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9. St Patrick |
With Britain doomed, the faith takes root in barbarous Ireland

St Patrick is drawn from Chapter Nine, beginning on page 227, of Volume Four, Darkness Descends of the twelve-volume historical series The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years. If you would like to order this book please visit

Patrick, the escaped slave, goes back to the land of his masters and launches the crusade that will carry the gospel to Scotland, England and Europe

St Patrick - With Britain doomed, the faith takes root in barbarous Ireland

St Patrick - With Britain doomed, the faith takes root in barbarous Ireland
With the Welsh coasts and Britain forever behind him, Patrick sets his eyes and energies to the mission before him: to evangelize the wild Irish.

Hobnailed army sandals shuffled and scraped across the shingled beach, bronze armor and iron blades clanked, and muffled grunts and curses could be heard over the lap of the surf, as file on file the Roman legionaries heaved themselves aboard weed-slimed, lumbering transport galleys. The year was 407. Though few people would have believed it at the time, and the horror of it would only gradually dawn, the last legion was leaving Britannia. Rome, after nearly four centuries of occupation, was abandoning its northernmost province to its fate, and its fate would not be pleasant.

These stolid veterans of a hundred border skirmishes were crossing the channel in support of the latest British candidate for an imperial crown, Constantine III, later called the “Usurper.” Four years hence, his luck would run out, and he would be cornered, captured and beheaded by the almost equally hapless emperor Honorius. This was in fact the third revolt by a British general in the past decade, and it would be as short-lived as the first two.

None of the soldiers Constantine commandeered would ever return to Britain, leaving the island more vulnerable than ever to three perils: from the west, hideous half-naked pirates crossing the Irish Sea; from the east, ferociously insatiable Saxons crossing the North Sea; and from the north, the angry, tattooed Picts, whom the Romans had never been able to subdue.1 After three years of mounting calamity, representatives of Britain’s fifteen-odd city-states met in desperation, overthrew the absent Constantine’s provincial administrators and wrote to the emperor Honorius, humbly professing their loyalty and pleading for governors, troops and money to rebuild their defenses.

The appeal was futile. Honorius was himself in disarray. Other barbarian nations were running wild through Gaul and had crossed the Pyrenees. Spain was gone and North Africa imperiled. Three years after the last legion left Britain, Rome fell to the Goths, who stripped it of all movable wealth and forced the ill-starred Honorius to let them settle in southern Gaul. (See chapter 4.) Honorius, hunkering in his marsh-girded fortress of Ravenna in Italy, sent his dismaying answer: “The cities of Britain must look to their own defenses.”

As the realization sank in that they were now completely on their own, fear gripped the Britons. The reality, however, would surpass their worst forebodings. They were living in the sunset before a night of deepening darkness that would last for more than two hundred years. For generation after generation, grandfathers would watch their grandsons withdraw into ever more desolate and ever more threatened homesteads.

These two hundred years are known as, the “Dark Ages,” because they are all but opaque to historians. Since the invaders could not write, only a few sparse records survive of the entire period: an account by the Gallic bishop Germanus of Auxerre, for instance, and the writings of the monkish reformer Gildas.2 But these were like stars that glow in a moonless sky; they can be seen, but throw little light. However, two other remnants shine brightly enough for some pattern of events to be discerned: the partly legendary record of a warrior king who would become the last defender of the western Roman empire; and the memoirs of an escaped slave who would passionately embrace Christianity and help lay the foundations of the new Christendom, rising in the ruins of the old.

But all this–and much else–was far from foreseeable in the fateful year 407. The Britain abandoned by the Romans was an agrarian society of about four million people, living between Hadrian’s Wall in the north and the south coast. Perhaps one in ten spoke Latin and took part in civic life. The rest were peasants. Still largely pagan, Celtic-speaking and illiterate, they were the renters, laborers or slaves of Latin-speaking, highly civilized landowners. These aristocrats, living mostly in the fertile southern lowlands in fifty-room villas with heated mosaic floors, had grown rich supplying grain to the legions in Gaul. The northern frontier area had been dominated by the army, now evacuated. Britain’s two dozen cities and military centers were decaying, industry having shrunk to a few local pottery factories.

A century after Constantine the Great, the British church, according to some historians, was locked in a struggle between urban bishops, concerned mainly with civic government and seemingly indifferent to the peasantry, and the evangelical followers of Martin of Tours, whose self-sufficient rural monasteries fervently preached the gospel throughout the countryside. This was a familiar conflict in Gaul as well, but in 396, irate British bishops had actually expelled one of Martin’s missionary students for allegedly disrupting the populace. Nevertheless, within a generation, many a village church in Britain was being dedicated to St. Martin.

As the Roman provinces and city-states disintegrated, small local tyrannies and monarchies tried to replace them. The only concerted national endeavor, as one bishop recorded, had been the bloody overthrow of the administrators of Constantine III, some of whom lay unburied, their corpses torn limb from limb and picked over by beasts and birds. Over the next decade, the monk Gildas writes a century later, a conclave of British chieftains made and unmade “kings.” In quick succession, these unfortunates “were anointed, then soon slain by those who anointed them.” But for a time, the various barbarians were slow to fully exploit the island’s weakness, and in the north, a Roman leader, known as Coel Hen (historic model for the legendary Old King Cole) effectively checked the Picts.

