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The Real Story of St. Patrick, Part I

In this post, Christian author Mark Fisher begins the real story of St. Patrick, Part I.

St. Patrick, An Early Medieval Icon

St. Patrick’s day is approaching. As one of the main characters in my upcoming novel, The Bonfires of Beltane, I have a special interest in him. So for the next few posts, let us forget green beer, rowdy celebrations, and funny green hats, and find out what this early medieval icon was really like. (To fit it all in before St. Pat’s day, I’ll be reviewing Michelle Griep’s novel, Undercurrent, later. Click here for Part II or use the navigation button on the right.)

An Atheist From Childhood

Patrick was born at the end of the fourth century in a Roman villa near Bannaventa Berniae, a village somewhere on Britain’s western coast. His family probably had a small house in this small agricultural town of about one hundred houses. His father was Calpornius, a Roman patrician and wealthy farmer, and a deacon in the local Christian church. They were Christians despite the fact that many Romans paid homage to deities like Mars, Jupiter, Mercury, and Minerva. His family baptized Patrick as an infant, and he learned stories from the Bible. But by his own admission, he rebelled against his parents’ faith. He even said that, from childhood, he was an atheist.

Born to Wealth and PrivilegeRomanVilla

Patrick was part of the Roman elite, and became a privileged, spoiled child. Green pastures filled with sheep probably surrounded his father’s farmstead. As a young man, he was schooled in the classics—Virgil, Homer, Cicero, and Aristotle. But always he struggled with Latin and had barely begun studying public speaking. His family probably spoke in the “British” tongue, which at the time was related to Irish Gaelic.

A Skeleton in the Closet?

As a youth of fifteen, he committed some sin that haunted him all his days. We don’t know what it was, but when Patrick’s fellow bishops found out about it years later, they wanted to put him on trial and strip him of his office. The possibilities are some kind of sexual sin, an idolatry of some kind, or murder. Murder seems the most likely. We just don’t know.

Celtic RaidersThen the Raiders Came

Then on one tragic night, this idyllic, somewhat mundane life ended. Slave traders came from across the sea from the land called Hibernia, the Roman name for Ireland. His parents and sister had gone to visit relatives in the north, leaving him alone with the slaves and hired freedmen. The raiders appeared suddenly at night in the farmstead’s midst. They captured the younger servants and slaves. They murdered outright the older men and women, those too feeble for travel who wouldn’t bring a good price on Hibernia. They stole young Patrick, a youth of but fifteen years, and put a heavy iron chain around his neck. Then they carried him across the sea. He was headed for a mysterious land whose feared inhabitants had raided the British and Gallic coasts for centuries. It was a country of reputed wildmen, barbarians, and “cannibals”. We can only imagine what went through his mind.

Sold Into Slavery

When Patrick arrived on the island, he was quickly sold. He ended up with a single master, probably on the western coast. Philip Freeman, in St. Patrick of Ireland, makes a case for a town called Foclut in County Mayo. And there, for the next six years, Patrick toiled in remote fields as a sheepherder—cold, starving, and alone.

Next week, we’ll continue our look at St. Patrick with Part II.