by John Murphy Ball
St. Patrick’s Day has little significance. Outside of Ireland, it isn’t even a national holiday–I don’t know anyone who gets the day off.
However, if there was ever a man who deserved to have a day named in his honor, it is Patrick. He was a Christian hero of incredible bravery, a man who changed history, and a man of faith who richly deserves to be remembered–and not only by the Irish!
As with many early heroes, history and legend have combined when it comes to Patrick. From his own few writings we know he was born near the end of the fourth century in Britain, an outpost of the crumbling Roman Empire.
It was a terrible time in the western world. Many Christians believed the end of the world was near. The imperium was disintegrating, and along with it the settled, ordered way of Roman life.
Decades of defensive warfare against a thousand foes along the empire’s vast perimeter had consumed soldiers and resources at a rate impossible to maintain. Internal strife and corruption had further destabilized the great empire. Rome was slowly shrinking, drawing its troops inward to more defensible positions, and leaving remote provinces and colonies perilously isolated. Britain was such an orphaned outpost, without real protection from blood-thirsty raiders who swept in from the sea to rob, rape, pillage and kidnap children for slaves.
These raiders were the Irish–members of the same fierce Celtic race that had, in earlier decades, confronted Roman troops and fought them to a standstill on the borders of Roman Britain. In those days they had fought naked with their bodies painted in vivid colors. To the civilized Romans they were frightening savages with modern swords, shields and other weapons.
The Irish made jewelry and tableware from the bones of their victims, and they worshiped horrible, murderous monster gods. They practiced human sacrifice and were accused of cannibalism by the Romans, who never conquered them or their neighbors, the Picts. Instead, the Roman army steered clear of these natives and built sturdy walls across Britain in an effort to keep them at bay.
One of the unfortunate children stolen in a raid by these pirate warriors was Patrick, a Christian Roman boy dragged off one dark night, along with his two sisters, and carried across the sea to the remote mountains of Ireland. He was sold to be a shepherding slave. He was forced to live in horrible conditions, often hungry, often cold, threatened by the elements, and abused by his captors. Patrick survived, though, and over the years, he learned the language of the Irish and their ways.
In his Confession, one of two documents that have been attributed to St. Patrick, he tells us that he had not been particularly religious before his capture. But shivering alone in his mountain cave, with only his master’s sheep for companions, he turned earnestly to the Lord.
During his six years in bondage Patrick prayed and meditated. One day, he tells us, God sent him a surprising vision in a dream. He was to go to a certain harbor, where a boat would be waiting to take him home to Britain. He believed the message, walked to the harbor, and events happened as he had been told. Now a young man, Patrick was free and at home with his parents once again!
He spent only a short time with his family, for he received another message, in another dream. Patrick tells us this dream was vivid and startling. He was to return to Ireland, the land from which he had just escaped, not as a slave, but as a minister of God. The Lord had chosen Patrick, he believed, to turn the Irish from their Druidic paganism to Christ.
Obediently, Patrick set to work on what was to be a lifelong task. He studied for years, became a priest, and began to petition to be sent to Ireland. His petitions were repeatedly denied, and he was given other work. A decade passed, and then another. Patrick was made a bishop, but he was not allowed to go to Ireland. Most men would have given up, but Patrick worked, prayed and petitioned. Still more years passed. Another bishop, Palladius, was chosen to take the Gospel to Ireland–Patrick would not be the first missionary to Ireland after all.
Palladius’ mission failed. It lasted less than a year. Finally, Patrick, now perhaps 60 years old, after waiting, praying and petitioning for most of his life, was given permission by the Pope to undertake his very dangerous mission to Ireland.
What followed is an incredible story.
Ireland was a warrior nation divided into tribal districts. It was rich from years of raiding and from its booming slave trade. This was a world ruled by handsome, fierce, fighting nobles and black-hooded Druid priests. Here pagan, magical arts were practiced and the great idol Crom-Cruach, surrounded by 12 lesser deities, towered over a field dedicated to blood sacrifice. This was also a land where wandering poets sang songs of mythical heroes while chieftains feasted with their warriors in torchlit halls.
