Why the story of St Patrick is not a harmless myth
and why it matters today.
The Patrick Story
The Patrick Story has all the excitement of a great adventure – the mystery man from God knows where who was kidnapped as a boy, enslaved, experienced a divine vision, escaped to freedom and returned to his persecutors as their saviour. Within his lifetime Patrick converted a whole country to Christianity: not even Jesus or Paul had achieved that.
But is there more to the St Patrick Story than meets the eye? Must we believe all that we are told? Is it just a harmless myth?
Doesn’t it strike you as curious that the St. Patrick Story is quite different from that of any other patron saint in these islands?
The major difference with Patrick is that he made a journey to Ireland from somewhere else (we aren’t told where) with the express intention of converting the Irish to Christianity. Very few patron saints set out on a voyage to convert a country; none in these islands, except Patrick. Even the Irish missionary monks who traveled all over Europe, like Columbanus, were not evangelical like Patrick. They did not set out to aggressively convert people. It’s curious isn’t it that they did not follow the example of their (alleged) founding saint?
Both St George of England and St Andrew of Scotland were Palestinians who had no connection whatever with these islands. They were just eminent holy men who were given the job.
St David of Wales is noteworthy for being the only native born saint, but he led an unremarkable though worthy life, with none of the drama attributed to Patrick.
It’s no wonder Patrick is the only saint who has become a global brand. His story is loaded with subtext and all the necessary elements to hold an audience – tragedy, loss, persecution, divine intervention, salvation, redemption, forgiveness and finally triumph and success.
All this could be that the Irish we’re canny and picked the saint with a really good backstory. After all the Irish are the ones for a good story. They needed someone who was more than just a worthy holy man.
And so what if it is just a good story without any basis in fact; where’s the harm in that?
My concern about the Patrick Story is that it is much more than a simple harmless myth that allows the Irish to celebrate their identity. I believe it is a very powerful myth loaded with meaning and images that has been created and used through the centuries to mould how the Irish see themselves and by that has allowed others to manipulate and control the Irish.
My initial doubts about St Patrick surfaced when I realised that within just thirty years or so of Patrick’s death around 490AD (the exact date of this is uncertain – like everything else with St Patrick), St Finnian in Clonard abbey had some 3000 monks under tuition in 520AD. This was replicated in several other monasteries throughout Ireland in the early to mid-sixth century. Bear in mind that at this time Ireland had a population (it is estimated) of around 500,000 and internal travel was by no means easy. So to have such a large number of people spread over a wide geographical area, not just converted to Christianity, but to have taken holy orders, within such a short space of time suggested that Patrick was not just a saint, but a wizard. In fact if this is true, St Patrick could teach Jesus and St Paul a thing or two about how to run a successful mission.
My doubts were further reinforced when I discovered that there were in fact already Christians in Ireland before Patrick’s alleged mission.
Writing in 431AD , Prosper, a confidant of Pope Celestine said:
‘Pope Celestine ordained Palladius and sent him to the Irish believers as their first bishop.’
Bede repeats the same statement some two hundred years later.
There were also Irish Christian saints who predated Patrick. Such as:
- St. Ciaran of Saighir
- St Ailbhe of Emly
- St Ibar of Wexford
- St Declan of Ardmore
Palladius’ mission to Ireland in 431AD failed within a year. The Irish chased him.
So the legend goes that Patrick arrived the following year and his mission swept all before it. The High King of Ireland, who had kicked out the Pope’s emissary the previous year, trembled before Patrick apparently. However Prosper (and later Bede) do not mention Patrick succeeding Palladius. From this it seems reasonable to assume that Patrick did not bring Christianity to Ireland. It was already there.
This also begs the question why did Patrick not link up with these Christians? It would seem the obvious thing to do as a new missionary – work with what you’ve got and build from there. But there is no mention of these early Irish Christians in any of the writings connected to Patrick.
