Section A: Life Story
Much of Patrick’s life is shrouded in mystery and historians differ on the probable chronology of the saint’s life. Fortunately, he has left behind two documents, his Confession and his Letter to Coroticus, which describe some of his experiences. Although he was not the first Christian missionary to reach Ireland, Patrick is the principal force for converting the pagan island and establishing the Celtic church, which belongs to him. For it was Patrick who dedicated his life to, and braved all odds to share his faith with, the people of Ireland.
St. Patrick was born in the latter part of the 4th century (c. 385 AD) to wealthy parents in Roman-ruled Britain, living probably in Wales. St. Patrick was christened Maewyn Succat, and later renamed Patricius (later Anglicized to Patrick) by Pope Celestine.
He was the son of a Roman official named Calpurnius. At the age of 16, Patrick was captured by Irish raiders and sold to an Irish chieftain called Milchu. Serving as a slave for 6 years, St. Patrick herded sheep on Slemish Mountain in Co. Antrim, where he spent a lonely, contemplative life. During this time, he gained knowledge of the Celtic way of life: their language, culture, and nature-based beliefs.
Turning to religion during his loneliness, St. Patrick is said to have experienced visions and voices telling him that it was time to leave Ireland and that a ship would be waiting to take him to his own country. After a journey of 200 miles he found the ship, which enabled him to escaped to Britain and return to his family.
Patrick later moved to Gaul where he studied for 12 years under St. Germanus, Bishop of Auxerre, France. During this time, St. Patrick’s prayerful life once more led him to see visions and hear voices that urged him to return to Ireland and to take the light and redemption of Christ to the Irish people. Lacking the required scholarship, Church leaders at first refused to approve his apostolate to Ireland. However, his mission to Ireland was finally approved by the Church due to the early death of Saint Palladius, the first Bishop sent to convert the Irish people.
St. Patrick returned to Ireland around AD 432. Arriving on the shores of Strangford Lough, Patrick quickly make a convert of a local chief named Dichu, who gave him a barn at Saul in County Down for his first church. Patrick preached to the people and easily converted them by the thousands. Knowledge of the language and culture made St. Patrick’s task easier, as did his clever approach to converting the Irish to Christianity – St. Patrick never attempted to stamp out Irish rites and rituals. Instead, he blended them with Christian customs and teachings thus winning people over easily. We can see the evidence of this in the Celtic Cross and the bonfire at Easter.
Before long, Patrick made his way to the Hill of Tara in County Meath, the seat of the high king of Ireland. Arriving on the eve of Easter, he lit a paschal fire on the nearby Hill of Slane. At this time of year, it was pagan practice to put out all fires before a new one was lit at Tara. When the druids at Tara saw the light from Slane, they warned King Laoghaire that he must extinguish it or it would burn forever. Patrick was summoned to Tara, and on the way he and his followers chanted the hymn known as “The Lorica” or “Saint Patrick’s Breastplate“.
Although Laoghaire remained a pagan, he was so impressed by the saint that he gave Patrick permission to make converts throughout his realm. Patrick travelled widely in Ireland, making converts and establishing new churches, though he eventually made his headquarters at Armagh.
Muirchu’s Life of Patrick, written two centuries later, describes a contest of magic in which Laoghaire’s druids had to concede victory to the saint.
Opposition from the Druids caused St. Patrick to be arrested many times, but he always escaped. For 30 years he traveled extensively, preaching Christianity and converting thousands. St. Patrick established several schools and churches facilitating the progress of his mission.
Over the centuries, many stories and legends about St. Patrick were either written or told. One such legend tells of the time he spent the forty days of Lent on a mountain in Co. Mayo which is now called Croagh Patrick.
- He was harassed by demons in the form of blackbirds, clustered so densely that the sky was black, but he continued to pray, and rang his bell to disperse the assailants.
- An angel then appeared to tell the saint that all his petitions for the Irish people would be granted, and that they would retain their Christian faith until Judgement Day.
Other legends tells how Patrick banished snakes from Ireland and how he adopted the shamrock as a symbol of the Holy Trinity. However, no snakes were ever native to Ireland since the last Ice Age. Historians believe that this legend served as a metaphor for the conversion of the pagans and for driving their beliefs from the land.
