Ireland’s Oldest Voice

‘I am Patrick, a sinner, unlettered, the least of all the faithful, and held in contempt by a great many people. I am the son of Calpornius, a deacon, son of Potitus, a priest.  My father lived in the village of Bannavem Taburniae, for he had an estate nearby, where I was taken captive’.[1]

These are the words that break the great silence of our Irish past, the words that begin the oldest existent document in Irish history. They speak for the beginning of a new world, a world where ideas will be recorded, in manuscripts and in books, where Christianity will shape, and be shaped by, the particularities – and peculiarities – of an island on the very edge of Europe.  But for the man speaking these words maybe the world is not dawning anew.  Maybe for him the world is old, creaking towards its end.  Certainly for him it is a world to make one weary, splattered with violence and soaked in opposition and sheer dogged sinfulness, but a world, too, enlivened with the sheer splendour of the grace of God.  For the man speaking to us across countless centuries does not address us as a man triumphant.  He speaks as a captive.  Of all the countless millions pressed into slavery in the ancient world it has been observed that one, and one only, tells us his tale: and that one is Patrick.[2]  And he speaks as an exile, a wanderer – he never quite forgets that he is not at home – though ‘he would nearly love to make that journey, so as to see my homeland and family’ he knows, as he writes, probably towards the end of his life, that he will not; not now because he is bound by the bonds of captivity, but by the compulsion to serve ‘Christ the Lord … and be with these people for the rest of my life…’.[3]

Historians are much given to worrying over the possible details of Patrick’s life, and rightly so, but always we circle back to the few sure details which he provides of the ‘facts’ of his life – and few they are.  What we can safely conclude is that Patrick was born and raised, to the age of sixteen, in that part of Britain that had fallen within the bounds of the Roman Empire, that he spent six years as a captive in Ireland and, having escaped, returned to the land of his captivity where he composed at least the two short works which still survive – generally known as his ‘Confession’ and his ‘Letter to the soldiers of Coroticus’ – and that at this time he describes himself as a bishop.  Of the where of his labours in Ireland he gives us nothing to go on, and of the when little more – again, in all probability, we can safely locate him in the fifth century, with maybe the strongest current arguments tilting towards the later years of that century, but with sound counter-arguments still being made that place his life some decades earlier.

Whatever the timing, what matters profoundly is that Patrick speaks out of a time of catastrophic uncertainty.  For the likes of Patrick and his family, all the pillars upholding their world were crumbling – political, cultural, economic, even religious – as the empire of Rome slid towards collapse.  Boundaries burst, boundaries on the map and boundaries in the mind, too – it was no longer so easy, maybe no longer possible to do as had been done for centuries and see the world divided between ‘Romans’ and ‘barbarians’, those within and those outside the power of Rome, words which Patrick, too, would use. In Patrick’s Britain the armies of Rome and the administration of empire departed or collapsed after 406.  As has been said: ‘Once that great machine had been brought to a halt … the economy of the entire island of Britain … rapidly lost its sophisticated Roman face.  Britain slipped back into conditions more brutally simplified even than the Iron Age societies which had preceded the coming of the Romans.  What archaeologists of post-imperial Britain have discovered is a flattened landscape.  The towns stood largely empty, without coins and without extensive trade in objects even as simple to produce and move around as pottery’.[4]

Patrick lived in uncertainty.  Perhaps, for all we know, he died in uncertainty.  Later generations looked back to this man as the ‘apostle’ of Ireland, celebrated him as the one principally responsible for the spreading of Christianity to Ireland.  But the picture he paints is one in which Christianity is far from triumphant.