Civilization steadily weakened nevertheless. Pillaging of farms became commonplace, as did ambushes on the highways, which were degenerating into mere tracks. Wood or leather receptacles gradually replaced professionally produced pottery. Crumbling stone buildings were patched with wood. Trade declined. Barter replaced money. Brute force replaced law. Since fewer and fewer people could read and write, all communication became direct and verbal. Eventually, no one would accurately remember what civilization had been like, and only its ruins bore witness to it.

A mere two decades after the departure of the legions, serious distress seems to have been manifest among the poor. In 428, Bishop Germanus of Auxerre, sent by Pope Celestine to deal with Pelagian tendencies in the British church, also felt it necessary to intercede for the common people against excessive taxation. On one count or the other (or more likely both), he earned the hostility of local bishops. But Germanus, an advocate by training and a onetime Roman administrator in Gaul, was not easily intimidated. When he returned to Britain in about 445, for instance, he was asked to lead the militia of southeastern Wales against a major Irish invasion, in an engagement that became famous as the “Alleluia Victory.” Bishop Germanus positioned his troops on the slopes of a steep valley. As the enemy approached, he ordered them all to shout “Alleluia” in powerful concert, at full lung power. The noise echoing from hill to hill persuaded the attackers they were outnumbered and surrounded, and they precipitately fled.

Far more dangerous, however, were the Saxon invaders. Sidonius Apollinaris, statesman, author and bishop of Clermont in Gaul, vividly described them to a friend newly in command of a Gallic coastal squadron:

The Saxon is the most ferocious of all foes. He comes on you without warning. He never attacks when you expect it. Resistance only moves him to contempt; a rash opponent is soon put down. If he pursues, he overtakes; if he flies himself, he is never caught. Shipwrecks to him are no terror, only so much training. His acquaintance with the perils of the sea is intimate; he knows them as he knows himself. A storm puts his enemies off their guard, while the chance of taking the foe by surprise makes him gladly face every hazard of rough waters and broken rocks. . . . It is their custom, homeward bound, to abandon every tenth captive to the slow agony of a watery death, casting lots calmly among their doomed captives in execution of this shameful death sentence . . . they consider it a religious act to perpetrate this horrible slaughter.

Saxon raids led inevitably to Saxon settlement. It doubtless became common knowledge among the folk back home, writes E. A. Thompson in Saint Germanus of Auxerre and the End of Roman Briton (Suffolk, 1984), that Britain was a far richer country than their own waterlogged fields, and the post-Roman citizenry were far from outstanding as warriors. In short, says the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the Saxons became convinced of “the worthlessness of the Britons and the excellence of the land.”

Their ambitions were notably advanced by a powerful British chief named Vortigern, who was likely backed by independent farmers of the western hills. About 425, much to the discomfiture of comfortable southern magnates, Vortigern established a tenuous sovereignty over Roman Britain. Subsequently, hard-pressed by the lean and hungry Saxons, he followed established Roman policy. He bought off some attackers, but he also–this time to the discomfiture of all Britain–settled whole contingents of Saxons as “federated” barbarians, to defend his east coast against seaborne attacks by the Picts.

It was a disastrous move. According to the historian Nennius, writing in the ninth century, “First came three keels [i.e., ships] full of Saxons driven into exile from Germany. In them were the brothers Horst and Hengest. Vortigern welcomed them and handed over to them what was then the island of Thanet, off the east coast.” (Thanet has since become part of the mainland.) Gildas, in his Destruction of Britain, also condemns this move as “raw, hopeless stupidity. . . . Of their own free will, they invited in under their roof the enemy they feared worse than death.” The initial Saxon trickle became a flood, and when the British finally took arms against Vortigern, he allied with these formidable freebooters against his own countrymen.

Saxon numbers steadily swelled, Vortigern’s ability to pay them off steadily shrank, and by 442 they struck in force. No Germanic invasion of the western Empire, even that of the Huns, worked such slaughter and destruction as did the Saxon assault upon Britain. “All the greater towns fell to the enemy’s battering rams; all their inhabitants, bishops, priests and people, were mown down together, while swords flashed and flames crackled,” Gildas writes, the horror still vivid a hundred years later. “There was no burial save in the ruins of the houses or in the bellies of the beasts and birds.” In 446, the British again appealed to Rome, to the accomplished general Aetius: “The barbarians push us to the sea, the sea pushes us to the barbarians,” they pleaded “Between the two . . . we are either slain or drowned.” The reply was the same. No help was available.

The Saxon population was yet too small to prevail. They could only raid, not conquer, the midlands. The British held London, separating the Saxon forces in southeastern Kent from their allies in eastern Anglia. By 452, after ten years of fighting, they had at least been checked, although their settlements were much stronger. Some time after 455, according to the chronicles, Hengest proposed a treaty, calling a peace conference, which his own delegates attended with daggers hidden in their shoes. “The Saxons, friendly in their words but wolfish in heart and deed, sat down to celebrate, each man next to his British neighbor,” records the Kentish Chronicle. Then, when their leader gave the signal, “all three hundred [British] elders were slaughtered; the king [Vortigern] alone was taken alive and held prisoner.”

