St. Patrick

From The Wonders of Ireland by P. W. Joyce, 1911

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Readers of our early history know that there were Christians in Ireland before the time of St. Patrick; and they must have grown to be pretty numerous by the beginning of the fifth century: for in the year 431, as we are told by a writer—St. Prosper of Aquitaine, who lived at the time—Pope Celestine sent Palladius "to the Scots believing in Christ to be their first bishop." They probably got their Christianity from intercourse with the people of Britain. Nevertheless the great body of the Irish were at this time pagans; but Palladius was not the man destined for their conversion. He landed on the coast of Wicklow; but after a short sojourn, during which he visited some Christians scattered through that district, and founded three little churches, he was expelled by Nathi the chief of the place, and died soon afterwards in Scotland.

The next mission had a very different result. No nation in the world was converted to Christianity in so short a time as the Irish; and no missionary, after the age of the Apostles, preached the Gospel with more success than St. Patrick. He was a man of strong will, and wherever he went the people he addressed were all the more willing to hearken to his preaching on account of the noble simplicity and purity of his life. He cared nothing for riches and honours and accepted no rewards or presents: but he loved the people of Ireland, and his whole anxiety was to make them good Christians. We do not know for certain his birthplace; but the best authorities believe he was born near Dumbarton in Alban or Scotland, though others think in the west of Gaul. At that time both Gaul and Britain were under the Romans, and there is evidence that his family, whichever of the two places they belonged to, were Christians, and that they were in a respectable station of life: for his father Calpurn was a magistrate in the Roman service.

When Patrick was a boy of sixteen, he was, as we are told by himself in his "Confession," taken captive with thousands of others and brought to Ireland. This was about the year 403; and it occurred probably in one of those formidable predatory excursions, led by king Niall of the Nine Hostages, of which Irish historians make mention. He was sold as a slave to a certain rich man named Milcho, who employed him to herd sheep and swine on the slopes of Slemish mountain in the present county Antrim. Here he spent six years of his life. If he felt at first heartbroken and miserably lonely, as no doubt he did, he soon recovered himself and made nothing of the hardships he endured on the bleak hillside; for in his solitude his mind was turned to God, and every spare moment was given up to devotions. He tells us in his own earnest and beautiful words (in the "Confession")—"I was daily employed tending flocks; and I prayed frequently during the day, and the love of God was more and more enkindled in my heart, my fear and faith were increased, and my spirit was stirred; so much so that in a single day I poured out my prayers a hundred times, and nearly as often in the night. Nay even in the woods and mountains I remained, and rose before the dawn to my prayer, in frost and snow and rain; neither did I suffer any injury from it, nor did I yield to any slothfulness, such as I now experience; for the spirit of the Lord was fervent within me."[4] But he stood alone in his own little world of light and holiness; for his master was a pagan; and though the people he mixed with were bright and lovable, they too were all pagans, grossly superstitious; but beyond that, with little idea of religion of any kind.

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[4] This "Confession"—a sort of review of his life and work—was written by him when he was an old man, worn out with his labours.


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