Celebrating St. Patrick’s Day
Irish Celts are famous for their storytelling. It’s perhaps the landscape of Ireland that captivates the soul and causes one to dream — an island, full of lush greenery and hills, surrounded by water with tales of ancient sea monsters (i.e. the Loch Ness Monster), mysticism and miracles.
Saint Patrick was one of these miracles brought to the emerald isle; a miracle so big, that his presence there eventually converted the entire island to Christianity.
From Slave to Saint
Patrick was a 5th century British missionary, but he didn’t start out that way. At the age of 16, he was captured by Irish raiders and forced into slavery (c. 430 AD). These celts, or known back then as “Galatians” by the Greeks, were famous for their brutal, militaristic ways. The Romans spent a lot of money and men trying to repel their incessant attacks, and eventually won. So, the Celts retreated to the “end of civilization,” as it was referred to back then; areas we now call England, Scotland and Ireland.
Patrick was taken from his homeland and forced to work for his slave-owner, tending pig herds on the hills of Ireland. He often lived like an animal himself, going months without human contact. Memories of the British missionaries who converted him to Christ got him through those long, lonely days. On those green, grassy knolls, he turned to God for comfort during those hard years of slavery.
For six years, Patrick slaved over those pigs before finally hearing a message from within that told him to fast (from food), and then soon he’d return to his homeland.He did so, and then heard he was to go find a ship waiting for him. Patrick ran the 200 plus miles it took to get to the coastline of Ireland, where he found a trader’s boat and convinced the boat owner to let him board back to England.
Back in Britain, he studied the faith and had a vision which called him back to Ireland—the last place he wanted to return to! Nonetheless, Patrick obeyed the call and because of it, today Patrick is remembered as the one who converted Ireland to Christianity.
“Saint Patrick,” as he’s called today, wasn’t the first to bring Christianity to the Emerald Isle, however. Pope Celestine I sent a bishop named Palladius to Irelend in 431 AD. It was assumed that he was martyred, and as the old saying goes, the church was built on the blood of martyrs (Tertullian).
Facing the Pagan Druids
When Patrick arrived back in Ireland, paganism was still dominant. Ancient Pagan belief was rooted in polytheism and superstition. Knowing this, Patrick taught these Irish that their supernatural beings were actually demons, and thus, transformed their thinking of fearing old deities into hatred of demons.
The Celts also performed unthinkable acts of human sacrifice, so Patrick declared that such sacrifices were no longer needed because Christ died once for all. He urged the Celts to put away their knives and abandon their altars. He used their pagan beliefs to show the truth of Christianity.
Three-Leaf Clovers & Miracles
One of their favorite motifs was a tri-faced god, for three was their magical number. This was an easy transition for Patrick to make to the pagans—that the God of three faces has given us His son, that He does not hate us but loves us, and that He wants our lives, not our death. Patrick also used a three-leaf clover as an analogy to teach them about the Trinity concept. But he needed more than good symbolism. These people were highly superstitious and needed signs to believe it.
Patrick’s biggest opposition came from the skilled, educated and powerful Druids who wanted to kill him. The promises of heaven kept Patrick fearless, and he had great confidence in God to protect him. Supposedly, miracles followed Patrick, and legend has it that the druids set up a trap to kill Patrick, but as they came near, all they could see was a deer. This, and many other stories, convinced the pagan Irish that Patrick’s God was the real God to worship.
The Biggest Impact
Patrick’s greatest enemy wasn’t the Druids but slavery. Having been one himself, he had a special urgency to end the trade, and was the first Christian to speak out strongly against it. Eventually, he helped end the entire Irish slave trade! This had a huge impact on that society.
Monasteries were ultimately the biggest impact Patrick left in his mission to Ireland. He concentrated on converting tribal kings, logically concluding that if you convert the king, you convert the tribe. It proved to be a very successful strategy.
As the kings were converted, an old Irish custom had them give their sons back to Patrick for educating. He turned these children into monks (and/or nuns) and built monasteries. He ordained the new disciples to be deacons and priests and left them in charge of the monasteries.
Saint Patrick died in 493 in his seventies, and he was one of the first great missionaries who brought the gospel beyond the boundaries of Rome. He was a great role model for Celtic Christians, remaining a humble man, as written in his autobiography, Confession, which states that he was full of self-doubt, calling himself a “fool” whom God allowed to do His will.
Patrick established primitive communities of monks and nuns, and by the end of the 7th century, abbots controlled monasteries. In rural Ireland, these places were like mini-cities and the hub of civilization. They were devoted to nature, poetry, creating fine metalwork and sculpture. Their sites were set-up like ancient ring-forts for protection against raiders. They wanted to remove themselves from the world, and often chose remote islands to build these monasteries to devote their minds and bodies to God.
Like Augustine, those living in monasteries believed every Christian was an alien in the carnal world.
The spiritual hot spot was on one of these isles: Iona, a Scottish isle about three miles by one-and-a-half miles. This is where Saint Columba resided, the most important saint associated with the Celtic churches. Legends grew around Columba, giving him the same status as a Christian sorcerer’s apprentice, proving that superstition did not die out with Saint Patrick. Columba wrote hundreds of poems, and had a great reputation for scholarship. He trained priests and bishops, and was believed to converse regularly with angels.
The Irish Celts were respectful of women’s spiritual gifts and leadership. Legend has it that Brigit, a kind of female counterpart of Patrick, was the Abbess of Kildare, overseeing a double monastery of men and women. Brigit is surrounded by a “forest of legends,” so it is impossible to really know if she even existed or was a fabrication of a Celtic goddess of the same name.It is said that she lived to serve Jesus by feeding the poor and vanquishing misery wherever she found it. She also was fond of beer, and held a merry approach to life. She gave away things generously and everyone said they felt in her the burning presence of God loving all within her reach. She is remembered as the “Festive Abbess.”
Another female leader in monastic medieval Ireland was a woman called the “Jewel of Whitby” or Hilda (c. 614-680 AD). She spent her earthly life devoted to the work of heaven, working toward the unity of the church and had a keen appreciation of other’s unique talents, which led her to recognize and empower Caedmon, England’s first poet.
The End of the Monasteries
In 793, the Vikings raided Ireland, destroying the glory of the Celtic monasticism. Ireland’s economy was still that of a pastoral society with all the riches held in monasteries. This is why the warriors targeted those peaceful communes. Over a 25-year period, 26 attacks in total were recorded. In time, the warriors began to settle there and their presence created international trade at Dublin and Limerick, nurtured by Viking merchants. This lifted Ireland out of a pastoral economy.
Some today look back at the medieval Celtic period as a kind of “golden age.” The church in Ireland taught many things with grace and acceptance. They taught that God was near rather than far off; that God loves us more than judges us; that there is peace in simplicity; to tolerate secular culture; to respect women; and to live in harmony with the natural world around them. This view is popular today because it reflects a lot of modern thought, and so the region is often viewed as a place where life could be lived as God and nature intended.
Now that is something to celebrate! Happy St. Patrick’s Day.
Christian History magazine, issue 60