With their foremost men dead, the Britons were leaderless. Vortigern survived, hated by all his nation, and wandered the land “till his heart broke and he died without honor.” Soon “huge numbers of [Saxon] warriors” crossed over the sea to carry out murderous attacks on Britain. “Some of the wretched survivors were caught and slaughtered in heaps; others surrendered themselves to perpetual slavery,” Gildas writes. “Others entrusted their lives to the rugged hills, the thick forests . . . until after some time the plunderers went home again.” That “home” was the eastern third of the island, which the Saxons now increasingly shared with compatriot barbarians known as the Angles. Since the Angles were tougher and more durable even than they were, the territory acquired a new name. It became “Angle-Land,” and evolved from there to, “England” and “English.”3

The existing Celtic inhabitants of this area were almost totally obliterated, historian Thompson emphasizes, along with their society–and very quickly. How else, he contends, “could we account for the utter disappearance of the Celtic language from eastern England, and of the Christian religion? How could we account for the fact that only about a score of nouns made their way from British Celtic into Anglo-Saxon, and none at all from British Latin? Why did the Saxons fail to borrow as simple a device as the potter’s wheel? Why did tens of thousands of Britons flee to the continent as early as the 460s? Why was it that the Britons who survived in the west of the island conceived a hatred of the Saxons that the passage of generations, and even of centuries, did little to abate? Why, in fact, did they refuse to preach the gospel to their tormentors even in the early eighth century, a fact which shocked Bede?”

The main exodus to the continent consisted of a veritable army of twelve thousand British men with their families. They fled to Gaul under the leadership of one Riothamus, where they became allies of that province’s last Roman leader, Aegidius. They were settled in Armorica, which in consequence was renamed Brittany. They managed thereafter to hold Brittany more or less independently, and their Celtic language can still be heard there. Having lost hope in their former homeland, they never returned.4 For them, Britannia was dead.

But Britannia was not dead. It still had some fight left, and it was helped by a change in the invaders. Over long years, they settled in with their families and put down roots. They now had something to lose. New waves of Saxon migrants arrived as settlers rather than pillagers. The first English towns began to appear. Moreover, against all odds, the British recovered from the slaughter, and a resistance movement took shape, centered in the future Wales.

At this point, there appears among the British an enchanted figure, mythical in most respects, yet fully historical in some. For a crucial half century, he would inspire Britannia’s last defenders to block the continuing waves of invaders. He would also inspire the makers of the island’s romantic mythologies for the next fourteen centuries. Hundreds of years later, his name and memory would be used to introduce into a still barbaric world a Christian concept called chivalry, imposing upon the strong the obligation to respect and care for the weak. The man himself was said to be a scion of Roman nobility, even remotely of the imperial purple. Legend designates him a monarch, and he is known to both history and romance as King Arthur.

Nennius’s History of Britain, written nearly four hundred years after the Saxon invasions, is the only source of such scant details as exist about Arthur, but he is referred to in Welsh song and poetry from a much earlier date. For example, the majestic Welsh poem Y Gododdin, probably dating to the sixth century, describes the deeds of some distinguished warrior but then adds dismissively that he was “no Arthur.”

An advantage that the British possessed was precisely the skill as horsemen to which the poem alludes, something the invader English could not easily counter. The earliest Welsh poetry sings constantly of mounted warriors, sword-wielding and scarlet-plumed, who contend with bands of unmounted spearmen. The English had no horses, and some were said to be ignorant even of how horses looked. The British, on the other hand, raised cavalry mounts on their beleaguered estates, and could move at four times the speed of infantry. They could not attack strong and prepared positions, but depended for their successes upon surprise. They could catch small raiding bands unawares, or–when the English tried to assemble larger armies–would raid their encampments. Between skirmishes, the Britons would recoup in walled towns or Iron Age hill forts, difficult to besiege in numbers sufficient to prevent a breakout by a concerted charge.

Nennius tells of twelve major battles in which Arthur triumphed. Although he names the sites of all twelve, scholars have never agreed on their locations. The decisive one, however, was called the Battle of Badon, which Gildas and Nennius both describe as a siege. Likely the British cavalry, perhaps a thousand strong, were surrounded on the hilltop by many times their number of English infantry. After three days, when the English lines had been somewhat weakened by the need to send out foraging parties, Arthur’s knights charged downhill, slaughtering (it is said) 960 of the besiegers at the first shock. Many or most of the rest–hungry, scattered and on foot in enemy territory–may have been cut down in the following days.

Arthur would die twenty years later, around 515, at the Battle of Camlann, a particularly bloody engagement in the endless border “peacekeeping,” which he conducted for at least thirty years, and which continued to check the Saxon advance for twenty more.5 But eventually, internecine strife once again engulfed the surviving British aristocracy. Having known nothing but fighting for three generations, after Arthur died, his countrymen apparently could not refrain from turning on one another. Moreover, it was becoming apparent that they would never be able to expel the English from the island.

Though he does not mention Arthur by name, Gildas looks back nostalgically on his era. He calls it a time when “rulers, public officers and private persons, bishops and clergy all kept to their proper station” and the “restraints of truth and justice” were respected. Gildas was writing around 540. By then, he said, all those qualities had been “shattered and overthrown.” It is noteworthy that this nostalgia for a “golden era” did not end with Gildas. Throughout the medieval era, the name of Arthur was invoked to inspire honesty in human affairs and honor in battle, and in the nineteenth century the poet Tennyson would enlist once again the memory of this ancient British king, to reaffirm the old values for yet another generation.

