This interview originally aired on March 17, 2017.


Good afternoon, I am Al Kresta. St. Patrick is among the best-known saints. He has one of the most memorable feast days. What do we actually know about his life, especially his early years? How did he come to be a missionary? Why did he choose to go to Ireland? As we celebrate the Feast of St. Patrick this year, we are going to take a look at his life.

My guest, Dr. Philip Freeman, is Associate Professor of Classics at Luther College in Iowa and a visiting scholar at Harvard Divinity School. He is the author of 4 books, including St. Patrick of Ireland, a Biography. Philip, good to have you again.

Thanks, good to be here.

Let’s go over some basic questions. A lot of times with early saints like this, there are legends that grow up around them. How much history do we have, solid history about St. Patrick of Ireland?

Well actually we have a good deal. There are a lot of later legends that grew up around St. Patrick, driving the snakes out of Ireland and all of that. Thanks to the wonderful fact that we have two actual letters that were written by Patrick himself, and then copies of these were preserved, we actually know more about Patrick than we do about almost any saint from that period.

Wow, good. These two letters, what were the occasions for the letters?

Patrick was in Ireland for both of these, and he was an old man writing them. The first one was when a British king sent slave raiders over and kidnapped some of St. Patrick’s converts and sold them into slavery. Patrick wrote a letter and said, “You can’t do this, you’ve got to let them go.”

His second letter was to the Bishops of Britain, who were calling Patrick to task for what they saw as some financial irregularities and just some odd things that he was doing in Ireland.

So is that an apologetic?

It is, it really is an apologetic letter in the sense of a defense, yes.

Take me back to his upbringing, his childhood, mom and dad, extended family. What were they like?

We know from these two letters, fortunately he talks about this. He was raised in Britain, that is something that might surprise people, he was not Irish. He was raised somewhere in Britain; we don’t know exactly where. He was raised in the last years of the Roman Empire when Rome was still a power in Britain, before they withdrew the legions. Patrick saw himself and he was a Roman citizen. He came from a noble family, a fairly wealthy family that was important in government in the area. His father was a deacon; his grandfather was a priest. And so Patrick grew up in a life of luxury. He lived on a villa outside of a town. He certainly had slaves who waited on him. Everything was going really well for Patrick until he was about 16 years old when he was kidnapped by Irish slave raiders.

He was kidnapped to become a slave. Were they going to sell him, what were they going to do with him?

They were, they took him back to Ireland along with other people they had kidnapped there. This was a fairly common thing back then. They sold him into slavery. We don’t really know exactly where, probably somewhere on the west coast. He was sold into slavery in Ireland and was a sheepherder for 6 or 7 years, until he heard in his sleep the voice of God saying it is time to go home.

Wow, so he got direct guidance then, thru a dream?

He did. It was a dream, a couple of dreams actually. He said he resisted it at first but then he said yes I am going to do it. He became a runaway slave, which was a death sentence for anybody.

He had to escape then?

He had to escape, they wouldn’t have let him go freely. He escapes, and he says he went about 180 miles, which is all the way across Ireland, where he finds a ship that will reluctantly take him back to Britain. He makes it back eventually to Britain, to his parents’ home. He is in his early 20s at this point. He says they were thrilled to have him back.

So he is back home. What are his career goals at this point?

For all we know he just wanted to live out his life there and just be a nice Roman landlord. Again, he got voices and visions in his sleep from God. He said that God called him back to Ireland. He resisted this, he didn’t want to do it. He said that God called him back to Ireland. Somehow during that time, whether it was in Britain or if he went to Gaul which is modern day France he got training and ordination and eventually he became a Bishop. He went back to Ireland as a missionary.

Was he already ordained as a Bishop when he went back to Ireland?

That is the one thing we are not quite sure about. He was certainly ordained as a priest, but whether or not he was a Bishop after he got to Ireland or before, it is unclear.

What was his ministry life before he returned to Ireland? What do we know about him?

