St. Patrick must have been an extraordinary man. There are no written accounts of his life, apart from what he himself wrote in his Confessio, but the stories of his work, the places he visited and what he achieved have been passed down through the generations for more than fifteen hundred years, writes Gerry Breen.
St. Patrick wasn’t the first to introduce Christianity to Ireland, but it is certain that his was the most important and the most influential mission to this country. The message he brought profoundly influenced every aspect of life in Ireland, and the impact of the new faith in the fifth and sixth centuries was immense.
The scholars and saints it produced were responsible for earning this country the title of ‘Island of Saints and Scholars’. Irish monks established monasteries all over Europe and the illuminated manuscripts they produced are amongst the most prized masterpieces of European art.
St. Patrick left a rich legacy, and he certainly deserves to be honoured as the Apostle of Ireland and Ireland’s Patron Saint. His first visit to Ireland was not a happy one. At the age of sixteen, this son of a Romanised British family was kidnapped and sold into slavery. He spent six years as a slave in Ireland before escaping.
Tradition tells us that Patrick was brought to Slemish, historically called Slieve Mish, a mountain in Co. Antrim, where he worked as a shepherd for a man called Milchú at Slemish Mountain for about six years, until he was aged 22.
Slemish Mountain is known as the legendary first known Irish home of St. Patrick. He was separated from family and friends and forced to work in harsh conditions in a strange land. It was a difficult time, but we are told that Patrick turned to frequent prayer as his only consolation in his loneliness.
We know from his own writings that he was very close to his family, and he tells us that on his return to Britain, “they welcomed me as a son, and they pleaded with me that, after all the many tribulations I had undergone, I should never leave them again.”
Eventually, Patrick managed to escape and, after much hardship, returned to his home. It would be perfectly understandable in the light of his unhappy experience if he never wanted to set foot in Ireland again. However, he was driven to return with the intention of converting the Irish to Christianity.
As he very well knew before he began his mission, many people in Ireland were practicing pagan religious rituals, and he felt a strong compulsion to return to show them a better way of life.
Skerries, Co. Dublin, and Church Island (Inis Pádraic) claim a central role in the history and archaeology of early Christian Ireland. There are a number of written sources, some dating back to the sixth and seventh centuries, which suggest the areas as the location of St. Patrick’s first landfall on his return to Ireland.