The Jacana

 Great Lives Site


Back to Jacana

Great Lives index


Saint Patrick
5th century

Patrick, bishop, apostle of Ireland.


Much controversy has surrounded the chronology of Patrick's life and the extent of his achievements. The exaggerated view of him as the only apostle of Ireland who converted the whole country single-handed (based on a conflation of late Lives and the primatial claims of the see of Armagh) has given place to a widespread conviction that nearly all that can be known of Patrick comes from his authentic writings: his Confessio (or autobiography), and the Letter to Coroticus (protesting against British slave-traders).

Patrick was British by birth, the son of a decurio (town councillor) who was a deacon, while his grandfather was a priest. The place of his birth was somewhere in the west between the mouth of the Severn and the Clyde, called Bannavem Taburniae. While still a youth, he was captured by Irish pirates and reduced to slavery for six years. The location of his service (mainly in tending his master's herds) is not certainly identified, but he used the time to pray, in contrast to his earlier years in Britain when he ‘knew not the true God’ and did not heed clerical ‘admonitions for our salvation’. After six years he was told in a dream he would soon go to his own country. He either escaped or was freed, made his way to a port 200 miles away (perhaps on the SE. coast), and eventually persuaded some sailors to take him with them. After various adventures in a strange land, including near-starvation, Patrick returned to his family, much changed. He received some form of training for the priesthood, which included the Latin Bible which he came to know well; but it was not a ‘higher education’, the lack of which he regretted, and for which he was criticized. His own Latin writings are simple but articulate, sometimes ironical.

There was some contact with Gaul at this time and perhaps with the papacy, which had sent Palladius to be the ‘first bishop of the Irish who believe in Christ’. Palladius' mission does not seem to have lasted long and Patrick was in fact his successor. There was some opposition to his appointment, probably from Britain, but Patrick made his way to Ireland c.435. He worked principally in the North, setting up his see at Armagh and organizing the Church into territorial sees, as elsewhere in the West (and East). While Patrick encouraged the Irish to become monks and nuns, it is not certain that he was a monk himself; it is even less likely that in his time the monastery became the principal unit of the Irish church. The choice of Armagh seems determined by the presence nearby of a most powerful king; there Patrick had a school and presumably a small familia in residence; from this base he made missionary journeys. There seems to have been little contact with the Palladian Christianity of the south-east.

Patrick's writings are the first literature certainly identified from the British Church and reveal a scale of values and a type of activity which are full of interest. Although not specially learned, Patrick had sincere simplicity and deep pastoral care. He was concerned with abolishing paganism, idolatry, and sun-worship; he made no distinction of classes in his preaching and was himself ready for imprisonment or death in the following of Christ. In his use of Scripture and in his eschatological expectations (and presumably in much else besides) he was a typical but very individual 5th-century bishop. One of the traits which he retained as an old man was a consciousness of his being an unlearned exile and formerly a slave and fugitive, who learnt to trust completely in God.

The historical Patrick is much more attractive than the Patrick of legend, the thaumaturge who expelled snakes from Ireland or ‘explained’ the Trinity by reference to the shamrock, or accomplished single-handed immense missionary tasks of conversion which actually took many evangelists and several generations to accomplish. Places sometimes associated with him in the past, such as Lérins (Côte d'Azur), Croagh Patrick, even Saul and Downpatrick, cannot be proved to have the significance in his life which they were once believed to have. Even the place of his death and burial are not known for certain. This was how it became possible for Glastonbury to claim that the relics of Patrick the Older, which had long been there, were those of the historical St. Patrick. Eight ancient English churches were dedicated to Patrick, as were several chapels in Pembrokeshire (Dyfed). He remains the most popular of the saints of Ireland (of whom he is the patron) to this day. In art he is usually depicted in bishop's vestments, treading on snakes, but there seem to be no early notable examples. In the National Museum at Dublin shrines survive of his bell and his tooth (12th and 14th centuries): they presumably derive from the Downpatrick shrine.

