From Slave to Bishop, Everything You Wanted to Know About St. Patrick, And More

I love reading about the lives of the saints. Especially from the old books like those found on the YIMCatholic Bookshelf. That is where I found the following narrative. It’s funny, because the author says “not much is known about…” and then launches into a 3,500+ word essay on St. Patrick and St. Brigid.

What I share below is just the part about St. Patrick, his story, and how he has been depicted in the art of the Church. The book is entitled, The Saints in Christian Art: The Great Hermits and Fathers of the Church, etc. I particularly like the “et cetera” in the title. You don’t see that much these days. The author? A Mrs. Arthur Bell, aka Nancy R.E. Mugens Bell.

I can say this; she can spin a great yarn. “A long time ago, in a green land far, far, away…”

St. Patrick, who has been well characterized “as one of the rays and of the flames which the Sun of Righteousness, Jesus Christ, sent into the world,” is supposed to have been born in a village on the site of the present Kilpatrick, of noble Roman parents, who were settled in Scotland.  His father and grandfather were both in Holy Orders, and his mother is said to have been related to St. Martin of Tours. He belonged, therefore, to a Christian family, and had every possible advantage of education. When he was about sixteen, however, he was taken prisoner by pirates, and carried by them to Ireland, where he was sold to a Chief or King named Milchu, for whom he worked for six years, in the humble capacity of a swineherd, suffering, no doubt, terribly from his uncongenial surroundings.

According to tradition, the piece of land still known as Ballyligpatrick, or ‘the town of the hollow of Patrick,’ in what is now the county of Armagh, was the scene of his humble occupation, and it was probably there that the future Apostle of Ireland resolved, if ever he obtained his liberty, to dedicate the rest of his life to the service of God. In his lonely hours, with no companions but his pigs, he was, he says in his own ‘ Confessions,’ haunted by visions of children stretching out their little hands to him and crying to him for help, and he knew that these visions were sent to him by the Spirit of God. That Spirit he felt ever ‘ burning within him,’ and one day, when he was on his knees listening for an answer to his prayers for guidance, it was revealed to him that the time had come for him to return home, to begin the work of evangelization in his own land. A vessel from Scotland was even then awaiting him, and without a moment’s hesitation he started for the seashore, though it was many miles distant.

Arrived on the beach, St. Patrick found the ship, and addressed himself to the captain, telling him that he had come to take passage with him. To his surprise—for in his simplicity he thought the captain would be expecting him—he was roughly told to go about his business; the vessel was not for those who could not pay their passage. Disappointed, but still full of faith in the Spirit which had led him so far, Patrick turned away and knelt down on the beach to pray for further guidance. The captain watched him, and touched by his quiet submission to the repulse, or perhaps impelled by the same Spirit as that which had led the boy to him, he sent some sailors to tell him he might return. Patrick gladly availed himself of the permission, and was taken back to his native land.

Unfortunately, there is a break in the narrative of the saint’s career at this very interesting crisis. No one knows how long he remained with his parents, or what decided him eventually to return to Ireland, after an absence of no less than thirty-six years. Some say he went to Rome, and was appointed missionary Bishop of the land of his captivity by Pope Celestine; others, that he never reached the Eternal City, but spent the prime of his manhood in the North of France, becoming the close friend and fellow-worker of St. Germanus of Auxerre.

However he may have spent the intervening years, it seems certain that St. Patrick was quite an old man when he at last began the work of the evangelization of Ireland, with which his name is inseparably connected. He is supposed to have touched first at the island off the coast of Leinster, still known as Inis Patrick, and thence to have gone northward to the country ruled over by his old master, Milchu, whom he would gladly have made the first-fruits of his mission. The rumour of the approach of a stranger with a large following reached the old Chief, who inquired of his Druids what the event might portend. He was told that the traveller was mightier than himself, and predestined to overcome him and his people. Hearing this, Milchu, who interpreted the prophecy literally, determined to anticipate his doom. Making a funeral-pyre of his household goods, he set fire to it, and, plunging into the flames, was burnt to death, thus offering up, as he thought, a propitiatory sacrifice to the offended gods.

