Ireland’s Apostle and Faith

detail of a stained glass window of Saint Patrick preaching to the kings in Ireland; created by Franz Mayer and Co in the 19th century; north transept of the Cathedral of the Assumption, Carlow, County Carlow, Ireland; photographed on 3 September 2009 by Andres F Borchert; swiped from Wikimedia CommonsThe names of popes and historians, philosophers and warriors, who have rendered material service to the world, are inscribed on parchment, stone, and steel. The characters of men of great worldly wisdom are presented as models for our imitation; whilst public gardens, galleries, and museums contain the statues and portraits of distinguished individuals, as a mark of the deep appreciation and respect which the children of this world entertain for the illustrious dead. Now, if Alexander is lauded for martial exploits, Demosthenes and Cicero admired for fervid eloquence, Homer and Virgil praised for their heroic poetry, Aristotle and Pythagoras for astronomical research, and if the literary qualifications and natural virtues or merits of a long succession of pagans are found worthy the attention of Christian scholars, then, surely, the practice of the Catholic Church in reference to the saints ought to meet with the approbation of intelligent men.

Every logical mind will readily admit that, as heaven is above earth, and as God is superior to man, so those who have distinguished themselves in the cause of heaven and of God are more deserving of our admiration than those whose pursuits have been merely human. The saints have been eminent for their holiness; they have studied the science of the heaven of heavens, of the kingdom of God. Their lives have glorified God and edified men; they have laboured to elevate man to a sense of his real dignity, to a knowledge of his ultimate and supernatural end. The saints had for their whole aim to educate man in the school of Christ, and by this education to bring him to the possession of never-ending felicity; hence the saints are worthy objects of gratitude and veneration.

The Catholic Church, in proposing for our edification the lives of her canonised children, carries into effect the advice contained in the 44th chapter of Ecclesiasticus –

“Let us now praise men of renown, and our fathers in their generation . . . these men of mercy, whose godly deeds have not failed: good things continue with their seed. Their posterity are a holy inheritance, and their seed hath stood in the covenants; and their children for their sakes remain for ever: their seed and their glory shall not be forsaken. Let the people show forth their wisdom, and the Church declare their praise.”

One of the great duties of God’s Church, to which she has ever been most faithful, is the celebration of the festivals of her saints. From end to end of the year the Church’s saints are the theme of her daily thanksgiving and praise. They are her heroes, and therefore she honours them; just as the world celebrates its own heroes, records their great deeds, and builds up monuments to perpetuate their names and their glory. The saints were the living and most faithful representatives of Christ our Lord, of his virtues, his love, his actions, his power, so that he lived in them, and wrought in them and through them the redemption of men.

On this day we celebrate the Festival of Saint Patrick, the Apostle of Ireland. To the life, therefore, of this great saint, I propose to direct your attention.

Numerous and elaborate are the discussions in which biographers and historians have engaged as to the exact time and place of the birth of our apostle. Without entering, however, into the controversy, I will at once state what seems to me the most probable opinion, namely, that Saint Patrick, son of Calphurnius and Conchessa, was born in 387, at Boulogne-sur-mer, in Armoric Gaul. Of the details of his early life little reliable information can now be obtained; nor does there seem to have been anything peculiarly interesting in his career prior to his sixteenth year, at which age he, with some of his father’s servants, was (in 403) carried captive into Ireland. As the Patriarch Joseph was sold by his brethren into Egyptian bondage, and subsequently played a wonderful part in the drama of Divine Providence, so Patrick began his career as a slave amongst a people who afterwards, under his holy direction, burst asunder the shackles of paganism, and were by him introduced into the only true and glorious liberty of the children of God.

Brought to Ireland, he was, according to custom, publicly sold, his purchaser being Milcho, an Irish chief of the county Antrim. This man the youthful Patrick served as a shepherd for the space of six years, enduring cold and want while tending his master’s flocks on the mountain; and, at the same time, devoting himself to incessant prayer. Upon that shivering boy, the angels of heaven smiled; and though a weak, poor, and abandoned captive, he was yet destined by the Almighty, whose power is made perfect in infirmity, to lead the Irish nation to the knowledge and worship of the true God. Thus, the slave Patrick, inured to hardship, and accustomed to lead Milcho’s sheep to good pasture was, in after-life, enabled to bear tbe privations of his mission, while he fed thousands of souls with the bread which came down from heaven. One cannot fail to observe the similarity between the commencement and the end of his career. He began as a shepherd, and ended by carrying out, in its most touching, spiritual sense, the injunction of the Saviour of man: ‘Feed my lambs, feed my sheep.’ In the economy of God’s providence it was admirably arranged that Patrick, the future apostle of the Irish people, should be brought to Ireland to acquire an essential element of his future apostleship – the language of the people.

