Saint Patrick: legend and memory

Memory is our key both to the past and to our identity.
Turning to Patrick, memory’s headlines run like this: a young British boy from a well-off clerical family was taken into slavery in Ireland. He later escaped, eventually became a bishop, returning to Ireland as a missionary. He preached the Gospel so effectively that soon the whole island was Christian and within a century Ireland was a powerhouse of faith.

But memory is always layered, the product of different moments of reflection on the past and the remnants of various periods’ attitudes to what they see as their past.

Paganism was but a distant memory in Ireland in the later seventh century, there was a thriving church, but warfare between powerful families was endemic. There was notion of a Christian nation – a gens – derived from Scripture, and a belief that the whole church was made up of the nations (reading Mt 28:19 literally) that had been baptised.

So there was an Irish gens greater than the feuding tribal groupings and as a baptised nation it had a place in the history of the Age of Christ.

Developing this sense of the Irish as ‘a holy nation’ (1 Pet 2:9) was the work of a writer called Muirchú. His argument was a simple one: if there is one gens, then there must be one baptiser, and that baptiser is that nation’s apostle, and then that apostle is also its heavenly protector.

The problem was (and is) that the origins of Christianity in Ireland are very obscure: all he had to go on was (1) a one-line reference to Pope Celestine sending Bishop Palladius from Rome in 431 – and nothing more was recoded of him; and (2) a couple of letters from a British bishop called Patrick who worked in Ireland at a time when there were many pagans, and whose memory was preserved in some communities for they still celebrated his anniversary on 17 March.

But every church needed a history and so from these two elements, Muirchú invented Patrick the Apostle. The whole gens was baptised in single great Easter Vigil in 432 by Patrick.

Can we get behind Muirchú’s theological writing up of his church’s memory?

Christianity arrived in Ireland, probably in the fourth century, with slaves taken from Roman Britain. By the early fifth century there were sufficient Christians in Ireland that there was deemed to be a need for a bishop and hence the mission of Palladius. Palladius is the unsung hero: written off by Muirchú, he probably spent an arduous life ministering in Ireland to slaves, helping them to establish themselves as a church.

Where does Patrick enter the story? Patrick escaped from Ireland in his early twenties, and back home followed his father and grandfather into the clergy. He gives the impression that much later when already a bishop he was told in a vision to return to Ireland and preach in those areas ‘at the ends of the earth where no one had preached before’ – Patrick made no claim to preach to the whole island or to be its only missionary, but only to have worked where no other missionary had gone already.

Here the tale becomes complex: we only know this because other bishops attacked his personal integrity / conduct / preaching, and his defence of his ministry, the Confession, has survived.

Patrick saw himself as this eschatological preacher on last frontier. He added in the creed that the judgement is ‘coming soon’. Patrick – to his fellow bishops, probably in Ireland – had gone completely ‘off message’ with his unique vision of himself as the apocalyptic preacher.
Yet by answering these anonymous level-headed pastors who were the real foundation layers of Irish Christianity, Patrick became the only one who left a name and any account of evangelising in Ireland!

Muirchú needed a named apostle, and Patrick was all he had. Muirchú’s task was to present Patrick as a model of orthodoxy and practice – as conceived in the late seventh century. Now the Irish had a single Christian identity in the past, a tale of unity that might be an alternative to feuding families in the present, and a collective destiny in the life to come.

The church is, as Karl Rahner remarked, always forgetting and always remembering!

The full version of this article was first published in 2006 in History Ireland


Patrick, Missionary to the Irish – by Thomas O’Loughlin

A Brief History of English Catholicism, by Fr Nicholas Schofield


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