But Arthur’s solidly historic contributions were far from negligible either. By blocking the Anglo-Saxon invaders, he prevented them from reaching the Irish Sea, and thus made possible the astonishing transformation now occurring on its farther shore. There, in Ireland, the Christian gospel was being embraced with astounding zeal. The succeeding two centuries would see Irish missionary monks voyage to Scotland, then south into Saxon England, and then across the channel to the future Belgium, France, Germany and The Netherlands, helping to draw them all into a Christendom so vastly expanded as to be scarcely imagined by their predecessors.

All this Christian expansion began with the man named Patrick, who leaves in his Confession a simple and heartfelt defense of his life’s work, which was to evangelize the wild people of the island where he had been taken as a youthful captive and sold as a slave. “I, Patrick,” he begins, “a most uneducated sinner and the least of all the faithful, most contemptible in the eyes of many, am the son of Calpurnius, a deacon, a grandson of Potitus, a priest, from the village of Bannaventa Burniae (thought by most scholars to have been somewhere in northwest England). He had an estate nearby where I was taken captive. I was then about sixteen years of age. I did not know the true God, and I was taken away to captivity in Ireland, like so many thousands of people. . . .”

Christian British viewed the Irish as demonic savages, who offered human sacrifices to fornicating idols–enemies not only of civilization, but of God himself. Patrick’s family villa was likely within a day’s march of the Irish Sea. Given his avowed ignorance of the faith, it is possible that his grandfather and father, like many aristocrats of the post-Constantinian empire, had themselves ordained for political advantage and clerical tax exemption. Nor is Patrick’s written Latin very polished, which may mean the Irish pirates snatched him about 393, before he received the classical education still common to his class.6

The pirates sold him to a “king” in northwestern Ireland–that is, to a local strongman, probably the boss of a few dozen herdsmen and rustlers. There, this hitherto pampered son of Romano-British landowners lived for several years the lonely life of a shepherd slave, “chastised daily by hunger and nakedness.” There, too, he placed himself in the hands of God, and through the brutality of his existence, he was sanctified. “The love of God came to me more and more, and my faith was strengthened. My spirit was so moved, that in a single day I would say as many as a hundred prayers, and almost as many at night . . . in the woods and on the mountains, I would get up for prayer before daylight, through snow, through frost, through rain, and I felt no harm.”

Then one night, he recalls, he was suddenly awakened. A voice seemed to be speaking to him. “It is well,” said the voice, “that you hunger. For soon you will go to your own country.” A short while later it spoke again: “See, your ship is ready.” He could only guess that this meant he was perhaps intended to escape. Although an escaped slave faced terrible punishment and even death, if captured, he sensed that he must obey the voice.

So he simply walked away, with no notion where exactly he was heading, but curiously felt no fear. A ship had been mentioned. This must mean the coast. But where on the coast? In Patrick’s memory, he trekked about two hundred miles across hostile land, which must indicate that he was dodging here and there to escape capture, since no part of Ireland is more than eighty miles from the sea. Finally, he found a port where a ship was ready to sail, loaded with Irish wolfhounds and bound for Gaul.

At first, the captain angrily refused him passage, probably recognizing him as a fugitive, but when Patrick walked away, praying, the sailors called him back. “Come aboard,” they said invitingly. He assumed they meant to sell him into slavery again, but the voice had said “a ship” and this was a ship. So he joined them.

Three days’ sailing brought them to Gaul, likely the Brittany coast. The sailors, their hounds and Patrick set off on foot, trudging for twenty-eight days through what he describes as an “uninhabited wilderness.” The notation has long baffled historians. Where in Gaul, or Britannia, could you walk for four weeks and encounter no living being? One explanation has occurred to some. They were in Gaul all right, and the Suevi and Vandals had recently passed that way, leaving nothing alive behind them.

Near starvation, the captain challenged Patrick–the Christian–to pray to his “great and all-powerful god” for food. Patrick advised his companions to turn trustingly to the Lord “who can do all things.” When they did, he reports, their prayer was interrupted by a stampede of snorting animals, a herd of wild pigs, upon which they and the hounds feasted for two days. Something else may have happened at this time, though Patrick leaves few details of it. He speaks obscurely of being enslaved a second time (perhaps by the sailors). The voice returned, however, assuring him that this time it would last only sixty days. So it turned out to be.

At this point in his Confession, Patrick jumps ahead. “Again after a few years, I was in Britain with my people,” he relates, with no explanation of how he got there. If, as is certainly possible, he was redeemed from his new enslavement by Gallic Christians, he would probably have spent those “few years” within the Gallic church. Tours, home of the saintly Martin, lay up the Loire River, probably a three-week journey from the coast, and Martin’s student, Amator, was now bishop of Auxerre, three weeks to the east.

In any event, once back at his ancestral villa in Britain, Patrick tried to settle down. Then came another dream. He saw “a man named Victoricus, coming as it were from Ireland, with countless letters.” They were all marked “The Voice of the Irish.” He heard voices crying out: “We ask you, boy, come and walk once more among us.” Such dreams recurred, increasing in intensity. “He that has laid down his life for you,” said one voice, “it is he that speaks in you.”

