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§ 14. The Conversion of Ireland. St. Patrick and St. Bridget.


I. The writings of St. Patrick are printed in the Vitae Sanctorum of the Bollandists, sub March 17th; in Patricii Opuscula, ed. Warsaeus (Sir James Ware, Lond., 1656); in Migne’s Patrolog., Tom. LIII. 790–839, and with critical notes in Haddan and Stubbs, Councils, etc., Vol. II, Part II, (1878), pp. 296–323.

II. The Life of St. Patrick in the Acta Sanctorum, Mart., Tom. II. 517 sqq.

Tillemont: Mémoires, Tom. XVI. 452, 781.

Ussher: Brit. Eccl. Antiqu.

J. H. Todd: St. Patrick, Apostle of Ireland. Dublin, 1864.

C. Joh. Greith (R.C.): Geschichte der altirischen Kirche und ihrer Verbindung mit Rom., Gallien und Alemannien, als Einleitung in die Geschichte des Stifts St. Gallen. Freiburg i. B. 1867.

Daniel de Vinné: History Of the Irish Primitive Church, together with the Life of St. Patrick. N. York, 1870

J. Francis Sherman (R.C.): Loca Patriciana: an Identification of Localities, chiefly in Leinster, visited by St. Patrick. Dublin, 1879.

F. E. Warren (Episc.): The Manuscript Irish Missal at Corpus Christi College, Oxford. London, 1879. Ritual of the Celtic Church. Oxf. 1881.

Comp. also the works of Todd, McLauchan, Ebrard, Killen, and Skene, quoted in § 7, and Forbes, Kalendars of Scottish Saints, p. 431.

The church-history of Ireland is peculiar. It began with an independent catholicity (or a sort of semi-Protestantism), and ended with Romanism, while other Western countries passed through the reverse order. Lying outside of the bounds of the Roman empire, and never invaded by Roman legions,4545    Agricola thought of invading Ireland, and holding it by a single legion, in order to remove from Britain the dangerous sight of freedom. Tacitus, Agric., c. 24. that virgin island was Christianized without bloodshed and independently of Rome and of the canons of the oecumenical synods. The early Irish church differed from the Continental churches in minor points of polity and worship, and yet excelled them all during the sixth and seventh centuries in spiritual purity and missionary zeal. After the Norman conquest, it became closely allied to Rome. In the sixteenth century the light of the Reformation did not penetrate into the native population; but Queen Elizabeth and the Stuarts set up by force a Protestant state-religion in antagonism to the prevailing faith of the people. Hence, by the law of re-action, the Keltic portion of Ireland became more intensely Roman Catholic being filled with double hatred of England on the ground of difference of race and religion. This glaring anomaly of a Protestant state church in a Roman Catholic country has been removed at last after three centuries of oppression and misrule, by the Irish Church Disestablishment Act in 1869 under the ministry of Gladstone.

The early history of Ireland (Hibernia) is buried in obscurity. The ancient Hibernians were a mixed race, but prevailingly Keltic. They were ruled by petty tyrants, proud, rapacious and warlike, who kept the country in perpetual strife. They were devoted to their religion of Druidism. Their island, even before the introduction of Christianity, was called the Sacred Island. It was also called Scotia or Scotland down to the eleventh century.4646    Isidore of Seville in 580 (Origines XIV. 6) was the first to call Hibernia by the name of Scotia: ”Scotia eadem et Ibernia, proxima Britanniae insula.” The Romans made no attempt at subjugation, as they did not succeed in establishing their authority in Caledonia.

The first traces of Irish Christianity are found at the end of the fourth or the beginning of the fifth century.

