Early Christian Ireland

Eleanor Hull
Early Christian Ireland

The wars of King Niall in Britain and the bringing over of large bodies of Irish and Scoto-Irish troops to aid the British wars on the Continent must have greatly strengthened the intercourse already existing between the two countries. It has been a favourite doctrine with one class of historians that Irish interchange with Britain was practically non-existent, and that during all the early centuries Irish commerce and mercantile intercourse passed over and round the island that lay closest to its shores, making its way to the Continent by routes that skirted north and south of it. Such a doctrine, unlikely in itself, is denied by all we know from archæology, language, and history as to the early relations between the two countries. They were, as we have seen, not only in constant communication, but there was a large intermixture of Gaelic blood all along the western districts, those lying closest to Ireland.

Intermarriages, which took place even in the kingly families, must have been frequent among the fighting and mercantile classes, and the period upon which we are now entering saw those ties drawn yet closer by a sympathy in the practice and aims of the religious life and by the frequent interchange of teachers and scholars between the two countries. Early Irish history shows no sign of a desire for isolation; its people kept up a natural intercourse with the whole West of Europe from Norway to Spain, but, as was only to be expected from the geographical position of the two countries, it was most constant with Britain and Scotland.

A new and abiding link was now to be formed by the coming of St Patrick to Ireland, and it ought to have been of happy augury for the future good relations between the neighbouring islands that the Irish, instead of choosing as their patron saint one of “the host of the saints of Ireland,” a native of their own race and country, gave that honour to a man of British race.

The strangest doctrines as to the birthplace of St Patrick have been put forward from time to time, but it is clear that the main authority on the question must be the writings of the saint himself. His own testimony is explicit. In his Confession he frequently mentions the land of his birth. In chapter xxiii he writes,

“And again, after a few years, I was in Britain with my kindred, who received me as a son and in good faith besought me that at all events now, after the great tribulations I had undergone, I would not depart from them anywhither.”

Elsewhere he speaks of proceeding to Britain, “and glad and ready I was to do so, as to my fatherland and kindred, and not only that, but to go as far as Gaul …” (chapter xliii).

The earliest life of St Patrick, that by Muirchu, is still more explicit. It opens thus:

“Patrick, who was also called Sochet, was of the British race and born in Britain.”

These passages have been transferred to Brittany in Gaul by many writers from the time of Keating onward; but it is impossible that they could refer to that country, which up to the middle of the sixth century, at least, was known as Armorica, and only adopted the name of Brittany after the flight of the Britons before the Saxons, when large numbers of the persecuted Britons passed overseas and settled on the opposite coasts.[1] For more than a hundred years after Patrick’s birth, the date of which must have been 389 or thereabouts, this exodus had not begun. But it was a British population which eventually took root there.

The exact place in which Patrick was born is, and will probably always remain, uncertain. Muirchu calls it Bannavem Thaburinde, or Taberniæ, and says that it was “not distant from our sea” (i.e., the Irish Channel), which is a clear indication that it was somewhere on the sea-coast of Britain. Very early Irish writers identify it with Ail-cluide, i.e., “the Rock of Clyde,” or Dumbarton. It is so identified in a very ancient note on the name ‘Nemthur’ in the hymn Genair Patraicc; and also in the Hymn of St Secundinus in praise of the saint, called the first hymn made in Ireland, where it is said, “Now Patrick, of the Britons of Ail-cluide was his origin.” Notes found on early copies of his Life in Oxford [2] and in Trinity College, Dublin,[3] make the same statement. There was evidently no prejudice against his British origin in the minds of the early Irish ecclesiastical writers.