To Patrick, all this could mean only one thing. In the service of Jesus Christ he must return to the land from which the voice of God had once led him away. He must go back to that fierce, coarse, villainous, conniving, quarrelsome, murderous–and yet unpredictably generous and crudely poetic–people called the Irish. If God could raise up children to Abraham out of the stones of the ground, as John the Baptist had said he could (Matt. 3:9, Luke 3:8), then no doubt God could raise up Christians even out of the Irish. But first Patrick must be trained to the task, and he appears to have returned to Gaul. His biographer Muirchu, writing after 650, reports that he studied for the priesthood under Germanus, he of the “Alleluia Victory.” However it came about, by 427, Patrick was being prepared as missionary bishop to the Irish.

It remains one of the ironies of history that he was initially rejected for the job. He had once confessed to a friend some dire sin committed in his youth. Its nature is not specified, and some speculate that it was murder. In any event, when the friend reported this sin, the church vetoed Patrick as a bishop. Instead, Pope Celestine is thought to have consecrated the deacon Palladius as Ireland’s first bishop. Palladius, who may previously have prevailed upon Celestine to send Germanus to Britain, was to contend once more with the Pelagian heresy there, and also to launch a mission to the Irish. Three church sites near Wicklow in the southeast have been identified as Palladius’s work, but his success appears to have been minimal.

The same was not true of Patrick, although in all likelihood he first returned to the isle of his captivity as a deacon or priest, answering to an absentee bishop. Crossing the Irish Sea, probably from Porth Mawr in Wales, he established his first mission at Downpatrick, about twenty-five miles southeast of Belfast. Forty-five miles inland, he founded the powerful Christian center of Armagh, where he is said to have built a stone church, and which he used as a missionary base to begin the conversion of the whole island.

Thence by his own account, he traveled the island, baptizing “many thousands.” Tradition says he built well over fifty churches, and that in the decade after his death the north alone had five bishops. Within his lifetime or shortly thereafter, the Irish slave trade ended, the warrior violence softened, and relatively peaceful relations began with the British across the sea.

Women, too, were soon caught up in the movement. A probable contemporary of Patrick was Brigid, descended from the chiefs of Faughart in County Louth. By tradition a beautiful young woman who spurned many offers of marriage, she became a nun and founded the famous Convent of Cil-Dara (The Oak), now Kildare. This developed into two monasteries, one for men and one for women, both ruled by Brigid, who held the power of an abbot and virtually appointed the local bishop. Cil-Dara became a center of learning for all Ireland, celebrated in particular for artistic metalwork adorning the covers of ancient books. These intricate designs amazed researchers for centuries, although not the local people, who simply explained that an angel provided them. Widely beloved and revered as “Queen of the South, the Mary of the Gael,” Brigid (or Bride, as she is sometimes styled) became Ireland’s saintly patroness.

But it is to Patrick above all that the conversion of the island is credited. Reputedly a gentle man, he could also be stern. At one point, a British chieftain, Coroticus, was raiding Ireland’s increasingly peaceful northeast, killing and enslaving Patrick’s converts, possibly in their hundreds, with the “chrism still fragrant on their foreheads.”7 Patrick wrote to Coroticus, demanding that he release the slaves. When Coroticus made a jeering reply, Patrick penned his only other surviving work, Epistle to the Soldiers of Coroticus: “I beseech you, it is not right to pay court to such men, nor to take food or drink in their company . . . until they, by strict penance with shedding of tears, make amends before God and free the servants of God and the baptized handmaids of Christ, for whom He was crucified and died.” He ends with an anguished query: “Is it a shameful thing in their eyes that we have been born in Ireland?” (He was not, of course, but his people were.) There is no known reply to Patrick’s plea.

How Patrick could so swiftly set afoot the conversion to Christianity of this fierce people became and remains a historical mystery. The pagan Irish had long sacrificed human beings to their gods–children to their fertility gods, captives to their war gods. In times of crisis, smiling Druid priests joyfully strangled their victims. But this same people, in a span of barely a hundred years, would become zealous servants of Christ: renowned for their mercy and their care of the poor, the sick and the helpless; eager students of Latin and later Greek; diligent scribes spending their entire lives copying ancient manuscripts that would preserve the classics of antiquity for ages yet to come. What was it about this man that set this whole process in motion? History is clear that he did it. But how?

Various explanations are advanced: his warmth and undisguised love for suffering people; his earthiness, which particularly appealed to the earthy Irish; his seemingly supernatural generosity; his self-evident courage. He made it abundantly clear that he was afraid of nothing, including the ferocious Irish themselves. “He transmuted their pagan virtues of loyalty, courage and generosity into the Christian equivalents of faith, hope and charity,” writes Thomas Cahill in his story of the conversion of Ireland and its consequences (How the Irish Saved Civilization, New York, 1996). But Cahill regards this explanation as insufficient to account for such a spectacular conversion of such improbable converts. He attributes it instead to the pervasive horrors of the pagan Irish religion, whose gods reduced all men to a meaningless nothing. By contrast, he writes, for Patrick’s new Irish Christians, “the magical world is no longer full of dread. Rather Christ has trodden all pathways before us, and by every crossroad and every tree the Word of God speaks out.”