As Pelagius, the father of the famous heresy, which bears his name, was a Briton, so Coelestius, his chief ally and champion, was a Hibernian; but we do not know whether he was a Christian before be left Ireland. Mansuetus, first bishop of Toul, was an Irish Scot (a.d. 350). Pope Caelestine, in 431, ordained and sent Palladius, a Roman deacon, and probably a native Briton, “to the Scots believing in Christ,” as their first bishop.4747    Prosper Aquitan. (a. d.455-463), Chron. ad an. 431: ”Ad Scotos in Christum credentes ordinatus a Papa Coelestino Palladius primus Episcopus mittitur.” Comp. Vita S. Palladii in the Book of Armagh, and the notes by Haddan and Stubbs, Vol. II., Part II., pp. 290, 291. This notice by Prosper of France implies the previous existence of Christianity in Ireland. But Palladius was so discouraged that he soon abandoned the field, with his assistants for North Britain, where he died among the Picts.4848    He is said to have left in Ireland, when he withdrew, some relics of St. Peter and Paul, and a copy of the Old and New Testaments, which the Pope had given him, together with the tablets on which he himself used to write. Haddan & Stubbs, p. 291. For nearly two centuries after this date, we have no authentic record of papal intercourse with Ireland; and yet during that period it took its place among the Christian countries. It was converted by two humble individuals, who probably never saw Rome, St. Patrick, once a slave, and St. Bridget, the daughter of a slave-mother.4949    Hence Montalembert says (II. 393): “The Christian faith dawned upon Ireland by means of two slaves.” The slave-trade between Ireland and England flourished for many centuries. The Roman tradition that St. Patrick was sent by Pope Caelestine is too late to have any claim upon our acceptance, and is set aside by the entire silence of St. Patrick himself in his genuine works. It arose from confounding Patrick with Palladius. The Roman mission of Palladius failed; the independent mission of Patrick succeeded. He is the true Apostle of Ireland, and has impressed his memory in indelible characters upon the Irish race at home and abroad.

St. Patrick or Patricius (died March 17, 465 or 493) was the son of a deacon, and grandson of a priest, as he confesses himself without an intimation of the unlawfulness of clerical marriages.5050    This fact is usually, omitted by Roman Catholic writers. Butler says simply: “His father was of a good family.” Even Montalembert conceals it by calling “the Gallo-Roman (?) Patrick, son of a relative of the great St. Martin of Tours” (II. 390). He also repeats, without a shadow of proof, the legend that St. Patrick was consecrated and commissioned by Pope St. Celestine (p. 391), though he admits that “legend and history have vied in taking possession of the life of St. Patrick.” He was in his youth carried captive into Ireland, with many others, and served his master six years as a shepherd. While tending his flock in the lonesome fields, the teachings of his childhood awakened to new life in his heart without any particular external agency. He escaped to France or Britain, was again enslaved for a short period, and had a remarkable dream, which decided his calling. He saw a man, Victoricius, who handed him innumerable letters from Ireland, begging him to come over and help them. He obeyed the divine monition, and devoted the remainder of his life to the conversion of Ireland (from a.d. 440 to 493).5151    The dates are merely conjectural. Haddan & Stubbs (p. 295) select a. d.440 for St. Patrick’s mission (as did Tillemont & Todd), and 493 as the year of his death. According to other accounts, his mission began much earlier, and lasted sixty years. The alleged date of the foundation of Armagh is a. d.445.

“I am,” he says, “greatly a debtor to God, who has bestowed his grace so largely upon me, that multitudes were born again to God through me. The Irish, who never had the knowledge of God and worshipped only idols and unclean things, have lately become the people of the Lord, and are called sons of God.” He speaks of having baptized many thousands of men. Armagh seems to have been for some time the centre of his missionary operations, and is to this day the seat of the primacy of Ireland, both Roman Catholic and Protestant. He died in peace, and was buried in Downpatrick (or Gabhul), where he began his mission, gained his first converts and spent his declining years.5252    Afterwards Armagh disputed the claims of Downpatrick See Killen I. 71-73.

His Roman Catholic biographers have surrounded his life with marvelous achievements, while some modern Protestant hypercritics have questioned even his existence, as there is no certain mention of his name before 634; unless it be “the Hymn of St. Sechnall (Secundinus) in praise of St. Patrick, which is assigned to 448. But if we accept his own writings, “there can be no reasonable doubt” (we say with a Presbyterian historian of Ireland) “that he preached the gospel in Hibernia in the fifth century; that he was a most zealous and efficient evangelist, and that he is eminently entitled to the honorable designation of the Apostle of Ireland.”5353    Killen, Vol. I. 12. Patrick describes himself as “Hiberione constitutus episcopus.” Afterwards he was called “Episcopus Scotorum,” then “Archiapostolus Scotorum,” then “Abbat of all Ireland,” and “Archbishop, First Primate, and Chief Apostle of Ireland.’ See Haddan & Stubbs, p. 295.

