St Patrick: More man than myth


As we celebrate fifty shades of green and celebrate the most famous of Ireland’s patron saints, it seems only fitting to go back and look at what we know about Patrick himself.

Stripping away centuries of myth and miracle, shamrock teachings and banishings of snakes, we can look at him through the lens of his own writings. They are the earliest extant texts from Ireland and there are two: His Confession, and a letter he wrote excoriating the soldiers of a man called Coroticus after the soldiers killed people who had just been baptised.

Much of what is taught about Patrick came from a narrative driven by Armagh in a sort of ecclesiastical and propaganda coup, and is best articulated in Muirchu’s Life of Patrick which was written at least 200 years after Patrick had died. But even Muirchu says there are conflicting stories about the saint, and it should be read more about what people in his lifetime thought about Patrick than what actually happened.

Better, then, to go to the man’s own words. The Confession was written toward the end of his life (he is traditionally held to have died in about 461). This is not a confession in the sense we might understand – “forgive me father for I have sinned” – but a defence and justification of his evangelical mission to Ireland and his actions as a bishop. For Patrick, you see, had gone on something of a solo run.

There is no indication that he was given the nod by Rome, because surely he would have just said this rather than writing hundreds of words defending himself. That honour had gone to Palladius, sent by the pope in 431 “to the Irish who believe in Christ” and now mostly lost to history, eclipsed and probably absorbed into the Patrick mythos (and there may have been two Patricks anyway). Muirchu wrote that he ended up in northern Britain after encountering resistance in Ireland, but we may never know.

Patrick’s Confession, sometimes referred to as the Declaration, is a very personal document. He clearly misses his home in Britain (his Coroticus text says his family no longer recognises him), says he lives every day in danger, that he has been taken captive multiple times, and that he has evidently been accused of going to Ireland to enrich himself by accepting payments from people he baptised (he says anything given to him was returned). It is hard not to feel empathy for him when he writes about how some unexplained but apparently grievous sin that he had confessed to “a very dear friend” had been made public by that same friend.

Patrick writes that he is “a simple country person”, “unlearned”, “imperfect in many ways”, and that he had delayed writing this text “because I did not learn as others did, who drank in equally well both the law and sacred writings” even though his grandfather was a priest and his father a deacon.

While his lack of formal education or training is clearly an issue held against him, his use of modesty as a theme is subterfuge of a kind. The Confession is full of biblical quotations, both explicit and just as turns of phrase, while the form of the document would not look out of place in the scriptoria on the Continent or any other more staunchly Christian (and educated) regions. By incorporating so much of both the Bible and older literary forms, Patrick is able to piggyback on established literary genres and rhetorical methods to get his message across.

And it is, at its heart, a simple message: That he had returned to Ireland on a very personal preaching mission that he felt was inspired by God. There are no works of thaumaturgical power enacted by him, though he does recount visions sent to him both while a slave in his youth and in his later life. While the rationalist in me argues these were brought on by a combination of fasting and religious fervour, he is very clear that they were for him, not in front of witnesses to show him as being holy.

That said, this “simple country person” shows himself to be well versed in biblical analysis and deep theological teaching. He emphasises, for example, that he can “imitate somewhat those whom the Lord foretold would announce his gospel in witness to all nations before the end of the world. This is what we see has been fulfilled. Look at us: we are witnesses that the gospel has been preached right out to where there is nobody else there!”

He writes also that there are now clerics and believers “at the end of the earth”.

Don’t underestimate just how remote Ireland and Britain were in the late antique and medieval imagination. It was widely held that Ireland was the most westerly inhabited region, and that there was nothing habitable beyond it (Bede, in the 730s, describes it as a land of milk and honey). Some medieval maps, drawn in a sort of circle with Rome or Jerusalem at the centre like the Hereford mappa mundi, have Ireland and Britain almost off the edge of the margins. All that’s missing is a rubric saying “here be dragons”.

The Hereford map depicts Caesar Augustus as a composite emperor-pope and locates him next to Ireland and Britain at the north-western oceanic limits of the known world (via article linked above)

I wrote about the place of Ireland in the medieval idea of time and space extensively in my doctorate, drawing on the UCC (holy) trinity of Damian Bracken, Diarmuid Scully, and the late Jennifer O’Reilly. The islands are not just the physical ends of the earth. They are an allegorical one too.

In the Bible, Jesus prophecises that his gospel shall be preached  “in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then shall the consummation come”. “Consummation”, as you might have guessed, here refers to the actual end of the world in all its second coming/last judgement sense.

In the medieval Christian interpretation of time and space, converting Ireland and Britain to Christianity mean the last judgement could now happen at any stage. Rejoice! It’s all over. This was considered a very good thing, by the way.

