close up of clovers
Photo by Irene Dávila on Unsplash

By Jacqueline Giesbrecht

As described in some of my previous blog posts, my main research interest in my undergraduate studies was Irish Celtic Christianity. A prominent figure in Irish Celtic Christianity is Saint Patrick, whose feast day will be widely and exuberantly celebrated on March 17. According to Christian tradition, Patrick was the first evangelist of Ireland, and it was his conversion of the entire island that brought about the Golden Age of Celtic Christianity in Ireland. In some legends, he is said to have turned people into goats, banished all of the snakes from Ireland, and won various magical competitions with Druids. Those whose primary source of information comes from Saint Patrick’s Day celebrations may assume that he hung out with leprechauns, picked a lot of clovers, and drank a lot of beer. Although these are all common conceptions about Patrick, most of them (if not all) lack any link to the historical person and are stories that have developed over the years, often as a result of a political agenda.

Thus, there are two Patricks– the historical Patrick, unlearned yet zealous, and the Patrick of legend, headstrong and revengeful.[1] These two Patricks are not to be confused with the Thomas O’Rahilly’s Two Patricks theory, which asserts that there were actually two Patricks who were eventually amalgamated into one; Patricius Palladius (whose mission was from 431-461 CE) and Patricius the Briton (who died c. 492 CE).[2] Much ink has been spilt on the identity of Patrick and the development of his various hagiographies. This blog post, however, will not focus on these hagiographies but instead look at the historical Patrick (the Briton) by using his writings.[3] By doing so, I provide my own thoughts on the question that has resulted in much debate over the centuries: was Saint Patrick Protestant or Catholic?

Of course, asking whether Saint Patrick was Protestant or Catholic is a question founded in historical inaccuracy. After all, the Protestant Reformation only occurred in 1517 CE, whereas both Patrick the Briton and Patricius Palladius came to Ireland in the fifth century CE. Despite present dualistic assumptions of Western Christianity, just because a form of Christianity is not strictly Catholic does not mean that it is Protestant. Thus, we should ask not whether Patrick was Protestant or Catholic, but instead, we should ask how Catholic he was.

The historical Patrick was born in Bannavem Taberniae (probably in Britain) to a Romano-Celtic family.[4] He was the son of the deacon Calporius and the grandson of the priest Potitus. At the age of sixteen, he was taken captive during a plundering expedition, brought to Ireland and sold into slavery.[5] At the beginning of his captivity, he did not firmly believe in God. It was, however, in the solitude of his work – looking after his master’s flocks – that he began to pray regularly, and his faith grew. After having been in Ireland for six years, a voice spoke to him in a dream, telling him that a ship was prepared to bring him home. Patrick journeyed two hundred miles to the boat, which he boarded.[6] Though Patrick does not say where the vessel took him, many scholars believe he went to Gaul, where he may have spent time in the monastery of Saint Martin of Tours at Lérins in Gaul and had Saint Germain of Auxerre (c. 379-448 CE) as his mentor.[7] He eventually went back home, where he had a vision of a man from Ireland imploring him to return to Ireland.[8] Patrick may have returned to Gaul to prepare for his mission and receive his subsequent ordination as bishop, thus making Irish Celtic Christianity Roman.[9] Hereafter, he arrived in Ireland, where he was highly successful as a missionary in Ireland and may have performed many miracles.

Patrick wrote two texts during his life: his Letter to Croticus, a letter of excommunication for a British chief that had taken some of Patrick’s converts during a raid, and his Confession, a defense of his mission to Ireland. He wrote the Letter earlier in his missionary career, whereas he wrote his Confession closer to its end. Upon reading Patrick’s texts, one is struck by the utter humility with which he presents himself. Due to his captivity, Patrick did not receive the education he would have otherwise obtained as the son of a deacon; therefore, his Latin is shaky at best. In contrast, Patrick knew his scripture well – his writing is at its strongest when he is citing scripture or using scriptural phrases as a base for his sentences.[10] In fact, there are more than 200 biblical quotations in his 80 paragraphs of writing.[11] It is when he starts writing about his feelings – an area in which he probably did not have much practice – that translators have struggled to interpret his meaning. This self-conscious Patrick, who introduces himself in his Letter to Croticus as “a sinner, very badly educated”[12] and as “least of all the faithful and despised in the eyes of many”[13] in his Confession, is far from the Saint Patrick of later myth. It is, in part, his poor writing and his humility that allow scholars to credit these texts as a true autobiography – no future biographer would have chosen to write about him in such a way. As well, the language that Patrick uses is accurate for the fifth century, and when he cited scripture, he used a mixed version of Old Latin and Vulgate, as was common at the time.[14]

Patrick viewed himself as one of the last apostles, honoured by his realization that he, “in spite of [his] ignorance and in the last days should venture to undertake this task. . . to declare [the Lord’s] gospel as a testimony to all nations before the end of the world.”[15] He saw himself as  “a witness that the gospel has been preached as far as the point where there is no one beyond.”[16] It may sound like Patrick was promoting his own importance. However, since Ireland was at that farthest edge of the known world, it was reasonable for Patrick to assume that the world would end once the evangelism of Ireland was complete. This eschatological view was not the motivation of his mission but provided reassurance of its importance.

