Ireland History - Saint Patrick Facts and Myths

Ireland - Saint PatrickIreland - Saint PatrickIreland - Saint PatrickIreland - Saint PatrickIreland - Saint PatrickIreland - Saint Patrick
Ireland - Saint PatrickIreland - Saint PatrickIreland - Saint PatrickIreland - Saint PatrickIreland - Saint PatrickIreland - Saint Patrick

Ireland History - Saint Patrick Facts and Myths

Saint Patrick - Patron Saint of Ireland

Patrick was the son of Calpurnius, a deacon, who lived in a town called Banna Venta Taberniae in Britain. It is impossible to be certain what actual town that is today, but many surmise it to be Carlisle in England, which borders on Scotland. His family had a small estate there, and it was where he lived until around 14 to 16 years of age. Patrick was taken by Irish raiders and brought to Ireland in slavery. He remained there, working as a herdsman for six years before escaping and returning to his family. Two letters still exist written by Saint Patrick and one of those is known as The Declaration Letter. In the Declaration letter he claims to have had a vision that a man called Victoricus came to him carrying many letters and gave one to Patrick called The Voice of the Irish. In this it called out to him the following words, "We appeal to you, holy servant boy, to come and walk among us."

The Declaration does also cover a variety of charges made against him but again these are not explicit, but only mention that he returned gifts to people, did not accept payments for baptism and he then focuses on having baptised thousands of people. He also ordained priests to lead the new Christian communities and also converted some women into nuns. It is very important to bear in mind that as Patrick was not Irish himself, he would have been treated as a foreigner in Ireland and refusing King's favour would have been a difficult thing to do. He does refer to being beaten and indeed robbed and put in chains.

The best date available for Patrick's death is AD 460 and on the 17th March, hence why Ireland has this as a holiday, as Patrick is their Patron Saint. He is said to be buried at Down Cathedral in Downpatrick, alongside Saint Columba and Saint Brigid, though there is no actual proof to substantiate this.

Saint Patrick is credited in myth for clearing the snakes out of Ireland, though all evidence strongly suggests that snakes in Ireland did not exist after the Ice Age. There have been several suggestions that it refers to the serpent, symbolic of the Druids of that time. Myth also credits Patrick with explaining the concept of the Holy Trinity by using a shamrock, but again nothing exists to prove this. It is also popular legend that Patrick introduced the Celtic Cross, a symbol that combines a cross with a ring, which surrounds the intersection, and is quite popular in jewellry even today.

There was a story, recorded by monks probably to remove The Celts own stories and replace them with Christianity. A beautiful lady named Niamh and a man called Oisin met and fell in love, and they went to Tir Na nOg where they stayed for many years. Oisin grew homesick and Niamh granted him permission on the condition that he remained on his magical horse and did not actually place one foot on Irish soil. However he stopped to help a man who was trying to lift a large stone and as he leant over, the bridle broke and he fell to the ground. Instantly he turned into a very old white haired man and as he lay dying, Patrick passed by and the pair then discussed their respective civilisations. How much is true and how much is myth, I will leave to you, the reader.

There began after this a merging of pagan and new Christian Ireland. With the introduction of Christianity came the Latin language and the introduction of documented literature, which reveals how the political map of Ireland developed into the events of various years. Territories of various sizes came to be divided up in various kingships. Not long after Christianity started to spread, a monastic movement began. What Patrick had brought to Ireland is best described as having bishops and dioceses, (Episcopal), whereas what happened in Ireland was that monasteries became the central unit of administration. This most likely came to be as the tuath represented the core unit of administration. These tuaths were controlled by families and this linked in well with the monastic spread. For example the first abbots of Iona belonged to the same family as the person who founded it, Saint Colm Cille. The monasteries almost grew out of the intense personality of their original founders and are classed as Saints today, such as Brigid of Kildare (Mary of the Irish) and Jarlath of Tuam. Even in the episcopal stronghold of Armagh, the direct successor to Saint Patrick was not in charge but remained subordinate to the Abbot in charge.

The religious and indeed the cultural influence of Ireland were heavily influenced by the arrival of many saints, such as Patrick, Finnian, Enda and Auxilius. The dominance of the Gaelic septs continued throughout the 5th and 6th centuries. The High Kingship of Ireland sprang from Conn of the Hundred Battles and had been passed down from son to son. As these branches grew and developed the various families both grew and collapsed in power and this continued for centuries. As one family grew in strength they waged war on their distant relatives and nothing as such remained constant. Needless to say, as they all grew the families divided further creating more and more units and so it continued.

They left their mark on the Irish landscape in the form of ring-forts, essentially the farmsteads of early Ireland. These were created where farming was good and often near the top of a hill with a good view across the countryside. They provided a strong defence mechanism and they were known as a rath and the area which would have been occupied inside was called a lios. The houses and buildings would have been housed inside with servant huts on the outer ring and then leading out to the fields. In areas where land was less favourable stone ditches would have been built and referred to as a caiseal, and if large in size referred to as a dun.

A point worth remembering was that money did not exist in Ireland and cows were the main measure of wealth along with the size of the land a person owned. Some old Irish texts known as The Brehon Laws give us an indication of how social structures were arranged at that time. Clearly these were influenced by the early Christian church and Christian church run schools would have taught the principles of the early fathers of the church, based mainly on the Old Testament. Status and honour simply meant everything and an offence against either would have been considered an outrage. The hierarchical and aristocratic society therefore considered any such offence against a person higher up the social order, to warrant a greater penalty, than against a person lower down the structure. This structure had a very clear pecking order. Even then there were defined structures with three grades of Kings, below them the noblemen, the the free men and the unfree men.

As the churches and schools started to dictate society they rose in levels of scholarship and Irish scholars in turn began to make their impact in Europe. Diciul for example was a monk from Ireland who taught at the palace of Charlemagne and was famous for his study of world geography. The monasteries contributed significantly to the arts, with shrines, relics and ornate books. One such ecclesiastical masterpiece is of course "The Book of Kells."

This long marriage of Christian and Celtic cultures left Ireland in what can be best desribed as a conservative society and remained very much a rural society. Towns would not be formed until the arrival of the Vikings. The ordinary housing of the day was known as a "rath" and usually built on a hilltop and surrounded by some type of circular fencing. This civilisation was very focussed on family with a normal family group all descended from one great-grandfather and this group was known as a "derbhfhine". Each member of this derbhfhine could qualify for a throne should it become vacant. It was designed so as neither a cripple or an imbecile could not become king but also caused rivalry from all those who qualified by relationship to this family. The king's inauguration was looked upon in way similar to a marriage in that the king would be linked to the sovereignty of his kingdom. The feast that celebrated this was called a "Feis" and that word means "to sleep with" someone. The inauguration would take place when the king was handed a white rod and each kingdom had its own special site. The king when he began to rule was indeed a powerful man and ruler of his people and also military commander. He passed laws and also deal with trade and athletic competitions. The king of a tuath was bound by personal loyalty a superior king who in turn was bound to the provincial king.

There was also a learned class (Aos Dana) formed a special group and included judges and lawyers and most importantly those known as "fili". These were people regarded as seers and visionary people and quite often they were poets. They wrote well of their kings and updated their genealogy and were generally respected by all.

Enda McLarnon

I am an avid reader of anything to do with the history of Ireland and Northern Ireland in particular. This includes the Northern Ireland Troubles.

If you like what you have read and want to find out more then please visit my site at Saint Patrick

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