St. Patrick - Irish Pictures (1888)

From Irish Pictures Drawn with Pen and Pencil (1888) by Richard Lovett

Chapter III: The Valley of the Boyne … continued

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Where better than in connection with these scenes once visited by Patrick can we say what is needful concerning his life and influence? All who are in even a small measure acquainted with the facts know that controversy has raged in the past over almost every statement connected with Patrick's life. In fact, some have gone so far as to deny his existence altogether. The ablest and most comprehensive work on the subject which has appeared in recent years is the edition of the Tripartite Life of St. Patrick, taken from the Book of Armagh, and edited by Dr. Whitley Stokes. In the introduction to this work he gives the following admirable summary of what is known, and what is probable. Considerable differences of opinion with regard to certain points may be permitted. For example, many will hesitate to believe that Patrick spent thirty years of unsuccessful ministry in Ireland, and then, attributing this failure to want of episcopal ordination and Roman authority, went to Gaul to get these! Yet the compendium of the personal history is so clear and so reasonably put that it gives a complete picture of the saint's long life. We venture to quote Dr. Stokes' words:

'All the facts that can be stated with certainty about St. Patrick are these:—He was born in the latter half of the fourth century, and was reared a Christian. He had relations (parentes) in the Britains, and he calls these Britains his patria. His father Calpornus, or rather Calpornius, son of Potitus, was both a deacon and a decurio, and therefore belonged to a Roman Colony. Potitus was son of a deacon named Odissus. Patrick's father lived at a place called Bannavem Taberniae, near which he had a small farm, and there, in his sixteenth year, Patrick was taken captive. His captors took him to Ireland, with several others. There he was employed in herding sheep or swine, and devoted himself greatly to prayer. When he had remained six years with his master he ran away, and embarked at some place about two hundred miles distant. After a three days' voyage he landed, and for twenty-eight days journeyed through a desert to his home.

'Again, after a few years, but while he was still a young man (puer), he was in the Britians with his parents, when he dreamed that he was summoned to Ireland, and awoke much pricked in heart.

'He gave up home and parents and ingenuitas (that is, the status of a free man born free), to preach the Gospel to the Irish tribes. His motives, he says, were the Gospel and its promises, and Secundinus adds, that he received his apostleship from God, and was sent by God as an apostle, even as Paul. He travelled through the Gauls and Italy, and spent some time in the islands in the Tyrrhene Sea. One of these appears to have been Lerina, or St. Honorat. He had been ordained a deacon, probably a priest, and at some time in his career a bishop.

'Long after the dream above mentioned, and when he was almost worn out (prope deficiebam), he returned to Ireland (whether for the first or second time will be afterwards considered), and travelling through the remotest parts of the country, he made known the faith to the Irish tribes, of whom he baptized many thousand men. The Lord's flock, he says, was increasing rapidly, and he could not count the sons of the Scots and the knights' daughters who were becoming monks and virgins of Christ. He also ordained clergy, and taught at least one priest from his infancy. His success excited the jealousy of the rhetoricians of the Gauls, in which country he had brethren (fratres).'[7]

'He was well versed in the Latin Scriptures, both canonical and apocryphal, and though he speaks contemptuously of his own learning, his Latin is not much more rustic than that of Gregory of Tours. He appears to have known little or no Greek. Irish, of course, he learned during his six years of bondage.

'He was modest, shrewd, generous, enthusiastic, with the Celtic tendency to exaggerate failure and success. Like St. Paul, he was desirous of martyrdom. He was physically brave, and had strong passions, which he learned to control. He speaks of twelve pericula in which his anima was ventured, beside many snares (ambuscades?) and things which he was unable verbis exprimere.

'This is all that can be stated with certainty about Patrick, his life, writings, creed, learning and character. When and where he was born, his mother's name, his baptismal name, where he was captured, when and by whom he was educated, when and by whom he was ordained, when he returned to Ireland; whether he afterwards left that country, whether he travelled as a missionary, the date of his death, the place of his burial; on each of these points we have only the statements, sometimes discrepant and sometimes obviously false, contained in the later lives of St. Patrick and other late documents.'[8]

'Of these statements the following are the least improbable—

'Patrick was born about the year 373, at Nemptor, an old Celtic Nemetoduron, which may have been the older name for Ail Cluade (Rock of Clyde), now Dumbarton.

'The place where Patrick was captured (about A.D. 390), Bannavem Taberniae, has not been identified, but was probably somewhere on the western sea coast (armorica) of North Britain. His captor took him to the north-east of Ireland, and sold him to a chief named Miliuc, who named him Cothraige, and employed him in herding swine in the valley of the Braid near Slemmish. After six years—when he was therefore in his twenty-third year—he escaped and returned to his family in Britain. As to what he did during the next thirty-seven years, i.e., from A.D. 396 to 432, it is impossible to offer anything but conjectures more or less plausible.

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[7] The Tripartite Life of St. Patrick, vol. i., pp. cxxxiii. cxxxiv.

[8] Ibid. pp. cxxxv. cxxxvi.