John Rhys-Davies stars in "I Am Patrick," a docudrama screening in theaters for two nights only, March 17-18, 2020. (CNS photo/courtesy CBN)

The governor of New York marked a recent St. Patrick’s Day by announcing that the state police and local law enforcement would crack down on the combination of drinking and driving that placed it among “the deadliest holidays of the year.” The governor’s action served as a reminder of how St. Patrick’s feast day has been hijacked by some as an excuse for public misbehavior. As the day has gone from an assertion of ethnic pride and religious identity to a version of Mardi Gras celebrated by people with no connection to Ireland, its deeper meanings have often been obscured.

The saint behind the holiday is the subject of Roy Flechner’s book Saint Patrick Retold, a sober and scholarly stripping away of myth and fable in search of the flesh-and-blood Patrick. Flechner aims, as he puts it, “to humanize a personality who is often mystified by the distance of time and reverential deference.” He makes no claims to a definitive portrait and warns that the evidence is too patchy and fragmentary for historians to “give us more than conjectures.”

In his attempt to use the available facts to form as accurate a rendering as possible, Flechner recreates the social and religious context of the Romano-British twilight world where Patrick was born and grew up, and of the Ireland where he was enslaved and where he proselytized and died. However partial and speculative, Flechner’s account of the saint and his times is rich and rewarding.

Patrick left two first-person narratives. The Confessio tells the story of his kidnapping and enslavement by Irish raiders, his religious awakening, escape from captivity, and return to Ireland on a divinely inspired mission. The “Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus” is a blistering denunciation of a British raider and his men. Nominally a Christian, Coroticus captured a group of Patrick’s recently baptized converts and sold them to pagans.

Both documents existed as copies in the eighth-century Book of Armagh and were forgotten until their rediscovery in the seventeenth century. In the interval, myths and folktales about Patrick proliferated. In one, Patrick was given a wife, Sheelah, who was also a saint. In another, his ancestors were counted among the Jews exiled by the Romans in 70 A.D. The story most closely associated with Patrick—his role as “saintly pest controller” in driving the snakes out of Ireland—was a medieval addition. The earliest account of Patrick using the three-leafed shamrock to teach about the Trinity dates to the 1680s.

Patrick writes in the Confessio that Calpornius, his father, was a deacon, and Potius, his grandfather, a priest. The Romano-British colony to which they belonged started with Caesar’s invasion in 55 B.C. and took several decades to complete. Protected against the Celts to the north by Hadrian’s wall, it grew into a stable, prosperous part of the empire. To the west, the Romans contemplated an invasion of Ireland, which one general said he could conquer with a single legion. The name they gave it, Hibernia (winter), expressed their lack of interest in acquiring a chilly, rainy island on the very edge of the world.

The accelerating erosion of the empire and fraying of its borders took a dramatic turn in 410 A.D. when the legions were withdrawn and the colony left to fend for itself. The casual inter-island trade across the Irish Sea, hinted at by an unearthed amphora with traces of wine and olive oil, gave way to increasingly destructive raids by Irish marauders intent on plunder and slaves. Sixteen at the time of his capture, Patrick recounts being taken along with “thousands of others.” Alone, a captive slave in a foreign land, he was set the lonely task of tending flocks on a mountainside. After six years in bondage, during which he had a religious awakening, a voice in a dream told him he was going home. Shortly after, the voice announced, “Behold, your ship is ready.”

Flechner mines Patrick’s account of his capture and escape to suggest a more complex version of events. In the “Letter to Coroticus,” Patrick mentions that, as well as a deacon, his father held office as a decurion, a provincial official whose primary duty was collecting taxes. The honor of belonging to the local elite was mitigated by the requirement to make up revenue shortfalls, an obligation made increasingly onerous by the empire’s decline. As a result, decurions began seeking to escape their official duties. The surest and quickest way was to join the clergy. For those who did, the major drawback was the requirement to surrender the bulk of their estates to an heir who would inherit their office.

It is possible, Flechner speculates, that Patrick’s arrival in Ireland wasn’t the result of a kidnapping but was intended to rescue him from the punishing burdens left him by his father’s entry into holy orders. In Flechner’s telling, “Patrick left Ireland rather conveniently before his coming of age and being appointed decurion. By leaving, he would have eschewed all civil responsibilities, lived as a wealthy man in Ireland…until finally, by feigning righteousness, he was able to return to Britain and seek to regain his property under the protection of the law.” In his Confessio, Patrick admits being accused by those “who brought up against me after thirty years” an unspecified transgression committed “when I was young, before I overcame my weakness.” He writes that “my defense was that I remained on in Ireland, and that not of my own choosing, until I almost perished.” By emphasizing his presence in Ireland as involuntary, he seems to be refuting the charge he went of his own will.

Flechner admits that this version of events is speculative. It’s also highly implausible. Patrick writes that he was taken with “thousands of others,” none of whom came forward to refute his story. If escaping office was as simple as crossing the Irish Sea, it would seem likely that Ireland would have hosted a large number of decurions.

It was another dream that brought Patrick back to the land of his captivity. A messenger came from Ireland in a vision “with so many letters they could not be counted.” As Patrick read them, he heard “the voice of the Irish people” cry out “as if it were with one voice: ‘We beg you, holy boy, to come and walk among us.’ This touched my heart deeply, and I could not read any further. I woke up then. Thanks be to God, after many years the Lord granted them what they were calling for.”