A further factor, which may have facilitated this spectacular development, is noted by the Jesuit historian John Ryan (Irish Monasticism: Origins and Early Development, Shannon, Ireland, 1931). The Irish custom was for every family to send two or three of its sons, while still children, to be raised by Druid priests and bards who instructed and indoctrinated them. When the Irish became Christians, they continued this practice–but now they sent their sons to monasteries, where the monks ran schools which, among other things, trained the boys to become monks. The result was an avalanche of young men into the monastic life.8

Patrick, with his reluctance to provide names and dates, is not helpful in solving the mystery of his own success. But Irish mythmakers and the weavers of Irish fairy tales more than compensated for this loss over ensuing centuries. Patrick becomes the man who banished all snakes from Ireland. His curse causes a Druid magician to be swept up into the air, then thrust to the earth and dashed to pieces. His old slave master, hearing of Patrick’s return, barricades himself and all his treasure in his house, then ignites it into his funeral pyre. And when Patrick drives his crozier into the earth to steady himself while baptizing King Aengus of Cashel, he discovers to his distress that he has driven it through the king’s foot. But as King Aengus explains to the apologetic saint, he had not flinched because he thought this was part of the ritual. It seemed altogether appropriate, after all, when he considered the magnificent story Patrick had told him of another King whose feet were pierced.

Patrick and his successors also initiated another kind of conversion, as the poetry and hymnology of the Celtic monasteries make evident. He plainly knew he could never take warfare away from the Irish, any more than he could part them from their joy in the raw power manifest in nature’s wild violence. But he could redirect it. In this transformation, his converts’ real enemy becomes the enemy within them. Their weapons become those celebrated by St. Paul: “the shield of faith . . . the helmet of salvation . . . the sword of the spirit” (Eph. 6:16—17). And their king or chieftain becomes Jesus Christ. Thus the ancient Irish hymn, attributed to Dallan Forgaill in the eighth century (Rob tu mo Bhoile, a Comdi cride) echoes the passionate commitment of the warrior:

Be Thou my Vision, O Lord of my heart;

Naught be all else to me, save that Thou art.

Thou my best Thought, by day or by night,

Waking or sleeping, Thy presence my light.

Be Thou my battle Shield, sword for the fight;

Be Thou my dignity, Thou my delight;

Thou my soul’s shelter, Thou my high Tower:

Raise Thou me heavenward, O Power of my power.

Riches I heed not, nor man’s empty praise,

Thou mine inheritance, now and always,

Thou and Thou only, first in my heart,

High King of Heaven, my Treasure Thou art.9

The hymn is usually sung to a tune called Slane, of Irish folk origin. It was in 433, on Slane Hill near Tara, a few miles northwest of Dublin, that Patrick is said to have defied a royal edict by kindling a bonfire on Easter Eve. Tara’s high king Logaire had decreed that no one might light a fire there, before Logaire himself did so to mark the pagan spring festival. So impressed was Logaire by Patrick’s devotion (or perhaps by his defiance) that he let him continue his mission.

In St. Patrick’s Breastplate, probably written several centuries after the saint’s death, the power of God is made manifest in the might and majesty of nature:

I bind unto myself today the virtues of the star lit heaven,

The glorious sun’s life-giving ray, the whiteness of the moon at even,

The flashing of the lightning free, the whirling wind’s tempestuous shocks

The stable earth, the deep salt sea,

Around the old eternal rocks.

As the hymn goes on to eloquently declare, however, God’s power is also proclaimed in the ministry of Jesus Christ–in “Confessors’ faith, Apostles word,” in God’s hand that guides us, and his ear that hears us, and above all “in the strong Name of the Trinity.” Finally, in the midst of this resounding celebration of God’s strength and omnipotence, comes a tranquil meditation on the implications of the divine grace for every Christian soul:

Christ be with me, Christ within me,

Christ behind me, Christ before me,

Christ beside me, Christ to win me,

Christ to comfort and restore me.

Christ beneath me, Christ above me,

Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,

Christ in hearts of all that love me.

Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.10

In the century after Patrick, the Irish warriors who had given their lives for the clan became the Irish monks who gave their lives for Jesus Christ. Monasteries began appearing throughout the country, and whole communities grew around them. They ran schools for children, and not merely those of the gentry, where they were taught to read Irish and Latin, and were required to memorize the Psalter and the Bible at least in part. If they went on to become monks, they studied the classics of Latin, and in later centuries, Greek. Within an astonishingly short time, the island that had been arguably the most barbarous place in Europe was becoming the most literate. “As Roman lands went from peace to chaos,” writes Cahill, “the land of Ireland was rushing even more rapidly from chaos to peace.”

One consequence was a distinctive Irish church, run by abbots rather than bishops, or more frequently by abbot-bishops. In this monastic church, which typically recruited its clergy as children, Patrick’s disciple and colleague Lomman trained the monk Foirtchern from boyhood. Similarly, Foirtchern trained Finnian of Clonard, and Finnian trained a boy prince of the Clan Conaill who is known to British history by his Latin name, Columba, but to Irish history as Columcille (pronounced: kolmkilla).

Columcille would become the greatest figure in Irish history after Patrick. His mentor Finnian, recognized as the most gifted tutor of all the early monastics, inculcated in him boundless faith and zeal for the Lord’s work, and a powerful love of art. So strong, in fact, was this artistic impulse that the young Columcille spent months surreptitiously copying a magnificent Psalter, the possession of Finnian’s monastery. When this was discovered, Columcille was forced by the local king, Diarmait, to surrender his cherished copy. “As with every cow goes her calf,” said the king, “so with every book goes its copy.” It was a ruling Columcille did not forget.