Disappointed in his hopes of winning Milchu to the true faith, St. Patrick now sought an audience with the Chief of all the chiefs, or the Over-King of Ireland, Leoghaire, or Leary, whose camp he reached on the eve of the great heathen festival known as the Feast of Tara, which that year happened to fall at the same time as the Christian Easter. Now, on that solemn night it was customary that every fire should be quenched throughout the length and breadth of Ireland, that the contrast might be the greater when, on the following morning, the mighty fire of Tara should illuminate the land. For the infringement of the law the penalty was instant death, and hitherto none had been known to escape. Knowing nothing of this custom, though if he had known it would probably have made no difference to him, St. Patrick ordered the kindling of the ‘ Paschal consecrated fire,’ by which to keep vigil through the hours before the dawn of the Resurrection morning. When the heathen camp was wrapped in the deepest gloom, the flames of the Christians’ pile shot up to heaven, illuminating the whole district. Leoghaire, aroused from his meditations, sent his wise men to inquire the meaning of the extraordinary phenomenon, and when they returned their account aroused him to the greatest fury. ‘He who lit that fire,’ the chief magician said, ‘ will vanquish all the Kings of Ireland, and his fire will burn till Domesday, unless it be immediately extinguished.’ ‘We will go and put it out at once,’ said Leoghaire, ‘and slay him who has dared to defy us thus.’

Then the Chief of chiefs, followed by all his mighty men of war, went to St. Patrick’s camp, and summoned him to come forth from his tent to answer for what he had done. The missionary, roused from his devotions, obeyed, and, greeting his visitor with the words, ‘Some trust in chariots, and some in horses, but we in the name of the Lord,’ quickly proceeded to turn the tables against him. Instead of putting the lighter of the fire to death, Leoghaire found himself compelled to listen patiently to a sermon from him, in the course of which St. Patrick is said to have

Irish clover, the shamrock

plucked a shamrock and shown it to the heathen chief, as a symbol of the Triune God. This was, according to some, the original reason for the adoption of the shamrock as the national emblem of Ireland, though others dispute alike the incident and the supposed result. Whatever may have been the arguments used, however, Leoghaire was so impressed by the power of St. Patrick that he desisted from the idea of slaying him immediately, or even interfering with his fire. 

Indeed, the chief pretended to be converted, and ordered his people not to molest the strangers, determining to get rid of them by stratagem. When he had, or thought he had, lulled them into a sense of security, he laid an ambush for them, placing a number of armed men in a narrow pass through which they had to go; but, though the would-be assassins waited several days, no one appeared, and it afterwards turned out that the missionaries had assumed the form of deer, thus escaping the danger. The quaint legend adds the circumstantial detail that the deer were followed by a fawn bearing a kind of bundle on its back, but the fawn was really a boy named Benen, who was the constant attendant of St. Patrick. In memory of this remarkable escape, the Christian leader composed the beautiful old hymn known as the ‘Deer’s Cry,’ in which he pleaded to be preserved ‘against black laws of heathenry, spells of women, smiths, and wizards,’ etc.

St. Patrick is supposed to have lived to a very great age, and to have converted the whole of Ireland to Christianity, baptizing all the Kings, his journeys to and fro being everywhere marked by miracles of healing, and miraculous escapes. Amongst other wonderful works, he is said to have banished all venomous reptiles from Ireland, which is probably merely a poetic way of expressing his victory over evil. He consecrated no less than 450 Bishops, ordained thousands of priests, and received the vows of countless monks and nuns. Amongst the last-named were the two daughters of the treacherous Leoghaire, named Ethne the Fair and Fedelm the Ruddy, who one day, when they went to the well to fetch water, found St. Patrick and his clergy there, all in their white robes, holding an open-air service. The story of the conversation between the innocent girls and the venerable missionary is full of poetry, and wonderfully significant of the simplicity with which the good tidings of the Gospel were often received in those early unsophisticated days. To the naive inquiry of one of the maidens, ‘Are ye of the elves or of the gods?’ St. Patrick answered, ‘It were better for you to believe in God than to inquire of our race,’ to which Ethne the Fair replied, ‘Who, then, is your God, and where is He? . . . Tell us about Him. … Is He ever-living? Is He beautiful?’ Then the missionary, filled with the Holy Spirit, told the innocent maidens all he knew of the ever-living and noble Redeemer, so touching their hearts that they asked to be received into the Church then and there. Almost immediately afterwards they died of pure joy, at which consummation, though St. Patrick rejoiced, the heathen were, not altogether unnaturally, considerably incensed.