The cult of Patrick spread from Ireland to the numerous Irish monasteries in Europe in the early Middle Ages; the Normans encouraged it in Ireland and elsewhere, while in modern times it has spread to the United States and Australia, where it flourishes especially among families and churches of Irish origin. The principal cathedral of New York is dedicated to him, as are numerous modern parish churches in the English-speaking world. His feast is constant in calendars and martyrologies for 17 March: a subsidiary feast of the finding of the bodies of Patrick, Columba, and Brigid in 1185 by Malachy was kept in Ireland and some places in England such as Chester on 24 March. There was also a translation feast on 10 June; but Glastonbury's Patrick had 24 August as his feast.


St. Patrick (died ca. 460) was a British missionary bishop to Ireland, possibly the first to evangelize that country. He is the patron saint of Ireland.

Although Patrick was the subject of a number of ancient biographies, none of them dates from earlier than the last half of the 7th century. A great deal of legendary information, often contradictory, gathered around his name. Of the various works ascribed to Patrick, the authorship of only two is certain, the Confession, written in his later years, and the Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus, written at some point during his career as bishop. These two works provide the only certain knowledge of Patrick's life.

Patrick was born in a village that he identified as Bannavem Taberniae, probably near the sea in south-western Britain. Evidence does not allow a more exact date for his birth than sometime between 388 and 408. His father, Calpornius, was both a deacon and a civic official; his grandfather, Pontius, was a priest. Patrick's family seems to have been one of some social standing, but, in spite of the clergy in it, he did not grow up in a particularly religious or intellectual environment.

At the age of 16 Patrick was abducted by Irish pirates and taken to Ireland, where he tended sheep and prayed for 6 years. In his words, "The love of God and His fear came to me more and more, and my faith was strengthened." In this religious fervour a voice came to Patrick, promising him a return to his own country.

Patrick was given passage on a ship by its sailors. The details of his voyage home are unclear; some believe that Patrick returned from Ireland to Britain by way of Gaul. This seems unlikely. Again, little is known of this period in his life. It may be that he resumed his education, although he was never learned. Indeed, he wrote at the beginning of the Confession, "I blush and fear exceedingly to reveal my lack of education; for I am unable to tell my story to those versed in the art of concise writing."

Elected a bishop, Patrick was sent by the Church in Britain to evangelize Ireland. His friends tried to dissuade him from "throwing himself into danger among enemies who have no knowledge of God." But Patrick believed that he had a divine call. One purpose of the Confession is to set forth his confidence in that calling and to witness the divine help that enabled him to fulfill it.

As a missionary bishop in Ireland, Patrick was a typical 5th-century bishop. He recorded that he baptized many thousands of people. He celebrated the Eucharist, instituted nuns and monks, and ordained clergy. No record shows that he consecrated other bishops or indeed that other bishops existed in Ireland.

The Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus gives the details of one event in his career. In reprisal for an Irish raid on the south-western coast of Britain, Coroticus attacked the Irish coast, indiscriminately slaughtering its inhabitants. The Letter reports that one band of Coroticus's soldiers killed a group of newly baptized persons and took more captive. Patrick excommunicated Coroticus and called upon him to repent his crime and to free his prisoners.

Criticism of Patrick's work came to him from Britain; his seniors, he records, "brought up sins against my laborious episcopate." The basis for such charges is unknown; they did include his betrayal by a friend to whom Patrick had much earlier confessed a sin that he had committed at the age of 13. The Confession appears to be in part Patrick's defense of and justification of his episcopate to his superiors in Britain.

Although Patrick probably made his headquarters at Armagh, as a missionary he travelled around the island a great deal. It is not certain where he died; local traditions give various locations. It is also impossible to date his death more precisely than approximately 460. Patrick himself wrote a suitable epitaph in his Letter: "I, Patrick, a sinner, unlearned, resident in Ireland, declare myself to be a bishop."