Relax, it’s only the end of the world Picture:

So by incorporating this whole theme into the Confession, and saying that he and his comrades are witnesses to this prophecy, Patrick actually telling his critics that he has the same sort of education as them and that he has the Bible on his side. They couldn’t really dispute biblical authority, so this is like an early Christian equivalent of flicking the V sign at his begrudgers.

Lewd rustic my eye.

While we may never know for certain all the details of Patrick’s life and times, we can at least appreciate that he was just a man living at the end of the world, doing his best despite seemingly endless opposition. And isn’t there something to be celebrated in that simple example?

Fiction: A scene

[Every now and again scenes from stories pop into my head, though I have not written them up as I should have, convincing myself that I will eventually have time to flesh them out into something more solid. I’m getting over that, scribbling out scenes which may come to nothing but which need to get out of my head one way or the other. This was handwritten at about 4am one day, it is presented here unedited]

Isaac felt the thud of arrows in his back, felt them stagger him. But there was no pain, only a sense of creeping wonder at how the arrowheads drove deep and hung there. There was a sound then. It came from somewhere far, far away and yet very close. As his hands dropped and he fell to one knee, flashes of colourless light shot across the decrepit stone arch. Not enough. So close but not enough power.

His head dropped to his chest and the sound came again, again, and again. Hollow and ragged. Eventually he realised, dimly, that the sound was coming from his chest, and that he was laughing. That only made him laugh harder.

With one last effort he rose to his feet and turned back toward the forest trail. If I am going to die today, I will die standing and with my face to the enemy. Small men from the town. Even with their hoods up against the cold he could see their faces in the flickering light of the braziers. How triumphant they looked in the darkness, how proud of themselves for shooting a man in the back. How their triumph turned to confusion as the shot man laughed in their faces. How confusion turned to fear as Isaac caught the next arrow and turned it to ash.

The other two hit their target, one in the shoulder an done in the chest, missing his heart. With a flick of dying will Isaac burned off the arrows stuck in his chest, and set fire to those in the quivers too. But his legs were like water now, and his vision blurring. And yet the work was not done.

He stumbled more than walked toward the small, rounded altar. He could feel the heat of flashing raw power behind him as the ruined portal stirred. He fancied he could hear someone, or something, calling his name. Calling him home.

Still laughing, he slumped over the altar. As his blood touched the stone and ran down the carvings of labyrinthine entities he felt a surge of energy behind him and heard the triumphant, joyous song of a thousand angels or devils. “It is done,” he whispered, as his heart gave out.

As Isaac died the ancient doorway opened in a blaze of glory. And hell followed.

Change through small simple steps

Rome wasn’t built in a day. It’s a well-trotted out phrase at this stage, used in all sorts of contexts to illustrate that anything and everything takes time. You could apply the phrase to Rome the city or Rome the empire, it makes no difference.

In a world where we constantly need to have instant results it’s easy to forget the power of small changes and how they add up. It’s something I came across during lockdown, and it’s how I ended up in my 20 pages a day reading challenge (still haphazard, but it will overall hit the annual reading target).

I follow and learn from a wide variety of individuals representing a wide variety of backgrounds. One of these is the brain trainer and speed reading guru Jim Kwik. Kwik had a brain injury as a child and struggled with learning but has since retrained his brain to work efficiently and has a prodigious memory. Although he would complain that “prodigious” is the wrong word to use, arguing that there are only trained brains and untrained brains.

I recently watched an interview with him where he discussed limitations and how they are generally down to our own perceptions of ourselves. One quote stuck out for me: “If you fight for your limitations, you get to keep them”. Meaning, if you say to yourself “I can’t do this, I’ll never be able to do this”, then you won’t because you’re programming yourself to think that you can’t.

I took a number of online courses since the onset of covid, including several on leadership, organisational design, and management styles as part of a programme offered by Australia’s Macquarie University. Some of these courses were focused on how to be a better, more effective leader, but they also dealt with coaching and supporting employees. One approach that was discussed and which repeatedly pays dividends is, for want of a better name, the power of positive thinking. This is a growth mindset. Believing you can improve is key, much like what Kwik was talking about. And by telling employees they can improve or do new tasks, the research shows they are more likely to actually be able to do them. Provided you ensure they feel supported and that you genuinely believe in them.

But what if the task you need to accomplish is a big one? Well the tried and trusted way of taking it on is to break it into more manageable chunks. So, you want to read more? Do 20 pages a day, it adds up to 7,300 a year. Or read 20 minutes a day. Need to write that novel? Well try 500 words a day and build from there. Stephen King writes six manuscript pages a day, every day. Six. That works out as a book every two months (eg, 360 manuscript pages). A whole project management approach revolves around increments, particularly for software projects.