As a young man, he traveled to Tours and visited the tomb of Martin, where he became infatuated with his monastic rule, and brought it back to Ireland. He is reputed by the age of forty-one to have founded forty-one Irish monasteries. When one of his monks was killed, however, by the same King Diarmait who had deprived him of the Psalter, he rounded up his kinsmen of the Clan Conaill, did battle against the king and avenged the dead monk with the lives of more than three thousand of Diarmait’s men. So, anyway, the story goes.

The result is more than fable. The penalty if a monk took up arms was excommunication. Columcille’s penance was deportation from his beloved Ireland to the country of the wild Picts, where he must win one Christian convert for every man of the three thousand his clansmen had killed. In other words, it was lifelong exile. Thus, in the year 564, he and twelve colleagues crossed the sea to the island of Iona, off the Scottish coast, eighty-five miles northwest of Glasgow. There he established the mission from which all Scotland and most of Saxon England would be converted to Christianity over the next century.

Here the exile, who at forty-one might have thought his life was almost over, discovered that it had scarcely begun. Pictish barbarians and the Irish immigrants known as the Scoti poured into his island monastery, eager to join it. When their number reached one hundred and fifty, he sent out thirteen of them to establish a second monastery. Thereafter, each thirteen newcomers occasioned another such mission. By Columcille’s death at the end of the sixth century, Iona had spawned sixty new monastic communities scattered over Scotland and down into England.

The explanation lay in Columcille’s extraordinary influence over people, particularly his habit of making the individual in need more important than his missionary program. Thus, when a woman laments that she has lost all love for her husband, he stops what he is doing, prays with her, and their prayers restore her love and her marriage. When he catches an impoverished thief robbing him, he reproves the man, then provides him with a store of food and instructs the abbot of a subsidiary monastery to make sure the man’s future needs are met. When Irish Christians demand a ban on all poets, no doubt because of their persistent ridicule of people in authority, he returns to Ireland and saves the poets. Ireland, he declares, would not be Ireland without poets–it needed more of them, not less. He then hides in humiliation beneath his cowl as twelve hundred of them assemble to sing his praise.

Yet this same Columcille has been described as a “man of iron.” He slept on a stone floor with a stone for his pillow. “His devotion to fasting and watches passed the bounds of credulity,” writes John Ryan, “and he led his monks to do the same.” In the early days at Iona, when the thirteen were very low on supplies and near starvation, one fell ill. The rest did without any food at all for three days in a special fast, which they were sure accounted for his recovery. Along with the pre-Easter, forty-day Lenten abstinence, Columcille’s monks appear to have emphasized and most stringently observed two other annual fasts, one before Christmas (now Advent in the West, the Nativity Fast in the East) and another after Pentecost (also customarily observed in the East, albeit more briefly).

Iona’s founder finished his life with what could be called a good death. Sensing his strength departing, Columcille went to the fields, bade farewell to his comrades one by one, then retired to his cell and began copying the thirty-fourth Psalm. He stopped at the tenth verse. “They who seek the Lord,” he wrote, “shall want no manner of thing that is good.” That night, his fellow monks found him before the altar in their darkened church. They said his face reflected ecstasy, for he had exceeded at least tenfold his quota of three thousand converts. He then died before their eyes.

In bringing the faith to Scotland, Patrick’s spiritual descendant Columcille followed his master by a span of some twelve decades. After yet another eighty years, a monk named Aidan, Columcille’s spiritual descendant, brought Christianity to pagan England. But by now, the date was 635 and things were changing.11 Oswald, prince of Northumbria, the northernmost English kingdom, had been sent by his family to Ireland to be educated by the monks, and had returned to rule his people as a Christian monarch. But his people were still pagan, so he appealed to Iona to send a mission to Northumbria, to operate with his royal blessing. Corman, the monk sent to Northumbria, returned to Iona after two years of futile effort and declared the pagan English to be hopelessly barbarian. However, at a formal review of the failure, Aidan spoke up. Corman had been too tough with these people, he said; he had expected too much of them. All right, said the others, then you go.

So Aidan did, and King Oswald bestowed on the mission the island of Lindisfarne. Ten miles southeast of the present Berwick, near the English-Scottish border, Lindisfarne is just a few hundred yards from the mainland (actually connected to it at low tide), and was within sight of Oswald’s castle at Bamburgh. Like Iona, it would become a Christian bastion, recruiting generations of monks and sending them as far south as the Humber, and even, some historians say, as the Thames. Aidan became an abbot-bishop, creating with King Oswald a union of church and state that furnished a model for all Saxon England. Aidan’s conversion formula proved likewise successful. First, he believed, the Saxons must be won over to Christ. The stern rules of the Celtic monks could come later, which indeed they did. Lindisfarne, renamed Holy Island, became home to a whole succession of Anglo-Saxon saints.

The Christian phenomenon born in Ireland became known as the Celtic Church, and while some of its monks were working the conversion of Scotland and England, many others were gaining even greater renown on the continent. The leader of this endeavor was Columban (not to be confused with Columba, the Roman name of Columcille). Columban was born in Leinster, Ireland, in 543, about twenty years after Columcille, whom he would outlive by eighteen years. Columban was such a handsome young man, say his biographers, as to be irresistibly attractive to women–resulting in temptations to which he frequently succumbed. Finally, fearing for his immortal soul, he consulted a “holy woman” who gave him candid but unwelcome advice: “There is no safety for you, young man,” she said, “except in flight.”

