At about the time that Alaric was bothering Rome a whole new chapter of Church History was opening. St. Patrick was born in Scotland of Roman parents in 387. According to his Confessio in 403 he was captured by slavers, and sold to Milchu a high druid in what is now County Antrim. Over six years he acquired a firm grasp of the Irish language as well of the religion of the druids. More than that, he acquired an ever-deepening love for God: pasturing Milchu’s flocks, he prayed a hundred times a day, and as often by night.
Taking a dream as God’s command for him to escape, Patrick fled two hundred miles south to our modern Wesport, where even though penniless, he gained passage. We cannot be sure of this, but it seems this twenty-year-old lad made his way south through a thickly wooded France, seeking out his mother’s people at Tours. After a start on his education there, he made his way to the island of Lerins, where St. Athanasius had founded a monastery decades earlier. Then, at forty-three, in 430 he was appointed as bishop for Ireland by Pope Celestin I. Making his way to Armagh, he offered Milchu the money releasing him from slavery.
The Irish have filled volumes with unsubstantiated tales of Patrick’s exploits. It won’t hurt to give ear to one often told tale. An ancient custom demanded that at the height of Spring all fires in Ireland should be quenched as a sign of respect for the High King as he lit a new fire on the height of Tara. On Patrick’s return the High King was robbed of his glory, as throngs on Tara turned to see Patrick’s fire at the far end of the valley bursting out on the height of Slane. A new era had begun.
The country’s clans were a roving people, and Patrick, seeing there were no towns to support parish life, founded monasteries. They were always there for the season-following people to drop in on.
Some years ago it got my temper up to read some scholar’s assertion that Irish Catholicism was a transplant of Egypt’s monastic life. But now I see strong traces of Anthony and Pachomius in Irish Catholicism.
No people are stronger than the Irish in their adherence to the Nicene Creed that was so strongly supported by Egypt’s St. Athanasius. Then, the practice of private confession that Pachomius first made available to his monks put down deep roots with the Irish. As kids of Irish descent we lined up outside the easier priest’s confessional every other Saturday. We’d stand there, wondering if we could confess unclean thoughts without getting the boom lowered on us. Our Father English from County Cork once told me to say twenty Our Fathers, twenty Hail Mary’s and twenty Apostles’ Creeds every day for a week, and then come back. When I did, he told me to say twenty Our Fathers, twenty Hail Mary’s, and twenty Apostles’ Creeds. I said, “I already did that, Father,” and he got a good laugh out of that.
Father English’s penances were nothing compared to the bread-and-water drills on the lists of appropriate penances that came down to us from Patrick’s time. They were all in line with St. Anthony’s adherence to the Greek Stoical belief that punishing the body was the only way to strengthen the soul.