The biographers of the saint tell us that during his captivity he acquired an extraordinary spirit of prayer, every day and every night bending his knee one hundred times in adoration before God, and praying for the gift of divine love. Thus it was that his pure, innocent soul, expanding under the warmth of heavenly grace, attracted the richest gifts of Heaven, so that his unsullied heart, saturated with the choicest favours of God, was made suitable soil for the cultivation of those ecclesiastical and apostolic virtues which were afterwards the support of his missionary life. I must not omit to state that during his bondage the Saint had one source of poignant grief, which entered also into his entire life, viz., that in his early days, before his captivity, his knowledge of God was slight, and his love proportionally limited. In his holy meditations on the hills of Antrim, his mind became illuminated. In his reflections he beheld the excellencies of the God he worshipped; the more he prayed for knowledge, the more enlightened he became; in the school of holy solitude, with his invisible Creator as teacher, he saw more clearly each day the exquisite beauty of God; the more he knew God the more he loved Him till at length his soul, ravished with divine affection, had but one regret – that of having commenced so late to love God.

In this manner he passed six years; and at the end of this period (about 409), being then twenty-two years of age, he had a remarkable dream or vision, in which he saw a ship off the coast, waiting to convey him to his own country. On awaking, he at once resolved to proceed to the coast, a distance of about 200 Roman miles. After many privations and difficulties, he at length arrived at the coast, and to his delight found, indeed, a ship; but on applying for a passage, the sailors, seeing that he was without the means of defraying the necessary expenses, scoffed at him.

Thus God, trying the Saint’s patience, for a while permitted his holy servant to be disappointed. With regret, but with resignation, he retraced his steps towards the dreary Antrim hills, yet had not proceeded so far, when the sailors, though pagans, touched by his peculiar modesty, and, no doubt, moved thereto by God’s grace, called Patrick back, and consented to give him a passage free. After three days this ship conveyed Saint Patrick to Scotland, where he landed with the sailors, and they continued to wander about for the space of twenty-five days in fruitless search of a habitation. Their stock of provisions being exhausted, and finding nothing eatable in the trackless waste, they were in danger of perishing, when, knowing Saint Patrick to be a Christian, they asked how it happened he did not ask his God to send him food. The youthful Saint seized upon this favourable opportunity of enlisting the sympathies of these poor pagans in favour of the true God, and said: ‘If you will join with me in praying for food, you will see that the good God will send it.’ Whereupon they all knelt, and joined in the prayer of Patrick. Immediately a large number of swine appeared, and from that day to the end of their journey they were never in want.

Very few authentic details are preserved of the events of the life of Saint Patrick from his return home until he placed himself under the direction of Saint Martin of Tours, and prosecuted his studies with ability and zeal in the Monastery of Noirmoutiers. In the year 417, when in his thirtieth year, he had a second remarkable dream, in which an Irishman, by name Victorinus, appeared to him with a letter headed with the words, “The voice of the Irish people”, while underneath were inscribed the words, “Come, holy youth, and walk amongst us”. From this moment his soul became inflamed with a burning desire of gaining the Irish people to God.

From under the holy direction of Saint Martin of Tours he passed to that of Saint Germaine of Auxerre; and in 418, probably with the joint advice of Saint Martin and Saint Germaine, he went to the island of Lerins, then famous for piety and learning. By some it is stated that from his thirty-ninth year, that is from 427, he lived under the immediate guidance of Saint Germaine, studying sacred and profane literature, and practising the virtues necessary for the due discharge of ecclesiastical functions.