Well, we know that he spent some years in training. This is the dark period of Patrick’s life. We don’t know exactly what happened, how long it took, where he was. He got the training and as soon as possible evidently he went back to Ireland to work among the very people who enslaved him.

Did he have great reluctance, or had that finally been worked out of his system?

It seems that he worked it out. When he went back to Ireland he was ready to go. He would have had to have been, because it was a very dangerous, difficult thing. He talked about the years he worked in Ireland and it was never easy, never at all. He was threatened, he was beaten, he was kidnapped. He went thru all sorts of incredible physical and mental difficulties in order to preach the gospel back in Ireland.

Talk to be about the social setting. How was society arranged in Ireland at that time. Was it tribal?

It was. It was very different from what Patrick had known, what anybody would have known within the Roman empire. The Roman empire was divided into provinces, there were cities. In Ireland, there were no cities at all. Dublin wouldn’t be founded until the Vikings came along centuries later. It was tribal, there were at least 100 different autonomous independent tribes constantly fighting, constantly at war with each other. Patrick had to negotiate the really difficult tribal politics in Ireland. He had to gain safe passage from tribe to tribe. It just was a totally different world than he was used to.

This took considerable sacrifice on his part. He was going into really undeveloped territory.

Yes, and as Patrick says it was the end of the world, and from a Roman point of view it certainly was. If you stand on the west coast of Ireland and look west, there is nothing there. He was going into the one Celtic land that the Romans had not conquered. The Romans never made it to Ireland except as businessmen and traders, the legions never landed there. He was going into the wild west quite literally in order to do his work. He sacrificed everything, he gave up everything in order to do this.

What was his missionary strategy? Did he do street preaching; did he talk to kings?

We know he spoke of the success he had with the sons and daughters of kings converting to Christianity. He also talks about working with slaves, and especially slave women in Ireland. He worked all across the social spectrum. The first thing he would have had to have done is to gain permission from each of these tribal kings in order to preach in their territory, which would have involved giving them gifts; money and gold and anything he could to get his way in. And then we know he just preached the gospel. In one of his letters he talks about what he believes, and it is pretty much just the Nicene Creed that people say in church every Sunday. It is nothing exotic. The Christianity that Patrick preached was straight forward orthodox Catholic Christianity.

With all these tribes, what kind of religion did they practice? What sense of spirituality did they have? Was there an overarching world view that they all shared? Or did they have very distinct individual beliefs within each tribal group?

Both, actually. They were polytheistic, so they were like the Greeks and Romans in that they had multiple gods. They had a god named Luke who was a craftsman god who seems to be sort of at the head of things. There was not one single god. This was a very foreign notion to the Irish. The different tribes would have had their favorite gods, their local gods, male and female alike. He was walking into a world full of gods, which is hard for us to imagine. It would have been much more like Hindu India than anything that we can imagine.

What were Druids?

Druids were the priests. They were very well trained, very disciplined people who were the priests of the Irish religion. They were the ones who did the sacrifice, they were intermediaries, they performed ceremonies. They were also quite good at science. So, anybody who was Irish who wanted to do a sacrifice to the gods, for a good crop or whatever it might be; they would go to a Druid and the Druid would perform the ceremony for them.

Do you know if these Druids were interchangeable between tribes?

We know that they were, actually. They were one of the few people who could cross between tribes. Most people couldn’t, just your average farmer could not. A Druid could pass freely all throughout Ireland. We know that it was a very extensive network of Druids that did this.

He is up against a well-organized, even though its polytheistic and there are multiple tribes; it sounds as if there is a pretty intact overall world view that he had to confront?

It was, and the interesting thing about Ireland is that unlike a lot of places we don’t have many stories of martyrs. I don’t know that they accepted Patrick’s message because we have records of Druids and the old religion being around a number of centuries after Patrick, but they don’t seem to have fought him, they didn’t try to burn him at the stake or anything like that. At least I get the feeling that the Druids were very reasonable. They probably listened to Patrick, and most of them would have shook their heads and said no; but some of them certainly would have converted and become among the first priests and Christians of Ireland.