Where certainty lay for Patrick was with the transformational power of God’s grace.  It was that grace that found him and changed his life forever, for ‘I know this for a certainty: that assuredly before I was humbled I was like a stone lying in deep mire; and that He who is mighty came and in His mercy lifted me up; and, more than that, truly raised me aloft and placed me on top of the wall’.[5]  It was that grace that had redeemed, and restored the captive Patrick to home and to family, and that had redirected his life back to Ireland in response to the cries of the ‘vision of the night’, of those who ‘lived beside the wood of Voclut, which is near the Western sea, … “We beg you, holy youth, to come and walk once more among us”’.[6] It was that grace that surprised him into discovering that ‘I should be concerned or active myself about the salvation of others, at a time when I was taking no thought even for myself’.[7] Grace spilt out, swirled and splashed beyond the markers of kinship, of learning or of nation.  Patrick knew, by experience, that God is ‘no accepter of persons’,[8] the he, like others, were heirs to the biblical call ‘to spread our nets, so that a great multitude and throng should be caught for God, and that everywhere there should be clergy to baptize and exhort a needy and thirsting people’ as, ‘in Ireland … they have lately been made a people of the Lord and are called children of God’.[9]

The sheer shocking nature of his enterprise still astounds.  Shocking at a personal level, that he should be a means for ‘the holy mercy I exercise towards that people who once took me captive and carried off the menservants and maidservants of my father’s house’, that he should escape from one captivity only to pronounce himself ‘a slave in Christ to a foreign people for the sake of the inexpressible glory of the eternal life which is in Christ Jesus our Lord’.[10] But shocking, too, in its break with assumptions of a Christianity interwoven so tightly with Roman culture as to make almost unimaginable its seepage to the barbarians beyond the edge of empire.  More than one historian has pondered what has been called the ‘disturbingly revolutionary’ notion that Patrick lead the church ‘into evangelistic endeavour among the Gaelic heathen’.[11] Patrick was not the first Christian in Ireland.  Evidence, much mulled over, exists to show that one Palladius had been despatched as a bishop ‘for those Irish who were Christians’[12] in 431, and though he makes little impact on the record he probably did labour, as one contemporary put it, to make ‘the barbarous island Christian’.[13]  With Patrick there is no such doubt.  Palladius almost certainly, and Patrick, possibly, too, were intended principally to minister to those in Ireland who were already Christian, perhaps, for the most part, outsiders who had crossed what has been called the ‘soft boundary’ between Ireland and empire, as traders or, like Patrick himself, as unwilling captives.[14]  It has been suggested that the opposition which Patrick faced, from within the community of Christians, was directed, in part at least, at his insistence on the dangerous and demanding task of evangelizing the Irish.[15]

Whatever the precise degree of continuity or change of some things that are no doubt; that, as has been rightly said, Patrick’s ‘tone is startlingly universalist’, he is ‘a saint of the open frontier’.[16]  All the comfortable familiarity not only of his life, but of his thought-world was challenged and overthrown by his identification with those nations that had been his enemies.  The gospel could not be confined by the boundaries of the powers of this world – ‘we have been witnesses that the Gospel has been preached to the limit beyond which no-one dwells’[17], witnesses to ‘a people newly coming to belief whom the Lord took from the uttermost parts of the earth, as long ago He had promised through His prophets’.[18]  For Patrick, indeed, that echo of the biblical word that the gospel would reach the ends of the earth before the end of the world seems to have suggested that that end would not now be long delayed.  To press towards that goal Patrick was willing to endure reproach and be misunderstood by those he would consider his own fellow-Romans and fellow-believers; to lose his standing and become a displaced member of an alien society, renouncing wealth and embracing danger.

For Patrick the gospel insisted that we break down barriers.  But for Patrick the gospel erected barriers, too; not barriers built on nationality, knowledge or wealth, but barriers built on truth and on justice.  Why did Patrick compose a ‘Letter to the soldiers of Coroticus’?  To condemn the brutal actions which these men had perpetrated, slaughtering and carrying captive new-baptized believers.  Identifying Coroticus is no easy task, but most likely he was based somewhere on the island of Great Britain, and had some claims to be, like Patrick, a ‘Roman’, identifying with the legacy of that now crumbling empire.  Patrick’s language is clear, even stark – those he addresses he will not call ‘my fellow citizens, or … fellow citizens of the holy Romans, but … fellow citizens of the demons, because of their evil deeds … . Blood-stained men bloodied in the blood of innocent Christians’.[19]  He knows who he is – he is a stranger in Ireland and dwells as an exile,[20] yet he asks of the assailants ‘do they not believe that we have received one and the same baptism, or that we have one and the same God as Father?  For them it is a matter of disdain the we be Irish’.[21]  There is no naiveté here.  Patrick knows that Irish and Picts, as well as Roman British, have acted together in the ‘wickedness of the wicked’.[22]  But he will weep with those who weep, for those who are now carried captive, as once was he.[23]

