Sunday, March 17, 2013

Saint Patrick, the Irish Druids, and the Conversion of Pagan Ireland to Christianity: Part II

Raids, such as the one Patrick fell victim to, were not uncommon in the fifth century AD. There was a general lawlessness about Britain at that time. The Western Roman Empire was collapsing, many groups of people warred with each other for power, and different groups of raiders took advantage of this instability. This was the period when the mythical King Arthur is supposed to have lived, the king who united all the warring tribes under the Cross in peace. Sadly for Patrick, this was not the case when he was a boy, so he was abducted just like "thousands of others" (Hanson 76). For six years, Patrick toiled as a shepherd for a minor Irish king in the Wood of Fochloch, which is believed to be near what is now Killala Bay on the west coast of the island (Eaton, McCaffrey). The conditions under which Patrick worked as a slave were not necessarily as bad as they could have been. He does not appear to have endured abuse, though he suffered from the weather and isolation (Thompson 17). His lonely situation was enough to make him turn to the Christian religion he had disregarded as a boy. He wrote that he would wake up before dawn to say up to one hundred prayers (Hanson 86). Essentially, Patrick was taken from his atheistic, materialistic boyhood, and thrown into the trials of slavery. In this challenging period of his life, he turned to Christianity to console himself.

His newfound Christianity seems to have given him hope about his situation. According to Patrick, one day God told him a ship was waiting for him, to take him back home. This is what sparked Patrick's decision to escape his servitude. In what must have been a terrifying event, Patrick stole away from his pagan master and made his way to the other side of the island, seeking a ship that would take him back to Britain. He must have come upon a trading port, for a week or so later he found a boatful of traders waiting to leave the coast. Patrick begged for them to take him along. Some think that Patrick may have used food he stole on his escape to barter his way off the island (Thompson 22). At first, the Irish pagan crew refused to take Patrick with them, but in a surprising twist, they changed their minds and called him back to the boat. Patrick describes the captain as a particularly surly man who was proud of his pagan faith and refused Patrick's attempts at conversion.

Historians are uncertain of what happened in the next three years of Patrick's life. In fact, it is not even certain where exactly these traders took Patrick. It took them three days to reach land, but which land is a mystery. Some scholars have proposed that they landed in Britain, but that does not explain why it took Patrick three whole years to return to his family. Why did he not immediately go to them if they landed in Britain? The most agreed-upon answer is that they took Patrick to Gaul. Patrick says that after their landfall he was sold again into slavery by the surly Irish captain and crew. This would have been easier for them to do in Gaul, considering that Patrick would not know anyone in Gaul to escape to and he would be unfamiliar with the terrain. The Irish sailors "knew that he was an escaped slave, friendless and without resources or influence, an ideal subject for a kidnap" (Thompson 28). It would certainly explain why the sailors changed their minds and let Patrick board their ship after first refusing him. Perhaps they realized he would be a benefit to them after all, if they could sell him into slavery in Gaul. Patrick apparently escaped once again, and ended up working for three years to be able to pay for a boat ride back home to Britain.

There is also a darker theory that has been suggested to explain this period in Patrick's life. We know that Patrick wrote the Confession as a reaction against some sort of criticism he received from a group of fellow Christians, who questioned the rightness of his promotion to bishop. Some scholars have proposed that there are certain inconsistencies in this section of the Confession, and that the best way to explain this is to assume that the Irish sailors actually intended to plunder Gaul and that Patrick simply went along with them because he had no choice (Thompson 32). That would certainly be a reason for some Christians to question his status as a bishop, if he quietly went along with a group that exploited the weakness of Gaul during the Western Roman Empire's collapse. If one is to accept this theory, the second slavery that Patrick claimed to have suffered was actually a cover-up for a period in his life when he either participated in or was forced to witness raids along the Gaulish coast.

So we know that Patrick had at least three bad interactions with the pagan Irish that may have shaped his opinions of this entire group. The first, dreadful interaction involved the Irish pirates who sold him into slavery. The second was with his pagan slave master who used Patrick as free labor to herd sheep. And the third was the ambiguous situation with the surly pagan Irish crew. Whatever happened between Patrick and the crew, it could not have made a very positive impression. Either they sold him again into slavery in Gaul, or they took him along on a raiding spree in Gaul despite his desire to go back home.

By the time Patrick was able to raise enough money to buy his way back home to Britain, he was around twenty-six years old. It had been ten years since he was sold into slavery. Once reunited with his family, though, he did not stay there long before he decided it would be his life's work to return to Ireland, the land of his captivity, to convert the Irish pagans to Christianity. He was aware of the disadvantage he had in official theological learning. While he had been toiling as a shepherd in Ireland, all his peers had been educated to a great extent. In a divergence from the mythical stories, the historical Saint Patrick lacked the hubris that Muirchu and later writers gave to him, and was very self-conscious about his lack of education, knowing his written Latin left much to be desired. At any rate, Patrick began having dreams of a man named Victoricus, who urged Patrick to return to Ireland. Later writers have claimed that Victoricus was an angel of God but E. A. Thompson argues that this man most likely was a friend Patrick had met back in Ireland (37). It is thought that Patrick then returned to Ireland despite the many protests of those in Britain. In Ireland, he became a deacon, and eventually was appointed to be a bishop.