Patrick’s writings belong to the latter part of his life and confirm that he was less learned as a writer than he was persuasive as a speaker. Nonetheless, the Confession, a response to criticisms of his mission in Ireland, is a moving revelation of his vocation and of the divine guidance he received in dreams.
St. Patrick’s brave and enlightened journey came to an end when he died on March 17, AD 461. Tradition says he died at Saul and was buried at nearby Downpatrick. As with all saints, whose feast days are celebrated on the anniversary of their death, the church named March 17 as his feast day. Since then, in his honor, the Irish remember St. Patrick on the anniversary of his death as both a religious and a secular holiday.
It is St. Patrick’s dedication and his love for the Irish people that are recalled and celebrated every March 17, along with Irish traditions and customs.
Section B: In The Footsteps of Saint Patrick
There are many Irish Locations endeared to the heart of Irish people because of their intimate memories of St Patrick.
Sliabh Mis, County Antrim
Sliabh Mis (Slemish Mountain): On this Ulster mountainside the future apostle of Ireland spent six lonely years as a slave tending the sheep of Milchu, lord of Dalradia. It was on this mountain that Patrick saw visions and heard divine voices that would lead to his escape from Ireland and his journey towards the conversion of the Irish people.
The Hill of Slane, County Meath
Slane: The Hill of Slane in County Meath was the site of one of the most dramatic incidents in the conversion of Ireland to christianity. It was here that Patrick lit the Paschal fire in 433 AD, marking Ireland’s first celebration of Easter.
Croagh Patrick, County Mayo
Croagh Patrick: The 2510 feet high mountain in County Mayo is where Patrick withdrew from the world for the forty days and nights of lent. It was here that Patrick demonstrated to the Kings and chieftains of Ireland that he could rise higher than their Royal mounds. On “Reek Sunday,” the last Sunday in July, over 25,000 pilgrims visit the mountain top. This mountain also marks the site where legend tells of Saint Patrick summoning a great host of loathsome and venomous creatures and then commanding them to cast themselves over the edge of the mountain, thus freeing the Irish countryside from all kinds of reptiles.
Saul, County Down
Saul: Located near Strangford Lough in County Down, this site is reputed to be the landing place of Patrick after he was driven from the Wicklow coast upon his return to begin the conversion of Ireland. The original name of the place was the Gaelic Sabhail, meaning a barn. Here Patrick was given a rude structure by a neighboring prince, named Dichu, one of the saint’s first conversions. It was also at Saul, where Patrick is believed to have died.
Struell Wells, County Down
Struell Wells: There are many wells throughout Ireland that are associated with St. Patrick. These particular wells are located in County Down and is another place of pilgrimage for the faithful. structure by a neighboring prince, named Dichu, one of the saint’s first conversions. It was also at Saul, where Patrick is believed to have died.
Rock of Cashel, County Tipperary
Rock of Cashel: It was here in County Tipperary that Patrick first entered Munster and where King Aengas came to meet him and was baptized.
Armagh City, County Armagh
Armagh: Meaning “Heights of Macha,” it was at Armagh that Patrick declared that his church there should have pre-eminence over all other churches in Ireland. Because of this, Armagh has remained the ecclesiastical capital of Ireland for both for the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of Ireland.
St. Patrick’s Purgatory, County Donegal
St. Patrick’s Purgatory: This is another site in Ireland whose people feel a special affinity to St. Patrick. Pettigo, in Country Donegal, is the last stop before Lough Derg, which is the site of a summer pilgrimage that was already well known throughout Europe in the Middle Ages. Lough Derg has about 20 islands, some no more than rocks with a few blades of grass and the largest island in Lough Derg. The site of the pilgrimage is knows as St. Patrick’s Purgatory and is located on Station Island, originally about two acres in area. This island still receives thousands of visitors every year. Lasting three days, though not all on the Island, the pilgrimage calls for one scant meal per day, one whole night without sleep, and a lot of praying. Some people return frequently, however, despite this rigor.
The history of the site parallels the major events of Irish history, starting with the earliest days of Patrick’s mission. The Tudors, Cromwell’s Commonwealth, the Penal Times, and the Great Hunger — all affected Lough Derg. Eventually, Lough Derg returned to church control following independence.