Could it be, I asked myself, that the apparent sudden growth of Christianity in the sixth century – that appeared immediately after Patrick’s mission – was part of a much earlier trajectory and had nothing to do with ‘Patrick’? In other words Christianity had been well established in Ireland long before this ‘Patrick’.
The other factor that convinced me to give Patrick a wide berth was that no early Christian writers in Ireland or Britain mention Patrick.
St Gildas (500–570) – thought to have taught St Finnian of Clonard – and the famous St. Columbanus of Bangor (543-615) , himself a prolific writer and the Venerable Bede in England (672-735), an eminent early historian, all make no mention of this ‘Patrick’ and his highly successful mission to Ireland.
St Colum Cille’s (521 – 597AD) biographer, St Adomnán of Iona (c. 624 –704) – whom Bede met – also makes no reference to Patrick in Colum’s life. Colum Cille (Columba) was born in Co. Donegal just thirty years after Patrick’s death. Surely Patrick would have been a great influence on the young Colum? So why does Adomnan not mention Patrick?
It was not until three hundred years after Patrick’s death in the late eighth century that ‘Patrick’ is first mentioned.
A monk, Muirchú, under the patronage of Bishop Aedh of Slébte (Sletty, Co. Laois) wrote ‘The Life of Saint Patrick’. His work was supplemented by Bishop Tirechan sponsored by Ultan of Ardbraccan (Co. Meath). Both their works were included in the Book of Armagh (807) along with writings claimed to be by St Patrick himself – his Confessions and his Letter to Coroticus.
It is upon these manuscripts that the whole Patrick story is based.
So what do they tell us (or not tell us)?
First of all the manuscripts held today that are attributed to Patrick himself – the Confessions and the Letter to Coroticus – are eighth, not fifth, century documents. So at best they are copies of the originals, but the originals don’t exist, leaving no evidence of any kind that they were written by ‘Patrick’. The manuscripts themselves are extremely vague about the author’s life story and in some places quite contradictory.
The Latin used by the author is poor. Patrick acknowledges this and claims to be ‘a simple country person’, ‘ignorant’. Yet he also claims to be ‘noble’, the son of a Romano-British cavalry officer in one document and in the other to be the son of a ‘deacon’ and the grandson of a ‘priest’. Either, if true, suggests this was an educated family. Patrick says he lived with his parents until he was taken into slavery in Ireland at the age of sixteen. By which time he, being Romano-British, should surely have been fluent in both spoken and written Latin.
After escaping slavery in Ireland, Patrick returned to his family home when he was twenty-two and did not return to Ireland for another ten years. By which time Patrick is claiming the title of ‘bishop’. Clergy would have been taught in Latin. So by the time he got to Ireland in his thirties with the rank of bishop, this Patrick should have been an accomplished Latin scholar. Yet the Latin text is written by someone not highly educated and not brought up as a Roman with Latin in daily use.
These manuscripts tell us nothing about how Patrick spent his time after his escape from slavery in Ireland. He returns to Ireland after ten years claiming to be a bishop, but does not record how he came to be a bishop. Where did he study? Who ordained him? Who sent him to Ireland? What are his credentials? Presumably if the author made specific claims these could have been checked out. So best to leave it vague.
We know from Prosper writing in 431AD that there were already Christians living in Ireland before Patrick. As already mentioned, ‘Patrick’ makes no mention of these people. Similarly, Muirchú and Tirechan also make no mention of these early Christians when writing about Patrick’s mission.
The writings of Muirchú and Tirechan develop the Patrick legend to new heights of storytelling. They describe many events that Patrick did not. They make much mention of how Patrick favoured Armagh. Muirchú writes that Patrick intended to die in Armagh, and though an angel convinced him not to specifically go there (there’s no evidence that he ever did), the angel stated that Patrick’s ‘pre-eminence’ would be at Armagh. In the writings directly attributed to Patrick he never mentioned Armagh.