Justice is demanding.  It is not enough to confront the opening wicked, for Patrick the warning goes out to those who are not bloodied but who might be ‘making merry with such persons’.[24]  Compassion for the weak, condemnation of the vicious makes demands on the comfortable.  Yet lest we forget, that grace that escapes all human bounds escapes even the bounds of human sin.  For whom should he grieve most, those slain, those captured or ‘those whom the devil has so grievously ensnared’ that they commit such deeds?[25]  These cannot be hidden away, there must be restitution, the captives must be set free, but the door to pardon is never closed.  His very last thought in the letter is that repentance, evidenced in restitution, might yet come, ‘if God thus inspires the, so that they deserve to live unto God ,and be made whole here and in eternity’.[26]

What we know of Patrick we mostly know from the words he leaves us.  We don’t have the voices of his critics.  As Thomas O’Loughlin puts it, rather than being the ‘model of ecclesial rectitude’ that later generations imagined ‘Patrick must have been a considerable annoyance to his fellow bishops’.[27]  I think that would be putting it mildly!  Perched, as he thought, at the very edge of the world at the very end of time, Patrick, though dead, yet speaks.  His words were surely hard to hear then, and may not be easy to ponder now.  He spoke in uncertain times, and his words challenge easy certainties, over-easy identification of God’s plans with political structures or church identities, too-ready accommodation or too-rapid exclusion, but all from a conviction that a greater certainty underlies all uncertainty, a certainty of grace which knows no bounds, which finds out a boy praying in the rain and compels him to love his enemies, compels him to find his freedom in choosing to be God’s captive.


Peter Brown, The rise of western Christendom: triumph and diversity, AD 200-1000 (2nd edition, Oxford, 2003)

Daniel Conneely, Saint Patrick’s letters: a study of their theological dimension ed. Patrick Bastable (Maynooth, 1993)

David N. Dumville et al, Saint Patrick, A.D. 493-1992 (Woodbridge, 1993)

Dáibhí Ó Cróinín, ‘Saint Patrick’, in A.J. Hughes & William Nolan eds., Armagh: history and society (Dublin, 2001)

Thomas O’Loughlin, Discovering Saint Patrick (London, 2005)

Clare Stancliffe, ‘Patrick (fl. 5th cent.)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, (Oxford, 2004)

Note on Palladius

Charles-Edwards notes that Leo, in the 440s, refers to the spread of the faith beyond the widest reach of the empire (1-2) and quotes Prosper’s comment that ‘sons of the Church who have been captured by enemies have handed their masters into the possession of Christ’s gospel’ (5) and notes how Prosper sought to show how ‘divine grace is extended to barbarians’ (6).  For Leo he reckons it important to uncouple the church from the empire, and that for both men Ireland must have been an important instance (7).  Dumville seeks to blend this with Thompson’s observations: Palladius’s mission ‘may not have had a predominantly missionary motivation’ but papal thinking and local developments ‘would probably have conspired to push the newly organised Irish Church into a partially evangelistic stance’.  Yet soon Rome would have been cut off from insular endeavours (133), and he is inclined to support the notion that Patrick’s mission took its rise in Britain (134-5), perhaps acting as a missionary or priest there before elevation to the episcopate (136).  He reads Confession 46 as critical of ‘Patrick’s idea of carrying the gospel to the heathen Irish’ (137) Ó Cróinín speculates that the uox Hiberionacum ‘voice of those living in Ireland’ meant Latin speakers, captives like Patrick and suggests a distinction in Patrick’s writings between Scotti, ‘native Irish’, and Hiberionaci, ‘people living in Ireland’ like himself (51-2).  But he reckons that his intention to preach to the ‘pagan Irish’ ‘raised questions’ both among the exiles and ‘his superiors … back in Britain’ (52).  He adds that the church of his day lacked a ‘concept of mission’ – that Palladius was sent to believers but Patrick set out to the heathen (55).  This leads him to ponder whether the early (Esposito) date for Patrick might be correct.  O’Loughlin (38) picks up on Prosper’s use of Scottos to suggest that by then ‘there were not only Christians in Ireland, but Irish Christians’.  (He, of course, sees different grounds for Patrick’s clash with the British ecclesiastical leadership.)

