Saint Patrick is credited with spreading the Christian religion into ancient Ireland in the 5th century. The traditionally-accepted account of his life follows the Confessio, a brief autobiography supposedly written by St. Patrick, himself.
According to the Confessio, St. Patrick was the son of a Roman citizen named Calpurnius. His family had some wealth, as they lived in a home that could be described as a small villa, located in a settlement called Bannavem Taburniae, somewhere on mainland Britain. Patrick’s father, Calpunius, was a clergyman, as was Patrick’s grandfather before him. Yet, Patrick, like many preachers’ sons, confessed to having little to no interest in religion during his early years of life.
Everything changed when Patrick reached the age of sixteen. In a twist of fate that would change the world, the secular-minded Patrick was taken captive by a band of Irish raiders. The young teen was taken back to Ireland, where he was forced to work in the pastures. In the Confessio, Patrick claimed to have been forced to watch over his captors’ animals for six long years.
While he toiled away in the fields, Patrick began to consider things he had ignored while he was free—including religion. In a strange land, without family or friends to rely on, Patrick began praying to the God that his father had served. The prayers and meditation caused an enormous change in Patrick, and through those means he found passion and strength that he never knew was in him. In the Confessio, Patrick wrote that after six years of captivity, God began to speak back while the saint dreamed. Patrick had a dream where a voice told him “your ship is ready,” which prompted the saint to flee from the slavers and, indeed, he found a captain who was willing to sail the runaway back to his homeland.
Before he reached his father’s villa, Patrick claimed to have been enslaved a second time. Yet, he was somehow freed after just two months, allowing him to continue on his journey home. When the saint rejoined his family, Patrick could have settled down for a normal life, yet after receiving a mysterious letter titled, “The Voice of the Irish,” Saint Patrick became inspired to travel back to Ireland and to convert the land of his former captors.
Patrick wrote freely in his Confessio that he was in no way the perfect missionary. Although he came from a family of priests, and was educated enough to be able to read and write, he felt that he, himself, was something of a country bumpkin when compared to the more learned church fathers. He thought he would be found embarrassingly lacking if judged against one of the more scholarly bishops that he heard were residing in Roman Gaul. Nevertheless, armed with his basic ecclesiastical knowledge, his immense passion and an incredibly persistent determination, Saint Patrick returned to Ireland and created a legacy that lasts to this day.
Patrick’s Confessio focused more on his early life and his journey of faith than on his conversion of Ireland. Therefore, he unfortunately described very little of his experiences while preaching to the Irish. He did, however, claim to have baptized many thousands of people in Ireland, and was often harassed by the plentiful Irish kings who saw him as a threat or an annoyance. Despite the dangers he put himself in, Saint Patrick lived a long life and he claimed to have written the Confessio after he had become an old man.
The great monk-historian, Bede (c. 673-735), one of the few generally reliable sources on early British history, wrote about some of the saint’s contemporaries, most notably a bishop named Palladius, but neglected to write about Saint Patrick, himself. A later Welsh monk-historian named Nennius also wrote about early British history, although his text, The History of the Britons (written in approximately 800), is thought to be much more folklorish and fantastical than that of his predecessor, Bede. Nennius’ account of Saint Patrick is in the final chapters of his short book, located not far from his brief description of the legendary King Arthur. Interestingly, Nennius seemingly provided more numbers in the section on Saint Patrick than anywhere else in the text. It reads almost like a sports article, listing off the career statistics of a star player. A lot of the numbers seem outlandish, but a few of them slightly align with the account given in the Confessio. Here are some of the ambitious statistics that Nennius recorded about the life of Saint Patrick. They give insight into how far Patrick’s story had been changed by folklore and legend in the centuries after his death.
The career of St. Patrick according to the embellished account of Nennius (Chapters 54 and 55):
- Saint Patrick lived to be 120 years old (He lived to be an old age, but 120 is highly unlikely).
- Saint Patrick spent 16 years in captivity. (The Confessio stated that he spent 6 years and 2 months in captivity).
- Saint Patrick preached in “foreign” lands for 40 years.
- Saint Patrick was exclusively Ireland’s apostle for 85 years.
- He once fasted for 40 days and 40 nights.
- Saint Patrick wrote 365 religious texts (The Confessio and the “Letter to Coroticus” are the only surviving works thought to have been written by Patrick).
- He founded 365 churches.
- He ordained 365 bishops.
- Saint Patrick ordained 3,000 presbyters.
- Saint Patrick baptized 12,000 people in Connaught, alone (Patrick did say in the Confessio that he baptized many thousands of people).
- Patrick baptized 7 kings or princes in a single day (In the Confessio, Patrick did claim that the sons of kings were among his followers, which sometimes caused tension with unhappy fathers).
- Saint Patrick raised 9 people from the dead.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (St Patrick with a shamrock in a stained glass window at the Smith Museum of Stained Glass Windows at Navy Pier in Chicago, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and Flickr).
- History of the Britons by Nennius, translated by J. A. Giles (c. 19th century), republished by Oxford University Press, 2018.