St. Patrick is said to have set his heart on dying at Armagh, where he had founded one of the most important of the many churches built under his superintendence. ‘It is Armagh that I love—a dear thorpe, a dear hill, a fortress which my soul haunteth,’ he had said in his beautiful ‘ Song of Armagh ‘; but his wish was not fulfilled, for he breathed his last in a shed given to him by his first convert, the chief Lechu, at the little village of Saul, the name of which means ‘ barn,’ where he had begun his work in Ireland. He was buried with much pomp and ceremony at Down, in a church bearing his name, which was destroyed in the sixteenth century, when his remains were burnt.

One of the most noteworthy characteristics of St. Patrick in art is a cave or hole in the ground, from which flames are issuing, and near to which he kneels in his Bishop’s robes. This is in allusion to a tradition that for many years after the death of the Apostle of Ireland there existed on a little island of Lake Dearg, in western Ulster, a cave known as the Purgatory of St. Patrick, in which a fire was ever burning. Into this cave, which was entered through a disused well, it was customary for pilgrims to go, with a view to anticipating in this life the expiatory pangs of Purgatory, and from it many returned with all their evil tendencies burnt away. The island became in course of time dotted with the huts put up to shelter the pilgrims who came to perform this strange penance, and the story of the wonderful physical and spiritual cures effected by the influence of St. Patrick spread far and wide, inspiring the Spanish poet Calderon with the religious drama known as ‘El Purgatorio de San Patricio.’

St. Patrick's Purgatory

urThe Purgatory is alluded to in the old office which used to be recited in Ireland on March 17, the fete day of the Saint, and there are references to it in many fifteenth and sixteenth century breviaries. As late as the seventeenth century traces remained of the buildings erected near the cave, and the Abbot of a monastery on the Isle of Dearg was called the Prior of the Purgatory of St. Patrick. A painting by Giuseppe Passeri, a little-known master of the same period, represents an angel kneeling beside St. Patrick and holding a scroll on which is a quaint drawing of a well, the rim of which is encircled with flames. 

As a rule, St. Patrick is represented holding his Bishop’s crosier, round about the staff of which a serpent is twined, in memory of the tradition that he drove all venomous snakes out of Ireland. Occasionally he is actually surrounded by serpents, who are shrinking away from him in terror, and now and then a harp, one of the national emblems of Ireland, replaces the crosier, some say because of the fervour of the saint’s intercession for his adopted country after his death, whilst others see in it merely an allusion to his friendship during life with the bards of Erin. On a medal, reproduced by Pere Cahier in his ‘Caracteristiques des Saints,’ King David holding his harp appears on one side, and St. Patrick on the other.

St. Patrick, Hill of Slane

Now and then St. Patrick is represented kneeling at the feet of Pope Celestine, from whom he is receiving his decretals as missionary Bishop of Ireland, but a more favourite subject is the Baptism of a certain King, whose foot the Bishop is said to have wounded by accidentally dropping the point of his crosier upon it. The neophyte took no notice of the wound, thinking its infliction was part of the Christian ceremony, and St. Patrick did not observe it, until he saw a stream of blood staining the ground.

Other incidents of the life and legend of St. Patrick, which are sometimes introduced in churches dedicated to him, are the Overturning of the Idol of the Sun, an image of gold to which it is said hundreds of children were daily offered up; the Giving of sight to a man who had been born blind; and the Restoration to life of a number of long-buried Christians, whom the Saint is said to have summoned to arise and bear witness to the truth of his doctrine.

Go here if you want to learn about St. Brigid too.

  • Diddleymaz

    St Patrick was a Briton nowadays that means he was Welsh, he was trained by St Iltyd near were I now live and sailed to Ireland from Whitesands Bay Pembrokeshire. It is often overlooked that it was Wales in the Age of Saints that kept the flame of Christianity alight.