St. Patrick’s Day is almost upon us again. To celebrate, here’s an flagrantly shameless click-baity 17 point listicle (I like to think of it as a ‘histicle’) on aspects of the historical (St) Patrick which are not widely known or usually discussed in modern media. His two surviving documents (and their respective manuscript versions) can be read in a variety of languages here.
1 – Recorded Irish History Starts With Patrick
Before being grossly inflated to within an inch of his hagiographical life by early medieval authors, the man we call ‘Patrick’ was an actual historical person. He lived sometime in the late 4th/early 5thC AD. Copies of two documents written by him survive. They are the earliest known texts known to have been written within Ireland. As such, recorded Irish ‘history’ (the study of the written word) starts with Patrick. There’s absolutely nothing earlier. Nor indeed, anything after him, for more than a century. The very fact that his writings managed to survive at all is pretty feckin’ amazing.
2 – Growing Up, Patrick Was A Spoiled Little Shit
St. Patrick didn’t call himself ‘Patrick’. Or ‘Saint’. He identified himself as ‘Patricius‘. His father was both a deacon and a type of Roman Town Councillor. His grandfather was a priest. His family’s villa estate had servants. In modern day parlance, Patrick was a totally spoiled little shit. With a maid. Despite the families ecclesiastical connections, he didn’t have a very religious upbringing at all. He says himself that he didn’t pay much attention to priests in general. Too busy gallivanting and drinking Frappuccinos probably. There’s a good chance his father only took on the role of ecclesiastical deacon in order to help mitigate the families imperial tax liabilities. ‘Tax avoidance, your honour. Not evasion. That money was just resting in my account’.
3 – Rude Britannia
Many people, past and present, have laid several modern nationalist claims on Patrick’s ethnicity; despite the fact that Patrick clearly identified himself and his family as being Britons from the island of Britain. This means he would have considered himself British (in the late antiquity sense of the word). His native language would have been Brythonic. Despite this language being the precursor of Welsh, he would not have considered himself as such. He couldn’t have. A coherent welsh identity didn’t yet exist. They still had all their own vowels for fecks sake. His (unidentified) home town was, in all likelihood, somewhere in North West Britain, not far from the Hadrians Wall frontier zone. Despite living near the (modern day) Scottish border, he did not identify with the inhabitants there either. In fact, he expresses a particular hatred for the insular peoples of Scotland, i.e. ‘The Picts’, essentially calling them worthless, unworthy, blood thirsty, evil thieving bastards. Seriously. He couldn’t stand them blue arsed pagan feckers.
4 – Six Years A Slave. In Mayo.
The young Patrick was captured in a raid on his families villa; transported to Ireland; sold into slavery and set to work as a herdsman. Contrary to later myth and legend, this wasn’t anywhere near Slemish, Co. Antrim. Patrick never mentions it, nor indeed, any of the places later associated with him. In fact, the only Irish place he does mention – the actual place of his captivity – was in the far west of Connacht, along the coast of modern day North Co. Mayo. All the other places ‘traditionally’ associated with his figure (Armagh, Downpatrick, Saul, Tara etc) are much later hagiographical inventions by ecclesiastical authorities who were interested in appropriating his cult and status. And to be fair to them, it worked a treat for nearly 1300 years or so. Sneaky bastards.
5 – Hairy Pagan Man Nipples
Patrick underwent a very intense religious conversion during his time in Ireland. He eventually escaped captivity by doing a legger after six years. He crossed the entire width of the island, from the west to the east coast, hoping to find passage on a ship. He found one, and was almost turned away, but the crew relented at the last minute and let him on board. At this point in his narrative, Patrick says that he ‘refused to suck their nipples/breasts’. No, really. Naturally, this has caused many a raised eyebrow over the years, but is now considered to be reflective of two possibilities. A) an inference to a pagan practice/public display of breast suckling to symbolically demonstrate entering into a temporary alliance with, or under the protection of, a superior – or B) one of several possible biblical allusions included to resonate with his Christian literary audience. At the risk of disappointing many of you, in all likelihood, its probably the latter. Still though. Can ye imagine? Pasty Irish hairy pagan man nipples? Bleedin’ manky.*
6 – Loose Canon/Rogue Bishop
After Patrick escaped from Ireland, he eventually made it home to his family in Britain and went on to become a priest. Years later, in middle age, after several previous dreams, he started to seriously think about returning to Ireland as a missionary. His contemporaries thought he was losing it. Christianizing them smelly hairy barbarian paddies beyond the frontier was certainly not the done thing in the fifth century. Nobody wanted him to go. Neither his family, friends or bosses. But Patrick nevertheless had #notions. Around the same time, he was investigated by his religious superiors (in absentia) and was ultimately found to be morally unsuitable for the rank of bishop. In other words – he wasn’t ordained one. (Hint: the clue is in his own term ‘…reprobatus‘).