Downpatrick, County Down
Downpatrick: Regardless of the prestige of Armagh, St. Patrick was buried here at Down Cathedral in Downpatrick, County Down (about 33 km south of Belfast). In the nearby graveyard a huge rock slab with rudely-traced inscription marked “Patric” shows his resting-place. In the 12th century, St Patrick’s hand was enshrined in silver and placed in the high alter of the abbey church. Water was poured through it to heal sores.
Section C: Patrick’s Profile
Name: Maewyn Succat (He adopted Patrick or Patricius upon becoming a priest)
Nationality: Roman Briton
Born: c. 385 AD
Travels: At the age of 16 he was brought to Ireland. He later returned to his home in Wales, travelled to France and eventually came back to Ireland.
Died: March 17th, 461 AD (Disputed)
Education: Very little in his early life. He later trained as a cleric in France
Occupation: Sheep herder for Milchu on Slemish Mountain in Co Antrim and later Bishop, missionary, and baptizer
Achievements: Posthumously became Ireland’s patron saint. Responsible for the conversion of the island to Christianity.
Publications: St. Patrick’s two writings are the “Confession” and the “Letter”.
- Hillwalking – once spent forty days of Lent on Croagh Patrick
Legacies: Pota Phadraig (Patrick’s Pot) is the name given to the measure of whiskey to be taken on Saint Patrick’s Day. Tradition dictates that a shamrock be floated on the whiskey before drinking, hence the expression, ‘drowning the shamrock’
The Shamrock: This was the tool reputedly used by Saint Patrick to illustrate the Holy Trinity to convert the Irish pagans.
Saint Patrick’s Breastplate: Also known as The Lorica, this was the hymn said to have been sung by Patrick and his followers on their pilgrimage to Tara as they attempted to put a stop to the pagan rituals.
The Reek: Every year thousands of pilgrims, many in bare feet, climb 2,500 feet to the peak of Croagh Patrick, to pay homage to Saint Patrick’s Christian mission in Ireland. Legend says that it was here that the saint rang his bell and the snakes of Ireland fled.
Things you didn’t know about Saint Patrick:
- At the age of 16, shortly before he was taken into captivity, he committed a fault which appears not to have been a great crime, yet to him it was a subject of tears during the rest of his life.
- He was tremendously conscious about his lack of education and often refers to his inability to express his thoughts clearly in his “Confession”.
Saint Patrick’s Day Parades: Contrary to popular belief, this tradition did not originate in Ireland. The first St. Patrick’s Day celebration in America was in 1737 hosted by the Charitable Irish Society of Boston. Today festive parades are held all over the world, for no more sinister purpose than raising a glass to the saint and celebrating Irishness.
Myths about Saint Patrick:
- He used a shamrock to explain the Trinity. — Not true. However the shamrock was traditionally worn in Ireland as a symbol of the cross.
- He drove the snakes out of the country. — No snakes were ever native to Ireland since the last Ice Age. Historians believe that this legend served as a metaphor for the conversion of the pagans and for driving their beliefs from the land.
- He was the first to preach Christianity in Ireland. — It is known that there were Christians in Ireland before his time. Saint Palladius was the first Bishop sent to convert the Irish people. His death led to the arrival of St. Patrick.
Section D: Up the Reek
Renowned as Ireland’s holy mountain, Croagh Patrick (or the Reek as it is known by locals) dominates the skyline on Mayo’s west coast. From the summit, the unobstructed view of Mayo’s beautiful landscape attracts pilgrims and hill-climbers from near and far.
It holds a unique place in Irish history thanks to St Patrick who chose the 765m mountain for his forty days fast in 441AD, following the examples of Christ and Moses. Tradition maintains that while on the mountain Patrick banished the snakes to a hollow referred to as Lug na Demon. To this day snakes do not exist in Ireland. Actually, there have been no snakes in Ireland since the last Ice Age.
While St Patrick put the mountain on the map, excavations in 1995 have proved that he was walking a well-worn path to the mountain’s summit. Long before the arrival of Christianity to Ireland the summit was occupied by a hillfort, complete with stone ramparts and dwellings. Among the earliest dateable finds are beads which date to the 3rd Century BC.