The Christianity of Patrick was substantially that of Gaul and old Britain, i.e. Catholic, orthodox, monastic, ascetic, but independent of the Pope, and differing from Rome in the age of Gregory I. in minor matters of polity and ritual. In his Confession he never mentions Rome or the Pope; he never appeals to tradition, and seems to recognize the Scriptures (including the Apocrypha) as the only authority in matters of faith. He quotes from the canonical Scriptures twenty-five times; three times from the Apocrypha. It has been conjectured that the failure and withdrawal of Palladius was due to Patrick, who had already monopolized this mission-field; but, according to the more probable chronology, the mission of Patrick began about nine years after that of Palladius. From the end of the seventh century, the two persons were confounded, and a part of the history of Palladius, especially his connection with Pope Caelestine, was transferred to Patrick.5454    Haddan & Stubbs, p. 294, note: “The language of the Hymns of S. Sechnall and of S. Fiacc, and of S. Patrick’s own Confessio, and the silence of Prosper, besides chronological difficulties, disprove, upon purely historical grounds, the supposed mission from Rome of S. Patrick himself; which first appears in the Scholia on S. Fiacc’s Hymn.”

With St. Patrick there is inseparably connected the most renowned female saint of Ireland, St. Bridget (or Brigid, Brigida, Bride), who prepared his winding sheet and survived him many years. She died Feb. 1, 523 (or 525). She is “the Mary of Ireland,” and gave her name to innumerable Irish daughters, churches, and convents. She is not to be confounded with her name-sake, the widow-saint of Sweden. Her life is surrounded even by a still thicker cloud of legendary fiction than that of St. Patrick, so that it is impossible to separate the facts from the accretions of a credulous posterity. She was an illegitimate child of a chieftain or bard, and a slave-mother, received holy orders, became deformed in answer to her own prayer, founded the famous nunnery of Kildare (i.e. the Church of the Oak),5555    The probable date of foundation is a. d.480. Haddan & Stubbs, p. 295. foretold the birth of Columba, and performed all sorts of signs and wonders.

Upon her tomb in Kildare arose the inextinguishable flame called “the Light of St. Bridget,” which her nuns (like the Vestal Virgins of Rome) kept

“Through long ages of darkness and storm” (Moore).

Six lives of her were published by Colgan in his Trias Thaumaturgus, and five by the Bollandists in the Acta Sanctorum.

Critical Note on St. Patrick.

We have only one or two genuine documents from Patrick, both written in semi-barbarous (early Irish) Latin, but breathing an humble, devout and fervent missionary spirit without anything specifically Roman, viz. his autobiographical Confession (in 25 chapters), written shortly before his death (493?), and his Letter of remonstrance to Coroticus (or Ceredig), a British chieftain (nominally Christian), probably of Ceredigion or Cardigan, who had made a raid into Ireland, and sold several of Patrick’s converts into slavery (10 chapters). The Confession, as contained in the “Book of Armagh,” is alleged to have been transcribed before a.d. 807 from Patrick’s original autograph, which was then partly illegible. There are four other MSS. of the eleventh century, with sundry additions towards the close, which seem to be independent copies of the same original. See Haddan & Stubbs, note on p. 296. The Epistle to Coroticus is much shorter, and not so generally accepted. Both documents were first printed in 1656, then in 1668 in the Acta Sanctorum, also in Migne’s Patrologia (Vol. 53), in Miss Cusack’s Life of St. Patrick, in the work of Ebrard (l.c. 482 sqq.), and in Haddan & Stubbs, Councils (Vol. II., P. II., 296 sqq.).