Patrick was personally devastated and professionally humiliated as a result. It almost put an end to his plans. But he eventually decided to set out on his own, in spite of everything – disobeying his superiors and the wishes of his family, and suffering deep suspicion, criticism and derision for the rest of his life for having done so. This is somewhat problematic for modern day Irish church hierarchies who still base their religious authority and legitimacy on a pseudo-historical claim of episcopal continuity going back to his very personage. The historical reality though, is that Patrick was a self-appointed bishop with no official sanction from anybody (not least Rome) and unrecognized by many of his Christian peers. Don’t take my word for it. Take his. He alludes to it here, here, here, here, here and here – and actually says as much here, here, here, here, here, here and here. #TotesAwkward.
7 – Pagan Loot and Cahoots
Patrick’s mission and methods infuriated his Christian contemporaries. Not only was he held in contempt for disobeying his superiors, he seems to have continued to be a figure of controversy throughout his subsequent life as a freelance missionary. His primary document, the Confessio, is actually a long defense of his life’s work after he had been accused of having a variety of ulterior motives for returning to Ireland. Accusations against him included telling porky pies; personal profiteering; financial irregularities; being in cahoots with pagans; and having (in 5thC Christian eyes) deviant sexual preferences. Patrick categorically refuted all such accusations, attempting to explain that his mission methodology was dependent on unique local conditions. Not surprisingly, all of these controversial elements in his documents were redacted in the earliest surviving Irish manuscript copy made by Armagh authorities who had already appropriated him for the purposes of All-Ireland Primacy. Later versions, in Britain and the continent (based on earlier more complete copies) thankfully preserved his originals.
8 – OrthoDox Hiberionacum
Some people, past and present, look to Patrick’s writings and try to claim that aspects of his theology were somehow unorthodox for his time. The Historical Patrick was incredibly well versed in biblical metaphor, and may even have been acutely aware of, and interested in harnessing, contemporary hagiographical symbolism – but he was not particularly bothered when it came to cutting edge academic matters that were all the rage in the Mediterranean world. Patrick actually includes a fairly standard, if a little localized, orthodox western creed at the start of his Confessio. Some of it would even still be recognizable by Christians today. Missionary maverick, yes. But a heretic? No. The fact that he felt the need to include this creed may possibly indicate that some theological dispersion had been cast on his part by some of his detractors (see No.9 below) – but it could also just as easily be a result of literary convention.
9 – Apocalypse (Any Day) Now
Some people, past and present, still maintain that Patrick established many things in Ireland e.g. church sites, monasteries, a primatial see, an episcopal/diocesan hierarchy and/or facilitated the conversion of the entire Irish population of the time. All such claims are absolute bunkum. The Historical Patrick never once mentioned, let alone claimed, any of the above. He literally couldn’t have been arsed about such matters. Patrick was a man in a hurry. As far as he was concerned he was living in the biblical ‘end times’. He genuinely viewed the world, and his mission, in Christian Apocalyptic terms. i.e. the end was approaching, and as soon as the last of the gentiles at the western extremities of the most extreme westerly island of the known world (ie. pagan Ireland) were converted, that was it. Revelation ground zero. Burn, baby burn. Christo inferno.
The Historical Patrick saw himself as one of the final cogs in a metaphysical space-time wheel. He considered himself an eschatological enabler, doing his bit to help expedite the end of this world. Now, ask yourself – does this sound like someone who had the time, let alone the feckin’ interest, in establishing a grandiose primatial hierarchy on the wrong side of the island in a jumped up shitty horse paddock on a hill in Armagh, going forward? No. No it doesn’t. The next time some bloke in a silly hat waving a crozier tries to tell you otherwise with a straight face – feel free to put them over your knee and spank them with a wet plimsoll. Ironically, if Patrick had actually known that we would all still be here 1500 years later, he probably would have spontaneously combusted.
