PATRICK (c. 390–c. 461)
Chief apostle of Ireland
Born at Ailclyde, now Dumbarton, Patrick was the son of a deacon named Calpurnius. At age sixteen he was captured in a raid by Irish pirates and sold to Milchu, an Antrim chieftain. After six years as a slave he escaped to Gaul, where he became a monk, first under Martin of Tours and later at Lerins. After returning to his family in Britain, he was called in a vision to preach to the heathen Irish. He was made a bishop and landed at Wicklow with a missionary party about 431. But the hostile reception he received drove him up the east coast to Strangford Lough. There he set his base until he had converted all the Ulstermen to Christianity. Among his converts was his old master Milchu. Patrick took advantage of the spirit of clanship by first winning chiefs for Christ and then using their influence to reach their people. Subsequently, he made missionary journeys throughout Ireland. After Patrick had converted Ireland, it became a center of Christian influence throughout Europe. He died at Saulpatrick about 461, though the exact date is much debated. His burial place at Armagh soon attracted pilgrims to the spot.
Patrick’s only authentic literary remains are the Confessions, written to answer foes who attacked him over a moral lapse when he was fifteen, and a letter addressed to the Christian subjects of the tyrant Coroticus, a British chieftain, in which Patrick protested against the ill–treatment of some Irish Christians he had carried off as slaves. Later versions of these writings were elaborated by others to bring the works more in line with the popular life of the apostle, according to which, legendary foreign travels delayed his arrival in Ireland until he was sixty. Irish Christians felt that the culture and learning of Augustine of Canterbury and other Roman missionaries made the Irish saint appear too simple and crude. So, national pride ascribed to Patrick a learning he never claimed and a Roman mission of which he knew nothing, protracted his stay in Gaul, and extended his travels to Italy. Of the many legends about Patrick the best known is the story of his expelling snakes from Ireland. His being called a saint also comes from popular tradition; he was never formally canonized at Rome.
This Biographical Sketch comes from…
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