So Columban resolved to “retire from the world.” His horrified mother objected, throwing herself across the doorstep to obstruct his departure, but he gently stepped over her, bade her farewell, and left for the monastery at Bangor on the coast of County Down. He would see neither his mother nor his home again. For about twenty years he lived as a monk, but at age forty sensed himself drawn to “preach the gospel in foreign lands,” and after much persuasion, finally gained his abbot’s permission to do so. With twelve companions, constituting the usual party of thirteen, he sailed for Saxon England, stayed there two fruitless years, and then in 585 landed on the French coast, penniless, friendless and starving.

Wandering inland, living on herbs, berries and the bark of young trees, they reached Burgundy, where the king, Guntram, gladly welcomed them. Both his people and his court, Guntram acknowledged, were sadly dissolute, bereft of both faith and morality. Burgundy needed Columban and his companions. They set themselves up in a half-ruined Roman fortress in the Vosges Mountains in eastern France, and people began seeking them out for healing, advice and a share in the grace that seemed to surround them. (So insistently did they want Columban in particular that he had to seek refuge in a nearby cave.) There were many recruits, and as their numbers grew, the king turned over to them a castle called Luxeuil. It would become a Christian bastion throughout the Middle Ages.

Although their work flourished and new monasteries began appearing, Columban and his monks were not universally popular. The Gallic bishops resented their widening influence, and in Frankish country, unlike Ireland, monastic abbots were subject to the local bishop. Eventually, the bishops met and condemned the Irish monks, charging, among other complaints, that they were celebrating Easter on what the Gallo-Romans considered the wrong date.12 Another grievance was that the Irish allowed no outsider to enter the inner precincts of their monasteries, a prohibition that included the local bishop. The case was referred to the pope.

Matters grew worse. Guntram died and was succeeded by the youthful and profligate king Theodoric whose grandmother, the dowager queen Brunhild (see chapter 8), encouraged his debaucheries. Brunhild favored an assortment of concubines for Theodoric, rather than a legitimate queen who would inevitably challenge her own hold on him. When the young monarch appeared to be falling under Columban’s spell, the old queen moved swiftly and had the monk arrested. He escaped, returned to his monastery, and was arrested again. This time, Brunhild (her grandson acquiescing as usual) ordered every Irish monk out of the country.

Held captive aboard a ship, they descended the Loire River and reached the sea, where their vessel foundered. The monks made their way cross-country, once again friendless, penniless and hungry. This time, however, fortune smiled sooner. They were now in the western Frankish kingdom of Neustria, where the king, Lothar, an enemy of Brunhild, knew all about them and pleaded with them to stay. But once again, Columban felt called. They must bring the cross to the still-pagan tribes in the high mountain country to the south, he said. He and his monks ascended the Rhine River to its tributaries, and on the shore of Lake Zurich, preached the gospel to the Alamanni and Suevi–who responded by chasing them away.

At Bregenz on Lake Constance, however, they had better success. A monk named Gall, one of the original mission of thirteen, could speak the local language. The people listened, and the monastery at Bregenz was born. The tireless Columban next sought to push on to Milan in Italy, but Gall balked. He was sick and he had had enough. He insisted upon remaining in the Bregenz region, and there he would die. The monastery that bears his name is a visible legacy, and Gall is generally credited as the man who brought the alpine Suevi and Alamanni, later known as the Swiss, into the Christian faith. Another tradition makes him the author of a certain charming poem about a monk and his cat. (See sidebar.)

In Italy, the Lombard king Agilulf, who had also heard of the Irish, eagerly welcomed them and bestowed upon them property at Bobbio, between Milan and Genoa. On his way to the site, Columban stopped to preach at a town called Mombrione, whose citizens were so enchanted by him that they renamed the place San Colombano. Their work prospered at Bobbio, as elsewhere, but establishing this monastery was his last assignment. He died there in 615 in a cave–seeking as always in solitude the escape that the old nun had counseled.

The Catholic Encyclopedia describes Columban as “eager, passionate and dauntless,” while noting that these same attributes could also make him “impetuous, even headstrong,” the qualities which accounted for both his failures and his successes. Legends nevertheless abounded of his tranquility of spirit–how birds would fly down from the trees and land on his shoulders, how squirrels would nestle in the folds of his cowl. His heritage, however, was not just legend. He became the prototype for hundreds of Anglo-Saxon missionaries, who in the ensuing three centuries would help work the conversion of western Europe through a Christian amalgam of their Celtic and Anglo-Saxon heritage.

Their names include Killian, Virgilius, Donatus, Wilfred, Willibrord, Swithbert and Winfrid (alternately Boniface), all of them canonized. “Almost all of Ireland, despising the sea, is migrating to our shores,” wrote Heiric of Auxerre in 870, adding ruefully, “with a herd of philosophers.”

It was this herd, however, along with Frankish monks from the continent, who in the coming centuries tamed the murderous instincts of the barbarian peoples, and laid down a Christian foundation upon which the extraordinary phenomenon known as Western culture would one day arise. So long as the foundation endured, so would this culture. Remove the foundation, however, or let it rot from within, and the whole structure would collapse. Such were the terms under which Western man ultimately would either prevail or perish.

This is the end of the St Patrick category article drawn from Chapter Nine, beginning on page 227, of Volume Four, Darkness Descends. To continue reading more about St Patrick from The Christians, Their First Two Thousand Years we suggest experiencing the rest of the book, complete with hundreds of magnificent illustrations, by ordering it at