There is a difference of opinion about Patrick’s nationality, whether he was of Scotch, or British, or French extraction. He begins his Confession: “I, Patrick, a sinner, the rudest and the least of all the faithful, and the most contemptible with the multitude (Ego Patricius, peccator, rusticissimus et minimus omnium fidelium et contemptibilissimus apud plurimos, or, according to another reading, contemptibilis sum apud plurimos), had for my father Calpornus (or Calphurnius), a deacon (diaconum, or diaconem), the son of Potitus (al. Photius), a presbyter (filium quondam Potiti presbyteri), who lived in the village of Bannavem (or Banaven) of Tabernia; for he had a cottage in the neighborhood where I was captured. I was then about sixteen years old; but I was ignorant of the true God, and was led away into captivity to Hibernia.” Bannavem of Tabernia is, perhaps Banavie in Lochaber in Scotland (McLauchlan); others fix the place of his birth in Kilpatrick (i.e. the cell or church of Patrick), near Dunbarton on the Clyde (Ussher, Butler, Maclear); others, somewhere in Britain, and thus explain his epithet “Brito” or “Briton” (Joceline and Skene); still others seek it in Armoric Gaul, in Boulogne (from Bononia), and derive Brito from Brittany (Lanigan, Moore, Killen, De Vinné).

He does not state the instrumentality of his conversion. Being the son of a clergyman, he must have received some Christian instruction; but he neglected it till he was made to feel the power of religion in communion with God while in slavery. “After I arrived in Ireland,” he says (ch. 6), “every day I fed cattle, and frequently during the day I prayed; more and more the love and fear of God burned, and my faith and my spirit were strengthened, so that in one day I said as many as a hundred prayers, and nearly as many in the night.” He represents his call and commission as coming directly from God through a vision, and alludes to no intervening ecclesiastical authority or episcopal consecration. In one of the oldest Irish MSS., the Book of Durrow, he is styled a presbyter. In the Epistle to Coroticus, he appears more churchly and invested with episcopal power and jurisdiction. It begins: “Patricius, peccator indoctus, Hiberione (or Hyberione) constitutus episcopus, certissime reor, a Deo accepi id quod sum: inter barbaras utique gentes proselytus et profuga, ob amorem Dei.” (So according to the text of Haddan & Stubbs, p. 314; somewhat different in Migne, Patrol. LIII. 814; and in Ebrard, p. 505.) But the letter does not state where or by whom he was consecrated.

The “Book of Armagh “contains also an Irish hymn (the oldest monument of the Irish Keltic language), called S. Patricii Canticum Scotticum, which Patrick is said to have written when he was about to convert the chief monarch of the island (Laoghaire or Loegaire).5656    The Irish was first published by Dr. Petrie, and translated by Dr. Todd. Haddan & Stubbs (320-323) give the Irish and English in parallel columns. Some parts of this hymn are said to be still remembered by the Irish peasantry, and repeated at bed-time as a protection from evil, or “as a religious armor to protect body and soul against demons and men and vices.” The hymn is a prayer for the special aid of Almighty God for so important a work; it contains the principal doctrines of orthodox Christianity, with a dread of magical influences of aged women and blacksmiths, such as still prevails in some parts of Ireland, but without an invocation of Mary and the saints, such as we might expect from the Patrick of tradition and in a composition intended as a breast-plate or corselet against spiritual foes. The following is the principal portion:

“5. I bind to myself to-day,—

The Power of God to guide me,

The Might of God to uphold me,

The Wisdom of God to teach me,

The Eye of God to watch over me,

The Ear of God to hear me,

The Word of God to give me speech.

The Hand of God to protect me,

The Way of God to go before me,

The Shield of God to shelter me,

The Host of God to defend me,
Against the snares of demons,
Against the temptations of vices,
Against the lusts of nature,
Against every man who meditates injury to me.
   Whether far or near,
   With few or with many.

6. I have set around me all these powers,

Against every hostile savage power,

Directed against my body and my soul,

Against the incantations of false prophets,

Against the black laws of heathenism,

Against the false laws of heresy,

Against the deceits of idolatry,

Against the spells of women, and smiths, and druids,

Against all knowledge which blinds the soul of man.

7. Christ protect me to-day

Against poison, against burning,

Against drowning, against wound,

That I may receive abundant reward.

