Time for the wearin' o' the green this month as we bid (hopefully) a fare thee well to winter white, and look forward to greener grasses and the harbinger of spring—St. Patrick's Day! It is a valuable slice of history we should all know about, so we might make the truth of the day the hallmark of our celebrations . . .
Of greater worth than green beer, beads, and bowler hats. Patrick, himself, wouldn't know what to do with such things. His life was spent on nobler endeavors to the glory of God and the complete captivation of the Irish. He did this, not with the power of the sword—but the power of the pen and God’s Word.
Storytelling had always been an important part of Irish culture. There are many tales of olden days and the first peoples who lived on Irish lands. These people were conquered by invaders from Gaul and the mainland. Slowly, the populations of the original inhabitants of Ireland shrunk, driven into the woods and forest lands. They became the “little people” of legend. Whenever something odd happened, the Irish blamed the “wee folk”, the leprechauns, fairies, and elves, as they came to be called. Endless tales of their mischief delighted generations, and inspired the works of classic western literature for centuries.
Fanciful stories of fairie folk and little green people of questionable temper have their place in the realms of make-believe. But, truth is often stranger than fiction. There is one story belonging to the Irish that has been told for 1500 years which continues to inspire with a pertinent message for us today: St. Patrick’s story. To tell it best, I’ve included, in this article, scant excerpts adapted from a few excellent books on the subject. Refer to the reference notes at the end of the article and plan to dig deeper for a fascinating look into a life to whom the privilege of literacy, learning, and the church as a whole owes much.
Part 1 – The Fall of Rome and the Rise of the Irish Raiders*
The world ended in August, AD 410. That was the day Alaric and his band of Germanic Visigoths entered the city of Rome, sacking and looting the capital of the greatest empire the world had ever known. The fall of the city sent a shudder through the Mediterranean lands, but in Roman Britain no one even noticed beyond the swift retreat of Caesar's battalions. Once the barbarians entered the gates of Rome, the Roman army was summoned to defend their capital and left the British Isle with no protection from her enemies.
The collapse of Roman power was welcome news to the Irish who made their living raiding isolated British farms for slaves. The capture of young boys was the most lucrative, since they could be broken easily and were useful in the dirty, dull tasks of farm life. The withdrawal of the Roman navy from the Irish sea made more daring raids possible.
On a moonless night, in late summer, we can imagine that a few boats slip into the narrow waterway separating Ireland from Britain and head for a tempting prize—the rich settlements on Britain’s western coast; a land with scores of poorly protected villas spread across open green fields dotted with sheep.
As the boats near the shore, the sails are lowered from a single mast. Quickly and silently they slip over the side into the water and carefully pull their leather and wood-framed vessels onto the beach. A few men are left behind to guard the boats—no fires, no laughing, no talking above a whisper. If the boats are discovered and the alarm sounds, the raiders have no hope of seeing their Ireland home again.
Their footsteps are muffled as the men march inland through the fields, til at last, in the distance, they see their destination—a modest but prosperous villa of a loyal nobleman. The small two-story building has no more than a dozen rooms. The wall surrounding the structures stand no higher than a man’s neck.
Part 2 – Young Patrick is Seized!*
The Irishmen quickly move over the wall and through an unlocked gate. Most slip into the servant’s quarters while a handful carefully work up the stairs of the main building into the sleeping chambers of the owners.
The young man in the second bedroom has no time to fight back. His parents are away in another town where his father serves on the city council. He is alone on the villa’s second floor with only a few household servants downstairs when the raiders enter his room. They have him gagged and bound before he is fully awake. A chain is fastened around his neck, and along with the villa’s servants he is marched off in line to the waiting boat. Surely someone from the local guard will rescue him. Surely his parents will pay anything to ransom him. He is educated. He is of noble birth, and due to inherit power and position in the city.
But the raiders move with swift efficiency, killing any captives who cry out for help or slow them down. There is no hope for rescue. The wild island where he is heading is beyond the reach of civilized Britain. His life of privilege and luxury is over. Patricius, known to later ages as Saint Patrick, is now a slave.
Part 3 – In His Own Words*
I, Patrick, am the most unlearned and the lowest of all the faithful. My father was a deacon, and my grandfather a priest. At the age of sixteen I was taken captive and shipped to Ireland, along with thousands of others.
