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St. Patrick

Downpatrick, and the whole area of County Down in which we are based, has a strong connection with the patron saint of Ireland. One of our members, Dr. Brian Turner, prepared the following introduction to the life of Patrick.

Patrick’s Life

PATRICK was a Roman Briton. He was born into a wealthy Christian family when the last Roman legions were withdrawing from Britain at the beginning of the fifth century, but many of its inhabitants still maintained Roman ways.

Although the attacks from Ireland, northern Britain and Europe, which were eventually to overwhelm Roman Britain, had begin, the Christian Church still kept its organisation.

Patrick came from somewhere near the west coast of Roman Britain. His birthplace is uncertain but one suggestion is the small settlement of Banna (near Birdoswald) on Hadrian’s Wall, fifteen miles inland from Luguvalium (Carlisle). As a youth he was carried off by Irish raiders and spent six years in captivity before he escaped and eventually went back to his parents’ home. He became a priest and returned to Ireland as a bishop.

In the fifth century Ireland was at the edge of the known world, but it had been influenced from outside, including from Britain. It is likely that Christianity reached Ireland before Patrick, by way of traders, and through captured slaves, like Patrick himself had been.

Patrick was not the first bishop in Ireland. In 431 AD Pope Celestine ‘sent Palladius, ordained as the first bishop, to the Irish believers in Christ.’ This Roman missionary either failed, or was eclipsed by the fame of Patrick, who came not from Rome, but from Britain.

Two surviving documents are believed to be an authentic record of Patrick’s own words. One is the autobiographical testimony known as The Confession. The other is the Letter to Coroticus in which Patrick condemns Coroticus, a British chieftain, for murdering and enslaving Irish people who had just embraced Christianity. These documents show Patrick to have been a humble man, very aware of his total dependence on God, single minded in his mission to win souls for Christ, and concerned to use the Bible as his guide. It is a very different picture from that of the dominating miracle worker portrayed by later biographers.

The dates of Patrick’s life, like all its details, are uncertain. 432AD has been widely accepted as the start of his mission, but this was probably influenced by a desire to place him as close as possible to Palladius. whose date of 431 is known. We can say that Patrick came to Ireland in the mid fifth century, aged about thirty, worked here for thirty or forty years, and died before the end of the century.

Words of Patrick

‘I, Patrick, a sinner, a most simple countryman, the least of all the faithful and most contemptible to many, had for father the deacon Calpurnius, son of the late Potitus, a priest, of the settlement of Bannavem Taburniae.’

‘ … in a vision of the night I saw a man whose name was Victoricus coming as if from Ireland with innumerable letters – and they were crying as if with one voice: ‘We beg you, holy youth, that you shall come and walk again among us.’ And I was stung intensely in my heart ..’.

‘I went as far as the outermost regions beyond which no one lived, and where no one had ever penetrated before, to baptise or to ordain clergy or to confirm people.’

“May it never befall me to be separated by my God from his people whom he has won in this remote land. I pray God that he gives me perseverance, and that he will deign that I should be a faithful witness for his sake right up to the time of my passing.’

From The Confession of St Patrick

Further reading

There is a varied range and level of literature on St. Patrick and reference to one book will lead to others…

  • The Life and Legend of St. Patrick by Ludwig Bieler (Dublin 1949)
  • In the steps of St. Patrick by Brian de Breffny (London 1982)
  • Saint Patrick’s World by Liam de Paor (Dublin 1993)
  • St. Patrick Writes (Translations of ‘The Letter to Coroticus’ and ‘The Confession’) by Joseph Duffy (Dublin 1981).
  • Saint Patrick: His origins and career by R P C Hanson (Oxford 1968)
  • The living legend of St. Patrick by Alannah Hopkin (London 1989)
  • Discovering Saint Patrick by Thomas O’Loughlin (London 2005)
Written by Brian S Turner | First published by Down County Museum, 1990


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