Note on dates

O’Loughlin (44-7) sets out the three main options:

  1. A 4th to early 5th century option, which he sees as ‘hard to reconcile’ with several Christian generations of his family, but which Ó Cróinín seems more open towards, as pre-Palladius and so accounting for the community to which Palladius was sent, as well as his apparent unawareness of Palladius (57-8)
  2. A ‘traditional’ arrival c.432, obviously linked to knowledge of the Palladius date (‘suspiciously close’) but which cut across some evidence from annals
  3. A later date, which he leans towards (and raises, but not to be thrown by, the seeming reference to pagan Franks), maybe making a date of 493.

The late date is thoroughly supported by Dumville.  He reckons the two set points are the reference to the Franks, ruling out a 6th century date, and the apparent use of parts of the Vulgate text, ruling out the 4th century (14-16) i.e. text completed NT 383, OT 404, while Patrick uses for Acts and sometimes for other parts NT or Psalms. He adds that the monastic evidence makes the 4th century improbable (16-17).  Pondering the annals, he sees clusters around 457-61 and 493, but reckons the latter drawn in later, from the hagiography (29ff), which would also fit with the dates of the rulers associated with Patrick, who are otherwise artificially back-dated to the 440s and 450s (45ff).

One other point made by Dumville is that while evidence of a link to Downpatrick, Saul, etc is 200 years later, the place of burial is likely to be the ‘oldest piece’ of evidence about a saint, making the connection worthy of some respect (185).


[1] Confession 1 (Conneely)

[2] O’Loughlin, p. 54

[3] Confession 43 (Conneely); cf. O’Loughlin, 65ff.

[4] Brown, p. 126.

[5] Confession 12 (Conneely)

[6] Confession 23 (Conneely)

[7] Confession 28 (Conneely)

[8] Confession 56 (Conneely)

[9] Confession 40-1 (Conneely)

[10] Letter 10 (Conneely)

[11] Dumville, p. 137, referring to Thompson, Who was saint Patrick?, 79-102.

[12] Ó Cróinín, p. 47 – check alternative translations.  Charles-Edwards, p. 1 has ‘to the Irish who believe in Christ’.

[13] Ó Cróinín, p. 48; very much the argument of Charles-Edwards in Dumville.  O’Loughlin, p. 40 sums up as follows: ‘There is no reason to think that Palladius’s mission was short-lived or a failure.  In all likelihood the spent the rest of his life working on one of the most difficult pastorates of the time, helping to organise his scattered flock, training and ordaining clergy, and preaching the gospel – but like so many workers, before him and since, he left little that an historian can find’.

[14] O’Loughlin, p. 31 for quoted phrase; Dumville, p. 133.

[15] Ó Cróinín, pp 54-5.

[16] Brown, pp. 131, 132.

[17] Confession 34 (Conneely)

[18] Confession 38 (Conneely)

[19] Letter 2 (Conneely)

[20] Letter 1 (Conneely)

[21] Letter 16 (Conneely)

[22] Letter 2, 16 (Conneely)

[23] Dumville, 109 contrast the criticism of some scottus for ill deeds, with a sense of ‘we Irish’ as hibernus or hiberionacus, and ponders if the former means ‘pagan Irish’ and the latter a more ‘neutral’ term, and that Coroticus and his men have some claim to be Britons or ‘Romans’.

[24] Letter 13 (Conneely)

[25] Letter 4 (Conneely)

[26] Letter 21 (Conneely)

[27] O’Loughlin, p. 94.