[Lazily brought forward, and only slightly revised,
from something I wrote a couple of years ago.]


Barely three centuries have passed since English travellers in Ireland noticed the wearing of “shamroges” in “vulgar superstitious” displays of patriotism on the 17th of March. These, along with “excess in liquor,” and other inducements to debauchery, are recorded with finely jaundiced Protestant sobriety. The notion that the Saint had used a sprig of trefoil grass (there is some dispute over which clover species) to illustrate the doctrine of the Trinity, is apparently more recent than that. The accretion of folk customs and beliefs about the fifth-century Saint Patrick began, it seems, within a century of his death, in the marvel-laden hagiography of Muirchu. By now he is taken for a creature of legend. The Disney touch was added in America.

We have two documents, however, from Patrick’s own hand, that stand up to every reasonable critical test as contemporary with him. And they ring in a voice that is unmistakably that of a real man. The first is his Confession, rather in the spirit of Augustine’s, though shorter; the second his Letter, of exhortation “to the soldiers of Coroticus” — evidently a Pictish or other warlord from the “Scottish” wilds (there was no Scotland then), with fallen Christians in his train. Breathing through these documents is precisely the Catholicism that has been taught down to this day, infused with scriptural and credal references that any educated Catholic would recognize.

“Patrick the sinner, verily, unlearned: and I am a bishop, appointed by God through His Church, in Ireland. I most certainly deem that I have received what I am from God. And so do I live, here, among the barbarians, a stranger and an exile, for the love of God. He shall be witness that this is so. It is not that I want to speak so harshly and so roughly, but I am compelled. …”

So the Letter begins, of this latter-day Roman from Britannia, called to become one of the three major patrons of Ireland (along with Saint Brigid of Kildare, and Saint Columba the Abbot), among the many Irish apostles. Through his own words we may form a picture of his tasks, and glimpse his real accomplishment in the conversion of thousands, on an island now floating in distant time. But his words are vivid, and that island draws close as we read him: that Ireland which becomes a nursery of saints, and missionaries for the conversion of western Europe. All this remarkable work was done through men and women, utterly convinced of the truth in what they carried, and prepared to witness that truth to death.

The spirit of parading nationalism and chauvinism is as alien to the character of Patrick, as our times are alien to his. The world was nevertheless the world, back then, and the ruthless play of power was as common. The distinction between a king and a pirate was a subtle one, as the distinction between a citizen and a slave.

Well, this is so today, though we are ever more blinded to the plain truth by our material comforts, enmired as we are in virtual bread and circuses.

The task of Patrick was to free the inhabitants of that island, that beautiful Ireland, from the ancient despotic rule of heathenism; to show them whose sons they really were. He did this through his own person — that person quoted, above. He was a true bishop, whether or not the first in the succession of Armagh.

Let us lift that sleeve of green-tainted ale, in the usual celebration; and spill it over our own heads in the hope that it may bring us to our senses. For I think our task for this day is to forget all the vanity of “Ireland,” and remember the cause of Saint Patrick, instead.