Two days from now we will all quietly celebrate the life and work of a self-sacrificing Christian man who brought comfort and the word of God to thousands of Irish people one and a half millennia ago.
Like hell we will.
Instead, we will eat, drink, parade, turn the Chicago River green, get thousands of normally staid tourists blind drunk before selling them their family tree, and stand four rows back with small children on our shoulders trying to catch a glimpse of a parade. Welcome to St. Patrick’s Festival time. Like a modern Irish wedding what used to take a day now takes three times as long, as we remember the man who brought Christianity to Ireland.
Or did he?
We don’t know a lot about him, other than his autobiographical Confessions. We think he might have come from Wales but we’re not really sure. He could have come from another part of Roman Britain, or even from continental Europe. At least we can be pretty sure he didn’t come from anywhere west of us, despite the enthusiasm with which New York celebrates his feast day.
St. Patrick is supposed to have arrived in Ireland in 432. While he may well have converted a number of prominent and humble Irish folks to Christianity he was not working on a greenfield site. There was already in existence, for example, the Catholic diocese of Ossory, whose first bishop, St. Ciaran, died thirty years before Patrick even got here.
In fact not only was Patrick sent to minister to Irish Christians who had already been converted—as opposed to converting an entirely pagan Ireland— but he didn’t even get here first. It appears that at least a year before Patrick arrived he was preceded by a missionary bishop named Palladius, sent in 431 as, according to a contemporary document, the ‘first bishop to the Irish believing in Christ’. That’s the Irish believing in Christ, not the bishop – there would not have been much point in sending him had he been a pagan or an atheist. Palladius was despatched to Scotland and Ireland by Pope Celestine the First. Back in the Fifth Century Popes obviously did not necessarily have to have bloke’s names.
It appears that Palladius may well have done most of his work in Leinster and Munster, while Patrick thrived in Ulster and Connacht. The potential confusion led at least one scholar, T.F.O’Rahilly, to propose the ‘Two Patricks’ theory – suggesting that somehow the work of Palladius had been conflated with that of Patrick and there were, technically, two Patricks, not one. Back in the day if you wanted to get a history degree you had to learn it off by heart.
The very name ‘Patrick’ adds weight to this theory. It’s common in Ireland now but the original version would have been the Latin ‘Patricius’. Back in the fifth century, the word Patricius denoted someone of aristocratic birth, or a ‘patrician’. It was actually used as a prefix, a title or an honorific. Today the equivalent would be ‘Lord’ Snooty or ‘Sir’ Political Contribution. So is it conceivable that our patron saint’s name wasn’t Patrick at all, but merely the posh preliminary for his actual name?
Just in case you’re wondering, neither Patrick had anything to do with banishing the snakes from Ireland. That’s because there never were any snakes in Ireland, at least not since the last Ice Age, and back then there would have been no one around to do a serpent census. The Irish have never shared this island with reptiles, other than a drunken conga line in Coppers on New Year’s Eve. So, St. Patrick’s supposed feat would be like banishing penguins from the snowy wastes … of northern Canada.
One more thing. The seventeenth of March is not his birthday either! Not that we would have a hope in hell of being able to work that one out. Saint’s feast days are assigned to mark the day they commence the noble art of pushing up daisies. It’s actually his death day.
So, did our beloved patron saint, whom we will over-celebrate in two days time, bring Christianity to Ireland. I’m afraid not. It was already here. That’s fake history.