariot. He visited the waddle huts of slaves, bearing comfort and hope. He even preached at the racetracks, converting men in the midst of gambling, drinking and  orgies. Thousands of Irishmen were converted through his relentless evangelism, motivated by loving gratitude.

              He not only preached but ministered to the whole person, bringing a gospel which raised the standard of life for the Irish. He paid judges’ salaries our of his own pocket so they could judge impartially rather than depend on a reward from the person who won a suit. He founded monasteries which survived as centers of learning till the age of the Vikings.

              Having been a slave himself, he was concerned with the plight of slaves. He wrote, “The women who live in slavery suffer greatly. They endure terror and are constantly threatened. Their masters forbid these maidens to follow Christ, but He gives them grace to follow bravely”.

              Although Patrick was compassionate in his preaching and conscientious in his social programs, on occasion he demonstrated a fiery, scathing indignation.

              After his ministry was established in one of the coastal towns, Patrick baptized a large group of converts. Shortly after the ceremony, the town was raided by soldiers of King Coroticus, a nominal Christian king from Britain.

              The raiders slaughtered the men and children. The good-looking young women, still dressed in white baptismal gowns, were captured to sell to a brothel in Scotland.

              Patrick was furious.

              He fired off a scorching protest to the people of Coroticus, excommunicating the perpetrators of this “horrible, unspeakable crime” and demanding restoration of the hostages. He wrote:

              “The church mourns in anguish not over the slain but over those carried off to a far away land for the purpose of gross, open sin. Think of it! Christians made slaves by Christians! Sold to serve the lusts of wicked pagan Picts!

              “I don’t know who to cry for the most; the ones murdered, the ones captured, or the agents of the devil who did this—because they will be slaves in the everlasting torments of Hell”.

              Because of his stands for righteousness, Patrick suffered insult and persecution. The Druids often tried to poison him. Once a barbarian warrior speared his chariot driver to death, thinking he was killing Patrick.

              Patrick was often ambushed during his evangelistic tours, and at least once he was enslaved again for a short time. He sometimes had to purchase safe passage through a hostile warlord’s territory in order to continue his mission. He wrote, “Every day I expect to be murdered or robbed or enslaved; but I am not afraid of these things because of the promises of Heaven”.

              Patrick faced opposition not only from nominal Christians, pagan warlords and Druid wizards, but from his church as well. Ecclesiastical; authorities in Britain questioned his fitness to be a bishop and held a hearing at which he as not present and at which his dearest friend spoke against him. The records are murky, but it is possible that for a time he was suspended or placed on probation, and his convert Benigus, a former tribal warlord, may have succeeded him as bishop of Ireland.

              At the time a controversy concerning Pelagianism was brewing between churchmen in Britain and on the continent. (Pelagius in Britain had taught that men could live good lives and by their own free will win salvation). Although Patrick in his writings does not dwell on church bickering, it appears that he may have been the victim of the power struggle between the factions involved.

              The most important result of this crisis in his life was that it prompted him to write his Confession, which along with a hymn, and his letter to the people of Coroticus, comprise the only surviving records of his life and thoughts.

              Near the conclusion of his Confessions he wrote, “The only reason I had to return to the people I once barely escaped from was the Gospel and its promises”.

              Patrick preached the gospel and its promises to “the edge of the world beyond which no man dwells” and speaking to his readers he advised, “I wish that you also would exert greater effort and begin more powerful acts for God”.

Authors Note: While I wrote this sketch of St. Patrick, my father was in the hospital dying of cancer. My mother wanted one of us to stay with him at all times and I drew the all night shift for--  what wasn’t but seemed like -- months. Because I was writing this on a strict deadline and there was no writing surface in Daddy’s room, I wrote 90% of this piece longhand on a yellow pad while laying on my belly on the floor under his bed. My youngest daughter was born just weeks after Daddy died; naturally we named her Patricia, the feminine form of Patrick. The name means NOBLE.                                                                                       ---jwc

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