Of the Life of St. Patrick, by Sir James Ware

(Extract from The Whole Works of Sir James Ware concerning Ireland, translated by Walter Harris, and published in Dublin in 1764)

From The Cabinet of Irish Literature, Volume 1 (1880), edited by Charles A. Read

This primitive bishop was a person of such exemplary piety and virtue, and his labours and success in converting this once pagan and barbarous nation to Christianity were so wonderful and useful, that the actions of his life were worthy of being transmitted to posterity by the most faithful and able pen. But unhappily this task hath fallen into the most weak and injudicious hands, who have crowded it with such numberless fictions and monstrous fables, that, like the legends of King Arthur, they would almost tempt one to doubt the reality of the person. It is observable that (as the purest streams flow always nearest to the fountain) so, among the many writers of the life of this prelate, those who lived nearest to his time have had the greatest regard to truth, and have been most sparing in recounting his miracles. Thus Fiech, bishop of Sletty, and contemporary with our saint, comprehended the most material events of his life in an Irish hymn of thirty-four stanzas. But in process of time, as the writers of his life increased, so his miracles were multiplied (especially in the dark ages) until at last they exceeded all bounds of credibility.

There is one consequence that hath followed such a legendary way of writing, which, had authors of this turn foreseen, would probably have made them more cautious in this point. Miracles are things of so extraordinary a nature that they must be well attested in order to gain credit among men. But these writers, by introducing them on every frivolous occasion without number, measure, or use, have called the truth of everything they relate into question, and in this case have brought into discredit, and even ridicule, the real miracles which perhaps this holy man may have wrought. The lavish use they have made of them serveth only to oppress faith, as a profusion of scents overpowereth the brain. By this indiscretion they have made their writings to be generally looked upon as entirely fabulous, and their unskilful management hath only served to bring our great patron into contempt. I will not trouble the reader with my private opinion as to the truth of his miracles, which is a point that may admit of much dispute without any great benefit. On one side it may be said, that as God inspired him with the glorious resolution of adventuring himself to reclaim an infidel and barbarous people to Christianity, so he armed him with all the necessary powers and virtues to go through so great a work. There may seem to be the same necessity in this instance as in those of the apostles, the end and intention of their mission being the same. On the other side it may be said that several infidel nations have been converted to Christianity without miracles, and that the present missionaries in the East and West Indies work conversions without pretending to that extraordinary gift. I shall not engage in this dispute. . . .

As seven cities contended for the birth of Homer, the prince of poets, so almost as many places have laid claim to the honour of having" given birth to St. Patrick. Baronius and Matthew of Worcester, usually called Florilegus, say he was a native of Ireland, being deceived probably by an ambiguous expression in the martyrologists, "In Ireland, the nativity of St. Patrick." Whereas in the constant language of the martyrologists a saint's nativity is not esteemed the day of his entrance into this world, but the day of his death. I wonder Philip O'Sullevan hath from these great authorities omitted to claim our saint for his countryman. But he hath fallen into as gross an error, for he makes him a native of Bas-Bretagne, in France. Another writer gives Cornwall in the south of England the honour of his birth, with as little reason as the former. The English translator of the Golden Legend will have him a Welshman. Camden also tells us that St. Patrick was born in Ross Vale (in Valle Rosina), which signifies a verdant plain; and Humphrey Lloyd in Vale Rosea or Rosina, the rosy plain. Sigebert of Gemblours and many others have called him a Scot, and the Scottish writers to a man will have him their countryman. But this is grounded on two mistakes: First, from the language of ancient martyrologists, as I observed before, which means by the nativity of a saint the day of his death, so that when we meet in Bede, &c., this passage, "On the 17th March in Scotia, the nativity of St. Patrick," it must be understood the day of his death. And it is well known that in the days of St. Patrick, and for many ages after, Ireland was known by the name of Scotia and not the modern Scotland. The second mistake hath been occasioned by the alteration of the bounds and limits of countries, so that Dun-Britain, near which St. Patrick was born, though it be now a part of modern Scotland, yet in his time it was within the British territories. Having thus cleared the different pretensions to his birth, I shall now proceed to fix the right place of it, and from thence go on to relate the several particulars of his life.

He was born in the extreme bounds of Britain (in that part of it which is now comprehended within the limits of modern Scotland), at a village called Banavan in the territory of Tabernia (as he himself saith in his confessions). Joceline explains Tabernia to signify the Field of Tents, because the Roman army had pitched their tents there, and adds "that the place of his father's habitation was near the town of Erupthor, bounding on the Irish Sea." From this description Usher points out the very spot where he was born, at a place called after him Kirk-Patrick or Kil-Patrick, between the castle of Dunbriton and the city of Glasgow, where the rampart which separated the barbarians from the Romans terminated. . . .