I’m curious about family structure. In classical Rome, one of the appeals of Christianity to women was that it practiced chastity. Priests preached chastity, anyways. Women could look upon church attendance as a place where they would be more highly regarded than in the surrounding Roman culture. I’m just wondering, did Irish women find Christianity appealing for those same reasons?

I think so. We know actually a good deal about the social situation and status of women in early Ireland, and I would say it was more equality than you would have in Rome; but certainly it was still a man’s world. And we know from Patrick’s writings that he had a lot of women followers, a lot of women who became Christians. I’m sure they did it for a lot of sincere spiritual reasons, but it was also liberating for them. We have records of a number of them becoming nuns, although there is not a great structure. They called themselves Virgins of Christ and formed their own communities, and really took themselves out of the whole social picture of the hierarchy in the setting of Ireland. This made a lot of enemies, because the fathers their naturally wanted to marry their daughters to a successful warrior over the hill, and if they became Virgins for Christ that was no longer an option. Patrick writes about some fathers beating their daughters who became Christians.

It was polytheistic but was it also polygamist?

It was, at least for the men. They certainly could have more than one wife. There actually were 9 different ranks of wife within Ireland with all sorts of different obligations. A man could marry as many wives as he could afford. Most men we have records of just had a single wife. I think probably it was honestly just too much trouble and too expensive so they would just have one. It was polygamist and they had all sorts of rules. If a husband brought home a new wife, the first wife was allowed to beat the new wife for three days, all sorts of interestingly little rules that they had. Yes, it was polygamist.

What years are we talking about? I don’t think I established that earlier on.

The best guess, the traditional date of Patrick arriving in Ireland is 432 A.D.; this is probably about right. Somewhere in the 5th century, somewhere in the 400s. If I were to guess I would say Patrick was probably born in the late 390s, maybe about the year 400; and lived until the 460s to the 490s. We don’t know how long he lived. He is living and operating within the 5th century which is a century of tremendous turmoil. The western Roman empire is falling apart, the Anglo-Saxon invasions into Britain.

Who was Coroticus?

Coroticus was a king in Britain. He was the one who sent the one who sent the slave raiders into Ireland later in Patrick’s life and kidnapped some of Patrick’s converts and took them back to Britain.

So Patrick had to write to him, or his agents directly.

He sent a letter to King Coroticus and to the warriors of Coroticus. I have this feeling that this was a letter that went out broadly to Britain saying “You have got to give these slaves back. These are Christians, these are your brothers and sisters, you cannot do this.” As far as we know, it did not work.

It didn’t work. What threat did he pose to Coroticus?

The threat was a moral one. He had no power over him. I would imagine it embarrassed Coroticus terribly. Also, it angered the bishops in Britain. The bishops back in Britain were the ones who had the moral authority over Coroticus. Here you have this successful king who is a British king, who is a Christian. And you have this Bishop over in Ireland writing letters and saying you can’t do this. The bishops in Britain feel like Patrick is impinging on their territory, so they certainly got mad at Patrick for this.

Could Patrick have raised up troops in defense of these fellow Christians?

We don’t have any record that he had any sort of either interest or ability in terms of doing that sort of thing, so he had to use persuasion. If you read the letter to Coroticus, it is a wonderful persuasion. It is a fire and brimstone sermon; it is just amazing.

Do you have part of it in front of you there? I’d like to hear some of it.

Let me see what I can find here. He is writing actually to the soldiers of Coroticus and he says “I earnestly implore all of you who are holy people and humble of heart. It is wrong to seek the favor of such men, or to eat bread and drink with them. Please do not even take alms from them until they repent weeping before God and release the servants of God and the baptized handmaids of Christ.” That is some of the nicer stuff that he says to them.