8. Christ with me, Christ before me,

Christ behind me, Christ within me,

Christ beneath me, Christ above me,

Christ at my right, Christ at my left,

Christ in the fort [i.e. at home],

Christ in the chariot-seat [travelling by land],

Christ in the poop [travelling by water].

9. Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me,

Christ in the mouth of every man who speaks to me,

Christ in every eye that sees me,

Christ in every ear that hears me.

10. I bind to myself to-day

The strong power of an invocation of the Trinity,

The faith of the Trinity in Unity,

The Creator of [the elements].

11. Salvation is of the Lord,

Salvation is of the Lord,

Salvation is of Christ;

May thy salvation, O Lord, be ever with us.”

The fourth and last document which has been claimed as authentic and contemporary, is a Latin “Hymn in praise of St. Patrick” (Hymnus Sancti Patricii, Episcopi Scotorum) by St. Sechnall (Secundinus) which begins thus:

“Audite, omnes amantes Deum, sancta merita

Viri in Christo beati Patrici Episcopi:

Quomodo bonum ob actum simulatur angelis,

Perfectamque propter uitam aequatur Apostolis.”

The poem is given in full by Haddan & Stubbs, 324–327, and assigned to “before a.d. 448 (?),” in which year Sechnall died. But how could he anticipate the work of Patrick, when his mission, according to the same writers, began only eight years earlier (440), and lasted till 493? The hymn is first mentioned by Tyrechanus in the “Book of Armagh.”

The next oldest document is the Irish hymn of St. Fiacc on St. Patrick, which is assigned to the latter part of the sixth century, (l.c. 356–361). The Senchus Mor is attributed to the age of St. Patrick; but it is a code of Irish laws, derived from Pagan times, and gradually modified by Christian ecclesiastics in favor of the church. The Canons attributed to St. Patrick are of later date (Haddan & Stubbs, 328 sqq.).

It is strange that St. Patrick is not mentioned by Bede in his Church History, although he often refers to Hibernia and its church, and is barely named as a presbyter in his Martyrology. He is also ignored by Columba and by the Roman Catholic writers, until his mediaeval biographers from the eighth to the twelfth century Romanized him, appealing not to his genuine Confession, but to spurious documents and vague traditions. He is said to have converted all the Irish chieftains and bards, even Ossian, the blind Homer of Scotland, who sang to him his long epic of Keltic heroes and battles. He founded 365 or, according to others, 700 churches, and consecrated as many bishops, and 3,000 priests (when the whole island had probably not more than two or three hundred thousand inhabitants; for even in the reign of Elizabeth it did not exceed 600,000).5757    See Killen I. 76, note. Montalembert says, III. 118, note: “Irish narratives know scarcely any numerals but those of three hundred and three thousand. He changed the laws of the kingdom, healed the blind, raised nine persons from death to life, and expelled all the snakes and frogs from Ireland.5858    A witty Irishman, who rowed me (in 1875) over Lake Killarney, told me that St. Patrick put the last snake into an iron box, and sunk it to the bottom of the lake, although he had solemnly promised to let the creature out. I asked him whether it was not a sin to cheat a snake? “Not at all,” was his quick reply, “he only paid him in the same coin; for the first snake cheated the whole world.” The same guide told me that Cromwell killed all the good people in Ireland, and let the bad ones live; and when I objected that he must have made an exception with his ancestors, he politely replied: “No, my parents came from America.” His memory is celebrated March 17, and is a day of great public processions with the Irish Catholics in all parts of the world. His death is variously put in the year 455 (Tillemont), 464 or 465 (Butler, Killen), 493 (Ussher, Skene, Forbes, Haddan & Stubbs). Forbes (Kalendars, p. 433) and Skene (Keltic Scotland, II. 427 sqq.) come to the conclusion that the legend of St. Patrick in its present shape is not older than the ninth century, and dissolves into three personages: Sen-Patrick, whose day in the Kalendar is the 24th of August; Palladius, “qui est Patricius,” to whom the mission in 431 properly belongs, and Patricius, whose day is the 17th of March, and who died in 493. “From the acts of these three saints, the subsequent legend of the great Apostle of Ireland was compiled, and an arbitrary chronology applied to it.”

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