As there were various opinions concerning his country, so writers differ much as to the time of his birth. William of Malmesbury, Adam of Dornerham, and John the Monk of Glastonbury, place his birth in 361, with whom Stanihurst agrees, and all of them follow Probus, on whom we cannot depend. . . . The Annals of Connaught are yet more grossly mistaken in assigning his birth to the year 336. Henry of Marleburg says he was born in 376, Joceline in 370, but Florence of Worcester, nearer the truth, in 372; from whose calculation Usher could see no reason to depart. Yet with reverence to these great authorities, I must take the liberty to fix his birth a year later, i.e. in 373, on the 5th of April. For the most commonly received opinion is (with which Usher in another part of his work agrees) that St. Patrick lived but 120 years, and that he died in 493. And this is further confirmed by the old Irish Book of Sligo, as quoted by Usher, that St. Patrick was born, baptized, and died on the fourth day, Wednesday. Now the 5th of April, 373, fell on Wednesday, and consequently was his birthday that year.

I shall pass over his infancy without taking any notice of the miracles ascribed to him by the legend writers of his life. His contemporary, the venerable Fiech, is silent as to this particular; and St. Patrick himself ascribes his captivity to his ignorance of the true God, and his disobedience to his commands. He was educated with great care and tenderness by his parents, and his sweet and gentle behaviour rendered him the delight and admiration of all his neighbours.

His father, mother, brother, and five sisters undertook a voyage to Aremoric Gaul (since called Bas-Bretagne) to visit the relations of his mother Conchessa. It happened about this time that the seven sous of Factmude, some British prince, were banished, and took to the sea; that making an inroad into Aremoric Gaul they took Patrick and his sister Lupita prisoners. They brought their booty to the north of Ireland, and sold Patrick to Milcho-Mac-Huanan, a petty prince of Dalaradia.[1] Others tell the story in a different manner and with a better face of probability, that the Romans having left Britain naked and defenceless, its inhabitants became an easy prey to their troublesome neighbours the Irish, and that our saint fell into the hands of some of these pirates and was carried into Ireland. But in this they all agree, and he himself confirms it, that he continued captive in Ireland six years. He was sold to Milcho and his three brothers, which gave the occasion of changing his name into Cothraig, or rather Ceathir-Tigh, because he served four masters, Ceathir signifying four, and Tigh a house or family. Milcho observing the care and diligence of this new servant, bought out the shares of his brothers, and made him his own property. He sent him to feed his hogs on Slieu Mis.[2]

It was here he perfected himself in the Irish language; the wonderful providence of God visibly appearing in this instance of his captivity; that he should have the opportunity in his tender years of becoming well acquainted with the language, manners, and dispositions of that people to whom he was intended as a future apostle. Possibly the ignorance in these particulars of his predecessor Paladius might have been the cause of his failure in the like attempt.

A.D. 395. He continued six whole years in servitude, and in the seventh was released. There seems to have been a law in Ireland for this purpose, agreeable to the institution of Moses, that a servant should be released the seventh year.

The writers who deal in the marvellous tell you that the angel Victor appeared to him, and bid him observe one of his hogs, who should root out of the ground a mass of money sufficient to pay his ransom; but St. Patrick saith no such thing; he only informs us that he was "warned in a dream" to prepare for his return home, and that he arose and be took himself to flight, and left the man with whom he had been six years.

He continued abroad thirty-five years pursuing his studies, for the most part under the direction of his mother's uncle, St, Martin, bishop of Tours, who had ordained him deacon; and after his death partly with St. German, bishop of Auxirre (who ordained him a priest and called his name Magonius, which was the third name he was known by), partly among a colony of hermits and monks in some islands of the Tuscan Sea, and he spent a good part of the time in the city of Rome among the canons regular of the Lateran Church.

He was in his sixtieth year when he landed in Ireland in 432; Alfred, Cressy, and other writers, following the authority of William of Malmesbury and of John the Monk of Glastonbury, place his arrival in Ireland in 425, but this plainly contradicts the more early writers. He happily began his ministry by the conversion and baptism of Sinell, a great man in that country, the grandson of Finchad, who ought to be remembered, as he was the first-fruits of St. Patrick's mission in Ireland, or the first of the Irish converted by him. He was the eighth in lineal descent from Cormac, king of Leinster, and afterwards came to be enumerated among the saints of Ireland, Nathi, the son of Garchon, and king of that district, who the year before had frightened away Palladius, in vain attempted to terrify Patrick by opposing and contradicting his doctrine.

All the early Irish writers affirm that St. Patrick was buried at Down, in Ireland, and it is from such authorities that the truth must be drawn. . . . From these and many more early authorities we may safely conclude to give Down the honour of containing his remains, with which several of the English writers also agree; and Cambrensis affirms that the bodies of St. Patrick, St. Brigid, and St. Columb were not only buried at Down, but were also there taken up and translated into shrines by John de Courcy, conqueror of Ulidia, about the year 1185, and to this purpose gives us these verses:--

"In Down three saints one grave do fill,
Brigid, Patrick, and Columbkille."


[1] The south and south-east parts of the county of Antrim and all the county Down.
[2] Mis, a mountain in County Antrim