Despite later tradition saying that Rome commissioned Patrick, this seems unlikely; Rome probably would not have sent a missionary so uneducated. Also, one would think that Patrick would have mentioned that in his Confession. Some officials of the Roman Church may have been questioning his mission, providing partial insight into why he wrote his Confession. Though Rome did not commission him, he still saw himself as a part of their Christian mission, referring to those of the Roman mission (to whom he presumably is writing his Confession) as “brothers.”[17] It is my observation that the Roman Church likely did not identify with his mission as being Catholic while Patrick was alive. Only later, when it served their political agenda, did his apparent Roman education and commissioning became a recurring theme in his hagiographies. Thus, while Celtic Christianity was in some ways Catholic, it was not entirely so.

Statue of Saint Patrick on the Hill of Slane, Ireland
Saint Patrick on the Hill of Slane, Ireland. Photo by Jacqueline Giesbrecht.

To those unfamiliar with the history of Ireland, the question of Saint Patrick’s denominational origins may be perplexing and irrelevant. However, following the Protestant Reformation, this was a contentious issue. Patrick was in the middle of a tug-of-war as each denomination, as well as individual churches, sought to link their lineage back to him. Following the Council of Trent (1545-1563), Catholic hagiographers renewed their interest in Saints and sought to standardize hagiography so as to limit the abuses of their cult. For Irish hagiographers, this was an opportunity to share the stories of Irish Saints with the larger Catholic community, as well as to establish Saint Patrick as their own.[18] During and after the Potato Famine (1845-1847), there was a rise in Irish nationalism. In the religious sector, this was expressed by Protestant and Catholic groups participating in a pamphlet war as they debated the religious identity Patrick, the Patron Saint of Ireland.[19]

Beginning in 1960, “the Troubles” is the name given to the three-decade ethno-nationalist conflict that took place in Northern Ireland.[20] A key issue was the constitutional status of Northern Ireland and if it should remain a part of the UK (the stance of the unionists/loyalists) or if it should leave the UK and join the Republic of Ireland (the stance of the nationalists). Though this was primarily a political conflict, most unionists were Protestant and most nationalists were Catholic, which in Ireland was not only a denominational distinction but also an ethnic one. After the end of The Troubles in 1998, there has been some attempt to change Patrick from a symbol of Protestantism, Catholicism, or nationalism to be instead a reminder of a “common heritage in Christ through St Patrick, whose spirituality predates our modern divisions and has had an influence on both Protestant and Catholic traditions.”[21] This statement, written by the Corrymeela Community, a peace and reconciliation organization in Northern Ireland, serves as a reminder that often the best way to work through conflict is to focus on commonality instead of difference.

If you enjoyed this article, hear Jacqueline discuss more about Saint Patrick in this podcast.

This post is the third in a series detailing Jacqueline’s undergraduate research. Significant portions of this post come from her thesis.


Jacqueline Giesbrecht is an MA student in Religious Studies. She completed her Bachelor of Arts with an Honours in Biblical and Theological Studies and a minor in Psychology at Canadian Mennonite University in 2018. Jacqueline’s research interests include vernacular religion and material religion; folklore and group formation; and disability, religion, and spirituality.

References:

[1] Arthur Haire Forster, “Saint Patrick in Fact and Fiction,” Anglican Theological Review 11, no. 1 (1928): 23; E J Newell, The Fathers of English Readers: Saint Patrick (London, ENG: Society for Promoting English Knowledge, 1890), 1.

[2] Thomas F. O’Rahilly, The Two Patricks: A Lecture on the History of Christianity in Fifth-Century Ireland (Dublin, IRL: Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, 1942), 6.

[3] There are no writings by Patricius Palladius.

[4] While most scholars tend to place the birthplace of Patrick in England, some, [like Margaret Anne Cusack (1829-1899)], are adamant that he was born in Gaul.  Margaret Anne Cusack, An Illustrated History of Ireland, 1868.

[5] Patrick, “Confession,” in The Life and Writings of Saint Patrick, trans. R P C Hanson (New York, NY: Seabury Press, 1983), 76.

[6] Patrick, 86.

[7] J B Bury, The Life of St. Patrick and His Place in History (New York, NY: The MacMillian Company, 1905), 37–40; Jeremiah F. O’Sullivan, “Early Monasticism in Gaul,” American Benedictine Review 16, no. 1 (1965): 46; Cusack, An Illustrated History of Ireland.

[8] Patrick, “Confession,” 92.

[9] Bury, The Life of St. Patrick, 48–49.

[10] Patrick, “Confession,” 57.

[11] Forster, “Saint Patrick in Fact and Fiction,” 26.

[12] Patrick, “Letter to Croticus,” in Life and Writings of Saint Patrick, trans. R P C Hanson (New York, NY, 1983), 58.

[13] Patrick, “Confession,” 76.

[14] Forster, “Saint Patrick in Fact and Fiction,” 26.

[15] In reference to Matthew 24:14. Patrick, “Confession,” 104.

[16] Patrick, “Confession,” 106.

[17] Patrick, 112.

[18] Salvador Ryan, “Steadfast Saints or Malleable Models? Seventeenth-Century Irish Hagiography Revisited,” The Catholic Historical Review 91, no. 2 (2005): 256.

[19] Ian Bradley, Celtic Christianity: Making Myths and Chasing Dreams (Edinburgh, SCT: Edinburgh University Press, 1999), 127–35.

[20] Though the conflict was based in Northern Ireland, violence related to the conflict occurred in the Republic of Ireland, England, and mainland Europe.

[21] Celebrating Together (Corrymeela Community, 1998), 5.