This little 138-page book taught me a lot about someone who is, arguably, one of the most important figures in Irish history. First of all, the picture of St. Patrick wearing a bishop's miter that we are all familiar with is erroneous. The Bishop's miter didn't come into use until 500 years after his death.
Nor did Patrick drive the snakes out of Ireland. There never were any snakes in Ireland because the island emerged from the glacial ice only 10,000 years ago. Since it was surrounded by the sea, it was impossible for snakes to get to Ireland to colonize it. So there were no snakes for him to drive out of Ireland. It's a wonderful and inventive story and the snakes in the story may symbolize evil. But there were never any real snakes in Ireland.
Nor did he teach the mystery of the Trinity by using the shamrock as a teaching aid. That teaching has been confidently dated 1,000 years later.
Of course, St. Patrick did accomplish the the very real miracle of more fully Christianizing Ireland, but he was not the first missionary sent to Ireland. He was preceded by Palladius,who was sent by the Bishop of Rome to Ireland in 431 AD. Little is known of Palladius’ accomplishments. And there were certainly some Christians in Ireland before both of these men.
Patrick was sent back to Ireland as an evangelizing bishop by the Catholic church of Britain in 432 A.D. and stayed for 30 years. He never saw Britain again. His experiences before this period is presented in Hanson’s book. Patrick was born to an aristocratic family in Romanized Britain. Captured by pirates, he was sold as a slave in Ireland and was put to work as a shepherd.
During his initial six-year captivity, Patrick learned the languages of Ireland. As a slave and shepherd, he underwent a deepening of his faith and impressed those around him with his piety and constant prayer. Finally, he was able to escape back to Britain to find his family, who had long surrendered hope of seeing him again. He writes of his escape in the autobiographical confession.
Patrick came from a Britain still firmly part of the Roman empire. His family was an aristocratic one and he was educated accordingly. His capture and subsequent slavery prevented him from completing his education, and he frequently refers to this lack. He missed the all-important advanced study of rhetoric that would have completed his education. As a result,
his writings in the provincial British Latin of the 5th century are unclear -- even to experts.
After his return to Britain, Patrick joined the Church and was ordained in succession as deacon, presbyter and bishop. He writes movingly of dreams in which some of the Irish people he'd met in his captivity begged him to come back and teach them. Eventually, a decision was made by the British church to send him back to Ireland as a bishop. He was to spend the last 30 years of his life evangelizing Ireland with great success. He converted thousands of the Irish to Catholicism and ordained many clergy. He never ordained any bishops as far as is known.
This book presents all of the surviving writings of St. Patrick. These are the Letter to Coroticus and the autobiographical Confession. Of these two, the Confession is far more interesting to the modern reader, although it jumps around confusingly from event to event. Patrick shows an amazing knowledge of the Bible in his writing and gives the previously unknown Confession of Faith of the British Church as the preface to his autobiography.
The Letter to Coroticus, of interest to scholars, excoriates and excommunicates Coroticus for capturing some of Patrick's converts and selling them into slavery.
The author, an expert on the Celtic Church, is well qualified to write and annotate this book. He has written several other books on St. Patrick as well as many other books on early church history.
Next time that the New York St. Patrick's Day Parade is on TV, get a copy of this book and read it. You will become acquainted with the history and writings of an extraordinary human being who became a saint and discover that truth is more interesting than legend.