This great emphasis on Armagh strongly suggests that the Patrick Story was part of the campaign to have the ecclesiastical capital of Ireland sited in Armagh. Both sponsors of Muirchú and Tirechan, Bishop Aedh of Slébte and Ultan of Ardbraccan were active in this campaign.
Why is Armagh important?
The early independent Irish Christian Church was non-hierarchical. There was no central authority, no archbishop or cardinal. The church was founded on monasteries run by abbots or abbesses. Each monastery was independent and answered only to the local tuath or clan. The move to create an ecclesiastical centre was part of a long term strategy to make the Irish church conform to the Roman model.
Patrick was violent
Muirchú has Patrick setting curses on people who did not accept his authority. Suddenly the ‘simple country person, and the least of all believers’, as Patrick described himself in ‘Confessions’, was replaced by a ruthless religious zealot, even slaying druids and princesses and burning their books – 180 in all, in order to impose his religious beliefs on the supposedly gullible and passive Irish. The tone of the language and the action describes what amounts to a military assault on native Irish religious beliefs. This was not a missionary who came in peace. Whoever this Patrick was he certainly did not model his behaviour on Jesus.
The shamrock and the snakes
The legend of driving the snakes out of Ireland and the use of the shamrock was never mentioned by Patrick, Muirchú or Tirechan. This was added in the thirteenth century. There were of course no snakes in Ireland. This was a reference to the symbol of the serpent used by the druids who were eventually driven out of Ireland, but not in Patrick’s time.
Why has the Patrick Story remained so popular?
So given that the Patrick legend is so suspect, how and why has it survived the centuries so well and why should it matter in the 21st century?
In the early Christian period hagiography was the norm. The scribes were early propagandists or ‘spin doctors’. Writers talked up their champion and ascribed all kinds of super-human qualities to them to further their cause – in Patrick’s case the creation of Armagh as the ecclesiastical centre for Ireland. So legends like Patrick were not unusual and were believed without question as an act of faith for many centuries. The people loved a good story well told.
Even today I have been amazed at the how easily the media and the world of academia buys into the story of St Patrick without question. Academics who are normally so sceptical of all other Irish legends and demand provenance for historic manuscripts, accept that ‘Confessions’ and the ‘Letter to Coroticus’ were indeed written by Patrick without any evidence being available. None dare even raise the slightest doubts! This makes me suspicious. These outlets – the media and academia – pride themselves on their bjectivity and challenging opinion. Why don’t they challenge the Patrick Story?
The Ulster Museum in Belfast make bold public assertions about the provenance of the Patrick manuscripts, copies of which are on display, but they can produce no evidence to support their claims1. The phrase that is widely used is that it is ‘generally accepted’ that these documents were written by Patrick; ignoring the fact that there is little evidence that the author, Patrick, is a real historical figure.
So it is academic consensus that holds the Patrick Story together and few, if any, are prepared to break the spell and risk the contempt of their peers and the public for daring to attack this powerful icon of Irishness.
The churches – both Catholic and Protestant – are also keen to keep the legend alive. It’s one of the few areas of Irishness they agree on.
Likewise Irish nationalism holds Patrick close to its heart, even though he was a ‘Brit’ and there were many other more deserving native born saints to chose from.
So anyone casting doubt on the Patrick Story will risk the ire of academia, of Irish nationalism and of the churches.
It’s Politics, not religion
Beyond a strong desire to conform among academia, I have concluded that the reason Patrick’s legend has survived into the 21st century and is believed blindly by so many all around the world is political, not religious.
The Roman Catholic Church, which finally conquered the independent Irish church in the 12th century on the back of the Norman invasion, eagerly adopted the Patrick legend for two reasons.
The first was that the creation of the ecclesiastical centre in Armagh was part of a long campaign to introduce Roman systems of church governance into Ireland such as the role of bishops as opposed to abbots and the use of the Roman system of dating Easter. The Patrick Story with its focus on Armagh was central to this campaign.