Until he was 16, Patrick considered himself pagan. Some Irish marauders raided his village at that age in the British mainland, and he was sold into slavery to Ireland. During his captivity He became aware of God's presence, and became a Christian. He escaped from slavery after six years, and went to Gaul to study in the monastery under St. Germain, bishop of Auxerre for twelve years. During this time he was called to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ in Ireland. He was appointed second bishop to Ireland. In winning many souls to Christ, he made enemies, not least the Celtic Druids who imprisoned him several times, but each time, amazingly, he escaped. It is believed that he raised people from the dead, and other astonishing miracles. He established monasteries, and set up schools and churches which helped him to convert Ireland to Christianity. One time he is said to have illustrated the Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, God Three Persons in One, by using a shamrock leaf, or clover with its three strands. His mission in Ireland lasted for thirty years. Subsequently, he retired to County Down. He died on March 17th in AD 461. That day has been celebrated as St. Patrick's Day since then.

Interestingly, Ireland was unique as being the only Western European country to avoid Roman conquest. It should be noted that Patrick and the early Celtic Church of Ireland rejected any foreign control of the church, recognising only Jesus Christ as the Head of the Church. Roman Catholicism did not emerge in Ireland until many centuries later after the Saxon invasion.

Patrick had a cause, a passion, a purpose, and a destiny. He risked his life for Jesus Christ.

Two authentic writings of Saint Patrick exist today. These writings became public during the 19th century. One is "The Confession", an autobiography of Saint Patrick written near the end of his life. Another is "A letter to Coroticus", containing a passionate complaint against Coroticus who had raided Patrick’s converts. Here are some excerpts from The Confession that refers to his initial enslavement in Ireland, and subsequent ministry:

"And there the Lord opened the sense of my unbelief that I might at last remember my sins and then turn with all my heart to the Lord my God, who had regard for my low estate, and took pity on my youth and ignorance, and watched over me before I knew Him, and before I was able to distinguish between good and evil, and guarded me, and comforted me as would a father his son. Hence I cannot be silent - and indeed, I ought not to be - about the many blessings and the great grace which the Lord has deigned to bestow upon me in the land of my captivity;...

for this we can give to God in return after having been chastened by Him, to exalt and praise His wonders before every nation that is anywhere under the heaven.

Because there is no other God, nor ever was, nor will be, than God the Father unbegotten, without beginning, from whom is all beginning, the Lord of the universe, as we have been taught; and His son Jesus Christ, whom we declare to have always been with the Father, spiritually and ineffably begotten by the Father before the beginning of the world, before all beginning; and by Him are made all things visible and invisible. He was made man, and, having defeated death, was received into heaven by the Father; and He hath given Him all power over all names in heaven, on earth, and under the earth, and every tongue shall confess to Him that Jesus Christ is Lord and God, in whom we believe, and whose advent we expect soon to be, judge of the living and of the dead, who will render to every man according to his deeds; and He has poured forth upon us abundantly the Holy Spirit, the gift and pledge of immortality, who makes those who believe and obey sons of God and join theirs with Christ; and Him do we confess and adore, one God in the Trinity of the Holy Name.

For He Himself has said through the Prophet: Call upon me in the day of thy trouble, and I will deliver thee, and thou shalt glorify me. And again He says: It is honourable to reveal and confess the works of God...

...Whence I, once rustic, exiled, unlearned, who does not know how to provide for the future, this at least I know most certainly that before I was humiliated I was like a stone Lying in the deep mire; and He that is mighty came and in His mercy lifted me up, and raised me aloft, and placed me on the top of the wall. And therefore I ought to cry out aloud and so also render something to the Lord for His great benefits here and in eternity — benefits which the mind of men is unable to appraise.

Wherefore, then, be astonished, ye great and little that fear God, and you men of letters on your estates, listen and pore over this. Who was it that roused up me, the fool that I am, from the midst of those who in the eyes of men are wise, and expert in law, and powerful in word and in everything? And He inspired me — me, the outcast of this world — before others, to be the man (if only I could!) who, with fear and reverence and without blame, should faithfully serve the people to whom the love of Christ conveyed and gave me for the duration of my life, if I should be worthy; yes indeed, to serve them humbly and sincerely.