In more recent times Robert Binn or “Bob of the Reek” lived on the summit of Croagh Patrick for 14 years in the early 19th century. Local tradition states that Bob was the boy for doing penance for those who were unable to travel up the Reek. Bob had expressed a wish to be buried on the summit and his grave is located at the front of the church. Although his is the only funeral that has taken place on the summit, there have been a few joyous celebrations with lucky couples making the climb to wedded bliss.
Nowadays wedding dresses have been replaced by raincoats and backpacks on the mountain trek. The pilgrimage up the mountainside has been carried out here for over 1,500 years, from early Christian times to the present day without interruption. Upwards of 100,000 visitors come to Croagh Patrick every year. Although closed for most of the year, services are given on the last Sunday of July, otherwise known as “Reek Sunday”. Pilgrims come to reflect and make good on past promises to God. Many make the stony ascent in bare feet, no matter what the climate. Up until 1974, pilgrimages would also occur at night.
The ascent begins at St Patrick’s Statue, erected near the base of the mountain by Father Patterson in 1928. It is not one of the three traditional stations of the Reek. However, it is the start and finish of the pilgrimage. For many, including one time visitor Princess Grace of Monaco, St. Patrick’s Statue marks the furthest point they make it up the Reek.
Half an hour up or so, the mountain has completely disappeared in the mist and the traveler feels like he/she is taking a step into a magical kingdom from which one may never return.
After an arduous climb, usually lasting some three to four hours (two for the fit and healthy), the sight of the little stone church through the mist is certainly a religious experience worthy of a prayer or two. While prayer may be your respite on the summit, the traveler can comfort himself on the often perilous descent with the thought of a well deserved pint of the black stuff or a cup of tea in Campbell’s pub, a visit to which is a must for all intrepid climbers. Whether religious or not, after the climb the traveler will certainly have thought about the nature of man and have nothing but admiration for those who make the annual climb in bare feet.
(This edited section is taken from the article written by Michael McAleer, a staff journalist for the Irish Times on the Web)
Section E: The World of Saint Patrick
In order to understand who St. Patrick was as well as the events which led to his apostolate in Ireland, one needs to develop an understanding of the society of that era, including the structure of the Roman Empire and of Ireland as well as the growing influence of the Roman Church.
St. Patrick, himself, was a man of the Latin west. He was born about 385 AD in Roman Britain. He spent many years as a monk in Gaul, and once at least he visited Italy.
During Patrick’s time, the last half of the 4th century, the Roman Empire extended over a vast territory, from Spain across to Syria, and from Britain down to North Africa. Its unity, however, was weakening as two divisions were forming. One was in the east, where the Greek language and thought predominated. With Constantinople as its capital, this area comprised Greece, the Balkans, Asia Minor, Syria, Palestine and Egypt. The other was in the west, where the Latin language and thought were supreme. This area included Italy, Gaul, Britain, Spain and Northern Africa. Although its nominal capital was Rome, its actual capital was located at Milan where most of the emperors of that period exercised their administrative duties. The divisions were ruled by co-emperors but gradually developed into separate empires (the Western Roman Empire in the west and the Eastern Roman Empire or Byzantine Empire in the east). Occasionally, both parts were held in overall dominion by such powerful emperors as Diocletian, Constantine, and Theodosius. When Theodosius, the last emperor to rule the whole empire, died in 395 AD, St. Patrick was nine years of age.
The division of the empire grew out of the disasters which overwhelmed the Roman world in the third century. Political chaos, produced by chronic military revolts and civil wars, brought on general confusion and anarchy. From 192-284 AD twenty-five emperors ruled, with average terms of less than four years. Most of these emperors were assassinated. Against the frontiers foreign invaders attacked with their forces. In the east the Persians cut away four provinces. Along the Danube and the Rhine, Teutonic tribes hammered at the defenses and twice penetrated them. In the northwest Irish and Picts, assailed by land and sea, isolated Britain. The dissolution of the Roman Empire seemed at hand.
