From Slave to Saint: The Story of Patrick of Ireland


Sometime in the year 405 (CE), just before the emerging dawn but still under cover of darkness, a group of tall, fierce Irish warriors crept toward a British village where most were still sleeping. The warriors had long hair which was braided and streaming down their backs like horses’ manes. They carried heavy iron swords and round wooden shields. Their purpose was to plunder and take slaves. Those who resisted were quickly killed. That day many were taken prisoner. One of those was a sixteen year old boy named Patrick….
He was born around 389 to a Christian family in Britain. It was a time when the world, as it had been known, was disintegrating. The mighty Roman Empire, which included Britain, was in a state of collapse. As the Empire grew weaker and weaker, Roman authority was withdrawn from Britain. The repercussions included economic collapse, coins ceased to be minted, Latin education declined, and, the old system of warring tribal factions emerged. Patrick grew in this volatile society.
Patrick says his father “was Calpornius, a deacon, son of Potitus, a priest” of the village Bannaveum Taburniae possibly a Roman British town in western Britain. Thus, Patrick was raised in a distinctly Christian home where his grandfather was a priest and his father was a deacon of the church. He spoke the British of the country folk but was tutored in the official language of Latin, one which was a struggle for him to learn.
With Rome on the decline and the vulnerability of its empire clear, raiding war parties from the island of Ireland began to appear with increasing frequency. When Patrick was sixteen, a company of armed invaders attacked the area where he lived. In his surviving work titled The Confession of St. Patrick, he recalls that day: “I was about sixteen years of age … I was taking into captivity (sic) to Ireland with many thousands of people.” Although not alone, he was surely frightened at being physically carried off by Irish warriors who placed him and the others into boats made of greased ox-hides stretched over wooden frames. The captives spent three days confined in that narrow space where they experienced fear and sea sickness before arriving on the island of Ireland, a land “beyond civilization”, as defined by the Roman Em-pire.
On that island, Patrick was sold off as a slave to a tribal chief named Miliucc who immediately put the youth to work as a shepherd. In that capacity, Patrick spent a great deal of time alone in the wilderness watching over pigs, sheep and cattle. For a young man who had been accustomed to warm clothing, hearty food, and comfortable lodging, life as a shepherd undoubtedly left him constantly hungry, cold and lonely.
In that time of emotional desolation, Patrick turned to the faith of his father and grandfather. In his Confession, Patrick makes clear that previously the Christian faith was marginal in his life. That changed when he was enslaved. “After I came to Ireland—everyday I had to tend sheep, and many times a day I prayed. The love of God … came to me more and more, and my faith was strengthened. My spirit was moved so that in a single day I would say as many as a hundred prayers, and almost as many in the night, and this even when I was staying in the woods and on the mountains. I used to get up for prayer before daylight, through snow, through frost, through rain, and I felt no harm.” It is possible, perhaps probable, that it was in the woods and mountains where Patrick recited the prayer which has come to bear his name:

Christ be with me, Christ within me,
Christ behind me, Christ before me,
Christ beside me, Christ to win me;
Christ to comfort and restore me;
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ in quiet, Christ in danger….

