March 17, 2008

St. Patrick's Day

I forgot it was St. Patrick's Day. I won't blame it on a largely sleepless night -- I wouldn't have thought much about St. Patrick's Day anyway. I'm not of Irish descent and going out to a bar and drinking prodigious amounts of beer (especially on a weekday) is behavior that is in my past. And my green shirt is at the cleaners anyway. So I thought some history would be interesting instead of a shamrock.

The real St. Patrick is an interesting historical figure, though. Much of what we know of him comes from a long letter he wrote to his monks late in his life, the Confession of St. Patrick. Probably of Roman descent, he was born in Britain somewhere near Hadrian's Wall shortly before the time of the Roman withdrawal from the island. His name, then, would not have been "Patrick" but "Patricus."

His father was a local government official and Patricus grew up with as much wealth and privilege as a young Roman citizen could have enjoyed out at the Wall -- which may well have been, in its heyday, about as luxurious and wealthy a place to be as Londinium, the capital of the province.

Much Combining his Confession with another contemporary attempt to record the history of Ireland, the Annals of Ulster, you'd have Patricus born in 378, and then ministering the Irish from 433 to 493. That have his ministry start when he was aged 55 and then lasting another sixty years -- quite unlikely given the state of available nutrition and health care in the fifth century.

It's likely that the Annals of Ulster confuse Patricus with the first missionary sent from Rome to Hibernia, a man named Palladius. Perhaps to Celtic speakers, the two Latin names of Palladius and Patricus seemed similar and someone got confused when trying to put all of the various oral traditions of the Christian missionaries into a single volume.

So you may think you're celebrating the day of an Irish saint today, but in fact he would have considered himself a Roman from Britian. Oh, and don't believe the nonsense about the snakes, either. It's a colorful story but come on.

His Confession says that when he was about sixteen years old, he was captured by raiders -- probably Picts, a tribe of Celts who lived in what is today the Scottish lowlands -- and sold as a slave in Hibernia (what we today call Ireland), probably somewhere near County Mayo on the Hibernian west coast. As a slave, young Patricus converted to Christianity and in prayer found solace from his labors and captivity.

He escaped rather than buying his freedom or waiting for manumission (which was a common enough Celtic custom after a period of good service, albeit the manumitted slave would have owed continuing debts of service and loyalty to his former owner), walked across the island and somehow got on a ship to Gaul, where he entered the Christian priesthood. Traditionaly, he returned to proselytize in Hibernia in the year 432, but that is far too early given his background and what is known of the timing of events in Roman Britian and the kind of training that priests were given at the time; his mission to Hibernia may not have begun until as late as the 450's. Sort of Junipero Serra for the eastern half of Hibernia, Patricus set up a series of monasteries and worked hard to meld Christian teachings with the pagan Celtic customs familiar to his converts.

The most famous of these, of course, was Armagh, which is today just north of the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. St. Patrick's Cathedral there looks beautiful. You can tell from the architecture that the cathedral today was not the same structure that Patricus and his followers would have built in the fifth century. But it is remarkable to have such a prominent Cathlolic cathedral in the Protestant-dominated lands of the north counties.

So if you're Irish and celebrating the day, you can think about not just the happiness of being Irish and the rich traditions of that land, but also spare a thought to the real St. Patrick. Think about how he used his new religion as solace and comfort after having had a life of relative privilege and education substituted for that of a slave forced to provide hard manual labor. Think about how he might have escaped from his masters and made his way, without money or friends, to Gaul. Think about what the church would have represented to him -- not just a place of safety but also of knowlege and education, and a return to the culture of his youth. And then, most of all think about how he must have felt being sent back to go try and convert the very people who had enslaved him to a new religion, one to which many of the local kings and chieftans were hostile, in some cases violently so. This does not diminish Patricus in my mind -- the historical reality, while perhaps less charming than cartoon leprechauns and shamrocks, is in many ways more impressive than the legends.

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