(I know, I know this isn’t really Celtic Iron Age Trivia / Technology like the other posts in this category have been but …. well, it was just St. Patrick’s Day (March 17) this day last week so here goes – sorry if I dispell any myths!).
Go into any Irish pub anywhere outside of Ireland itself and no doubt there will be a mural or picture of the saint himself, mitred, robed, smiling beatifically or looking suitably sombre and not a pint of Guinness in sight.
The reality was rather different as it turns out.
Patrick, whose birth name was Maewyn Succat (b.390 CE), was the son of Conchessa and Calpurnius, a tax collector appointed by the Roman administration in western Britain. Patrick’s family were local stock who had long accepted Roman rule and custom and would be considered well to do in that they themselves were slave-owners.
Constantine the Great had earlier exempted Christian clergy from city council duties and, as increasingly frequent raids on the coastal districts made collecting taxes difficult, Maewyn’s grandfather, Potitus, had taken full advantage of the exemption by entering into a relaxed form of Christianity.
Calpurnius, however, was obliged to resort to harsh methods to collect the amounts demanded by Rome as, if less than demanded was collected, the “exactor,’ as Calpurnius was known, had to make up the deficit from his own pocket.
Stillicho, a Roman legate, was insisting on the full tax levy and Calpurnius was under a lot of pressure to buy and sell slaves to redress the difference
In 406 CE, Irish raiders attacked their Roman style villa and enslaved the 16 year old Maewyn to herd and tend sheep in the rugged countryside around Slemish, Northeastern Ireland. By 410 CE, all Roman forces had withdrawn from Brittania, leaving the country exposed to continuing raiding by Goidels or Irish raiders.
The youth spent 6 years in thrall to Irish pagans, where he discovered both his “anam cara” – the friend of his soul with his God and an empathy for his captors as much cut off from the true religion as he felt himself to be. Guided by a voice only he could hear, he escaped captivity and, convinced of his divinely inspired mission, studied under Bishop Germanus in Auxerre and again in Rome, determined to bring salvation to the people controlled by their pagan druids.
In 431 Pope Celestine I, concerned more at the growth of Pelagianism in Britain than the rife paganism in Hibernia, sent his bishop to suppress the Pelagian heresy but Palladius died with no success in Scotland in 432.
Maewyn, meanwhile, had received the tonsure at Lérins Abbey and taken the name Patroculus, and jumped at the chance to return to the island of his slavery and pagan druidism. Celestine sensed that Patroculus was made of sterner stuff than his former envoy and as a womaniser, a fighter, a hard man of his times, well used to both the power of the word as well as the sword, he would be an invaluable bulwark against the bishops in Britain who stuck to their heretical ways. Patroculus certainly never claimed to be a saint but by his death in 461 he had founded a base for Christianity in the far-flung western isle that has never wavered since.
Happy Saint Patrick’s Day for next year if you missed it!