Saint Patrick is a figure about whom much has been written but very little is know—in other words most of the stories we tell about Patrick are more legend than history. Indeed for several decades many historians disputed the historical reality of Patrick or thought he was a combination of several individual persons.
Christianity had come to Ireland before Patrick. Possibly as early as the late third century monks from Egypt and Syria sought the greater solitude of islands on the western coast of Ireland. In addition trade routes from both western Britain and northwestern Spain would have caused some Continental Christians to settle in Ireland. Some scholars maintain that Christianity had, in fact, taken a strong hold in the southern parts of Ireland by the earl fifth century, decades before Patrick arrived. By the third decade of the fifth century there were sufficient Christians in Ireland for Pope Celestine I to send his deacon, Palladius, as Bishop there. Unfortunately Palladius ran afoul of the King of Leinster, the south-east portion of the country and was sent back to Britain, his mission unsuccessful.
Palladius cannot be blamed for his failure. Christianity was not an easy match for Irish society. In the first place, the Irish had no towns or cities and Christianity is essentially an urban religion, or at least is organized on an urban plan with dioceses and deaneries and such. And where do you build your churches if you don’t have towns? And your schools?
But the complexity grows beyond that. The Irish are a tribal society. Every person belonged to a clan and the head of the clan ruled supreme. The clans themselves were united by blood and marriage into super-clans or tribes. The heads of the various clans and super-clans each claimed for himself the title “king.” Over this myriad of families and clans were four regional kings: Munster, Leinster, Connaught, and Ulster. And over the four great kings, was the High King who made his capital, such as it was for a somewhat migratory people, at the Hill of Tara. No king, even the High King, really had any authority (except possibly force) over another king Every time you turn around you have to deal with a new king. And if King A likes you, his enemy, King B won’t. In other words, there was no political infrastructure.
Irish religion, like that the ancient Britons, was Druidism which was a combination of magic and spiritism. The Irish saw the sacred everywhere—in certain groves of trees, in mountains, in holy wells. They were convinced they lived in a world inhabited by spirits—the spirits of the dead as well as the spirits of nature. They did practice human sacrifice, though not on the extensive scale as the Aztecs and some other societies.
Under Brehon Law, women were equal to men and wives could divorce their husbands. The law was harsh in its punishments, especially for thievery. There were ten different types of marriage recognized by Brehon Law, depending on the various social standings of the partners and most marriages were easily dissolvable
Patrick himself was from an upper-class Romano-British family, probably located on the south-west coast of Britain. His father was Calpurnius, a deacon and Decurion in the Roman Army. His grandfather had been a priest. Yet Patrick as a young boy showed little interest in religion and was somewhat of a wild teenager.
We have two authentic sources for Patrick’s life—both written by him. The first is his “Confessions,” which he wrote to answer charges against him by the British bishops who were upset that he would not accept their authority over him and the Irish Church. (It was heavily a matter of the British bishops wanting to get “their share” of the tithes of the Irish Church). Patrick was determined to maintain the independence of the Irish Church. In part this determination was based on the fact that Patrick had to make a lot of “adjustments” to make Christianity adaptable to the peculiarities of Brehon Laws and customs, including turning a blind eye to some of the irregular customs surrounding marriage.
The second and shorter document which can be considered is Patrick’s “Letter to Coroticus.” Coroticus was a Christian British chieftain, who regularly ran pirate raids on the east coast of Ireland looking for booty and slaves. In a recent raid, Coroticus’s soldiers had come across a band of Patrick’s newly baptized converts, raped and enslaved the women and children and killed the men “still in their baptismal garments.” Patrick excommunicated Coroticus and his soldiers which enraged the bishops of Britain who saw his actions overstepping onto their boundaries.
We are getting a bit ahead of our story, however. Patrick as a youth of about 16 was kidnapped by Irish pirates, brought back to Ireland and sold into slavery. He spent about seven years as a sheep-herder in Antrim, in the north of Ireland. During the long, lonely nights on the Irish hillsides, he rediscovered his faith and developed a life of deep prayer. One night he heard a voice: “Your ship is ready.” Patrick, at great risk to his own life, escaped and traveled as a fugitive 200 miles to Wicklow where he was able to talk a group of sailors to take him back to Britain. While home he had a vision of an Irishman saying: We appeal to you, holy youth, come and walk among us once more.” Patrick felt a vocation to return to Ireland with the Christian faith. He studied under Saint Germanus of Auxerre and was eventually ordained. Returning to Ireland Patrick did not have an easy time of it. If his mission was to succeed he could not afford to tie himself into the clan system as being identified with one clan would alienated him from others and yet, without being part of the clan system, he had not patrons or protectors. He also faced tremendous opposition from the druids who saw him destroying the old ways on which they depended. At the same time the bishops of Britain were very jealous that he would not accept their oversight of the Irish Church. They were more than suspicious of his accommodating Christianity to the Irish ways and customs.
A major part of Patrick’s strategy in winning converts was his appeal to women. Winning the mothers to the faith, guaranteed the children. He also made a point of aiming for slaves and did much to better their lots. By the end of his life vast numbers of the Irish had been Christianized but it was a somewhat unique version of Christianity, differing from nearby Romano-Britain and from Rome itself. The Church in Ireland had a different way of calculating the date for Easter than that followed by the Roman Church, meaning that the actual dates varied from one another from year to year. The Irish monks also did not shave the crown of their heads in tonsure, but everything forward from a line from ear to ear. Most disconcerting to the Roman authorities, was that the Irish made their confession to priests privately rather than to the bishop and did not perform public penance but ironically it is the Irish, not the Roman form of the Sacrament of Penance that has survived. Because the Irish did not have cities and towns, Patrick organized the Church in Ireland according to the clan system. Each clan had its monastic establishments for men and for women. The religious head of the family, directly under the family’s chieftain or king, was its Abbot. The bishop was a mere functionary to ordain and perform those actions limited to bishops. All jurisdiction was given to the Abbot. At times, such in the case of Saint Brigid of Kildare, the Abbacy was held by a woman and thus a woman directed the Church in and among her clan. Roman Law gave no legal recognition to women or their authority but Brehon Law had no scruples. The Irish church was also pretty sloppy on its canon law of marriage, tolerating divorce in many cases and following the Brehon Law that accorded validity to marriages in respect to the ten different types of marriage recognized in the Brehon Law.
It was only in the twelfth century through the ecclesiastical services of Saint Lorcan O’Toole and the political skuldullgery of Stronbow, King Henry II, and Pope Adrian IV that the Irish Church was brought into conformity with and canonical union with the Church of Rome.