St. Patrick—Setting Ireland Afire

     Oh! St. Patrick was a gentleman
      Who came of decent people;
      He built a church in Dublin Town,
      And on it put a steeple.

When the world fell into darkness, the smile of God shone like twilight on Ériu’s Isle. Even as demons tramped her four green fields, those fields rested still in His hand. Trees whispered the rumor of His Truth. Druid fires burned in unconscious vigil for the Light. Then came a night when Holy Fire clove the ancient shadow with a new dawn for the Gaels. The fearless kindler of that flame was St. Patrick, who converted the worshippers of sun and tree to the Son Who hung on a tree.

Slave of the Irish
Like any tale worth its salt, the Apostle of Ireland’s begins with a cataclysm. The black-hulled sloop of the dreaded 4th century marauder, Niall of the Nine Hostages, came roaring down the shores of a coastal town in Scotland. The pirates raided the village, dragging droves of captives aboard their groaning vessel. Among the prisoners was a lad of sixteen named Patrick: son of Calpornius, a Roman official, and his wife Conchessa, sister of St. Martin of Tours.

Docking within the over-kingdom of Dalriada in Northern Ireland, the boy was sold as a slave to the Druid high-priest Milchu. Patrick learned Gaelic and the rites of Druidism from his master. He learned to make cheese and butter with his master’s children. And he learned to pray on the slopes of Slemish, fending against weather and wolves and finding solace in solitude.

St. PatrickAfter six years, a dream shattered the peace Patrick had found as a slave. “Go, Patrick,” a voice called through his sleep, “thy ship is prepared! Arise and go!” Patrick arose and went. Taking nothing, he slipped unseen from his master’s house and fled two hundred miles down the western shore to Killala Bay, where he saw a ship in the act of disembarking. “Thy ship departs, Patrick!” the voice sounded again in his ears. Exhausted, Patrick plunged into the surf and caught a rope tossed to him by one of the sailors on board.

He was a free man.

The Coming of a Missionary
Patrick, with his youth and strength, was welcomed as one of the crew, until a storm ran the ship aground in France. Taking his leave, Patrick found his way to a monastery in Marmoûtiers where he met with his uncle, St. Martin of Tours, and determined to become a priest. Taking Martin’s advice, Patrick traveled to the island of Lérins and was ordained under the patronage of St. Germain. After years of missionary work among the Morini, Patrick was chosen by his holy superior to accompany him to Britain to defend the Faith against the Pelagian heresy.

It was then that Patrick had another life-changing dream. “O holy one,” voices cried out in Gaelic, “return to Erin. Walk once more amongst us.” Patrick’s heart became enflamed with his destiny. On the recommendation of Germain, Pope St. Celestine charged Patrick to sail back to the land of his captors as a bishop and gather the Irish into the fold of God’s Church—a task abandoned by many missionaries for fear of fierce chieftains and ghostly Druids. Patrick prepared for his return.

Setting foot once again on Ireland’s shore, Patrick and his companions were met by armed sentinels. The bishop strode to meet them boldly, announcing in their own tongue that he, a runaway slave, had returned to travel to Dalriada to pay a ransom to his master and offer him the freedom of the Truth and the glad tidings of Redemption. Astounded, the pagans begged to know more. Before beginning his pilgrimage that day, Patrick baptized the first of the Irish Catholics.

When word of this stranger spread over the countryside, the wild chief, Dichu, vowed to slay Patrick. He hunted down the missionary, confronted him, and raising his sword to kill, became the object of Patrick’s first miracle. The savage’s sword arm grew as rigid as stone and he was unable to move it. Overwhelmed, Dichu offered his barn to Patrick as a peace-offering, in which Patrick offered the first Sacrifice of the Mass in Ireland, and dedicated the barn as her first church, naming the holy site Sabhall.

News of this miraculous coming reached Milchu, Patrick’s former master, who set fire to his house and perished in the conflagration before submitting to his slave, even as Patrick mounted Slemish again to see the old castle falling in flame.

Fire Over Tara
It was then that Patrick learned of the great spring gathering of the chieftains and Druid priests at the castle of the High King Laoghire in Tara. On the night of March 26th—the night before Easter Sunday, 433—all the fires in the kingdom were to be put out until the Druids lit the New Year Fire. This year’s burning was regarded with especial importance since the demonic oracles had foretold that a messenger of Christ had landed in Erin.

That very messenger mounted the Hill of Slade, across the valley from Tara castle, and sent up a Paschal bonfire in the nostrils of the Druids. Being of a fiery disposition, Patrick bore no regard for the retributions of this act, for it was a righteous act. The Irish New Year burned in the Light of Christ.

The Druids stood in horror at this profanity and implored that King Laoghire retaliate, lest the fire blaze forever in their land. The king commanded soldiers to swarm the Hill of Slade and extinguish Patrick’s defiant fire. Troops labored up the hill, laden with vessels of water and earth to douse the Christian flame; but no effort on their part could quench the fire. They could not smother the flames nor attack the man who knelt in their roaring glow. A Divine power shielded both the Holy Fire and the holy man who kindled it. The pagans slunk into the darkness, defeated and dumbfounded.

The Sign of the Three in One
When Easter morning dawned, Patrick marched with his followers towards Tara. The valley below the castle was filled with an army of Druids, together with their priests and warlocks, who summoned up their most dreadful incantations to arrest the approach of Patrick and preserve the people from his sway. As they murmured and screamed their spells, the sun was suddenly obscured and a darkness fell that struck the bravest among them with dread. Patrick challenged the Druids to dispel the shadow and, when they failed by the power of all their gods, he called the One God and sunlight flooded the valley once again. At this, the Arch-Druid summoned up demons to exalt him and he was borne bodily into the air. But, the prayer of Patrick brought him hurtling back to earth, and dashed to death upon the stony ground.