During the six years he was in captivity, Patrick prayed constantly for an opportunity to be reunited with his family. His prayer was answered one night in a dream where Patrick heard a voice saying: “Soon you will go to your own country.” In that dream he was told that “your ship is ready.” Believing that dream was God’s call for him to escape, Patrick literally walked away from his master carefully making his way across 200 miles of wilderness. It was an arduous, dangerous journey with Patrick constantly looking over his shoulder in fear that Miliucc had sent a search party to recapture him. The trip meant trudging over mountainous terrain and working his way through thick forests and muddy bogs. Nevertheless, Patrick traveled confidently. “I took flight and I left the man with whom I had stayed for six years. And I went in the strength of God who directed my way to my good and I feared nothing until I came to that ship,” he wrote.
When he finally arrived at the sea port, Patrick located a ship in the port which matched the one in his dream. He approached the ship’s leader asking for passage. Initially, his request was denied. Although discouraged by the re-buff, Patrick retreated and began to pray. His prayers were answered again, when, at the last minute, the captain sent word he could join in the passage. It would prove to be a risky journey. After sailing for three days, the ship landed on the shores of France. The land was deserted and ravaged because of war. For twenty-eight days the men traveled through the desolate land and were finally overcome with hunger. The captain turn-ed to Patrick saying: “Tell me, Christian: you say that your God is great and all-powerful; why, then, do you not pray for us? As you can see, we are suffering from hunger; it is unlikely indeed that we shall ever see a human being again.”
Patrick responded to the challenge promising to pray for food and help. In his Confession, he recalls what transpired shortly after he offered that prayer: “Suddenly a herd of pigs appeared on the road before our eyes, and they killed many of them; and there they stopped for two nights and fully recovered their strength … from that day they had plenty of food. They also found wild honey.”
When the group finally connected with a village, Patrick separated himself from his traveling companions in order to find a way of returning to his family. Although it took time, he was able, finally, to arrange the trip across the English Channel. The joy which characterized that reunion can hardly be imagined. “After a few years I was in Britain with my people who received me as their son and sincerely besought me that now, at last, having suffered so many hardships, I should not leave them and go elsewhere,” he wrote. Patrick was content to remain there until he had a dream which would change his life and ultimately transform the history of Ireland. This is how Patrick described that dream:
“I saw in the night the vision of a man, whose name was Victoricus, coming as it were from Ireland, with countless letters. And he gave me one of them, and I read the opening words of the letter, which were, ‘The voice of the Irish’. And as I read the beginning of the letter I thought that at the same moment I heard their voice … cry out as with one mouth: ‘We ask thee, boy, come and walk among us once more.’ I was quite broken in heart and could read no further, and so I woke up.”
Patrick interpreted the dream as God calling him to return to Ireland bringing Christianity to the Irish. So strong was his sense of vocation that he willingly and gladly set aside issues of family, personal comfort and financial stability. He would return to Ireland but first, had to prepare himself academically and theologically. When he was carried off as a captive, his studies were interrupted, an issue which Patrick keenly felt all of his life. He begins his confession with these words: “I am Patrick, a sinner, most unlearned….”
Before sailing to Ireland, Patrick first sailed back across the English Channel to Gaul (today’s France) where he spent several years studying and preparing for his mission. While there he was ordained a deacon, then priest and finally consecrated as a Bishop. Only then did he set out, with a small group, to face the dangers of what was considered “barbarous” Ireland because it lay beyond the power and influence of Rome. In his book, St. Patrick and Irish Christianity, Tom Corfe describes the Ireland which awaited Patrick:
“The Irish still kept to their warlike ways their British cousins had forgotten under Roman rule … It was a land of scattered farmsteads; there were no villages. Each family of farmers (and an Irish family usually included the cousins and their children) occupied a farmstead … the farmers lived under the protection of warrior nobles, and they in turn owed service to the king. Ireland was a land of many kings, perhaps nearly two hundred of them, each at the head of his own people, his tribe … the king claimed descent from the tribal god. He was responsible for leading his people in wars and raids, and also for ensuring, through his magical powers and with the aid of his druids, that the sun and the soil brought good crops and healthy cattle.”
Thus, in 432, Patrick returned to the island from which the same providence which now called him had originally empowered his escape. There he spent thirty years as a wandering bishop and missionary. He personally baptized and confirmed tens of thousands of Irish and ordained hundreds as priests. “I went … everywhere … even to the farthest districts … where nobody had ever come to baptize, or to ordain clergy, or to confirm the people,” Patrick said.
Though enormously successful, his work was not easy nor was it without many personal dangers. Tribal kings, who were intimidated by the new message Patrick brought and fearful about their own loss of power, threatened and harassed him. In his Confession Patrick makes reference to the fact he was the victim of “numerous plots” and various dangers “in which my life was at stake”. He describes one account of being in prison and subsequently released:
“All the while I used to give presents to the kings … Even so they laid hands on me and my companions, and on that day they eagerly wished to kill me. But my time had not yet come. Everything they found with us they took away and me they put in irons. On the fourteenth day the Lord delivered me from their power and our belongings were returned to us because of God and dear friends whom we had seen before.” In addition, he battled homesickness. “How I would have loved to go to my country and my parents, and also to Gaul in order to visit the brethren and to see the face of the saints of my Lord,” he explained.
However, that longing was never fulfilled. Patrick died on March 17th, 461. His mission was carried on and the man who began as a slave in Ireland would emerge to become its patron saint. Because of Patrick and his followers, all of Ireland became thoroughly Christian. Those who carried on his work drew inspiration from Patrick’s own words:
“We ought to fish well and diligently … (and) spread our nets so that a great multitude and throng might be caught for God, and that there be clerics everywhere to baptize and exhort a people in need and want.”