Ireland's patron saint has long been shrouded in legend: he drove the snakes out of Ireland; he triumphed over Druids and their supernatural powers; he used a shamrock to explain the Christian mystery of the Trinity. But his true story is more fascinating than the myths. We have no surviving image of Patrick, but we do have two remarkable letters that he wrote about himself and his beliefs -- letters that tell us more about the heart and soul of this man than we know about almost any of his contemporaries. In St. Patrick of Ireland Philip Freeman brings the historic Patrick and his world vividly to life.
Born in Britain late in the fourth century to an aristocratic family, Patrick was raised as a Roman citizen and a nominal Christian, destined for the privileged life of the nobility. But just before his sixteenth birthday, he was kidnapped by Irish pirates and abducted to Ireland, where he spent six lonely years as a slave, tending sheep. Trapped in a foreign land, despondent, and at the mercy of his master, Patrick's ordeal turned him from an atheist to a true believer. After a vision in which God told him he would go home, Patrick escaped captivity and, following a perilous journey, returned to his astonished parents. Even more astonishing was his announcement that he intended to go back to Ireland and devote the rest of his life to ministering to the people who had once enslaved him.
One of Patrick's two surviving letters is a declaration written to jealous British bishops in defense of his activities in Ireland; the other is a stinging condemnation of a ruthless warlord who attacked and killed some of Patrick's Irish followers. Both are powerful statements remarkable for their passion and candor. Freeman includes them in full in new translations of his own.
Combining Patrick's own heartfelt account of his life as he revealed it himself with the turbulent history of the British Isles in the last years of the Roman Empire, St. Patrick of Ireland brilliantly brings to life the real Patrick, shorn of legend, and shows how he helped to change Irish history and culture.
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Simon & Schuster
February 24, 2004
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Excerpt from St. Patrick of Ireland by Philip Freeman
The Early Years
My father was Calpornius, a deacon of the Church, and my grandfather was Potitus, a priest. His home was the village of Bannaventa Berniae, but he also had a country estate nearby.
Patrick was born in Britain during the closing years of the fourth century, probably during the reign of the Roman emperor Theodosius (347-395). His family was part of the landowning aristocracy of the island, an elite who controlled both the wealth of Britain's agricultural production and the power of local government, as well as the high offices of the emerging Christian Church. Patrick's Latin name, Patricius, in fact means "noble, of the patrician class" -- the group who had ruled Rome ever since Romulus and Remus legendarily founded the city a thousand years earlier.
Patrick's father was Calpornius, a common name in Roman Britain, and his grandfather was Potitus. Potitus was probably born early in the fourth century, during the days of Constantine the Great, the first Christian emperor of the Romans. Potitus was a priest, but at this time in Christian history such a role was no impediment to marriage and children. His son Calpornius followed in his father's religious footsteps and become a lower-ranked member of the clergy, a deacon. It's likely that the motivation for both men taking holy orders was not purely or even primarily spiritual. The tax burden on wealthy Romans in the late Empire was heavy, so that many sought exemption by joining the clergy. The responsibility for collecting these imperial taxes fell on the decuriones or city councilors, of whom Calpornius was one. Aside from onerous revenue duties, the life of a decurion was one of honor and privilege. He was entitled to wear a purple stripe on his toga and could not be subjected to the degrading punishments faced by less fortunate citizens. The position of decurion was also hereditary, so that Calpornius must have smiled when he looked on his newborn son, knowing that he too would one day rule as part of the Roman nobility.
Patrick says his family estate was near the town of Bannaventa Berniae, the location of which is unknown. Common sense tells us that if he was captured near there by Irish pirates, it must have been in the western part of Britain, close to the sea. There was a Roman town named Bannaventa in southern Britain, but it lies over seventy miles from the nearest port. The town of Glannoventa in northern Britain on the western coast would be perfect -- fairly isolated, just a few miles inland -- but for it to be the place we would have to assume the name was somehow miscopied as the manuscripts of the Confession were handed down over the centuries. Many other possible identifications have been made, but short of an archaeologist stumbling across a stone slab carved with the town's name, we will never know exactly where Patrick lived.