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A Saint Bridging Ireland’s Great Divide

A Saint Bridging Ireland’s Great Divide March 17, 2016

Statue of St. Patrick at Saul, County Down, his burial place. (Copyright Albert Bridge, licensed for reuse under Creative Commons Licence)
Statue of St. Patrick at Saul, County Down, his burial place.
(Copyright Albert Bridge, licensed for reuse under Creative Commons Licence)

Being half Irish, I’ve always had great fondness for St. Patrick. That fondness grew when I was on my first short-term mission trip to Northern Ireland in the 1980’s.

I discovered on that trip that in spite of the Roman Catholic/Protestant division in that time of ‘the Troubles,’ both Catholics and Protestants claimed a connection to Patrick. Who was this saintly man who could be owned by both sides of that great chasm?

Going into town from our mission base at Darkley House in South Armagh, I learned that the City of Armagh was home to two St. Patrick’s Cathedrals. First we explored St. Patrick’s Cathedral of the Church of Ireland, on Sally Hill or Druim Saileach. According to history and legend, it was there that Patrick launched his mission to share the Gospel, praying for the conversion of all of Ireland to Christianity. He chose this hilltop to build his first stone church in 455 A.D.

St. Patrick’s on Sally Hill was rebuilt 17 times over the centuries. It was transferred to the Protestant custody during the Irish Reformation of Henry VIII, and since then has been the seat of the Archbishop of Armagh in the Church of Ireland.

We also visited the Roman Catholic St. Patrick’s Cathedral. For centuries, there was no need for a Catholic Cathedral as the Irish Penal Laws kept Catholic faith suppressed and Irish Catholics oppressed. But soon after the Catholic Emancipation, 1929, the Catholic Church of Ireland began to build.

This St. Patrick’s Cathedral is less than a mile from its Protestant sister. The site chosen for building this cathedral is both symbolic and links inextricably the two cathedrals, Protestant and Catholic. The connection is explained in “Armagh: City of Two Cathedrals,” part of The Armagh Project, that explains that even while Patrick was planning the building of his first church on Sally Hill, he was led to his second:

Patrick chose a hilltop in Armagh to build the first church. In trying to take possession of the hill, though, he startled a doe and its fawn. When they ran away, Patrick followed them, and in doing so caught the fawn and gently lifted it and carried it down the hill while the doe followed behind. Patrick crossed a small glen, then placed the frightened animal on the slope of the neighboring hill called “Telach na Licci” (Sandy Hill). This legend would serve as the inspiration for building the second (Roman Catholic) cathedral on Sandy Hill.

St. Patrick's Roman Catholic Cathedral on Sandy Hill (Photo credit: Faith McDonnell)
St. Patrick’s Roman Catholic Cathedral on Sandy Hill (Photo credit: Faith McDonnell)

I was impressed by both beautiful cathedrals and their sharing space in Armagh City, but I was even more impressed by Patrick, born in Britain — probably Scotland — around 385 A.D., who went from being the teenage son of Roman British parents (some like to say “Italian”), to being kidnapped by wild Irish ruffians and brought to (Northern) Ireland as a slave.

In captivity for six years, he worked as a shepherd, and according to his own words in his confession (Confessio), this is where his conversion and relationship with Christ began:

And there the Lord opened my mind to an awareness of my unbelief, in order that, even so late, I might remember my transgressions and turn with all my heart to the Lord my God, who had regard for my insignificance and pitied my youth and ignorance. And he watched over me before I knew him, and before I learned sense or even distinguished between good and evil, and he protected me, and consoled me as a father would his son.

God showed Patrick how to escape and return home in a vision, but in another vision, He asked the young man to return to the place of his captivity! In his Confession, Patrick relates that in the vision was a man “whose name was Victoricus” who came from Ireland with letters for Patrick. He then heard the voice of the Irish saying, ” ‘We beg you, holy youth, that you shall come and shall walk again among us.”

After studying in Auxerre, Patrick was ordained. In 432 A.D. he was made a missionary bishop to take the Gospel to the Irish as God had commanded him. In Ireland Patrick faced off against druids and other pagans, High Kings and brutal warlords, and a culture that was careless of human life in general and women in particular. As Mike Pettingill writes for The Gospel Coalition, “Patrick entered an Ireland full of paganism and idol worship. But just a few short decades after Patrick arrived, a healthy, Christ-honoring church was thriving.”

Some sneer, like an article in the Huffington Post, that the claim that Patrick drove the snakes out of Ireland is a lie — that there is no evidence that there ever were snakes there because Ireland is too cold for snakes. But the truth is that Patrick brought the light of Christ to Ireland, and drove the demonic forces of Satan out, building churches on top of ancient pagan sites, mobilizing an entire country to become missionaries, and claiming the land for the Triune God he served.

It has broken my heart, and I know it would have broken Patrick’s, that the land of saints and scholars, mystics and missionaries, would become so wracked and divided. And that hatred, bigotry, lust for power, and political ambition would murder not just in the form of guns and bombs, but with callous indifference to potato famine starvation and through wounded spirits anesthetized by drink and drugs.

But the same Holy Spirit that inspired Patrick and set a nation ablaze for the one True God, has brought the spirit of revival and forgiveness and reconciliation to the north of Ireland in recent years in ways that have permeated the political situation and the culture beyond the walls of the churches and cathedrals. And God will complete in all of Ireland the work that He began through Patrick so many centuries ago.


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