Patrick returned as a priest and bishop. (He doesn’t say where his ordinations took place, but most likely in Gaul.) A vexing question for historians is the contemporaneous presence of a second Patrick. An entry in a fifth-century chronicle notes that Pope Celestine sent Palladius, “who was named Patricius with another name…as the first bishop of the Irish,” a mission that ended in his martyrdom.

If papal envoy-and-martyr Palladius and vision-inspired Patrick (whose death, one biographer claimed, was at age 120) were different men, the title of “Apostle to Ireland” would be up for grabs. Flechner thinks it possible Palladius was “deliberately written out of history by the earliest hagiographers of Patrick.” After reviewing the evidence, he concludes that the “least implausible” theory is that the hagiographers “conflated Palladius, who might have been known as Patricius Palladius, with Patrick, such [that] the two missionaries became one.” It’s not a case-closed judgment, but there will probably never be one.


In the wake of the massive wave of famine immigrants, the St. Patrick’s Day parade became an important demonstration of Irish-Catholic identity in the face of relentless nativist hostility.

The monks who wrote down the story of Patrick pictured him as leading a frontal assault on Irish paganism. Among the most memorable incidents was his challenge to legendary high king Lóegaire mac Néill and his druids. In celebration of the pagan high holy day, no fire could be lit before the king ignited a pyre atop the royal hill of Tara. In observance of the Easter vigil, which fell on the same date, Patrick defiantly lit the Paschal fire before the king could carry out his sacred duty. When hauled before the king and threatened by the druids, Patrick caused their chief to be lifted in the air and dropped on his head, “cracking his skull and causing great panic among the pagan spectators.”

Patrick makes no mention of druids or a royal confrontation in the Confessio. His account offers a more nuanced and cautious process of conversion. Unlike missionaries in the mode of St. Boniface, the eighth-century “Apostle to the Germans” who took an axe to the sacred oak of the pagans, Patrick didn’t smash shrines or attempt to upend the social order. As part of the Romano-British elite, Patrick’s family would have owned slaves, and it’s clear that his experience of being a slave didn’t turn him against the institution. When he denounced Coroticus’s kidnapping of recent converts, his wrath was aimed at their sale to pagans, not at slavery—though when it came “to the heathen among whom I live,” Patrick wrote, “I have always shown them trust.”

Although he left untouched the “sacral nature of Irish kingship,” he often found himself in peril and wasn’t above paying for protection: “I gave rewards to the kings, as well as making payments to their sons who travel with me; notwithstanding which, they seized me with my companions, and that day most avidly desired to kill me.” In contrast to Romanized Britain and Gaul, where dioceses were centered on towns and cities, Ireland was a patchwork of rural kingdoms. (Irish cities such as Dublin and Waterford were founded centuries later by the Vikings.) By adapting to the proprietorship of land tightly held by families and their dependents, Patrick avoided any attempt to impose the structures in use on the continent. The result was a “proprietary church,” in which bishops or abbots were family members and donated land stayed under their control.

Patrick was especially associated with Armagh, the seat of the Uí Néill, who used the connection to bolster their prestige. Along with the churches he established in Ireland, Patrick was also “among the earliest monastic founders.” His monasticism observed the strict asceticism of eastern practice. The beehive huts still extant and the ruins on Skellig Michael, a granite splinter off Dingle, testify to the severity of the rule. Among the disciplines was self-imposed exile, which resulted in Irish monastic foundations across Europe and, according to legend, sent St. Brendan to America centuries before Columbus.

Though the proliferation of holy men and women led to Ireland’s reputation as “the isle of saints and scholars,” Patrick retained his primacy over popular saints like Brigit and Columba. Devotion to him spread across Europe, but he wasn’t included in the breviary until 1632. With the Reformation and the triumph of the Protestant Ascendancy came confiscation of the cathedrals named for him in Armagh and Dublin. (Jonathan Swift served as the Anglican dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral from 1713 to 1745.) Despite attempts to make him the progenitor of a proto-Protestant church, Flechner observes, “Patrick’s image continually changed in tandem with the political vicissitudes of Ireland and the oscillating fate of the Catholic majority under Protestant rule.” In sum, Protestants took the churches, while Catholics kept the saint.

According to Flechner, “the earliest recorded event that can be described as a Saint Patrick’s Day parade” in Ireland was in Waterford, in 1903. The first parade in New York City was in 1766, by Irish troops in the British garrison. In the wake of the massive wave of famine immigrants, the parade became an important demonstration of Irish-Catholic identity in the face of relentless nativist hostility. Over the years, controversies have arisen, the most recent concerning the inclusion of a gay contingent, which was finally approved in 2015. New York’s parade remains the world’s largest and longest, drawing a million marchers and spectators to Fifth Avenue.

Saint Patrick Retold is the story of an age as well as a man. Flechner tackles the complexities, uncertainties, and guesses (educated and otherwise) around Patrick. His account of the culture in which Patrick was raised and the place in which he lived as captive and missionary is insightful, detailed, and enlightening. Respectful and, when necessary, skeptical, Flechner offers a portrait of Patrick that, however partial and tentative, is humbler and more human than the snake-banishing superhero of legend. It would be comforting, if highly improbable, to envision future St. Patrick’s Days on which revelers cut back on raucous partying and spent time reading Flechner’s search for Ireland’s national saint. Spiritually as well as intellectually, it would be time well spent.

Saint Patrick Retold
The Legend and History of Ireland's Patron Saint

Roy Flechner
Princeton University Press, $27.95, 304 pp.

Peter Quinn, a frequent contributor, is the author Dry Bones and Banished Children of Eve (both from Overlook Press), among other books.

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Published in the March 2020 issue: View Contents
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