That inevitable catastrophe was temporarily averted by Diocletian, emperor from 285-305 AD. Supported by an inescapable taxation system he established a highly-centralized bureaucracy under absolute imperial rule that regulated in detail the lives of everyone in the empire (from patrician to slave). This programme reestablished order, secured the frontiers, and saved the empire politically for another 150 years. However, because of massive taxation to finance the bureaucracy and the army, exhaustion of the mines, and abandonment of large tracts of agricultural lands, Diocletian and his successors failed to halt the economic, social and cultural decline of the empire, especially in the Latin west, Saint Patrick’s world.
This period of decline was also marked by the decay of civic government and of local political life. The Roman Empire at its peak was a confederation of over 10,000 cities, each one consisting of a walled urban centre and the countryside around it. Each city conducted its own political, economic and social life through a local legislature (modeled after Rome’s Senate) called a curia. During the first two centuries, this institution of self-government developed a class of skilled legislators and municipal officials. In time they formed the local aristocracies.
By the 4th century, the importance of the cities declined. They had suffered much from the ravages of the civil wars, the abandonment of agricultural lands, and the grave decline of the population caused by plagues. The imperial leaders adopted a desperate caste-system to protect the state against further economic losses and social weaknesses. Occupations were declared hereditary, and all freedom of movement between the classes was stopped. Discouragement and apathy ruled all. Thus, there was little resistance to the invasion of the barbarians (Germanic and Teutonic tribes) during the 5th century. Disasters continued to piled upon disasters, until in 476 AD the Western Roman Empire was brought to an end. This was the world of St. Patrick’s youth.
The actual invasions of the Teutonic nations started in 376 AD and lasted for more than two centuries. St. Patrick lived within the first hundred years of this period. In his boyhood and during his captivity in Ireland, the Visigoths were marching over Greece and northern Italy, while the Germanic tribes were breaking through the barrier of the Rhine and were sweeping over Gaul and Spain. Because of this, the Romans were forced to recall their military legions from Britain. In 410 AD, the year of Patrick’s escape, the Visigoths captured and sacked Rome. Patrick shared the same consternation of all citizens of the empire at the incredible news. Three sovereignties divided Gaul while Patrick was there preparing himself as a monk and a cleric.
For St. Patrick, the Roman world did not cease for him when in 432 AD he left for his Irish mission. Always he would be an apostle of the Catholic religion, the religion held by the citizens of the Empire and governed by the Pope of Rome. He remained keenly sensitive of his ties of blood and culture with Britain and Gaul. He was sorrowed by the news of the devastations perpetrated by the Huns in northern Gaul, the Vandals in North Africa, and the Saxons , Angles and Jutes (Anglo-Saxons) in Britain.
Declining Roman society makes but half the story of the times in which St. Patrick lived. Growing Christianity completes the overall picture. By the first half of the 5th century almost all Roman provincials were Christians; only in remote areas were pagans still to be found. The authority of the Church now ran coextensively with the jurisdiction of the Empire. Military and civic chaos led to an increase in the importance and prestige of the local bishops, who were seen as the sole representative of the people and as the saviors of Roman culture. There developed in many minds a unique identification of Christianity with the Empire. Even when the imperial government faded away, men still clung to the idea of a Roman world through Christianity.
Following the decline of the emperors, the people turned to the Roman Pope as the new leading personage. His prestige had grown as the understanding of his universal jurisdiction became more definite. From all parts of the former empire appeals in disputes over dogma, discipline or jurisdiction came to him for his final decision. Of the nine popes who ruled during the lifetime of St. Patrick, Saint Leo the Great, 440-461 AD, best illustrates the increased importance of the Roman Pontiff. He dissuaded Attila the Hun from attacking Rome and successfully interceded for the people of Rome after the city was sacked by the Vandals. He dealt firmly with various groups of heretics and vindicated the human nature of Jesus. In the first year of his pontificate, Leo approved the faith of St. Patrick.
Frequently the sovereign pontiffs made local bishops their special agents. The most renowned among the bishops was St. Germanus. He made Gaul and Britain his diocese. Twice he was sent by the popes to Britain to overcome heresy. It was under St. Germanus that St. Patrick was prepared for his apostolate.