In 429 the errors of the Pelagian heresy were gaining ground in England, to the detriment of the true faith, and hence the Pope, the ever-watchful Pastor of the whole Christian flock, sent Saint Germaine to England for the suppression of the false doctrines; as his associate in this important mission he took Saint Patrick, who was then in his forty-first year.

After their return, in the year 431, Saint Germaine sent Saint Patrick to Rome, accompanied by a priest named Segetius, who was commissioned to recommend Saint Patrick to the Pope for the work of evangelising the Irish nation. The project received the approbation and benediction of the Holy Father. Subsequently Saint Patrick was ordained in his forty-fourth year, by Amato of Ebovia, A.D. 432, and shortly after received episcopal consecration at the hands of Amandus of Bordeaux.

About three days elapsed after the consecration of Saint Patrick when Pope Celestine died, and Pope Sixtus III was raised to the chair of Blessed Peter. About the same time passed into eternity Palladius, whom Pope Celestine had previously sent to preach the Gospel to the Irish people. Palladius died in Ireland; his mission, however, to the Irish does not appear to have been crowned with success. It would seem that it was a work set apart with efficacious graces for Saint Patrick.

It cannot be deemed impertinent in this place to observe that, by the light of the history of the Christian religion, it is evident that Rome has ever been the recognised centre of authority. Our Divine Redeemer, viewed as man, was not self-commissioned; for He Himself says: “As the Father sent me, so I send you.” So that Jesus was sent, but not with a Royal Patent: for He also says: My Kingdom is not of this world. The Apostles were sent; for Jesus sent them, saying, “Go, therefore, teach all nations” and afterwards Saint Paul affirms that. No man can preach unless he be sent. Whoever, then, will take the trouble to read Church history will see that to Rome, and to Rome only, the world looked for pure Gospel-truth; so that if any man dared to preach without the authority of the head – Rome – he was viewed as a counterfeit.

In the Book of Armagh, which is attributed to Saint Patrick, the following testimony is found of his devoted attachment to the Holy See.

“Ut Christiani ita, et Romani sitis.” = “As you are children of Christ, so be ye children of Rome.”

Saint Patrick taught our fathers, with truth, that the soul, the life, the heart, the conscience, and the head of the Church is Jesus Christ, and that his representative on earth, to whom He has communicated His graces and powers, is the Pope of Rome, the visible head of God’s Church, the bishop of bishops, the centre of unity and of doctrine, the rock and the corner-stone on which the edifice of the Church is founded and built up. All this he pointed out in the Scriptures from the words of our Lord to Peter. Peter was the shepherd of the fold whose duty it was to feed both lambs and sheep “with every word that cometh from the mouth of God.” Peter was the rock to sustain and uphold the Church. “Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church” – words which are the very touchstone of faith in these days of tribulation. Peter’s was the strong, unerring voice which was ever to be heard in the Church defining her doctrines, warning off enemies, denouncing errors, rebuking sinners, guiding the doubtful, strengthening the weak, confirming the strong; and Jesus said: “Thou, Peter, confirm thy brethren.” Saint Patrick taught the Irish people not to be scandalised if they saw the cross upon Peter’s shoulders, and the crown of thorns upon his head, for so Christ lives in his Church and in her supreme Pastor; he taught them that whoever strikes Peter strikes the Lord; that whoever separates from Peter separates from Christ. Thus it was that Ireland’s Apostle bound the Irish nation to the rock of ages; to Peter’s chair with firmest bonds of faith, obedience, and love, and infused into their souls that supernatural instinct which for 1,400 years has kept Ireland faithful and loyal to the Holy See of Rome.

The author of a work entitled The Church and the People, in reference to the attachment of the Irish nation to Peter’s chair, says:

“Yet, when the time of trial came, Ireland gathered up her weakened energies. The justice which has been refused to right was offered as a bribe; three hundred years of warfare struck her with sterility, and made her soil one huge churchyard; the dungeons were filled, and the scaffolds bowed by her offspring. She was barbarised by ignorance, and despoiled by confiscation. Religion itself depended upon a ministry that had been born amid strife and conflagration – begged an education from the charity of the Continent – and came home to meet martyrdom. But still the spirit of unity was not subdued. Nay, when the phrase which heresy always exhibits, falsely called the march of intellect, at length reached her, bruised, beggared, and barbarous – she possessed one thought, bright and true and pure as ever: the love of Rome.”

