SSP: Introducing the Historical Patrick

This post is part of an ongoing series on the Scriptures of Saint Patrick of Ireland.

Ireland-e1405626632102The historical evidence surrounding Patrick is scant and problematic apart from what he tells his readers in his Confessio and Epistola.[1] As we will see in future posts, the biographical information included in these writings avails itself to a bevy of differing interpretations. A few general things may be said about Patrick, however.

The man known to history as “Patrick” was likely not born bearing that name, though that is the title by which he addressed his literary audiences.[2] Whatever his full Roman name was—Egan suggests L. Calpurnius Succetus Patricius[3] and Bieler advocate Magnu Sucarus Patricius[4]—Patrick was almost certainly born in Roman Britannia before 410 CE.[5] His family name—Calpurnius, an ancient Roman Republican name—and his mention of a family estate outside of Bonavem Taberniae suggests a family of some stature.[6] Both Patrick’s father and grandfather had taken holy orders, if only (as Bury and Bieler note) to escape the financial burden of their decurionate.[7] Raised a Roman Briton, Patrick’s complete Romanization was interrupted by two events, the first being the administrative and cultural chaos caused by the sack of Rome in 410 CE.[8] The second event was somewhat more personal, for when Patrick was sixteen he found himself kidnapped by Scoti marauders and taken to Ireland.[9] After six years, he managed to escape. Several years later, however, he found himself back in Ireland, this time as missionary bishop.[10] Throughout his time in Ireland, Patrick was conscious of God’s direct guidance, which was conveyed to him through dreams and visions.[11] In the words of Daniel Conneely, Patrick “has absolute trust in God’s loving care for him, is full of love for God, of joy and pride in his missionary vocation and of gratitude to God for the gift of it.”[12]

[1] D.A. Binchy. “Patrick and His Biographers: Ancient and Modern.” Studia Hibernica 2 (1962): 164-165.

[2] Confessio 1. Epistola 1.

[3] Patricia Colling Egan. “Spirit Set in Motion: A Fifth-Century Landscape of St. Patrick’s Mission to Ireland.” Road to Emmaus XII, 2 (2011): 56.

[4] Ludwig Bieler. “Libri Epistolarum Sancti Patricii Episcopi: Introduction Text and Commentary.” Classica et Mediaevalia 11.1 (1950): 5.

[5] David R. Howlett. Liber Epistolarum Sancti Patricii Episcopi: The Book of Letters of Saint Patrick the Bishop. Dublin: Four Courts Press, 1994. 116. Charles Thomas. Christianity in Roman Britain to AD 500. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981. 307, 311.

[6] Egan, 55-57.

[7] Ludwig Bieler. “St. Patrick and the British Church.” Edited by M.W. Barley and R.P.C. Hanson. Christianity in Britain, 300-700: Papers presented at the Conference on Christianity in Roman and Sub-Roman Britain held at the University of Nottingham 17-20 April 1967. New York: Leicester University Press, 1968. 123.

[8] Despite this, the Roman withdrawal should not be taken as an indication that the Britons no longer saw themselves as Romans, at least during Patrick’s lifetime. On the importance of understanding Patrick’s Roman context, see Hanson (Richard P. C. Hanson. The Life and Writings of the Historical Saint Patrick. New York: The Seabury Press, 1983. 2-12) and Bury (John B. Bury. St. Patrick: The Life and World of Ireland’s Saint. New York: Tauris Parke Paperbacks, Reprinted 2010. 151-154). See also T.M. Charles-Edwards. Early Christian Ireland. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000. 185-186. John Morris. “The Dates of the Celtic Saints.” Journal of Theological Studies 17,2 (1966): 342. Thomas, 308. For a helpful introduction to the socio-historical context of Patrick, see Liam de Paor, Saint Patrick’s World: The Christian Culture of Ireland’s Apostolic Age (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1993).

[9] Confessio 1. On the particulars of this kidnapping, Egan posits the following: “Probably it was King Neill of the Nine Hostages with a flotilla of his armed followers who kidnapped Patrick to County Antrim, where I believe he was sent to tend cattle (not sheep!) on Slieve Mish, a mountain near Ballymena, in Ulter in the northeast. This is the most ancient tradition and accords with everything in Patrick’s writings.” See Egan, 57.

[10] Confessio 23. Though Patrick was not the first bishop appointed to Ireland — that honor belongs to Palladius (appointed 431 CE)—he was the first to actively evangelize the Irish. On Palladius and Patrick, see Morris, “Introduction”, 4-5. On evangelization, see Hughes (Kathleen Hughes. “The church in Irish society, 400-800.” A New History of Ireland: Prehistoric and Early Ireland. Edited by Daibbhi O’Croinin. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005. 306.) and Lynch (Paul Lynch. “’Ego Patricius, peccator rusticissimus’: The Rhetoric of St. Patrick of Ireland.” Rhetoric Review 27, 2 (2008): 111-116.). On Patrick’s famous opposition to druids, see Charles-Edwards (190-191) and Cross (F.L. Cross, Editor. “Patrick, St.” The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. London: Oxford University Press, 1966. 1025.).

[11] “But indeed, [God] inspired me, the detestable of this world….” (Confessio 148) “Moreover, I have God as my authority – he who knows all things even before they happen – that he frequently warned me, a poor ignorant orphan, through divine revelations.” (Confessio 158) See also Thomas, 308.

[12] Conneely, 109. Conneely also argues that Patrick is thoroughly Augustinian in his theological approach, especially in his perspective on grace (See Conneely, 109-110). We will touch on the connections between Augustine and Patrick in Part Two below.


Published by Jacob J. Prahlow

Husband of Hayley. Dad of Bree and Judah. Lead pastor at Arise Church. MATS from Saint Louis University, MA from Wake Forest University, BA from Valparaiso University. Theologian and writer here and at Conciliar Post. Find me on social at @pastorjakestl

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