One major concern of St. Germanus was the difficult conversion of the rural people who were still largely heathen. The old Celtic religion was a mixture of myths and superstitious rites tracing far back into prehistoric nature worship. It was entwined in every phase or happening of the peasants’ lives; and they clung to it tenaciously. Intellectual appeals had small success in eradicating their ancient beliefs or rites. Only the persistent zeal of apostolic heroes such as St. Martin of Tours and St. Patrick of Ireland accomplished it.
For almost half a century, except for the six years of his captivity in Ireland, Patrick’s world was limited by the boundaries of the Roman Empire. Beginning in 432 AD this would change. For the next 30 years, until his death, St. Patrick would begin his mission in Ireland. Those three decades were the most important in his life, for they witnessed the conversion of the Irish people.
This Ireland of his apostolate differed from the Gaul of his preparation in almost every feature: history, traditions, language, culture, organization and religion. The reason for this diversity was that Ireland had never been a part of the Roman Empire, and hence had never been Latinized. It is not to be thought that the Irish lived in complete isolation from Roman influence. They maintained many trading-contacts. In the 4th and 5th centuries, during the days of imperial decline, Irish kings ravaged the west coasts of Roman Britain and established petty kingdoms there. The raiders who returned brought back British Christians to be sold into slavery in Ireland. Once such slave was St. Patrick.
Geographically, Ireland is a compact island with an area of 32,000 square miles. It is slightly smaller than the current state of Main in the United States. Mountain ranges, steep-sloped but of no great height, fringe almost its entire coastline of 2,100 miles and encircle its great central plain. This plain for the most part is fertile, though it contains wide stretches of bog-lands. It is dotted with numerous lakes and is crossed by several rivers. In ancient times, and until the 16th century, the island was thickly forested.
The population of Ireland at the advent of St. Patrick would be hard to estimate; historians place the figure at about 300,000 people. However, two things are certain: the population was of very ancient origins and was of very mixed character — including Neolithic stone builders, Mesolithic hunters, and bronze-age herds men. The peoples of the bronze-age, short in stature and dark in complexion, dominated the land for centuries. These people included the Firbolgs and the Picts. By the time of St. Patrick, their descendants constituted the majority of the people of the island. Today, evidences of them are still recognizable in the North and West of Ireland.
Finally, about 350 BC, the last immigrants arrived in Ireland. They were of the Celtic race, who at the time dominated western Europe. These Celts were known as the Gaels. They were an aristocratic and masterful warrior race of great stature, ruddy complexion, and red or brown hair. Wielding iron swords and spears, they invaded Ireland with the intent of conquering it and of crushing their bronze-age adversaries. So complete was their conquest that, though they remained an upper-class minority, they imposed their language, customs and law upon the vanquished. Yet for the new Irish nation which they created they borrowed much from the culture of the older peoples. Their bards took over the old traditions, myths and legends, translating them into Gaelic — first in oral form and then to pages of permanent manuscripts when writing came to Ireland in the 5th century AD. Thus the cultural traditions of the ancient races of the land had become the culture of the newly fused Irish nation. It has long been noted by historians that the traditions of the Irish people are the oldest of any European race north or west of the Alps. During his years in Ireland, St. Patrick recognized the divergencies of the Irish people, but was more impressed with their unities. His flock considered themselves Celts: they held a common culture; they conversed in a common Gaelic language. The Romans could call them by the common names of Hibernians or Scoti, but the inhabitants of Ireland knew one another as Gaels.
The political organization of Ireland in St. Patrick’s day consisted of seven major kingdoms. They were Ulster, Leinster, Meath, Oriel, Aileach, Connacht and Munster. Ulster occupied the northeast corner of the island which included only the current counties of Antrim and Down. Leinster (with its chief seat at Ferns) was in the southeast and embraced much of the present Leinster south of Dublin and Meath. Meath (with its chief seat at Tara) stretched from the Shannon eastward to the Irish Sea and included the present northern counties of Leinster. Oriel ran from Dundalk to Sligo and covered the modern counties of Monaghan, Armagh, Fermanagh, and possibly a part of Sligo. Aileach (with its chief seat near Derry) occupied all of the north from the Bann River westward to the Atlantic, the area of present day Tyrone, Derry and Donegal. Connacht (with its chief seat at Cruachan) embraced all the area of the present province of Connacht, with the addition of Cavan. Munster (with its chief seat at Cashel) has not changed much from its present day boundary.