There is an attempt here, I just looked it up in your book. He says do you know what the Roman Christians of Gaul do? They send holy experienced men to the pagan Francs. What was he trying to get at there?

He was saying maybe I can buy them back from you. There is a precedent set that the Christians of Gaul would ransom captive Christian slaves from the Francs. Patrick is saying maybe we can work something out.

He was trying everything at his disposal, short of war and violence.

He was. Absolutely, he tried everything he could do. We have no record that he was at all successful.

Talk to me about his Confession. What was the occasion for him to actually write it?

The Confession is just a wonderful defense of his life and his ministry. What he seems to be doing, I have to look at the Confession to try to figure out what the occasion is. He seems to be in trouble with the bishops of Britain for multiple reasons. I think they are mostly upset with him for going his own way in Ireland, and doing things they would not do. They think he is not sending enough money back to Britain. Even though he is preaching standard Catholic doctrine, they are upset about his success in Ireland. They dig up some dirt on Patrick, something he did before he was even kidnapped, back when he was 15 years old or so. They don’t say exactly what it is, that is the interesting thing. They use this to try to get him to come stand trial in Britain, which he refuses to do.

The Confession reads as a personal testimony, or is it strongly creedal?

It is a personal testimony, with a creed at the start of it; and I think Patrick does that very deliberately. He wants to establish for the bishops and for everyone else that he is an orthodox Christian preaching standard Catholic doctrine. He is not some sort of hybrid Druid priest, or anything weird like that.

No syncretism with him?

Right, no syncretism going on. This is plain vanilla Christianity that he is preaching. It is mostly about his life. He tells his life story; he tells about the difficulties of his ministry in Ireland. Everything that he has been thru. He talks a lot about the women of Ireland, and the slave women of Ireland. The horrible times they go thru trying to maintain their Christian faith in just an impossible situation for them. It is an insight into the soul of a man unlike anything we get in the ancient world. You can read Caesar and Cicero and whatever you want, and you will never get an insight into what was going on inside a person like you will reading the Confession of Patrick.

Interesting, isn’t it? We have the Confessions of Augustine, which are considered more interior than other looks at ancient figures, and Patrick as well. So, you have two Christians there that have a rich interior life by comparison to their contemporaries. What was Ireland like after Patrick, what was his imprint? Did he have immediate success; did he have an impact on culture? Or is that something that comes later?

He says that he converted thousands of people. We don’t know if that is true exactly or not, I think that probably it is. He must have worked there for decades. Patrick was not the first Christian in Ireland, but he I think was very successful. He was preaching probably more in the north than anywhere else, and Ireland becomes Christian slowly. It takes time, it takes a couple hundred years before it is totally a Christian nation, Christian Ireland. Patrick was an important part of this. It is not just bringing in a new religion, but bringing in writing and reading, which before that really wasn’t there. It is a transformation of an entire culture in a way that is hard to imagine.

The monastic founder Columba or Columbanus was born in 521, so that’s 80 years after Patrick. When he was founding monasteries on the continent, is Patrick part of the living memory?

I think so, we have Patrick’s Confession and his letter survive; and they survive in Europe actually better than they do in Ireland. Some of the earliest manuscripts that are released are in Europe. The story of Patrick spread as Columbanus and all the others establish monasteries throughout Europe. Patrick is a part of the heritage, and for centuries afterwards he is known. He is much more of a national and a local saint. The whole idea of St. Patrick’s Day was not something that came along until modern times.

What are some of the legendary elements that people may confuse as historical?

Well first of all the idea that Patrick drove the snakes out of Ireland. There weren’t any snakes in Ireland. Things like the shamrock, the 3-leaf clover; Patrick never talks about using that although it is a great illustration of the Trinity.

Philip, once again, thank you. That is very helpful, and a wonderful look at Patrick.

My pleasure.

My guest, Dr. Philip Freeman, his book St. Patrick of Ireland, a Biography, it reads beautifully and it is organized so that you can go right through his life.

I’m Al Kresta.

Comments are closed.