They met in a grove of oak trees near the middle of their island and after hours of fasting and prayer one of their number rose. The soft breeze stirred his white robe as he spoke:
Across the sea will come Adze-head, crazed in the head’
His cloak with a hole for his head, his stick bent in the head.
He will chant impieties from a table in the front of his house,
All his people will answer: “So be it, so be it.”
In a few days, most of the sons of Erie will in one way or another acknowledge the more than 1,500th anniversary of the death of one of our greatest saints. His family knew him as Patricius; his contemporaries knew him as Patraic. We know him as St. Patrick.
Historically, little is known about this figure beyond two documents that have been attributed to him. His “Confessio,” which gives us most of what is known about his early life, and the Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus.” Both documents were most likely dictated since we believe he was functionally illiterate. We are fairly sure he was illiterate.
In The Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus, St. Patrick excommunicated Coroticus because his soldiers had taken some of Patrick’s converts and sold them into slavery.
From his “Confessio,” we know that he was the son of a minor Roman official probably living in western Great Britain. His family was native British. It is possible that both his father and grandfather served as deacons in the Catholic Church. His family had both a villa somewhere inland from the coast and a summer home on the coast of the Irish Sea.
Sometime in the 5th century, when he was 16 years old, Irish pirates raided the area around the summer home capturing as many locals as they could. Patrick was among the captives. The captives were taken to a slave market and sold into slavery. Patrick became the property of a minor chief in western Ireland, where he spent the next six years as a shepherd. Legend says that sometime in his sixth year of slavery, a messenger appeared to him in a dream and told him to run away to the east coast, where he would find a boat that would return him to Britain.
The six years of slavery allowed Patrick to develop a limited understanding of the church of his father and grandfather. He spent much of his time in prayer slowly developing a love for the Christian faith. He admits that he was not religious before his capture, but the solitude of the mountain pastures, the companionship of dogs, which he referred to as wolfhounds, and the gentle sheep allowed him contemplate the wonders of God’s creation.
Shortly after returning to Britain, he began formal studies and eventually was ordained a priest. After 18 years of service in Britain and possibly a stint in Gaul, he was ordered to return to Ireland to spread the gospel. He had no desire to return to the land where he had been a slave. He procrastinated and delayed his return until he had a vision in which a man bearing many letters approached him as given a letter from the people of the village, where he had lived begging him to return.
This finally broke down his reluctance, and he returned to Ireland to begin his mission. There was no doubt that he was not the first missionary to the Emerald Isle. Those who proceeded him were foreigners and did not speak or understand the Gaelic language. The Irish are a stubborn people not open to change. But unlike the others, Patrick spoke and understood the local language. His experience allowed him to appreciate the local customs and beliefs.
After a period of time, he was appointed a bishop. As time passed, his hatred of the assignment gradually changed to a love of the land and of the people. There are many legends about St. Patrick. We all have heard that he drove the snakes out of Ireland. The truth is that there never were any records of a snake on the island. He is also supposed to have used the three-leafed shamrock to demonstrate the trinity. That is possible, since the shamrock grows abundantly on the island. Patrick is said to have carried an ash walking stick on his travels. He would thrust the staff into the ground when he began to speak. At Aspatria, he supposedly spoke so long that the stick took root.
There is a 12th century book that claims Patrick was visited by and conversed with ancient Irish ancestors. He is also credited with driving the pagan druids from power. Some would say he converted more druids than he drove away. At least one Irish tradition speaks of the three gods. The Irish pantheon had several sets of three gods. Another tradition speaks of the unnamed god that would come over the eastern sea, another set of three gods bound together into one for all time.
It is generally believed that he spent his time in the north and western areas of the island. Just as there are no reliable dates establishing his life, there are no records of where he performed his missionary work. Patrick was not the first missionary nor even the first bishop in Ireland.
He was preceded by Palladius, whom records say was sent by Pope Celestine I as “bishop to the Irish Christians” in 431. Patrick supposedly arrived in 432 but that date was probably fabricated in the mid-6th century to minimize the accomplishments of Palladius. There is a “Two Patricks” theory that would have many of the accomplishments of Palladius attributed to Patrick.
There is no agreement as to the date of his death beyond March 17. His remains are supposedly interred at Downpatrick in the county Down. Today, St. Patrick is venerated by the Catholic Church, the Eastern Catholic Churches, the Eastern Orthodox Church, the Church of England, the Church of Ireland and the Lutheran churches. The feast day is celebrated in various ways just about everywhere the Irish have settled.
In Ireland, it is a national holiday and, at least in the Republic, a holy day of obligation. We in the U.S. celebrate the day with parades and parties. The Dallas parade will be this Saturday morning along Greenville Avenue. For some reason, we traditionally share a meal of corn beef and cabbage here in the U.S., but that is not necessarily the case in Ireland. Although there is no truth to the rumor that those of Irish ancestry are granted a dispensation in any form on March 17, I have it on fairly good authority that Bishop Burns has granted a special dispensation to all those of Irish descent. And to all who might be or believe to be of Irish descent. And to anyone who knows or thinks they know someone of Irish descent a dispensation for Friday, March 17. His excellency has suggested that if you intend to partake of meat on the 17th, you should consider foregoing meat on Thursday or maybe Saturday. In any case, there is no rule to discourage a toast to the memory of the patron saint of the Emerald Isle.