There was a period in our history, it is true, when Ireland was falsely accused by her foes of want of fidelity to the centre of unity. But poor Ireland, when misrepresented at the throne of Peter, and reprehended in charity and love, though her eyes were filled with tears, only hung her head and still clung to Rome more fondly. And when frenzy and hate conspired to drag her thence, she shrieked with despairing energy, and cried to God and man that her broken heart would beat its last pulsation. She revolted, she writhed, she bled, and saw the hacked forms of her martyred children laid in their nameless graves, but she never yielded. God said, Let there be light, and when day broke upon the darkness there was Ireland still, the cross pressed to her bosom with one hand, while the other firmly grasped the immortal chair of Peter.

More than 1,500 years of the Catholic history of Ireland have now transpired, and we see her today everywhere as true and faithful to the principle of her Apostle – ut Christiani ita et Romani sitis – as she was in the beginning.

To return to the life of Saint Patrick. In the year 432 our Apostle landed in Ireland, first in Bray, secondly in Skerries, finally in the county Down, where his mission really began.

Having landed with his companions, the Chief Dicho felt alarmed at the arrival of strangers, and, conceiving them to be pirates, gathered together a large body of men, who proceeded to meet, and, if necessary, repel them. Contrary to their expectations, they found, instead of pirates, men of God, who were coming to teach them the principles of true religion. Dicho invited them to his house, heard the faith explained, and, with his family, was baptised and received into the Christian Church. This was a brilliant success, the first ray of divine light penetrating into the Irish heart, and producing wonderful results. For the conversion of Milcho of Antrim, his former master, the heart of Saint Patrick burned. He accordingly set out to seek him. Such was, however, not merely his obduracy, but his infatuation, that on hearing Saint Patrick was coming, Milcho, in a fit of frenzy, set fire to his house and was himself consumed to ashes in its ruins, thus showing of what perversity man’s heart is capable. God’s grace was not wanting: a vocation to the Christian faith was given, but co-operation was refused.

In the Paschal time of A.D. 438, Saint Patrick set out for Tara. On his way he received into the Church Benignus, a young pagan of great amiability, who thenceforth travelled with our Saint, and was subsequently consecrated successor to Saint Patrick, as Bishop of Armagh.

On Easter eve Saint Patrick stood at the foot of Tara’s hill. It was customary with the Druid priests, according to religious rite, to light a fire on this day on Tara’s mound in the presence of all the chiefs and princes of the kingdom, and the people were strictly prohibited from using fire until after the light should be perceived on Tara. Saint Patrick, knowing that it is better to obey God than man, complied with the Catholic rite of lighting the Paschal fire. This excited the attention of the pagan chiefs and priests, who summoned the violators of the law before them. Patrick and his companions appeared in presence of the chiefs, the priests, and their surrounding suites. The king ordered that no one should rise to salute the intruders on their approach. One, however, Ere, son of Digo, unmindful of the order given, and enchanted by the appearance of the Christians, rose and saluted Saint Patrick. This Ere was eventually converted, and became first Bishop of Slane. The Christian religion was explained by the Saint, and the chief ordered Saint Patrick to appear again next morning to expound more fully the object of his mission. In the meantime, Leogaire, the king, is said to have laid a deep plot for the assassination of the Saint, which, however, proved unsuccessful; and when Sunday morning arrived, Saint Patrick, robed in canonicals, and carrying his crozier – called the Staff of Jesus – proceeded to the Palace of Tara, accompanied by his priests and some disciples. The meeting was one of great state and solemnity. The king and queen, surrounded by chieftains and nobles of every rank, awaited in stern majesty the Saint’s appearance. Orders had been issued that no one should rise to salute the prelate. It is, however, affirmed that on this, as on other occasions, there was found one to do honour to the Saint. This was Dubtach, an eminent poet, who became a convert to the faith, and thenceforward devoted his talents to the cause of religion.

There is a legend which states that Saint Patrick, in explaining the Trinity before the multitude on Tara, used the shamrock to illustrate the Three Persons of the Godhead, or the mystery of the Trinity. Whether this did or did not take place, I cannot affirm; but the old tradition is certainly handed down in Ireland from father to son with devotional tenacity.