When I arrived in Ireland, I was sent to tend sheep. I used to pray many times each day; and as I prayed, I felt God’s love fill my heart and strengthen my faith. I had to stay all night in a hut on the mountain, looking after the sheep, and each day I would wake to pray before dawn in all weathers – snow, frost, and rain. I remained as a slave in Ireland for six years.
One night when I was asleep, I heard a voice speaking to me. It told me that a ship was waiting to take me home. I awoke, and immediately ran down the mountain, and hurried to the coast. I found a ship about to set sail; and although the captain did not want to take me, one of the old sailors smuggled me aboard. I was overjoyed to see my family again, and at first thought I should never leave them again.
But one night I had another dream in which a voice spoke to me. The voice implored me to return to Ireland, and preach the Gospel. When I awoke I felt as if I were a slave again – but now God was my master.
Part 4: Ireland’s Legacy to the World Excerpted from
How the Irish Saved Civilization*
Patrick never thought he'd see the shores of Ireland again. He finished his education and entered the ministry. As he sought the will of God for his life, he knew he must take the power of God's Word to transform lives, to the people of Ireland—the very people who had enslaved him in his youth for so many years. When he went, he brought with him the fruits of man's literary achievements in addition to the Bible.
Literacy was a tool he used to change the course of a nation, and ultimately the world.
Patrick and the men who followed him built great monasteries the length and breadth of this remote and forgotten island called Ireland. They brought light and life to a dark and violent world through love, literature, and learning.
But, the rest of the world was in shambles due to the barbarian hordes sweeping across the Roman Empire with their darkness, illiteracy, and uncivilized ways. It is a time in history we now call The Dark Ages.
According to historian, Thomas Cahill, they’d “lost almost everything . . . titles, property, way of life, learning—especially learning. A world in chaos is not a world in which books are copied and libraries maintained. It is not a world where learned men have the leisure to become more learned. It is not a world for which the Latin professor schedules regular classes of young scholars and knowledge is dutifully transmitted year by placid year. . . As Roman culture died out and was replaced by vibrant new barbarian growths, people forgot many things—how to read, how to think, how to build magnificently.”
But, learning was a raging fire across Ireland. Towns grew up around monasteries built by Patrick and his followers. Everyone could come and learn, and rise to greater potential because of literacy and peace. People adopted civilized manners and ways due to Patrick’s influence.
Dedicated monks labored to copy books, preserving 1200 years of civilization, recorded history, art, and literature that had been rescued from the marauders in the southern Roman cities across the channel. Here, in Ireland, the very least of nations, these works were hidden, until the day when the world knew better how to steward her wealth.
Many of these manuscripts are among the world’s greatest art treasures—made in Ireland, by simple people, with wit and humor that still touch us today.
The Irish mastered Latin, Greek, and some Hebrew, as well as their own Irish for writing down their oral literary traditions.:
“Wherever they went the Irish brought with them their books . . . tied to their waists as signs of triumph, just as Irish heroes had one tied to their waists their enemies’ heads. Wherever they went they brought their love of learning and their skills in bookmaking. In the bays and valleys of their exile, they re-established literacy and breathed new life into the exhausted literary culture of Europe.”
How the Irish Saved Civilization
I can't say enough about Thomas Cahill's How the Irish Saved Civilization! The historical picture he paints of a world in chaos, and how God prepared a land and a man to protect the treasure of the gospel and the literary record of mankind for future generations, has become a "spiritual landmark" for me in strengthening my faith and confidence in a God whose good will towards man cannot be thwarted by the evil in man's heart. As we see the darkness that is now swiftly enveloping our planet, we are on the verge of another dark age . . . in the last age. If you've read the Bible, none of this is a surprise. But, reviewing His Story in His Word and History, there is hope in the Christ that Patrick prayed to surround him . . . "Christ over me, Christ under me, Christ beside me, on my left and my right."
"And we know that all things work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to His purpose for them."
*The following works have been excerpted for this article:
Part 1 & Part 2: St Patrick of Ireland, A Biography, by Phillip Freeman, pages xi-xiii
Part 3: Celtic Parables, by Robert Van De Weyer, Abingdon Press, page 9
Part 4: Excerpted from How the Irish Saved Civilization, by Thomas Cahill
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