King Laoghire, in wonderment of such power and courage, sent word that he would speak with Patrick to learn of the God he served. The Druids were white with rage and set an ambush, determined to murder this invader and scorner of their dark arts. As Patrick approached the fortress with his company, the Druids set upon them with blade and club. Then, as legend has it, Patrick and his men became a herd of deer, who leapt through the throng of attackers singing a song that has been sung ever since: St Patrick’s Breastplate.

Meeting with Laoghire and his chieftains on that Easter day, Patrick is said to have professed the mystery of the Trinity, plucking a shamrock from the grass and disclosing that the greatest secret of heaven lay smiling in the sun beneath their feet. Moved by the eloquence of this giant, the King granted Patrick permission to preach the true Faith to the peoples of Erin.

Baptism of a Nation
Over the next thirty years, Patrick strode the hills and dales of Ireland with his retinue, braving storm, hunger, and hardship, turning and tuning hearts to beat in time with the Sacred Heart. His helpers raised hundreds of churches. His authority ordained thousands of priests. His hand baptized countless souls. Thus Patrick traveled with an army geared for the conversion of a nation, comprised of priests, judges, smiths, soldiers, cooks, gardeners, brewers, farmers, masons, carpenters, brick-makers, artists, tailors, poets, and musicians. Wherever they pitched camp, there would a church be built and outfitted, and a village baptized into a parish ere they took the road again.

In Connaught, Patrick christened the daughters of the High King of Rathcroghan after a dialogue on the nature of God that shook the whole of Roscommon County. In Ulster, Patrick established the site for the great Cathedral of Armagh, where the unity of the Irish under the Faith was proclaimed. In Leinster, new Christians were made while old idols were unmade. In Munster, Patrick baptized Prince Angus of Cashel and, during the service, inadvertently planted his crozier with great force upon the prince’s foot, piercing it through and through. Angus bore the pain without flinch, allowing the bishop to complete the ritual. At its conclusion, Patrick was alarmed to see the man standing in a pool of blood, and was further distraught to learn of the injury he had caused. When asked why he had remained silent, the Prince of Cashel confided that he thought it part of the ceremony. Patrick was deeply moved by the Irish heroism so ready to suffer to receive the joys of heaven.

The course that Patrick set Christianized the whole of Ireland within two hundred years of his ministry, making Ireland the only country in Europe to be brought to its knees before the Cross peacefully, bringing an end to slavery, human sacrifice, and intertribal warfare.

The Passing of a Chieftain
Towards the end of his life, Patrick often withdrew into the mountains—now known as Croagh Patrick—to hold conference with his Lord. There he battled the elements and demonic powers, doing penance for Divine Mercy upon the Irish race. The outcast demons would gather round the crags in the shape of black birds of prey, swooping and screaming to disturb the holy bishop in his meditations. Patrick was known to drive these fiends from his presence by ringing an iron bell, whose tolling would echo over Erin, scattering all evil creatures—particularly snakes—and drive them into the sea. Such was the power and love of St. Patrick, who brought peace and joy to the people he had evangelized and delivered from the bonds of paganism.

St. Brigid and her virgins prepared his deathbed at Sabhall, where Patrick beheld a vision of Ireland aglow with the fire of faith—flames that would never be extinguished. Patrick received his crown of glory on March 17th, 493, having come to a land in darkness and left it in light.

Patron for the Neo-pagans
Irish immigrants to the United States first celebrated St. Patrick’s Day in Boston in 1737, and held the first parade in New York in 1762. It is peculiar how Americans have come to honor St. Patrick since. A religious feast that was celebrated quietly for a thousand years in Ireland has become a roaring booze fest in America. American culture has a way of brutalizing ancient culture, and that because America is a breeding ground for a new race of savages—a new race of pagans with a new pantheon of idols. The United States is still, even in the 21st century, a missionary country.

Yet, by some mystical irony, the one saint that is universally “honored” in the land of the neo-pagans is St. Patrick, the Missionary. Though his day has been bastardized along with St. Valentine’s and St. Nicholas’s, at least St. Patrick is yet remembered as a saint. Granted, March 17th is usually kept by drinking excessively while wearing o’ the green. But still, the day is kept. Granted, the day is hopelessly littered with sequin shamrocks, leering leprechauns, and warm green beer. But still, the day is the one day when “everyone is Irish,” and pagans hail the very one that saved the Irish—and in that lies a strange and subtle hope. Just as Mark Twain, a bitter atheist, honored St. Joan of Arc in his beautiful book and perhaps thereby unknowingly won the prayers of the Maid of Orléans, so too might the pagans of modernity unknowingly surrender their souls in some way to the prayers of St. Patrick, the patron of God’s pagans.

May it be so, and may the good St. Patrick ignite his fire in this nation as he did in Ireland.

Sean Fitzpatrick

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Sean Fitzpatrick is a graduate of Thomas Aquinas College and the Headmaster of Gregory the Great Academy. He lives in Scranton, PA with his wife and family of four.

  • publiusnj

    In the words we used to sing every Mar. 17 when I was in grammar school in the NY Archdiocese:

    “All hail to St. Patrick who brought to our island the gift of God’s faith, the true light of His love. For hundreds of years, in smiles and in tears, our saint has been with us, our shield and our stay. All else may have gone, St. Patrick alone. O! he drives the false faiths from Erin’s fine shores like the reptiles which fled from his curse in dismay.

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  • rentonrain

    Great article.

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