How, then, did he go about his mission of converting the pagan Irish to Christianity? Were the events as clear-cut as Muirchu describes, with resistance from the pagans and druids at first but ending finally with their submission to Patrick's superior faith?

Historically, the Irish did not seem threatened by Patrick's activities. Many actually incorporated Christianity into their beliefs. In addition, scholars are not sure whether Patrick was as wildly successful at conversion as Muirchu claims. However, long after Patrick died, the church apparently had gained enough power to write its own version of events. Muirchu and others were allowed to create a revisionist history. In it, they claimed that Christianity was superior to paganism, and that this divine superiority had enabled a miraculous victory in Patrick's time. Thus, authors such as Muirchu made Patrick's mission seem more successful than it actually was. So, when Patrick first introduced Christianity to the pagan Irish, there was little contention between Patrick and the druids. But by the time Muirchu and others came along, circumstances had changed such that they could claim it was a straightforward matter of good versus evil, in order to further their own agenda of replacing paganism with Christianity.

Nevertheless, it is clear that Patrick was the first Christian man ever to go to Ireland with the express purpose of converting the Irish to Christianity. Before Patrick went on his conversion mission, a man named Palladius was sent by the pope to Ireland in 431 AD, but it is thought that Palladius was not expected to preach his faith among those who did not believe. He instead was expected to act as bishop and administer to the small communities of Christians who already lived in Ireland. Who these Christians were or how they came to be in Ireland is not known. "It was none of [Palladius's] business to go out among the heathen and convert them; he had enough to do among the faithful" (Thompson 56). E. A. Thompson also adds, "One reason for the backwardness of the Church in trying to convert the barbarians was presumably the view held by a number of churchmen that the barbarians were not fully human" (63).[2]

Scholars admit to being mostly ignorant of the happenings in the fifth century AD. There is very little surviving evidence that would allow us to get a good picture of what was going on at that time. However, we do know that Patrick's mission was not as cut-and-dried as Muirchu would have us believe. In fact, one of the reasons his family had protested the idea of mission work in Ireland was precisely because it was a dangerous proposition. Patrick himself knew when he departed with the aim to convert the Irish tribes that it would be a difficult task. Nonetheless, there are no contemporary records of confrontations between Patrick and the druids, upholders of the pagan faith. Why is this so? Did the pagans give up their religion without a fight?

In reality, there does not seem to have been any reason to fight. Patrick recognized that he could not go to the foreign country with a condescending attitude. He realized that there was a potential for violence, not because his conversion efforts posed a threat, but simply because Patrick was a foreigner. Patrick wrote that God meant for him to "endure the insults from unbelievers, that I should hear abuse for being a foreigner, that I should endure many persecutions even unto imprisonment" (Thompson 80). He even expected and embraced the idea that there was a possibility he would be martyred. It is clear that the pagan Irish would not have tolerated the behavior of the mythical Saint Patrick. There was no way Patrick could use coercion or the threat of force as part of his strategy to convert the pagans. E. A. Thompson writes that "the pagans were far too powerful and menacing . . . . And he was doubtlessly aware that if he gave any sign of trying to impose his views on the Irish pagans against their will, his mission would come to an abrupt and bloody end" (90).

So, being limited by this danger, did Patrick make any difference at all? Most scholars would say yes, but that it did not come at all close to the singlehanded effort that Muirchu tried to convince people it was. Patrick himself claims to be responsible for converting "thousands" despite the hostility he encountered, but no one can be sure that this is an accurate description. There is some evidence that he was better received by the youth in Ireland, and even slaves, especially female slaves (Thompson 91). We also know that Patrick mixed often with the Irish nobility, and in some cases ended up converting a number of that class too. Part of his dealings with the nobility consisted of Patrick paying Irish chieftains to cross their lands. The chieftains' sons would accompany Patrick while he crossed their fathers' lands. Even then it was not entirely safe. There is a recorded incident of Patrick being robbed by one chieftain's son.

But why would the pagan Irish even consider converting to Christianity in the first place? It certainly was not because of a threat of violence, and not because they witnessed any inherent inferiority in their beliefs when compared to Christianity (as Muirchu states). We know Patrick had to be respectful in his approach, but still, one wonders why the Irish would abandon the gods they had worshipped for thousands of years to accept a god that a complete stranger told them about.


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