Pieced-together history of Ireland's famous (but non-Irish) saint

Who Was Saint Patrick? by E. A. Thompson. New York: St. Martin's Press. 190 pp. $21.95. Nobody mentions him until two centuries after his death, and by then he was a saint and his life a series of incredibilities.

So why remember St. Patrick? Not because he was the first Christian in Ireland (he wasn't), not because he worked miracles (he didn't), but because, once he became bishop of Ireland, he used his office ``not simply to serve `the Irish who believe in Christ,' but rather to convert the heathen barbarians to Catholic Christianity.''

In this, Patrick was original. He is the first Roman Catholic evangelical bishop, in Ireland or anywhere.

For the historian, Patrick is a challenge. Witty, dry, brilliantly argued, ``Who Was Saint Patrick?'' establishes what few facts there are about the saint and places him as completely as possible in the context of the Dark Ages in which he lived.

Author E. A. Thompson, a professor emeritus at Nottingham University, concludes that Patrick was a man of great courage with a burning sense of mission. From Thompson's argument, it also seems clear that in giving up his rights as a Roman citizen to live in a barbarian land, Patrick was redeeming a life which otherwise could have led nowhere.

From Patrick's own writings we know that at age 16 he was taken captive and made a slave by Irish raiders. He escaped six years later, and then wandered; the itinerary is unclear.

In any event, he was not at home for the crucial years of his education when he would have been prepared for a life in the church.

When he was captured, though his father was a deacon, Patrick himself was an unbeliever.

He learned to pray in Ireland.

Fifth-century Britain was a time of catastrophe. The country was besieged not only by Saxons and Picts, but by heresy. Britain went from being a peaceful outpost of the Roman Empire to a scene of civil war, blasted cities, ignorant tribes.

But Ireland was worse. One of Patrick's two Latin compositions is an epistle to a British Christian in Ireland who allowed his thugs to raid a group of recently baptized Irish, murder some, and take others as slaves. Patrick's indignation and compassion burn brightly in his epistle.

In Thompson's words, Patrick ``never to the end of his life ceased to be impressed by the strangeness of his fate in being abysmally obscure in his boyhood and yet God's chosen instrument in the end.''

Perhaps we can follow him in this: Even though living in what he, like many -- and with good reason -- considered to be the last days of the world, Patrick discovered love enough to love a people who had been considered up to that point beyond the pale.

Thomas D'Evelyn is the Monitor's book editor.

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