St. Patrick is a legendary figure in Irish history and literature--so famous that a day is named after him. Medieval stories surround St. Patrick, describing how he drove the snakes out of Ireland, converted all of Ireland to Christianity, how he explained the Trinity with a shamrock, and how his coming was foretold by Druid priests:
"With a head like an adze and a curved stick he will come,
Chanting his evil songs in his house with a hole,
From the table in the front of the house,
And his people will say, "So be it, so be it."
In "St. Patrick of Ireland," Philip Freeman sifts through the fragments of myths, legends, and time-worn manuscripts to re-create the story of Patrick. Freeman quickly reads between the lines of Patrick's letters to get at the real drama of his life and works. Along the way, he focuses on the man behind the legend.
Where Did it All Begin?
As Freeman writes, "Everyone has heard of St. Patrick... but the man most people know is little more than an icon who drove the snakes out of Ireland." He further say, "This lack of knowledge about the real Patrick is truly regrettable, because he has such an amazing story to tell: a tale of slavery and brutality, pain and self-doubt, sorrow and constant struggle, but ultimately of perseverance, hope, and faith."
Patrick was a troubled youth from a well-to-do family in England (when it was still part of the Roman empire), but his life was turned upside down when he was kidnapped by Irish pirates at the age of 16. He spent the next six years as a slave sheepherder in Ireland, until he dreamed of escape, and followed his vision in a journey that took him 200 miles across Ireland, and into a merchant ship.
Where The Legends Come From...
In his discussion of Patrick's life and works, Freeman uses Patrick's own words as "crucial sources," but he also draws upon ancient literature and mythology to explain what he must have gone through as a slave in Ireland. Freeman says, "Irish poetry and prose was among the first non-Latin literature to be recorded in western Europe. Drawing from these historical and literary sources also proves useful when Freeman explores Patrick's homecoming, and then his decision to return to Ireland.
Of course, Patrick's return to Ireland was inevitable. We probably wouldn't have heard of this adventurous young man if he hadn't been called to be a missionary in Ireland, "the very edge of the inhabited world." Patrick returned to Ireland as a priest, and eventually became a beloved Irish bishop.
Patrick's success in converting the Irish, and his questionable tactics, made him a controversial figure among his superiors. An unknown youthful indiscretion also gave the bishops (and other church leaders) ammunition to use against him. Patrick's plainspoken passion is clearly evident in "Confessions," one of his two surviving letters.
Here, Patrick defends himself and his work in Ireland: "He picked ignorant Patrick ahead of all of you--even though I am not worthy--he picked me to go forth with fear and reverence--and without any of you complaining at the time--to serve the Irish faithfully."
Although the original manuscripts of Patrick's letters have been lost, seven copies have survived. As Freeman says, "These precious manuscripts are our only links to the genuine Patrick who lived more than fifteen centuries ago." Patrick's final plea is to be allowed to continue his work in Ireland. He never asked for fame or fortune. He never wanted to return to Ireland, but he felt drawn to the place, back to the Irish people.
In the end, his final resting place isn't known. As Freeman writes, "Patrick's wish for an unmarked grave was prophetic. In an age obsessed with saints, relics, and pilgrimage sites, no one knows where Patrick died and was buried." But, then, "We know so little about the details of Patrick's life that it seems fitting his death should be a mystery as well. He probably would have wanted it that way..."
Out of the mass of legends, myths, and ancient literature, Freeman paints this portrait of a simple, humble, plainspoken man.