Except for the shamrock and the cross, St. Patrick wouldn't recognize much of the trappings of March 17. And the oft-repeated tale of Patrick sweeping Ireland clean of snakes, while charming and resplendent of Christian symbolism, is nonetheless only a colorful myth. The real man has largely been lost to us through the fog of time.
Philip Freeman's biography is therefore especially welcome. His distinguished career in ancient and Celtic studies ably qualifies him for this task of separating fancy from historical truth.
Alas, our knowledge of the facts of St. Patrick's life is scanty. He was born into a Roman-British aristocratic family around 390. Both his father and grandfather were Christian clergymen at a time in the early days of the church when the clergy were allowed to have wives and families.
As a privileged son of the upper class, he began to receive an education suitable to his station, but one night Patrick's tranquil life was shattered by criminals who kidnapped him, transported him to Ireland, and sold him into slavery.
He was in a foreign land, listening to a language he did not at first understand, and subjected to indignities and orders from men whom he regarded as barbarians outside the civilized Roman world. We do not know where in Ireland Patrick was kept as a slave, but Freeman speculates persuasively that he was on the western coast tending sheep. In this harsh physical environment, Patrick grew into early manhood, gaining body mass and strength.
From his own account, in these half-dozen years of captivity Patrick also came to think more deeply about his life and the values that governed it. He reexamined his earlier religious skepticism and revised his attitude toward the Christian faith. Indeed, in his Confession, he calls himself "a crude and ignorant exile." In this dark period, we can see the first emergence of that intellectual and moral commitment that lead ultimately to his mission to convert the pagan Irish.
Patrick wrote that in a dream he received a promise from God to secure his liberation from bondage and return to his family. Inspired by this divine revelation, he secretly crossed the breadth of Ireland, evading capture by the pagan Celts. At the shore, he sought passage to Britain, a dangerous escapade both for Patrick and for any ship's crew. He was fortunate to find a captain willing to transport a penniless, fleeing slave.
Freedom was almost his, but before departing the Irish coast, there was one more test of his faith: The ship's crew asked that Patrick make "a pact of friendship" with them by sucking their nipples. This Patrick refused to do, "because I feared God." And so the choice was clear: personal freedom or his moral commitment to Christianity. Ultimately, his decision to abide by his conscience did not sabotage his escape to freedom.
One might have expected him to rejoice in the comforts of home and family in England, but a penetrating dissatisfaction soon gripped Patrick, and in another vision he received an injunction to abandon his life of privilege and return to Ireland. After a period of religious training, about which we know little, he responded to the call, describing himself as "someone very different from what I was, someone who can care about others and work to help them."
Patrick's mission to the Irish was not the first attempt to convert them to the Christian faith. An earlier attempt, by Palladius, had proved unsuccessful and that failure led to Patrick's appointment as bishop. His task of converting the pagan kings and combating enemies like the Druids was made easier by his basic knowledge of their language, but his advancement within the church was hindered by his imperfect knowledge of Latin, which occasionally raised unwarranted suspicions about his orthodoxy.
One of the strengths of Freeman's account is the attention paid to the missionary's interaction with the political elite, the cultural elite, and especially the women of Ireland, both free and enslaved.
Patrick brought not just his sincere convictions in spiritual matters, but also material gifts, and the welcome message enjoining obedience to properly established civil authorities by all good Christians. But for the Druids, the threat from Patrick and his fellow Christians was very real. His was a message that would not reinforce the power of the existing cultural elite. It was not merely that he brought a new religion to displace the Celtic paganism; he brought a new concept of knowledge and of those values that are the core of culture. So while the Irish kings might be able to accommodate Patrick and the new religion, the Druids faced the dismantling of the cultural system of which they were the principal defenders and the principal beneficiaries.
That Patrick should have triumphed in these circumstances is a significant achievement in itself, and one that his latter followers would see as miraculous.
• J. Morgan Sweeney is a professor of Irish history at Michigan State University.