Turning our attention to the Emerald Isle, we find ourselves vexed with one of the most complicated histories of one of the most famous men in church history; Patrick of Ireland. Often confused even by historians with Palladius (whom he predated by almost two hundred years), most of what the average person knows about Patrick is legends and fanciful tales that have been embellished over the centuries by various interested parties. Rome has a cottage industry of painting Patrick as one of her own, and crediting him with introducing Rome’s flavor of Christianity to the natives. However, not only is there a Christian presence in Ireland that predates Patrick, but Patrick was hardly a ‘good little Catholic’.
In fact, the writings of antiquity documented quite plainly that not only was there a thriving evangelistic work in Ireland less than 100 years after Christ’s birth, but that this work consisted of publick ministry as a means of propagation. For example, Eusebius writes in his church history that the apostles crossed over the sea to visit the British Isles. Gildas, a British historian writing in the 6th century, records that Christianity was introduced to Ireland prior to A.D. 61, while Cardinal Baronius records that the Gospel was first preached in Britain in the year A.D. 35. H.J. Mason in his work, Religion of the Ancient Irish Saints claims that the Bible was available in Ireland in the common tongue as early as 400 and that Christianity was introduced to Ireland by Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons in France. Irenaeus was a disciple of Polycarp, who was a disciple of John, which plainly places a Christian presence in Ireland within less than 2 generations of the completion of the New Testament. In addition, Tertullian wrote in 200 A.D., “Those parts of the British Isles, which were unapproached by the Romans, were yet subject to Christ.”, and Chrystom, the Greek historian wrote in 388 A.D. “Although thou shouldest go to the ocean, and those British Isles, thou shouldst hear all men everywhere discoursing matters out of Scripture with another voice indeed, but not another faith.”
Patrick was the son of a Roman magistrate living in Briton, and his family despite their social standing, fared poorly in one of the raids conducted against north Briton (then called Cedona) by King Colmac Ulfada. During this raid in 240 A.D., many of Patrick’s family were killed, and he, as a sixteen year old boy, was carried off as a slave to the shores of broad Killala Bay in County Mayo, in the bleak northwest of Ireland. There he was put to work tending sheep—far from home, alone in an utterly alien land. Then, as he tells us:
After I came to Ireland—every day I had to tend sheep, and many times a day I prayed—the love of God and His fear came to me more and more, and my faith was strengthened. And my spirit was moved so that in a single day I would say as many as a hundred prayers, and almost as many in the night, and this even when I was staying in the woods and on the mountain, and I used to get up for prayer before daylight, through snow, through frost, through rain, and I felt no harm, and there was no sloth in me—as I now see, because the spirit within me was then fervent.
Six years later he escaped, and, going through Scotland, eventually made his way back to Briton. He was discipled under the work of Greek missionaries and after a few years with his family, was ordained in Gaul and announced that it was God’s will that he return to Ireland to preach, which he did in approximately 252.1
When he announced his intention of going to Ireland to preach the Christian religion, he was first met with all sorts of tears, entreaties and expostulations and offers of wealth and place..and when these failed..he himself was abused and upbraided…and…finally..placed in confinement
Despite Roman historians best efforts to superimpose Patrick’s ministry over the papist Palladius it is noteworthy in Patrick’s writings that there are no mention of Romish ways. Nowhere do you see references to mass, purgatory, Mary worship, or even of any allegiance to the See. Instead his writings abound with Scriptural references and explanations of justification entirely by faith in the shed blood of Jesus Christ. His Confession abounds with statements such as2
I was as a stone which lies in the deep mire; and he who is mighty came, and took me out of it in his mercy; and he indeed raised me up and placed me on the top of the wall
Another element of the ‘St. Patrick ‘ myth is his purported supremacy over all other ministers in Ireland. As we have shown, Patrick did not introduce the Gospel to the island, and so in addition to his writings, we have the record of his contemporaries regarding his ministry. Secundinus , a disciple of Patrick and possibly his nephew writes “he was a true and eminent cultivator of the evangelical field whose seeds appear to be the Gospel of Christ.” Jocelyn, writing in the twelfth century, says “he read and interpreted the four Gospels at certain seasons, for three days and three nights continually among the people.”
Patrick died in approximately 310 A.D. , after 60 years of ministry , and by the ninth century, over sixty-six biographies of him were in existence which, according to the historian Gibbon “ must contained as many thousand lies”. Incursions and occupations by the Norwegians and the Danes later on destroyed many of the original records and by the twelfth century, the Catholic Church had enjoyed almost 4 centuries of supremacy over Ireland, with plenty of time to rewrite history and obscure so much of the truth about this soldier of the cross and publick preacher.
1 1. St. Patrick, Apostle of Ireland in the Third Century by R. Steele Nicholson
1 2. Religion of the Ancient Irish Saints Before A.D. 600 by H.J. Mason
3. Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire by Gibbon
3. Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire by Gibbon