Secondly, and more importantly in the modern age, was the reinforcement of the ancient narrative that all good things in Ireland have come to it from abroad, especially in the matter of religion. It was crucial to the English and to the Romans in their subjugation of Ireland that the country was seen as a backward, primitive society in need of an imperial power to avoid them killing each other and lapsing back into their heathen ways. St Patrick proved this theory.
Patrick brought guilt and shame to Ireland. The Irish had enslaved this foreign man as a boy, mistreated him and pursued their heathen ways. But he being a superior being forgave them, returned to them ordained by God himself to destroy their heathen ways and bring them to the light.
This discourse is still in evidence today. The Patrick Story fitted this imperial narrative; in fact the Patrick Story was and still is the cornerstone of this narrative.
I am always struck when researching Irish history how prevalent this narrative is among academic and non-academic historians today. These are not just Church historians, but English and American academics and sadly the Irish themselves. Whether it is in religion, metalwork, pottery, writing, boat-building, anthropology or architecture we are always told it all came from outside Ireland. Nothing was accepted as original. The Irish were great copiers, they created nothing original and influenced very little elsewhere is the subtext.
The iconic Newgrange ‘passage tomb’ is a good example. It was not until the 18th century that it was finally accepted that the Vikings did not build Newgrange. Then it took another two hundred years to convince the academics that this structure and many others were in fact sophisticated observatories and not simple burial chambers. So strong is this narrative about Irish backwardness that it seemed impossible to classically trained historians that there ever could have been a civilisation in Ireland capable of such advanced technical skill.
In the same vein, the reason why the Romans never conquered Ireland is fitted into this narrative: the Romans were disinterested, we are told. There was nothing in Ireland to make it worth their while. Ireland was all bog and bog-trotters. This is taught in Irish schools of all denominations to this day. It is manifestly untrue. Ireland had huge natural resources of copper, wood, skills in metalwork and farming, livestock and people that were much needed by Rome. Instead of conquering, as was their habit elsewhere, Rome traded peacefully with the Irish.
Four hundred years after the Romans, the Vikings showed great interest in Ireland, but significantly they were unable to conquer the island. They had to satisfy themselves with a few toeholds in Dublin, Waterford, Limerick and Galway where they paid tribute to the local king who valued their trade. They were frequently chased back to England where they had little trouble subduing large areas of that country.
However it was the English who finally helped disprove this theory of disinterest, when they came by invitation of the King of Leinster to Ireland in 1170 and were so impressed that they have never left; showing an intense interest in the place ever since.
The beginning of Irish History
Effectively Irish history began with Patrick in the fifth century. Everything before Patrick is regarded as misty-eyed legend, the stuff of fairy-tales and has been closed off to the Irish through the destruction of records. Patrick’s mission is seen as ‘year zero’.
Because few resources are invested in the pre-patrician era, few discoveries are made to shed much light on this period.
We are told as part of the Patrick Story that there were no books in Ireland before Patrick arrived. The unquestioned narrative is that Christianity, namely Patrick, brought writing to the island. But Muirchú tells us that Patrick burnt many Irish books. Whether this actually happened or not is not the point here. The point is that an Irish monk writing in the eighth century – Muirchú – believed that many books existed in Ireland prior to Patrick. How many ancient books were destroyed? What did they tell of ancient Irish culture?
“Ireland would have been the richer had not the fears or bigotry of the priests discouraged the reading of pagan poems and romances, and thrown thousands of MSS. [manuscripts] into the flames.”
Legendary Fictions of the Irish Celts, by Patrick Kennedy; New York and London, Macmillan; 
In all this we are asked to believe that prior to St Patrick arriving in Ireland there was no organised religion in Ireland and no books. Yet within a short space of time the Irish were world leaders in both Christianity and books. A sudden turn around for a primitive people, is it not?
I believe that as we approach St Patrick’s Day in 2019 some questioning of this Patrick Story is appropriate and long overdue if Ireland is to escape the ancient cycle of abuse and misrepresentation made possible by this powerful myth.
1 Ulster Museum FOI Response 12 January 2016