Saint Patrick in Context: Dates, Legends, and The Confessio


He is Ireland’s outstanding patron saint, conventionally held to have brought Christianity to the country in 432, and his feast day every 17 March is the cause for commemoration and revelry throughout the world – but remarkably little can be stated with any degree of certainty about the life of Saint Patrick. Saint Patrick’s Day is celebrated on the traditional date of his death – but the Irish annals locate his death at various dates across a period of more than thirty years, from around 460 to 493. His birth is less clear still, with the textual evidence allowing only that none of his writings date from before the onset of the fifth century.

Patrick’s precise role in the establishment of Christianity in Ireland is equally a matter of debate. Some strands of Irish legend suggest that Cormac mac Airt, the most famous of the High Kings of Ireland, had converted to the Christian faith before his death. According to the Annals of the Four Masters, compiled between 1632 and 1636, Mac Airt reigned over the country from 254 to 266. Modern historians tend to place his demise in the year 277. T. W. Rolleston, writing in 1910 in The High Deeds of Finn and Other Bardic Romances of Ancient Ireland, notes:

‘Cormac, it is said, was the third man in Ireland who heard of the Christian Faith before the coming of Patrick. One was Conor mac Nessa, King of Ulster, whose druid told him of the crucifixion of Christ and who died of that knowledge. The second was the wise judge, Morann, and the third Cormac, son of Art. This knowledge was revealed to him by divine illumination, and thenceforth he refused to consult the druids or to worship the images which they made as emblems of the Immortal Ones.’

And Rolleston quotes Cormac mac Airt on his deathbed, which he was allegedly consigned to after choking on a salmon bone:

‘”When I am gone I charge you that ye bury me not at Brugh of the Boyne where is the royal cemetery of the Kings of Erinn. For all these kings paid adoration to gods of wood or stone, or to the Sun and the Elements, whose signs are carved on the walls of their tombs, but I have learned to know the One God, immortal, invisible, by whom the earth and heavens were made. Soon there will come into Erinn one from the East who will declare Him unto us, and then wooden gods and cursing priests shall plague us no longer in this land. Bury me then not at Brugh-na-Boyna, but on the hither-side of Boyne, at Ross-na-ree, where there is a sunny, eastward-sloping hill, there would I await the coming of the sun of truth.”‘

According to Prosper of Aquitaine, who continued the historical Chronicon of Saint Jerome between 433 and 455, in 431 Pope Celestine I sent the deacon Palladius from Rome to minister to Ireland and serve as the country’s first Christian bishop. Prosper posits this within the context of the Pelagian heresy – which held that human nature is not tainted by original sin – and Pope Celestine I’s desire to ensure that Pelagianism did not take root in Ireland. Some sources have Palladius retreating to Britain within months of his arrival, after receiving an unwelcome reception from the locals; but other sources suggest he stayed in Ireland with his companions for several decades. Whatever, scholars of Irish history following T. F. O’Rahilly have maintained that many of the traditions now associated with Patrick are the result of conflations with the life of Palladius.

The reputed burial site of Saint Patrick at Down Cathedral, in the town of Downpatrick in Northern Ireland

Ciarán of Saigir, the first of the Twelve Apostles of Ireland, is also sometimes considered to have preceded Patrick and to warrant the title of Ireland’s first saint – although his life has been variously dated between the fourth and sixth centuries. At least the Vita Columbae establishes Saint Columba – another of the Twelve Apostles of Ireland, credited with the spread of Christianity to Scotland, and standing alongside Patrick as one of Ireland’s three patron saints – as living definitively after Patrick, between 521 and 597. Ireland’s other patron saint is Saint Brigit of Kildare: associated with numerous miracles and the foundation of monasteries for men and women, whose mother was reportedly baptised by Saint Patrick, and whose life is conventionally dated from 451 to 525.

Only two of Patrick’s writings survive. These are the Confessio, an account of his life; and the Epistola, a brief letter directed against the British chieftain Coroticus and the actions of his soldiers. Many of the legends surrounding Patrick stem from Muirchú’s Vita sancti Patricii, known in English as The Life of Saint Patrick, and compiled about 680. Inspired by an earlier Life of Saint Brigit written by Cogitosus, Muirchú drew for his Life of Saint Patrick from the Confessio and the Epistola. But he elaborated on his source material – introducing literary qualities and quotes from classical literature as well as the Bible; extending the scope of Patrick’s travels; and attributing to him miracles otherwise unattested – to such an extent that his work is considered hagiography and of scant historical merit.

The imagery of Patrick banishing all snakes from Ireland stems from a separate life of the saint, written by Jocelyn of Furness late in the twelfth century. The scientific evidence indicates that, following the last Ice Age, there were no snakes on the island for Patrick to banish; and the depiction may be read as figurative rather than literal. The twelfth century also marks the beginning of the legend of Saint Patrick’s Purgatory, and the popularity of the pilgrimage site on Station Island in Lough Derg, County Donegal. Thus against these mythologising accounts, the Confessio remains the source of our clearest information regarding Saint Patrick’s life.

Patrick’s Confessio, written in Latin, has reached us via eight medieval manuscripts, with the earliest being the ninth-century Irish illuminated manuscript Book of Armagh. The first part of the Book of Armagh comprises a wealth of material on Patrick, including the life by Muirchú and another from the same period by Tírechán, and the Confessio. It then incorporates much of the New Testament, drawn from Jerome’s Vulgate and from the earlier Vetus Latina (‘Old Latin‘) texts, with addenda; and closes with Sulpicius Severus’ Life of St. Martin of Tours.

