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Here’s one possible account of St. Patrick: He was the herald of a race of extraterrestrial tricksters, who amused himself by bringing Ireland 1,500 years of sectarian misery. Admittedly, there’s no evidence for that theory, but there’s not much more for the story Philip Freeman tells in St. Patrick of Ireland. Audaciously subtitled A Biography, the book is a rather smug exercise in speculation, based almost entirely on two letters attributed to the largely legendary fifth-century saint and newly translated by the author.
Early in this small book, the cliché-friendly Freeman recommends taking some of the early reports on Ireland “with a large grain of salt.” He rejects as “pious fictions” the claims that Patrick drove the snakes out of Ireland, used a shamrock to explain the concept of the trinity, or bested paganism by battling druids to the death. Yet the author is hardly a skeptical observer of Patrick’s life and times. On the book’s very first page of text, he characterizes fifth-century Britain as a place where “Saxons, Picts, and Irish sporadically ransacked the countryside” and whose church “was being torn apart by dangerous heresies.”
Perhaps Freeman believes in the existence of the Picts, who appear many times in St. Patrick of Ireland, because Patrick himself makes reference to “the abominable Picts” in his “Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus,” a broadside against Britons who abducted and killed some of the future saint’s Irish followers. Yet “Pict” is simply a term applied by the Romans to some Celtic tribes of what is now Scotland. The name, derived from the same Latin word that yielded “picture,” refers to the clan members’ practice of painting their bodies before combat. (The historically challenged Mel Gibson had his warriors Pict themselves up, about a millennium too late, for Braveheart’s battlefield scenes.) According to Freeman, the inhabitants of the Scottish highlands “clung to their native Pictish long after the fall of Rome.” In fact, the very existence of a bygone tongue that can be accurately called Pictish is in dispute; such Celticists as Peter Berresford Ellis argue that surviving “Pictish” place names and genealogies are clearly Brythonic (the predecessor of today’s Welsh and Breton).
As for “dangerous” heresies, Freeman is referring to Pelagianism, which wouldn’t hurt a fly. Pelagius taught that Christians have responsibility for their actions and can achieve salvation through good works. Brutally repressed in its time, this onetime heresy is now widely accepted by Christians who aren’t sticklers for dogma. Today, only Catholic theologians and enthusiasts for the early Roman Catholic Church would be inclined to call it “dangerous.”
The author of St. Patrick of Ireland is one of those enthusiasts. A professor at Washington University in St. Louis, Freeman has a Ph.D. in classical philology and Celtic studies. To judge from this book, Freeman is principally interested in Romanized Celts. His description of the decline of the Roman Empire clearly shows his sympathy for it, and he writes of Celtic culture mostly as something to be supplanted by Roman civilization and Christian religion. Twice in 20 pages, for example, he describes the Celtic holy day of Samhain merely as the source of Halloween.
Freeman confidently describes his protagonist as a Roman who would have been known as Patricius (as opposed to, say, the Celtic Padrig). In his “Confession,” Patrick wrote that he was of noble birth, the son of Calpornius, a decurion (city councilor) and Christian deacon, and the grandson of Potitus, a Christian priest. He was abducted at age 15 by Irish slavers, became profoundly religious while in bondage, and eventually escaped to Britain, only to return to Ireland as a missionary and become a bishop. Even assuming that Patrick actually wrote the two letters attributed to him, and that the documents weren’t substantially altered by later copyists—the originals do not exist—we still can be sure of almost nothing about him.
This does not deter Freeman. For an example of the author’s method, take the case of Patrick’s hometown, which the “Confession” identifies as Banaventa Berniae. Because the Irish brigands who took Patrick mostly raided Britain’s western coast, it’s generally accepted that he was born and raised in what is now Wales. (He may even have been a neighbor of Pelagius, who reportedly first preached his doctrine in central Wales around 380, during the same period that Patrick was allegedly born.) Freeman concedes that no one knows where Banaventa Berniae was, but three pages later supposes it was “probably a typical small settlement” and, another two pages on, announces that it “certainly served as a commercial center for agriculture in the area.” Note the escalation of assurance.
“Perhaps,” “probably,” and “must have” are Freeman’s best friends. He writes that Patrick “must have enjoyed” time spent at his grandpa’s villa, that stories of Ireland’s barbarism “must have gone through Patrick’s mind” as the newly enslaved lad first approached the island, and that when Patrick began to fast to express his Christian faith, his fellow slaves “must have thought the boy had lost his mind.” Entering the brains of people whose thoughts are unrecorded by history doesn’t trouble Freeman at all: “Patrick didn’t realize” that Ireland was much like pre-Roman Britain, his parents “probably sat stunned” when their newly returned son announced he would return to Ireland, and years later Bishop Patrick was “exhausted” by preparing for Easter.
In one of his more eager moments, Freeman blurts, “It’s possible and very tempting to suppose” that Patrick knew someone to whom there is no hint of connection. It is equally tempting to throw St. Patrick of Ireland across the room.
Skipping the rest of the book and just reading the two letters attributed to Patrick, which are included in the epilogue, provides every scrap of available evidence about Ireland’s patron saint. The rest of Freeman’s account is merely context, presumption, and “must haves.” One chapter is titled “The Missing Years,” but the 25 odd years in which Patrick is completely undocumented—between his escape from slavery and his return to Ireland—are only slightly more mysterious than the rest of his life.
Minus the index, epilogue, illustrations, time line, and bibliography—there are no footnotes—the book runs barely 150 pages. That includes five scene-setting (or, less charitably, stalling) chapters that barely discuss Patrick at all, as well as a final section about Ireland after the saint’s death—an event about which historians know (of course) nothing. Even the date of Patrick’s demise, Freeman concedes, is a guess. (Actually, what he writes is that it’s “little more than a guess,” but he offers no justification for the “little more than.”)
That hypothetical death date, of course, is March 17, St. Patrick’s Day. St. Patrick of Ireland was published just in time for this year’s celebration, designed to snare curious Celtophiles who, after few green beers, might feel a little guilty not to have learned more about the man. Such potential readers should save their regret for more verifiable areas of ignorance. Anyone who knows snakes and shamrocks knows almost as much about St. Patrick as Philip Freeman does. CP