The Roman legions at the time of Patrick’s birth still retained their hold on Britain, from which they did not finally withdraw till about 418, when the lad had grown to manhood. The Roman organization, though it was gradually breaking up over parts of the country with the recall of the army and officers to the defence of Rome, still held sway over the northern province. The year of his birth had witnessed the defeat and death of Maximus, who had drawn out of Britain a great army, many of whom afterward settled in Armorica as the first contingent of that army of fugitives which was to make a little Britain of their Frankish home, and also the triumphal entry of Theodosius into Rome. During his youth the tidings of the revolt of the barbarians, the invasions of Italy by Alaric and Radagaisus, and the flight of the Emperor Honorius must have been received with eagerness and terror in Britain.

The triumphs of Stilicho must have been the more welcome from the protection he had, in an earlier day, extended to their own shores but they were followed, while Patrick was yet but a youth, by the frightful news of the Gothic sieges and sack of the Eternal City under the terrible Alaric.

In all these startling events the young Patrick would feel an almost personal interest; his family, whether natives of Strathclyde or Roman in descent, formed part of the Roman organization in Britain; he had been brought up proud of his “free birth” and “noble rank” as the son of a Roman decurion; and it was one of the highest sacrifices he was afterward to be called upon to make when he “sold his noble rank for the profit of others; and became a slave in Christ to a foreign nation [Ireland] for the unspeakable glory of the eternal life which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”[4] Patrick’s call to work among this “foreign nation” did not come very early in his life. If, as seems probable, he was born in the year 389 he must have been over forty years of age when Palladius was sent as bishop to the Irish people in 431.[5]

The mission of Palladius had not been a success. Three little churches on the coast of Wicklow attest the reality of his visit, but he soon retired, and died, Nennius tells us, among the Picts. Muirchu, the earliest biographer of St Patrick, says that “the wild and rough people” to whom Palladius was sent “did not readily receive his teaching, nor did he himself desire to spend a long time in a land not his own.” It is easy to understand that a foreigner unable to speak the tongue of the people to whom he was sent, and assuming among them episcopal functions, would not be warmly welcomed. Palladius showed, indeed, no anxiety to continue his work among an unwilling nation, whom he perhaps despised, because their ways of life and their primitive form of Christianity were wholly unlike anything to which he had been accustomed.

St Patrick first came to Ireland as a young lad with no official status and with little knowledge of religion. It was during the time of the distant raids and wars of Niall of the Nine Hostages that he and other British youths were carried away from their homes into slavery in Ireland. His own account of himself in his Confession, written in old age when his work was almost done, is our safest guide to a knowledge of his early life. It begins thus:

“I, Patrick, the sinner, am the most illiterate and the least of all the faithful, and contemptible in the eyes of very many. My father was Calpurnius, a deacon, one of the sons of Potitus a presbyter, who belonged to the village of Bannavem Taberniæ. Now he had a small farm near by, where I was taken captive. I was then about sixteen years of age. I knew not the true God; and I went into captivity to Ireland with many thousands of persons, according to our deserts, because we departed away from God, and kept not His commandments, and were not obedient to our priests who used to admonish us for our salvation. And the Lord poured upon us the fury of His anger and scattered us among the heathen, even to the ends of the earth, where now my littleness may be seen amongst men of another nation.”[6]

Thus, humbly and simply, opens the testimony of the man whose work was to leave so deep an impression on the nation to whom he first came as a slave. The Confession, found in the Book of Armagh, is not an autobiography giving the events of his career in order; it is written hurriedly and late in life, under the stress of deep feeling, to defend himself against evil reports put out by his enemies. They hoped to destroy the effect of his work in Ireland by bringing up against him some error of conduct committed in his extreme youth, when he was not yet fifteen years old, and had not yet learned to believe in the living God.[7] He points to the wonderful success of his mission to Ireland as a testimony of its acceptance by God, against the malice of those ‘elders’ who endeavoured to undermine it.

St Patrick’s own writings are two in number, but only one is found in the venerable book which takes its name from Patrick’s primatial see of Armagh, being long preserved in the abbey church of that city. The writings were copied by a scribe, Ferdomnach by name,[8] at the request of the then abbot, and from a note at the close of the Confession it would seem that he was copying from a manuscript believed to have been written by the saint’s own hand. The note runs, “As far as this folio [53 of the manuscript] was written by Patrick’s own hand.” If we may judge by the difficulty the scribe appears to have had in deciphering it, and the gaps that are found in it, it must have been an old and worn copy.