The instruction of the Saint was listened to with fair attention, making all allowance for a pagan auditory. At the close the king gave the Apostle leave to preach, on two conditions: first, that he would not upset kingly authority; and, secondly, that he would not disturb the peace. Saint Patrick assured him that the nature of the Catholic religion was such as to give honour to whom it was due, and to impart to men peace and goodwill. This concession of King Leogaire must be viewed as a great gain; for, had Leogaire opposed Saint Patrick, the conversion of the people would no doubt have been retarded; but the conditions were easy, and Saint Patrick was at least free to announce the name and religion of Christ wherever he pleased.

The conversion of Ireland from the time of Saint Patrick’s landing to the day of his death, is, in many respects, the strangest fact in the history of the Church. The saint met with no opposition; his career resembles more the triumphant progress of a king than the difficult labour of a missionary. The Gospel, with its lessons of self-denial, of prayer, of purity, in a word, of the violence which seizes on heaven, is not congenial to fallen man, His pride, his passions, his blindness of intellect and hardness of heart, all oppose the spread of the Gospel; so that the very fact that mankind has so universally accepted it, is adduced as a proof that it must be from God. The work of the Catholic missionary has, therefore, ever been, and must continue to be, a work of great labour, with apparently small results. Such has it ever been among all the nations; and yet Ireland seems a grand exception. She is, perhaps, the only country in the world that entirely owes her conversion to one man. He found her universally pagan; he left her universally Christian. She is also the only nation that never cost her Apostle an hour of sorrow, a single tear, a drop of blood.

Having alluded to the crosier, or staff of Jesus, as it had been named, it will not be considered out of place to make an historical allusion to it here. After the death of the Apostle, the staff was kept in veneration by the Irish people, and deposited (with other relics of great antiquity and note) in Christ Church, Dublin. Ware’s Annals, however, inform us that George Brown, the first Reformed Bishop of Dublin, on his arrival, caused the staff of Jesus to be publicly burned in a street called Christ Church-place where a bonfire was lighted to consume a large number of relics which had resisted the ravages of time, and had been objects of pious esteem to our Catholic ancestors.

After the memorable Easter Sunday’s sermon on Tara’s hill, the Saint proceeded, with greater earnestness than ever, to establish the reign of Jesus throughout Ireland He travelled to Meath, thence to Westmeath. In both places his success was marvellous: thousands embraced the Christian faith. He founded churches, and remained sufficiently long in each place to consolidate his work. He prepared persons of singular aptitude and piety for the ecclesiastical state, and having ordained them, committed the new congregations to their care. In Westmeath he is said to have met with considerable opposition from a relative of the king, named Fergus. It was here, at the hill of Usneagh, that he received a remarkable convert, named Euda. About 435 he set out for Connaught. Here his success was wonderful: he received, it is stated, about 12,000 converts, including the king and his seven sons.

Among the many distinguished converts, special mention is made of two daughters of King Leogaire, whose conversion happened thus: Saint Patrick and some priests were chanting their office near a fountain situated a short distance from the royal residence. The princesses (who chanced to be near the spot) were astonished at the appearance of the strangers, and asked if they belonged to earth or to heaven. Saint Patrick explained to them his mission. They asked: “Where does God live? Is He rich? Is He young? Has He sons or daughters, and are they handsome?” These questions elicited explanations sufficient to induce them to embrace the faith, and to desire to see Jesus Christ as soon as possible. Thereupon the Saint explained the dogma of the Eucharist, which they subsequently received, and, as it is also stated, dedicated themselves to the exclusive service of God, and received the religious veil from the hands of Saint Patrick.

In 442, Saint Patrick, having spent nearly seven years in Connaught, achieving prodigious conquests for the kingdom of God, directed his steps towards Ulster, where his preaching was eminently successful. Amongst the many distinguished converts who were received in that province, special mention may be made of the daughter of the Chief Echodius, named Cinnie, who devoted herself to a life of virginity. Another chief, named Owen, embraced the faith, and his example was followed by all his subjects. Many churches were founded, several convents established, and numbers of priests ordained. Passing from Ulster into Leinster, he went to Naas, where he baptised two princes, Illand and Allild, sons of King Dunlung. It is scarcely necessary to observe that the example of persons of position, such as chieftains and princes, has a powerful effect upon the people. The old adage, Verba movent sed exempla trahunt (“Words move, but example draws”), has always been verified. Advice is feeble in its effects when compared with the splendid result of example; for, while words of good advice may touch the heart, may induce conviction may captivate the understanding, yet example must generally be added, that persuasion may follow. By doing, we morally force men to adopt what words might never bring into action.