10 – Patrick the Social Subversive
Where Patrick did go extremely left of centre was with his concept that peoples beyond the imperial frontier (i.e. the pagan Irish) were worthy of being Christianized at all at all; and could be, socially and religiously, brought under the same umbrella of an idealized shared Christian Romanitas as that of their neighbours. That may sound like a very Christian way of thinking nowadays, but in the 5thC, it would have been considered serious goddamn hippy bullshit. The equivalent of sparking up a Big Fatty Boom Batty during a cathedral homily. In 5thC contemporary attitudes, Feckin’ Barbarians were Barbarian Feckers. Period. Of course, only someone such as Patrick, who had experienced the pagan Irish political and cultural landscape as a slave himself, could possibly have imagined how to even attempt such a feat. That very effort itself necessitated socially subversive methods on his part. Working from the inside out, tentatively, within the cultural and social confines and subtleties of a complex pagan society, and at times in particular, focusing on the plight of female inequality. Ironic. Don’t ye think?
11 – Pagan Losers For The Win
Some people, past and present, look to Patrick’s writings; get bored after 30 seconds; and then look to later hagiography on him (in translation) hoping to find echo’s of an epic conflict that overwhelmed and ultimately eradicated an otherwise harmonious ancient druidical order spouting ‘Celtic’ Love, Peace, Trees and Enya. These people are largely talking out of their crustifarian, shamrocked-stuffed, lentil-stained arses. There is nothing of the sort within the writings of the Historical Patrick. No druids. No showdowns. No Can of Pagan Whoopass. What there is, in fact, is a rather profound, strangely respectful, yet altogether realistic treatment of insular Irish pagans and their society.
Patrick speaks of going out of his way so as not to bring the new religion, or any of its practitioners, into disrepute among those pagans he was continually living and working alongside. He paid over the odds to local judges to allow him access new territories in peace. He entered into alliances with local kings and hired their sons as traveling bodyguards. He refused gifts willingly offered by some, because of how it might appear dodgy in the eyes of wider pagans at large. In other words: he went above and beyond with all his dealings with actual pagans. Ever conscious of not offending them in any way, appearing as if he was somehow intruding on their territory, tricking them, charging them for ‘exclusive access’ to arcane knowledge and/or operating some class of a makey-uppy, glorified, self-help ponzi scheme. Like some modern day ‘Druid School’ charging gullible eegits €600 for a weekend course on how to be a Level 3 Cauldron Master. Or something.
12 – Patrick’s Mission Was Always A Heartbeat Away from Failure
Some people, past and present, like to portray Patrick as some great vanquishing hero at the end of his life who, having kicked forty shades of shite out of Pesky Irish Pagans, was basking in the glory of a triumphantly Christianized island. Nothing could be further from the truth. Patrick, writing at the end of his life (after decades as a missionary in Ireland) actually expresses extreme pessimism at the future prospect of his converts. He depicts a mission that was always a heartbeat away from failure, at constant risk of ridicule, ill-treatment, social exclusion, and in his own case, capture, enslavement and death itself. A loose collection of disparate fledgling Christian communities struggling to survive. On such tenderhooks, that he was afraid to even leave Ireland for a short time (in order to answer his critics) in case they wouldn’t be around when he got back.
13 – The Original ‘Plastic Paddy’
Not only does recorded Irish History start with Patrick, his writings also contain the earliest recorded insular expressions of a collective Irish identity. Throughout his writings, Patrick refers to several Irish identities, such as pagan Scotti and Christian Hibernians. The paragraph detailing his famous dream of being called back to Ireland contains a remarkable title – the (collective) ‘Voice of the Irish’. Indeed, after a raid by a British Slaver had killed and kidnapped some of his converts; Patrick, the Briton, writing Latin with his own hand, slipped into the first person – lamenting the fact that his fellow Christians abroad do not consider ‘us’ as equal because ‘We are Irish’. In what would eventually become time-honoured, sterotypical Irish ‘tradition’, it seems Patrick’s life in Ireland resulted in his ‘becoming more Irish than the Irish themselves’ – whilst inadvertently providing us with the earliest detectable Collective Irish ‘We’ at the same time. In that way, Patrick was, and is, the original ‘Plastic Paddy’. Literally.
