St. Patrick after his captivity returns to (Gaul) his native country

Rev. William Fleming
St. Patrick after his captivity returns to (Gaul) his native country

“And on a certain night I heard in sleep a voice saying to me: ‘Thou fasteth well; fasting thou shalt return to thy own native country’” (patria). “And again, after a little, I heard a response, saying to me: “Behold thy ship is ready’” (St. Patrick’s “Confession”).

St. Fiacc suggests, Probus asserts, and Professor Bury admits that St. Patrick, after his captivity, fled to Gaul, and not to Great Britain. Gaul, therefore, and not the Island of Britain, was St. Patrick’s native land.

If either Northern or Southern Britain were St. Patrick’s native country, it seems incredible that the Saint should be required to travel a distance of 200 Roman miles, from the North-East to the West of Ireland, in order to embark for Britain, when Lough Larne is but 30 nautical miles from Scotland, and not more than 15 miles from Mount Slemish, and while Belfast and Strangford Loughs were within easy distance of the place of his captivity, and more suitable for embarkation than any seaport in the West of Ireland if North Britain were his destination.

A voyage from the west coast of Ireland to the Clyde would take the Saint a very unnecessary journey of 200 miles by land to the port of embarkation, and from thence an equally unnecessary voyage by sea, from the west around the northern coast of Ireland, past North Antrim—the county from which he started,—in order to reach Dumbarton, Kilpatrick, or Hamilton on the Clyde.

There are some indications which suggest that St. Patrick, when returning to his native country, sailed from Killala Bay. Although Killala is only 130 miles distant from Mount Slemish, as the crow flies, the Saint would have had to travel around Slieve Gallion, and make a circuit around the mountains of Tyrone, which stood directly across the path of a direct route. Lough Erne, in the County of Fermanagh, and Lough Gill, in the County of Sligo, and the inland flow of Killala Bay would add to the obstacles to be encountered, sufficient when all taken together to account for the 53 miles difference between 130, as the crow flies, and 183 English or 200 Roman miles which had to be travelled before he joined his ship.

Moreover, the woods of Foclut were situated within five miles of Killala, and St. Patrick in his “Confession” speaks in familiar terms of the inhabitants who dwell in the neighbourhood of the woods, whose voices sounded familiar to his ears when far away in Gaul.

This, indeed, would suggest that the Saint had made acquaintance with them during his flight, for he distinctly states when alluding to the place of his embarkation:

“I had never been there, nor did I know any one that lived there” (“Confession”).

His acquaintance with the inhabitants of Foclut must have been made after he had journeyed there, and previous to his embarkation.

Readers of the “Confession” will remember how touchingly he described the cordial manner in which he was welcomed by his relatives, who, to use the Saint’s own words, “received me as a son, and besought me that then at least, after I had undergone so many tribulations, I should never depart from them again. Then in the middle of the night, a man who seemed to come from Ireland, whose name was Victoricus, the bearer of innumerable letters, one of which he handed to me; and I read the beginning of the letter, entitled ‘The Voice of the Irish.’ As I was reading the beginning of the letter, I thought that I heard in my mind the voices who dwelt near the woods of Foclut, which is near the Western sea, and they cried out: ‘We entreat thee, O holy youth, to come and walk still with us.’ My heart was deeply touched; I could read no more; and I awoke” (“Confession”).

Being then in his thirtieth year when he had this vision, St. Patrick could not be called a youth. He was a youth, however, at the time when he escaped from his first captivity, and became acquainted with the inhabitants of Foclut, who appealed to him in the vision as the youth they had formerly known. They, consequently, besought him to come and abide with them as he had done formerly, for this is the obvious meaning of the words “We entreat thee, O holy youth, to come and walk still with us.”

It is probable, therefore, that St. Patrick sailed back from Killala Bay, the nearest port to the woods of Foclut. It may readily be surmised that if the saintly youth, so full of holy zeal, had to remain for a few weeks, or even a few days, whilst the ship was completing its cargo, he would have time to make friendly acquaintance with the inhabitants near the woods, who doubtless received the friendless stranger with kind hospitality.