Kwik, in that interview I watched recently, which was part of an online festival so I can’t link out to, had a formula for progress in which he advocated a variation on this sort of thing: Short Simple Steps.

Like many useful ideas, the simplicity is what makes it works. Think along the lines of what I’ve said above about reading: You might want to kick off by reading, say, 20 books a year and then burn yourself out putting yourself under pressure. Instead, set a manageable target and chances are you’ll find yourself coasting past it because the pressure isn’t there.

I’ve written “Short Simple Steps” on the whiteboard in our kitchen so I can break it out the next time my son is tangling himself up in knots overthinking or telling us he can’t do something.

History repeating

Picture: Suzy Hazelwood via Pexels

The humanities seem to always be under attack somewhere, whether through swingeing staff cutbacks in the UK or most emphatically now with Governor DeSantis’s “war on education” to enforce conformity of thinking across Florida universities that would actually reduce diversity and undermine academic freedoms.

It would be easy to simply state that both projects are driven by conservative authorities. It would be easy too to highlight that arts and humanities teach critical analytical and thinking skills that make for good dissidents, which historically, conservative authorities have not liked. So I won’t say that. I’ll say instead that the exposure to a wide range of philosophies (for want of a better word), critical approaches, and being trained in how to form arguments and spot bias are all huge and transferable assets that come with a humanities education.

Critical thinkers tend to suffer any time a government turns conservative and humanities subjects in universities take a hit if there’s a funding squeeze, as any academic working in a school of arts in this country can tell you from the last downturn.

I’m a historian, as well as a journalist and writer, and what’s happening in America alarms me greatly given how it is surely inevitable – particularly if DeSantis makes a serious run for the US presidency as anticipated – that a similar movement will bleed into Irish discourse,  One would like to think that it wouldn’t, but those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it, as George Santayana said, sometimes misquoted as by Churchill as “those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it”.

History sometimes gets a bad rep as a subject that is difficult to study, full of dates and events. That’s an antiquated way of teaching and learning history. Dates are important, no doubt, but the emphasis long ago switched to how and why things happened more than simply when and who did them.

Some schools of thinking in history argue that the duty of a historian is to “tell it like it was”. EH Carr, back in the 1960s, argued that history (or history writing at least) was a sort of ongoing process between the events and the day of the historian. This is still an important point, because one’s understanding of and writing about the past can be shaped profoundly by one’s present, something which incidentally became a theme in my PhD. Other historians eschew that and focus on pure analysis. But there’s no point analysing something the reader (or listener) doesn’t know. Otherwise you’re just preaching to the converted and speaking into an echo chamber of perhaps a handful of people. Whatever the perspective, history is, rather than a dusty collection of ancient thoughts and events, a living, breathing thing that needs appreciation and even some nurturing.

Take a walk around and you’ll walk through history. If I walk through Cork city centre, for instance, I can see the house my philandering great great grandfather Michael Verling lived in with his first family, the quays where he loaded and unloaded cargo, the customs office where my (not philandering) great great grandfather Daniel Mahoney worked following his naval career. I can visit churches where my ancestors were baptised. For years I walked past all these things not knowing they were part of my own history. I’ve spent the last number of years reclaiming it, if that makes sense.

An extract from Daniel Mahoney’s naval record referring to his service in the coastguard from Hastings, England, after naval service in Crimea

They key point here is that, compared to four years ago, I actually know where my ancestors come from, and even that I have relatives hitherto unknown (and me to them) alive and well in Missouri. The analytical skills picked up from my training as a historian and journalist have helped me sift through the documentation. One might not immediately think of a genealogy project as history, but in this project alone I can show my family’s connection to the Crimean War, steam ferries up and down Cork Harbour, and the mining industry in Kansas and Missouri. These are parts of a wider story, a wider history, that of Ireland and its diaspora. Your family has its ties to history as well.

However, timelines and timespans can be lost on people (and to be fair it’s hard to visualise things). That said, a teacher of my acquaintance was recently tearing her hair out that so many of her students had no idea how long the human species had existed. The guesses ranged from 15,000 years to hundreds. Hundreds! It explains why my son, who is 9, asked me recently if we used horses to get around when I was a child. I’m not yet 40. I just feel old.

There isn’t a movement in history that hasn’t used, well, history to support itself one way or the other. There are sound reasons. Showing a tradition, for example. Drawing inspiration from the past is another. The problem is that a lack of historical literacy makes it difficult to understand when history is being co-opted for contemporary purposes – how some members of the current Sinn Féin lay claim to the anti-Treaty fighters who would not see them as successors? – and so don’t have the tools to challenge it. And it should be challenged as often as possible.