THE FIGURE of Saint Patrick has dominated the Irish cultural landscape in a way that few other national icons, such as Uncle Sam or Saint George, ever have.
While the Harp may be the symbol of the Irish nation, Saint Patrick symbolises the essence of being Irish, an indefinable quality that the Irish, especially those living abroad, revere to the point of adoration.
Like all icons, however, the further we move away from the raison d’être, the more blurred the knowledge becomes as to who exactly Saint Patrick was, what did he achieve, and why does he hold such a warm place in Irish hearts?
Patrick was the son of a Roman nobleman living in either Wales or Brittany. He was captured by Irish pirates, and sold into slavery tending sheep for his master on Sliabh Mís, He escaped from there, made his way home but, hearing the voice of the Irish people asking him to save them, became a bishop and returned to Ireland converting the whole country to Christianity, all in one fell swoop.
Around these basic ‘known’ facts, legends abound exacerbated by the fact that St Patrick left little or no trace of himself other than some writings. The most complete of these writings is Patrick’s own autobiography, the Confessio, which has been translated many times but practically always in an academic tome inaccessible to the normal punter.
In the last month, however, the Royal Irish Academy has published an eloquent, simplified, and eminently readable version.
The word ‘confession’ had three meanings: confession of sin, praise for God’s greatness, and a profession of faith. While the Confessio is mainly the second of these, Patrick also tells us a great deal about himself. The first two paragraphs bluntly state:
“My name is Patrick. I am a sinner, a simple country person and the least of all believers. I am looked down upon by many.
“My father was Calpornius. He was a deacon: his father was Potitus, a priest who lived at Bunnavem Taburniae. His home was near there, and that is where I was taken prisoner. I was about 16 at the time.”
He goes on from there to tell us that at the time of his abduction, he did not know “the true God” but that he came to know him while tending sheep on the mountainside. The rest of the Confessio is a song in praise of God’s greatness with one curious passage in which he seems to confess to not believing in God as some stage during his youth.
Dotted here and there thoughout this song of praise, Patrick discloses some salient facts about his own life and this gives us occasional hints as to the type of man he actually was and this, to a large extent, is what makes the current edition of the Confessio so fascinating.
There is no doubting Patrick’s strong faith or its sincerity. There is also no doubt that this faith was a tremendous source of strength that helped him survive extraordinary hardship and this allied with a steely determination, stubbornness and a fierce focus enables him to achieve the monumental task he set himself.
Another somewhat darker side of Patrick also lurks in the background. There is the tantalising image of Patrick as the political animal and, although, not altogether devious, the manipulator trying to drag God on his side.
This intriguing little publication goes a long way to expelling the myths surrounding our national saint, giving us a real portrait of the human being who was Patrick and, in so doing, allows us to take a hard look at what it means to be Irish.
Above all else, the Confessio leaves us in no doubt but that Saint Patrick was a gentleman.