This gives a simple solution of the difficulty proposed by Professor Bury, who, relying on St. Patrick’s friendly acquaintance with the inhabitants of Foclut, states that Croagh Patrick, which is not far from Foclut, and not Mount Slemish, was the scene of the Saint’s captivity.

If the ship’s cargo consisted chiefly of Irish wolfhounds, so greatly appreciated in Gaul, as Professor Bury suggests (p. 30), it would take more than “a day or two” to collect a sufficient number for exportation. There is nothing stated in the “Confession” to limit the time that St. Patrick had to wait before the ship sailed away from port.

Moreover, in the solitude of Mount Slemish, absorbed in prayer and in guarding his flock, the saintly shepherd had no opportunity of making any acquaintance whilst in slavery.

“After I had come to Ireland I was daily attending sheep, and I frequently prayed during the day, and the love of God and His faith and fear increased in me more and more, and the spirit was stirred; so that in a single day I have said as many as a hundred prayers, and in the night nearly the same, so that I remained in the woods and on the mountain. Even before the dawn I was roused to prayer in snow, in ice and rain, and I felt no injury from it, nor was there any want of energy in me, as I see now, because the spirit was then fervent in me.”

These certainly are not the words of a youth who was in the habit of journeying from Croagh Patrick to Foclut to make the acquaintance of the inhabitants.

It is, on the contrary, easy to imagine what a powerful effect a Saint, so stirred by the Spirit of God as his words express, would have on all with whom he came in contact after he had been freed from his duties as a shepherd.

St. Patrick’s history of himself suggests at least that his acquaintance with others, except those of his master’s household, must have been made after his escape from captivity.

Professor Bury, however, is the latest convert to the opinion that St. Patrick fled to Gaul, and not to the Island of Britain, after his escape from captivity in Ireland.

The Professor narrates that considerable regions in Gaul were a desolate wilderness, according to contemporary rhetorical and poetical evidence, from a.d. 408 to 416, and, therefore, it might be argued, Gaul suits the narrative of St. Patrick in his “Confession.”

He and his companions reached land three days (post triduum) after they left the coast of Ireland, so that our choice lies between Britain and Gaul.

The data do not suit Britain. We cannot imagine what inland part of Britain they could have wished to reach which would necessitate a journey of twenty-eight days per desertum.

Suppose the crew disembarked on the south coast of Britain, and that the southern regions had been recently ravaged by the Saxons, yet a journey of a few days would have brought them to Londinium, or any other place they could have desired to reach from a south port.

Moreover, if they had landed in Britain, Patrick, when he once escaped from their company, could have reached his home in a few days, whereas he did not return for a few years.

His own words exclude Britain. Having mentioned his final escape from the traders, he proceeds:

“iterum post paucos annos in Britanniis eram cum parentibus meis.”

I believe that “post paucos annos” has been interpreted by some in this sense: “a few years after my capture.”

But this is an unnatural explanation. The words naturally refer to what immediately precedes, namely, his escape.

The only thing that can be alleged in favour of Britain is the intimation in the dream that he would “quickly come to his native land” (cito iturus ad patriam tuam).

“This, of course,” continues the Professor, “represented his expectations at the time of his escape. But the very fact that he fails to say that the promise was literally fulfilled, and glides over the intervening years in silence, strongly suggests that his expectation was not realised” (Appendix C, pp. 339–340).

Professor Bury, being a Protestant, treats the Divine admonition given to the Saint as a dream; not as the voice of God speaking to His servant, but as an ardent desire on the Saint’s part which met with disappointment.

Catholics, on the contrary, fully believe that God’s promise was fulfilled, and that St. Patrick did actually return to his own native country, which the Professor very satisfactorily proves was Gaul and not Britain.

The Armorican theory of St. Patrick’s birthplace affords a very natural and easy explanation of the difficulty which the Saint’s return to Gaul from captivity must present to all who try to prove that he was a native of Great Britain.

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