According to tradition and to the stories passed down to us, in about the year 432 Patrick and a small band landed their boat in Ireland and, singing a hymn for divine protection, proceeded inland. They soon found themselves face to face with a party of armed warriors led by two Irish princes who had orders to kill the Christians. However, as Patrick spoke a few words to the soldiers, the Holy Spirit swept in, converting the majority, whom Patrick baptized on the spot, including the two princes. The warriors joined Patrick on his inland march. (The princes eventually became priests and bishops themselves.)
Eventually, Patrick arrived at the court of King Leoghaire at Tara, where Druid priests displayed their demonic magic, theatrically plunging the hall into darkness. Instead of cowering in fright, Patrick observed aloud that these priests could create darkness but that they could not dispel it–which they could not. He then proceeded to use this incident as the theme of a sermon, in which he likened Christ to the light. Many of the assembled nobles converted to Christianity that day, and Patrick gained the king’s respect and protection.
The Druids claimed his mere presence sucked the magic power out of their practices. Other war parties sent to kill Patrick were converted by him instead. Tribal kings and queens fell in love with his charity and fearlessness. Even those who did not convert respected him. In about 434, after only two years of preaching in Ireland, Patrick himself used a long pry bar to topple the stone idol of Crom-Cruach.
He often faced certain death unafraid. He argued, preached and brought Christ with him everywhere he traveled. In his path he left converts and churches under construction. In about the time it took Patrick to walk across it, Ireland converted from paganism to Christianity. Ireland outlawed slavery and stopped raiding its neighbors. Never before in the history of the world and never since has such a dramatic and sudden cultural and religious change taken place without force of arms, solely through the Word of God.
An Irish hero
In many ways, Patrick was more Irish than the Irish. He loved Irish legends, poetry and songs, and he insisted that this heritage be documented and retained. For their part, the Irish loved him and embraced him. Patrick lived his life in Ireland and died there. He left behind a Christian people, a civilized people, and he left behind towns, schools, seminaries and a love of learning perpetuated to this day.
Perhaps the story I have just told is as much myth as truth. We know that there were probably small groups of Christians in Ireland before Patrick’s arrival, not in the least because of the kidnapping raids by Irish pirates. St. Patrick probably did not really drive all the snakes from Ireland either, as the legends say (biologists tell us snakes have never been native to Ireland), but we can agree that Patrick surely helped drive out one deadly serpent from that green garden!
A few years after Patrick’s death, Germanic barbarians sacked the city of Rome, burned books, tore down buildings, melted priceless artifacts, and dragged the western world into the Dark Ages. Western civilization was almost lost, but the Irish, on their island beyond the reach of the barbarians, remained a bastion of Christianity and learning. Irish monks sought out, copied and protected the few manuscripts that survived the barbarian onslaught on the continent. They protected not only Christian manuscripts, but influenced by Patrick’s love of literature and history, copied and maintained secular and pagan literature as well. Thanks to their efforts, we have the Illiad of Homer, the lectures of Cicero, and a thousand other cultural wonders that might otherwise have vanished. In short, for centuries Irish monks preserved our western heritage for us.
It was also Irish missionaries, following in Patrick’s footsteps, who risked their lives to bring the Gospel to those barbarians who had conquered Rome and spread across Europe–the Germans. Along with Christianity, Irish monks brought the same gifts to these barbarians that Patrick had carried to them not so many decades before: art, literature, learning and a new way of life.
The “Apostle of Ireland,” as Patrick is sometimes called, is also associated with the shamrock, a plant sacred to the Druids, to explain the Trinity. Preaching in the open air, Patrick is said to have plucked a shamrock from the grass growing at his feet and showed it to his listeners as an illustration of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
So, we should give a bit of honor to Patrick, a Romanized Briton who began his letters, “I, Patrick, a sinner . …” He was a man who trusted God, became a powerful witness for the Lord, and changed the world. He was truly a hero.
About the author: A physicist and writer, John Murphy Ball is a member of Ascension Lutheran Church, Huntsville, Ala. This story appeared originally in the March 1999 Lutheran Witness. LCMS congregations may reprint for parish use. All other rights reserved. Text copyright © 1999 by John Murphy Ball.