Four of the kingdoms owed their foundation to Niall of the Nine Hostages (379-405) or to his family. Meath, his own kingdom, was raised to supreme importance at Tara. Oriel was established with his assistance. Aileach was created by two of his sons. Connacht was founded by two of his brothers.
The kings (ris) of Meath, Aileach and Connacht were to rule successively at Tara as High King (Ard Ri). The High-Kingship, however, was little more than a title of prestige especially at the occasional national gatherings. It was acknowledged only in the four kingdoms of the family of Niall. Yet, even in these the actual power of the high-king was restricted to his own state. In Ulster and Leinster the kings were often hostile, while the kings of Munster were engrossed in extending their own position at Cashel.
Under each of the major kingdoms there were numerous petty kingdoms. In the whole of Ireland they totaled over 180. The functions of these petty kings were similar to those of the major kings; they governed their states, presided over the assemblies of the freemen and led the soldiers in war. The tributes which they received and the favours which they granted were on a smaller scale than what they in turn gave and received from the major kings. All rights and duties of the various political groups were regulated by old customs, which were committed to writing in the Book of Rights during the time of St. Patrick.
Ireland’s economic and social system were entirely rural, and based completely on agriculture and grazing. Although, there were no cities, habitation clusters around great seats like Tara or Cashel did bear resemblance to small medieval towns. Everything was paid for in kind; cattle, horses, silverware or iron implements. Whatever hard money there was came by the way of foreign commerce. No great roads like those of the Romans crossed the country.
There were five social classes: (1) kings, (2) nobles, (3) freemen with property, (4) freemen without property, and (5) the non-free people. Professional men, such as physicians, bards, historians, brehons (judges) and artisans were given the status of freemen. Bards were more genealogists and historians than poets in the modern sense, though there were some of these as well.
After the kings one of the most influential groups were the Brehons. They were the judges who interpreted the ancient laws of Ireland and arbitrated private disputes. Eventually the interpretations and the numerous laws hardened into a great code which came to be known as the Brehon Laws. They were probably written down around the time of Saint Patrick and affected nearly every question that could arise.
For St. Patrick, the most distinctive feature of Ireland in 432 AD was probably its religion. The Gaels brought with them the Celtic deities of Gaul and mixed the veneration of them with the ancient tribal cults of the original peoples. Religious honors were paid and sacred places dedicated throughout the countryside to the memories of dead ancestors. A very important place in Irish paganism was given to the worship of the forces of nature: the sun, light, fire, and water. Religious festivals were held to mark the change of the seasons.
The religion of the Irish people has often been designated Druidism, owing to the prominence of druids in the Gaelic world. Yet, the druids, neither in Ireland, Britain, or Gaul were priests. rather, they were masters and teachers of higher learning, especially of occult sciences and of doctrines about the supernatural world and its inhabitants. They were considered to be magicians and those who could foretell the future. They were also believed to possess powers of enchantment and of casting spells. The druids were numerous in Ireland, highly reputed, and yet greatly feared. To their credit it should be said that they kept alive the legends and epic tales of Irish tradition. Before the time of St. Patrick this was a tremendous task; it meant the exact memorization of countless lines of oral poetry, as writing had not yet been established.
Since St. Patrick sought to Christianize the druid order rather than abolish it, many of the druids accepted Christianity at Patrick’s coming, though some remained bitterly hostile to the end. Those who converted became philosophers and poets. They helped the monks commit to permanent manuscripts the ancient heroic tales. They also conducted the Bardic Schools where the Gaelic language, literature and history were preserved down to the 17th century.
This was the Irish world in 432 AD, when St. Patrick stepped from his small boat onto the shore of Strangford Lough in County Down. For the next thirty years this Ireland would be the land of his apostolate. During those decades there would be no change in its physical aspects, in its governmental structure, in its social system and in its economy. But there would be a tremendous change in its people. The Irish would not only become Christian, but would do so with such deep conviction that their faith would become proverbial and help sustain them through periods of great tragedy, suffering and attempted genocide that would begin with the English invasions. This was St. Patrick’s greatest accomplishment.