A page from the Book of Armagh, the ninth century illuminated manuscript in the collection of the Library of Trinity College, Dublin

The Book of Armagh contains the Confessio in an abridged form, with significant passages omitted – apparently deliberately, in an attempt to advance Patrick as the most successful Christian missionary to Ireland. There are six Confessio manuscripts from between the tenth and twelfth centuries, held in Paris, London, Rouen, two in Salisbury, and Arras. And a final manuscript dates from the seventeenth century, now in the collection of the Bodleian Library at Oxford. Together these manuscripts contain various missing passages and textual differences.

The first printed edition of the Confessio was edited by Sir James Ware and published, in Latin, in 1656. It was based on the Book of Armagh, London, and Salisbury manuscripts. In 1668, Daniel Papebroch published another Latin edition this time based on the Arras manuscript. This edition is significant because two leaves of the Arras manuscript were subsequently lost; leaving Papebroch’s publication the primary source for the missing passages.

In 1905 Newport J. D. White edited a Latin edition of the text under the title Libri Sancti Patricii: The Latin Writings of Saint Patrick. A ‘diplomatic transcription’ of the Book of Armagh, including its excerpt of the Confessio, was edited by John Gwynn in 1913. Basing his research on all eight of the manuscripts, plus White’s 1905 edition, in 1950 Ludwig Bieler published what is still considered the canonical version of the reconstructed Latin text.

Newport J. D. White published in 1920 an English translation of the Confessio in his book St. Patrick: His Writings and Life. His translation of the text was preceded across the nineteenth century by a wealth of English translations undertaken by Irish theologians, who routinely offered opposing perspectives on Patrick’s life and work. Indeed, the historical context and the language of the Confessio became hotly contested among Catholics and Protestants, as the two faiths fought for proprietorship over Patrick’s legacy in Ireland.

Painting from the Lombard School of the late fifteenth century, depicting Saint Patrick baptising converts to Christianity

Significant were Charles H. H. Wright’s The Writings of St. Patrick, The Apostle of Ireland, published in 1894; and Margaret Anna Cusack’s The Life of St. Patrick, Apostle of Ireland, published in 1871. Cusack’s The Life of St. Patrick, Apostle of Ireland in fact contained two translations of the Confessio, the first by Cusack, and a second by William M. Hennessy. Where Wright’s work was written from a Protestant point of view, Cusack and Hennessy shared a Catholic mindset. Both publications engaged with an earlier study of the Confessio by James Henthorn Todd, a noted nineteenth-century religious scholar and liberal Protestant. In the introduction to her work, Cusack praised Todd’s talents as an archaeologist. However, she asserted:

‘But a love of truth and of the faith, combine to make it incumbent on a Catholic writer, boldly and freely, to show the fallacies into which a learned and honourable man was led by early prejudice […] we find that the so-called ‘Memoir’ of St. Patrick’s Life and Mission is simply a continuous criticism on, and rejection of, every circumstance which would tend to prove that St. Patrick was a Catholic.’

At stake was a difference of belief which particularly implicated the doctrine of the intercession of saints. Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and Oriental Orthodox maintain that saints can be petitioned, through prayer, to intercede in human affairs. Protestants on the other hand believe that invoking individual saints amounts to idolatry. Theologians of different backgrounds in the 1800s – with Wright and Todd on the one side and Cusack and Hennessy on the other – interpreted the stated events of Patrick’s life and his particular utilisations of language to stress or deny that he invoked the saints; and to impress or dismiss the value of his holy visions.

A highly personal account, which sees Patrick restating his faith and repeatedly apologising for his lack of eloquence and short vocabulary, the Confessio begins with his birth in Roman Britain, fathered by ‘Calpornius. He was a deacon; his father was Potitus, a priest, who lived at Bannavem Taburniae’. Patrick recounts being captured at ‘about sixteen’ years of age, and taken to Ireland as a slave, whereupon he finds Christianity. Escaping to Britain by boat after six years, Patrick undergoes a series of religious experiences and – after another brief spell as a captive – eventually returns to Ireland of his own volition. He ministers throughout the country, and baptises ‘many thousands of people’.

Amid the praise he offers God and the depictions of his ministry, there are assorted curiosities, as Patrick vaguely suggests some misdeed which he committed when he was fifteen; an act of betrayal by a friend; quarrels over the acceptance of gifts; and his disputes with the Irish kings. He closes his Confessio with the following testament:

‘I pray for those who believe in and have reverence for God. Some of them may happen to inspect or come upon this writing which Patrick, a sinner without learning, wrote in Ireland. May none of them ever say that whatever little I did or made known to please God was done through ignorance. Instead, you can judge and believe in all truth that it was a gift of God. This is my confession before I die.’

Patrick’s Confessio in English translation at the Christian Classics Ethereal Library:

A full guide to the Confessio, including the manuscripts and print editions, and translations into various languages in prose and verse, courtesy of the Royal Irish Academy and the Hypertext Stack Project:

Margaret Anna Cusack’s The Life of St. Patrick, Apostle of Ireland, published in 1871:

Charles H. H. Wright’s The Writings of St. Patrick, The Apostle of Ireland, published in 1894:

Thomas William Rolleston’s The High Deeds of Finn and Other Bardic Romances of Ancient Ireland, published in 1910: