Even if he weren’t Ireland’s evangelist and patron saint – our excuse for a spring holiday, parties, parades and so forth – Saint Patrick would deserve his celebrity. The person behind the legends and miracles was an ordinary man of extraordinary courage and honesty.
By his own account, he was a lazy teenager named Succat when, in the early AD 400s, pirates snatched him from his home village in western Britain and sold him into slavery in Ireland. For six harsh years he tended cattle in all weathers, consoling himself on the bare mountain-sides by remembering the prayers of his Christian childhood. His prayers were answered with an instructive vision, telling him to walk for a hundred miles or so, to a place where a ship would be waiting to take him to safety and freedom.
The ship was carrying hunting dogs – then a valuable Irish export to Continental Europe – and it probably took him to Armorica, the ancient name for Brittany in north-west France. At that time, Armorica was in crisis, its desperate natives coping with the withdrawal of the Roman authorities, and the incursions of new barbarians. After some testing adventures in this ancient Wild West, Patrick made his way back to his family in Britain, but he had already decided to become a priest in hope of returning to Ireland as a missionary. The trouble was that he didn’t have the right connections or credentials. A fully empowered missionary had to be a learned man of bishop’s rank, and Patrick was an under-educated junior priest. At the climax of his first attempt to be made up to the necessary rank – the point where all those present were invited to mention any impediments to his promotion – a close friend brought up a “sin” of his youth. We’ll never know for sure what it was, but it seems reasonable to suppose that this sin was something we might file under sex: “In the anxiety of my troubled mind I told my dearest friend what I had done one day, nay in one hour, because I was not yet strong. I know not, God knows, if I was then fifteen years old, and I knew not the living god…”
For the rest of his life, Patrick brooded about that betrayal, but because he was in the right place at the right time – somewhere in Gaul c. AD 430 – he did, eventually, get the job of bringing Christianity to the pagan Irish. Even if the success of his mission was exaggerated – at the expense of the missionary work of less charismatic personalities – there is no doubt that when Patrick died, around AD 460, Ireland belonged to Christendom. It helped his cause that his miracles were reportedly as spectacular as anything in the mythical repertoire of the pagan competition. Patrick could assume the shape of a deer, control fire, cure the blind, heal mad cows, turn water into honey and tame wolves as well as any druidic wonder-worker. But for all that, there was nothing boastful, humourless or misogynist about his character, and he had the common touch. On one occasion – the baptism of some Munster royals – his famous staff pierced the foot of the prince who was standing next to him. Seeing the blood, Patrick asked him why he hadn’t complained, and the poor man’s answer was that he had accepted his torture as part of the ceremony.
In old age Patrick wrote his Confessio, the ungrammatical, badly written and unbearably sincere autobiography of a troubled man. In translating it, scholars struggle to make its author’s experiences intelligible while preserving the authentic clumsiness of his style. But it is Patrick’s stubborn sense of his own inadequacy that makes him great. His achievement was a triumph of passionate conviction over illustrious connections, of affinity over doctrine, and that is why, fifteen hundred years later, we can still celebrate him as a saint for all seasons.