The chief facts that we learn about the saint’s early life are that he was the son of a deacon of noble rank who was also a decurion, or civil officer under the Roman administration, and the owner of a farm on which the boy was brought up. He was of good birth and, as he proudly asserts, a free-born citizen under Roman law. That his father was a man of some wealth is shown by the mention of the manservants and maidservants of whom the marauders made havoc when they attacked his home.[9] The combination of offices held by Calpurnius, which seems strange to us, was not uncommon under the later system of Roman administration. The duties of an Imperial decurion were so onerous that those holding the office often fell heavily into debt. They were responsible for the collection of the taxes of their districts, as well as for the upkeep of the roads and other matters; and many of them entered the army or the church to escape from their obligations to the state.[10] If Patrick’s father and grandfather were men of this type it is likely enough that religious teaching took but a small place in the household, and we can understand how the boy, brought up in a family outwardly Christian, could grow up without education and in ignorance of the true God.

An early and almost universal tradition places the scene of Patrick’s captivity with a pagan farmer of Co. Antrim. Here, as he tells us, “tending flocks was my daily occupation; and constantly I used to pray in the daytime. Love of God and the fear of Him increased more and more, and faith grew and the spirit was moved … Before daybreak, I used to be roused to prayer in snow, in frost, in rain, and I felt no hurt … because the spirit was then fervent within me.”[11] Muirchu, his earliest biographer, tells us that the name of his master was Miliuc and that his house lay on the southern slopes of Slieve Mis, or Slemish (Co. Antrim). Later in his life, when he returned to Ireland from Gaul, Patrick’s first act was to make his way north, carrying in his hand the price of his release from service. But the pagan, “hearing that his old slave was coming to see him to endeavour to make him adopt a religion which he disliked,” and fearing that his former slave “would lord it over him,” gathered all his property round him and set fire to the house in which he lived as chief. Patrick, coming full of a gracious purpose, was so stupefied at the sight of the blazing pyre that he was speechless for two or three hours.[12]

St Patrick’s life was a varied one. After his escape from slavery he was taken on board a ship by heathen men carrying in their cargo a number of hounds, probably the already famous Irish wolfhounds which were considered meet gifts for princes in after days. He landed after a stormy passage, on a desert shore, probably in Gaul, which was then wasted by the invasions of the Goths. He seems again to have fallen into captivity; later, he apparently visited his kindred in Britain, who “received him as a son” and besought him, after the great tribulations he had undergone, not to depart again.[13] But Patrick was haunted by visions of “a man coming from Ireland with countless letters,” who gave him one, entitled “The Voice of the Irish”; and as he read he thought he heard the voice of them who lived beside the wood of Foclut, which is nigh to the Western Sea, crying with one mouth, “We beseech thee, holy youth, to come once more and walk among us.”[14]

This vision decided Patrick’s future life. He spent some years in Gaul, travelling much, and studying, according to the summary of Tirechan, at the monastic island of Lerins (Atalanensis) and, according to Muirchu, under St Germanus of Auxerre; probably he passed some time in both centres of learning.

There is no direct mention of a visit to Rome by his earliest biographers, but it is not improbable that Patrick visited the central church of Christendom at some time during his stay on the Continent. Muirchu speaks of him as “the venerable traveller” when he re-crossed to Ireland, and he himself speaks of being “nearly worn out” when he returned. But the fervour of his soul carried him through nearly thirty years of work in Ireland, work which left an impress on nearly every part of the country. He says that he baptized many thousands and ordained clergy everywhere, “not demanding from any even the price of my shoe”; “sons and daughters of Scotic [Irish] chieftains becoming monks and virgins of Christ.”[15]