In the light, therefore, of our faith in the Trinity I must make this choice, regardless of danger I must make known the gift of God and everlasting consolation, without fear and frankly I must spread everywhere the name of God so that after my decease I may leave a bequest to my brethren and sons whom I have baptised in the Lord — so many thousands of people.

And I was not worthy, nor was I such that the Lord should grant this to His servant; that after my misfortunes and so great difficulties, after my captivity, after the lapse of so many years, He should give me so great a grace in behalf of that nation — a thing which once, in my youth, I never expected nor thought of.

But after I came to Ireland — every day I had to tend sheep, and many times a day I prayed — the love of God and His fear came to me more and more, and my faith was strengthened. And my spirit was moved so that in a single day I would say as many as a hundred prayers, and almost as many in the night, and this even when I was staying in the woods and on the mountains; and I used to get up for prayer before daylight, through snow, through frost, through rain, and I felt no harm, and there was no sloth in me — as I now see, because the spirit within me was then fervent.

And there one night I heard in my sleep a voice saying to me: `It is well that you fast, soon you will go to your own country.' And again, after a short while, I heard a voice saying to me: `See, your ship is ready.' And it was not near, but at a distance of perhaps two hundred miles, and I had never been there, nor did I know a living soul there; and then I took to flight, and I left the man with whom I had stayed for six years. And I went in the strength of God who directed my way to my good, and I feared nothing until I came to that ship.

And after three days we reached land, and for twenty-eight days we travelled through deserted country. And they lacked food, and hunger overcame them; and the next day the captain said to me: `Tell me, Christian: you say that your God is great and all-powerful; why, then, do you not pray for us? As you can see, we are suffering from hunger; it is unlikely indeed that we shall ever see a human being again.'

I said to them full of confidence: `Be truly converted with all your heart to the Lord my God, because nothing is impossible for Him, that this day He may send you food on your way until you be satisfied; for He has abundance everywhere.' And, with the help of God, so it came to pass: suddenly a herd of pigs appeared on the road before our eyes, and they killed many of them; and there they stopped for two nights and fully recovered their strength, and their hounds received their fill for many of them had grown weak and were half-dead along the way. And from that day they had plenty of food. They also found wild honey, and offered some of it to me, and one of them said: `This we offer in sacrifice.' Thanks be to God, I tasted none of it.

That same night, when I was asleep, Satan assailed me violently, a thing I shall remember as long as I shall be in this body. And he fell upon me like a huge rock, and I could not stir a limb. But whence came it into my mind, ignorant as I am, to call upon Helias? And meanwhile I saw the sunrise in the sky, and while I was shouting `Helias! Helias' with all my might, suddenly the splendour of that sun fell on me and immediately freed me of all misery. And I believe that I was sustained by Christ my Lord, and that His Spirit was even then crying out in my behalf, and I hope it will be soon the day of my tribulation, as is written in the Gospel: On that day, the Lord declares, it is not you that speak, but the Spirit of your Father that speaketh in you.

And once again, after many years, I fell into captivity. On that first night I stayed with them, I heard a divine message saying to me: `Two months will you be with them.' And so it came to pass: on the sixtieth night thereafter the Lord delivered me out of their hands...

...On the other hand, I did not go to Ireland of my own accord. not until I had nearly perished; but this was rather for my good, for thus was I purged by the Lord; and He made me fit so that I might be now what was once far from me that I should care and labour for the salvation of others, whereas then I did not even care about myself...

...Behold, again and again would I set forth the words of my confession. I testify in truth and in joy of heart before God and His holy angels that I never had any reason except the Gospel and its promises why I should ever return to the people from whom once before I barely escaped.

I pray those who believe and fear God, whosoever deigns to look at or receive this writing which Patrick, a sinner, unlearned, has composed in Ireland, that no one should ever say that it was my ignorance if I did or showed forth anything however small according to God's good pleasure; but let this be your conclusion and let it so be thought, that — as is the perfect truth — it was the gift of God. This is my confession before I die..."










This web page was last updated on: 16 December, 2008