14 -Kissing Arse and Taking Names
Many different historical and pseudo-historical figures are traditionally depicted as having had a direct connection with Patrick – from mythical pagan kings, saintly ecclesiastical allies, assistants and underlings. None of them are mentioned by him in his actual writings. In fact, the only people he does mention by name are his father and grandfather (‘Calpornius’ and ‘Potitus’), the British tyrant/slaver ‘Coroticus’, and a mysterious figure he called ‘Victoricus’ who appeared to him in a dream, ‘as if coming from Ireland’. The only other specific people he mentions in passing, are unnamed – the master he served for six years as a slave; the captain and crew of his escape ship; an ecclesiastical friend and confessor who went on to betray his trust; a beautiful noble Irish woman convert, and an Irish priest who he personally fostered from infancy. If that isn’t the most perfect Oscar winning movie pitch ever written, then I just don’t know. Daniel Day Lewis. Call me.
15. There’s Nothing ‘Medieval’ About Patrick
For someone who is said to usher in the early medieval period in Ireland, there is nothing ‘medieval’ about Patrick. His writings are actually one of our last glimpses of a late antique literary rationality, something which would not be revived for many centuries. There is nothing unbelievable about anything he says. There is no medieval magic, miracles or mayhem within his writings. There are no snakes (a 12thC hagiographical invention) and there is certainly no shamrocks (these don’t make an appearance until the 17thC). His own interpretation of divine guidance took the form of dreams, what he called ‘visions of the night’. He looked to the extraordinary experiences in his life as evidence of a divinely inspired destiny at work. His worldview and the events he depicts may have been drenched in biblical rhetoric, but they, and he, were nevertheless firmly grounded in the physical and cognitive realities of his day.
16 – Sixteen, Clumsy and Shy
Patrick was 16 years old when he was first captured. He spent six years in Ireland as a slave, escaping at the age of 22. These are the only precise chronological indications that he gives us. He’s rather fuzzy on the rest of his life. He says he began dreaming of being called back to Ireland ‘after a few years’, when he was back in Britain. He relates confessing something to a close friend on the occasion of his becoming a deacon. This same individual apparently divulged it to Patrick’s superiors 30 years later, which instigated his trial. This suggests that Patrick was already in middle age just before the start of his Irish mission. Patrick later mentions a priest whom he had raised since infancy. For this boy to have been old enough to be a priest, suggests that Patrick’s mission lasted at least several decades, echoing his own words that he was in old age at the time of his writings. That’s about all we can say about him. He does not provide us with any clear indications of exact years or even specific decades. He’s generally regarded as dating to the 5th Century. But he could equally be at home in the late 4thC. The next time you read something that confidently proclaims an exact date or time for Patrick and his mission – feel free to fart in its general direction.
17 – Body Of Evidence
We have no indication whatsoever of when, or where, he actually died. The lack of a known burial site, and/or possession of his body, was something particularly embarrassing to the Early Irish Church. It’s almost as if Patrick was telling the truth when he says himself that he wasn’t held in high esteem by fellow Christians during his life. Later (early medieval) hagiography had to came up with a very convoluted ‘explanation’ as to why his body wasn’t where it ‘should’ be. Ahem. Centuries later, Norman adventurers apparently managed to ‘accidentally’ stumble upon his grave during a spot of light gardening. What are the chances, like. This later ‘traditional’ location at Downpatrick even underwent an overhaul aimed at the tourist market in the early 20thC. Of course, its all just medieval show-business.
Despite not knowing where or exactly when, we can still be fairly confident that Patrick did likely die on March 17th. Its the kind of thing Early Christians usually remembered and celebrated. From early Irish hagiography onward, nobody has ever questioned it or came up with an alternative (despite Patrician scholars arguing over every other trivial detail of his life). Its almost as if it was something so widely held at an early age, there was no point in even trying to dispute it. I mean, seriously. Does anyone really think we would actually hold a national outdoor pissup in the middle of godforsaken wet and windy Ireland – in feckin’ MARCH – if we didn’t really have to?
I’d like to think its Patrick’s last laugh. On all of us.
Happy Irreverent but yet still Historically Accurate St. Patrick’s Day, wherever you are.
* The next appearance of this nipple sucking motif in insular Irish literature (from a few centuries later) involves a King’s nipples being suckled by a proto-leprechaun water sprite… **
** Nope. Not even going there.