There are two sides to every story but sometimes only one is written down.
How do you get to the heart of a story when you can only hear the voice of one side? I don’t know, I suppose it’s impossible to know exactly what those early Gaels were thinking but I haven’t wavered in my quest, how could I with legendary figures of bravery like Cu Chulainn to guide me?
The very beginning of Christianity in Ireland is unknown but the first name attached to it is Pelagius. He was born somewhere in the British Isles and he had his own ideas about god and the role of the church. Mainly that there was no original sin (meaning that unbaptized babies if they were to die could be burred in the Christian cemetery) and that moral decisions could be made through the free will of humans without the need for divine intervention. The Irish people naturally liked this idea and it began gaining ground so that the church noticed toward the end of the 4th century.
Pope Celestine was concerned about these unstructured christian communities and he wished to “include them in the roman obedience.” Of course, if there is no original sin there’s no real need to be baptized, and if you can make good, moral decisions and be a good person on your own terms then what need have you for the church? It would lessen their overall power and tarnish the look of unity and control that the Empire valued so much.
So enter Palladius, the first Bishop of Ireland (I know Pelagius and Pelladius what are the chances?) in 431 ce he was sent to Ireland to bring the wild Irish into the obedience and he failed. It is written that he received death threats and capture by the druids and he was eventually banished by King Leinster.
Patrick however was much more successful. He managed to spread Christianity across the nation This is where we start to run into problems. The only accounts of Patrick’s mission in Ireland were written by Patrick himself. Two documents, one is his confessio and the other a letter.
Considering the context and author of the confessio it’s difficult to know how much of it is true. I know that if I were to write an autobiography I’d probably come out looking a lot better than I was in reality. Memories are distorted to begin with and when you know that your christian colleagues are going to be reading this work you might tweak it just a little.
However we don’t know if Patrick was honest in his writing or not perhaps he was, he does mention how terrible lying is multiple times throughout.
quoting the Psalms ‘A mouth which lies kills the soul.’ 7
“I have God for witness that I have not told lies in the account I have given you.” 31
Perhaps he knew this would be the only documentation of these events and so felt the need to be very clear that they are accurate. It sounds like he knows that there won’t be any evidence to corroborate his story.
The other part of the problem is that the native Gaels only form of writing was ogham which is an alphabet where the letters are named after trees and they used this alphabet mostly to mark headstones not to record history, mythology or laws. Those were kept through oral tradition by the druids.
Let’s dive into what Patrick did write and see what we can find. A link to the full translation is below and I have included the numbers for easy referencing.
He refers to the native pagans this way “Never before did they know of God except to serve idols and unclean things. ” 41
My friend pointed out that this is written for a christian audience and that may have stopped him from recording what was really in his heart. She has a theory that he was actually a pagan himself!
It does seem ridiculous to say that the Pagans (who worship nature) are worshiping unclean things when Christians are always venerating the glory of god in all his creations. I will Give Patrick a pass here though since the Celtic Christianity that followed his mission was actually quite well integrated, including nature as god rather than god is good and clean and nature is dirty.
Or maybe by unclean he meant sexy.
44″I hope to do what I should. I know I cannot trust myself as long as I am in this body…There is one who is strong, who tries every day to undermine … the chastity of genuine religion. The flesh can be an enemy dragging towards …. enticing things which are against the law.”
It entertains me to think of good pious Patrick trying to convert these wild heathens while they are making him all hot and bothered. I can just see a strong woman with rights almost equal to her male counterparts and no trace of Catholic guilt climbing into Patrick’s lap as he stumbled over the story of Jesus.
It also bears pointing out that this reception couldn’t be more different than the one received by Pelladius. That is likely because Patrick knew these people, he knew their language and he knew their ways because he was enslaved by them for 6 years. He was a Shepard (how perfect) when he had a vision that there would be a boat coming that could take him away from his captor. I have noticed during my research that every version of Patrick’s life hits the slavery bit really hard and usually makes it very clear that those who captured and enslaved him were the Gaelic but none that I could find other than Patrick’s own account actually point out that it was also Gaelic pagans who saved him. Saving a slave is also called stealing and they were all taking the chance of losing their lands, wealth and standing in society for helping Patrick. Those are the reasons I assume that their first reaction to his plea was to say no, but then they made a moral choice (though they were pagans worshiping unclean things) to help him and said:
18″ “Come quickly – those men are calling you!” I turned back right away, and they began to say to me: “Come – we’ll trust you. Prove you’re our friend in any way you wish.” That day, I refused to suck their breasts, because of my reverence for God. They were pagans, and I hoped they might come to faith in Jesus Christ. This is how I got to go with them, and we set sail right away.”
The sucking breasts part is in reference to the practice of kissing a king on the nipples to show fealty. So he refused to show thanks in the way that their culture dictated but they didn’t mind. “Prove you’re our friend in any way you wish.”
He did prove to be a friend when he produced the pigs…
“Food ran out, and great hunger came over them. The captain turned to me and said: “What about this, Christian? You tell us that your God is great and all-powerful – why can’t you pray for us, since we’re in a bad state with hunger?… Then I said to them with some confidence: “Turn in faith with all your hearts to the Lord my God, because nothing is impossible for him… ”
We know by the latter paragraph that Patrick did not instantly convert these men because they make the pagan style offering of the honey, but they are perfectly willing to try on a new god for size if he has the power to provide what they need. He’s asking them to pray together to this god which they likely did since that would not have been an unusual practice for them. Us pagans enjoy working together with our deities and our friends just in circles instead of pews.