From Kildare he went to Carlow, visiting on his way Leix, now part of Queen’s County. Here a plot was laid to entrap the Saint and his companions in a pit; but God was again graciously pleased to make known the snare to the Saint, through a holy lady named Briga. During this visit he ordained a convert named Fiech, who subsequently became first bishop in Leinster.

An event of great importance in the life of Saint Patrick is the foundation of the See of Armagh, which is the Seat of Primacy even to this day; the date of its establishment is stated by the Bollandists to have been 454. Our Saint, having governed this see for several years, was succeeded by his disciple, Benignus.

We now come to the close of the life of this Confessor of Christ; but before we speak of his holy death, let us glance for another moment at his wonderful labours, and still more extraordinary success.

The number of pagans baptized by him comprised almost an entire nation; he consecrated many bishops, and founded episcopal sees. It is stated by some that he ordained no less than 3,000 priests, and placed them over the island in care of souls. He founded 700 religious houses, and built 300 churches.

How wonderful, brethren, is God’s power, which raises the little things of this world to confound the great, and employs the most abject and humble instruments to carry out his designs! Thus the slave of Milcho is, in the adorable economy of God, chosen to raise up the Irish nation from spiritual bondage, and summon thousands of pagans from the darkness of heathenism to the light of Christianity.

The last illness of this illustrious Confessor of our dear Lord happened at a place called Saul. The Holy Viaticum he received at the hands of the Bishop of Tassach. According to the Bollandists, he died on the 17th of March, 465, at the age of 78, having laboured in the conversion of Ireland for thirty-three years. When the news of the Saint’s death spread through the island, the clergy flocked in crowds to celebrate the obsequies. It is recorded that the celebration of Masses, chanting of psalms, and general religious celebrations were continued for several days; and that the entire ceremonial was conducted with great solemnity and pomp. Such was the number of blazing torches that the day could scarcely be distinguished from the night, as the atmosphere was one sheet, as it were, of burning light. The remains of the Apostle were interred in the county Down. Thus ended the life of Ireland’s Apostle. Thus, brethren, our pagan forefathers were introduced to the participation of the faith of Christ by the great Saint Patrick.

And from that time, under the blessing of the Redeemer, and through the intercession of our national Apostle, the virgin Church of Ireland, unstained even by one martyr’s blood, became the prolific mother of saints. The Irish Church knew no childhood, no ages of painful and uncertain struggle to get used to Christian practices and establish Christian traditions. Like the children in the early ages of the Church who were confirmed in infancy, immediately after baptism Ireland was called upon, as soon as converted, to become at once the mother of saints, the home and refuge of learning, the great instructress of the nations; and, perhaps, the history of the world does not exhibit a more striking or glorious sight than Ireland for the 300 years immediately following her conversion to the Catholic faith. The whole island was covered with schools and monasteries, in which men, the most renowned of their age both for learning and sanctity, received thousands of scholars, who flocked from every land. Whole cities were given up to them. To the students the evening star gave the signal for retirement, and the morning star for awaking. “When at the sound of the early bell,” says the historian, “thousands of them poured into the silent streets, and made their way towards the lighted church, to join in the service of matins, mingling, as they went or returned, the tongues of the Gael, the Cimbri, the Piet, the Saxon, and the Frank, or hailing and answering each other in the universal language of the Roman Church; the angels of heaven must have loved to contemplate the union of so much perseverance with so much piety. The nations, beholding and admiring the lustre of learning and sanctity which shone forth in the holy isle, united in conferring upon Ireland the proudest title ever yet given to a land or a people, the ‘Island of Saints and of Doctors.'”

– text taken from Ireland’s Apostle and Faith, by Father O’Haire; published in 1883 by James Duffy and Sons, Dublin, Ireland; a scan of the original is available at