“…so that he may put food in your way – even enough to make you fully satisfied! He has an abundance everywhere.” With the help of God, this is actually what happened! A herd of pigs appeared in the way before our eyes! They killed many of them and there they remained for two nights, and were fully restored…. After this, they gave the greatest of thanks to God, and I was honoured in their eyes. …They also found some wild honey, and offered some of it to me. However, one of them said: “This honey must have been offered in sacrifice to a god.” Thanks be to God, from then on I tasted none of it.”18
They are grateful to this deity for bringing them the pigs and so their custom is to create an offering to them to express that gratitude. They offer the honey and Patrick is not having it.He says he never tasted honey from then on because one time a pagan used it as an offering in thanks to his christian god.
He was seriously missing out on the good or “unclean” things like delicious honey and sex with “very strong”Pagans.
Beyond knowing the language and culture of the Gaels Patrick also had a clever plan for conversion. Convert the Kings and the children of the Kings and watch it spread. By convert I really mean pay them off and then baptize them. In section 42 of his confessio he mentions baptizing a beautiful woman of noble birth. 52 “At times I gave gifts to kings” 53 “You know yourselves how much I expended on those who were the judges in those regions which I most frequently visited. I estimate that I gave out not less than the price of fifteen persons”
Ireland was not like Britain in that it was all organized under one ruler, it was a land of isolated tuaths (tribal communities) each with their own king or chieftain. This made it essentially impossible to enforce one overarching version of Christianity. A missionary would come to a tuath pay off the chieftain baptize his kids, teach writing to the aes dana (druids or educated class), tell them the story of the trinity and then leave. Then naturally these people would take what they liked from the missionaries story and include it with their own traditions. Why would they continue to follow the rules that sought to restrict their natural behavior? Well they wouldn’t (probably).
Patrick recounts the description of the Irish by unnamed church members “…hostile people who do not know God” 46 And indeed they were hostile to Pelladius when he tried to change them. But he doesn’t see it that way, he says they “just don’t understand”.
But they did understand. They were intelligent people with a rich and beautifully poetic culture. They held bards in very high regard and because of that they had a beautiful language with wonderful stories of bravery and love. They had their own legal system which was actually reasonable with no capital punishment and very near equal rights for women.
I want to believe that the Gaels knew what St. Patrick and the countless other missionaries had set out to do but they didn’t care. They said oh thank you for bringing us this paper and ink and teaching us Latin writing we will use this to record our stories, myths and poems. No sex before marriage you say? Hahahaha okay you run along now to the next tuath and try that on them.
But I don’t know if that is what happened because there is no record of it. Everything we have written from that time was set down by monks, abbots or bishops. So if they taught writing to the druids why didn’t they write “My name is so and so and I am a druid. This is what is happening in the tuath these days…” ?
As a pagan I am conflicted on this day, should I be glad that Patrick brought writing to the Gaels so that their beautiful myths would be preserved or should I be disappointed that now every Gaelic story has been altered to fit a foreign doctrine.
If Patrick was a pagan as my friend theorizes why wouldn’t he simply have offered the knowledge of writing without the catch of Christianity?
“…all those who adore that sun will come to a bad, miserable penalty.” 60
Patrick wrote this with his own hand. He condemns every Pagan that he met on his long journey through their country to misery. The Pagans who rescued him from slavery and protected him in the woods. The Pagans who sought to love and tempt him to pleasure. The people who eventually named him patron of their country and celebrate him every year. Some Neo-Pagans are angry about this and I get it. I feel compassion for both sides so that my eyes well up. I know that modern day Irish people have much respect for the old ways and I mean no offence.
The problem with missionaries is the belief in ultimate righteousness.
” it is right to make known the gift of God and his eternal consolation. It is right to spread abroad the name of God” 14
“it is from him (Christ) and through him and in him that we are to reign.” 59
They feel that they, as Christians have the right to reign and to spread there power to every corner of the globe and control the people therein. Believing that you hold the ultimate truth and that all others are wrong is a dangerous cocktail that has fueled some of the most horrific acts in human history.
We don’t know what miserable penalty Patrick assumed the Pagans would face, would it be a bad harvest or the loss of ones tongue? If it were a violent silencing by the hands of “gods” people would Patrick record that in his confessio?
I am heartened somewhat by a book loaned to me by a friend “The Heritage of Celtic Christianity” in it Christopher Bramford compares Irish abbeys to zen monasteries and references a very zen description of their teaching by H.J. Massingham. “There is at once a unique passion for the wild and elemental “as though to break through the crust of artificial convention to the very roots of sheer being,” coupled with a great gentle human love for all creation. ”
This has been a long article and by now my pagan soul is tired and it calls out for the green of my native forests, so I shall wear my pentacle and serpent garb and try to return to the very roots of sheer being.
and merry meet again.
By Dirk Huth – Own work / Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=700979
The Heritage of Celtic Christianity: Ecology and Holiness by Christopher Bramford
The Oxford Companion to Irish History by S.J. Connolly
The Age of the Saints in the Early Celtic Church by Nora K.Chadwick