Even though Patrick was born in Britain we can still consider him truely Irish to the very core - even to his very backbone. He deserves to stand first and foremost in the ranks of great Irish saints because of his love for and influence upon this island for the sake of the Gospel was greater than any other.
Britain received the Gospel within 30 years of the day of Pentecost. Some early church writers speak of some of the apostles reaching British soil. Even if this is lacking in accuracy it yet reveals how ancient the British Church was. The gospel was brought to these Isles as a direct result of the outpouringg of the Spirit at Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost. The church that was first raised up in these isles no doubt had a greater purity unmixed as it was with centuries of church tradition.
But by the time of Patrick’s birth the revival fires had dissipated in Britain. The great missionary efforts of evangelising Britain and beyond had come to a standstill. Normalcy, church politics and carnality had set in and dark barbaric forces were invading the shoreline of Britain. She was very soon to be engulfed in spiritual darkness and paganism once again. But God had a plan.…
The Early Years
Patrick (Patricius, in Latin) or Succat (his name amongst the in Celts) as he was known to his own people, was born and reared in a village called Bannavem Taberniae in Britain. Many claim him for the west coast of Wales others for the Clyde in Scotland and still others for the west coast of England. The most unlikely claim of all is that he was from Normandy, which is present day France. One thing is sure it was close to the coastline of west Britain.
Although we do not have a year for his birth we can get pretty close. Some estimate his birth was as early as 372 AD, others as late as 390 AD. This was just a few decades before the sacking of Rome and the collapse of the Roman Empire.
Patrick’s parents give every sign of having been devout followers of Jesus Christ. His father Calpornius was a deacon in the church who also carried respect and authority in the local community. His grandfather Potitus had been a presbyter or elder in the same community and church. In those days a presbyter was one of a group of men who led the local church and who preached the Word of God. So he had a strong and spiritual family heritage.
It is worth noting that those carrying spiritual and ministerial authority in the church were not denied the right of marriage. If it had been then there would have been no Patrick. No such obligation was known in the church of the British Isles at this time. It was only as man began to create his own laws and traditions that such teachings appeared and were forced upon those in ministry. The tragedy of immorality amongst the Catholic priesthood of our own day is evidence of this. The Bible says “…some shall depart from the faith, giving heed to seducing spirits, and doctrines of devils; Speaking lies in hypocrisy; having their conscience seared with a hot iron; Forbidding to marry...” (I Timothy 4:1-3).
Although Patrick makes no real mention of his mother in his own writings Church history and tradition tells us that her name was Concessa. It also tells us that at a very early age she began to teach Patrick the truth concerning Jesus Christ. She taught him that he ought to fear and obey God, and to love Jesus Christ.
This family into which Patrick had been born were well educated. They spoke the Celtic language but taught their son to speak Latin while he was yet young. To be taught Latin was the mark of good education as well as the mark of Roman jurisdiction and influence. It became the common tongue of the upper class. They lived comfortably in their villa near to Bannavem Taberniae farming the ground and making a good living which allowed them the hire of servants.
In the days of Patrick’s youth a rebellious spirit gripped him. He had no time and no thought for God or the faith of his parents. The local elders in his community exhorted and admonished him and the others young men unto holiness and rebuked all wrong doing but this made little impression upon Patrick. This reveals the purity and desire of those in ministry in the church of his youth. The Gospel was preached and sin was rebuked. When Patrick was just fifteen years old he performed a sinful act one day which in later years troubled his sensitive conscience. It would however remain hidden for many years.
Shortly after this when almost sixteen years old at a time when he was enjoying life and freedom to do according to his own will and carnal desires he fell victim to a wild party of Irish raiders. They had raided various communities in this area of the west coast. When they reached Patrick’s villa they killed some of the servants who were with him and took him along with other servants as captives with them back to their boats and across the Irish Sea to his new home in Ireland along with thousands of other such captives.
During the beginnings of his captivity he was left hungry, half naked, cold and close to collapsing. He was sold by these raiders like a mere animal. His new owner called Milchu was a sheep farmer on the Antrim hills near Slemish (present day County Antrim) who treated him little better than his captors. But all this was used in God’s hand for His own glory, praise and purpose.
He quickly realised that this was God’s chastening hand upon his life for his unbelief, disobedience and his rejection of the Gospel. He stood guilty before God knowing that he deserved such a fate because of his sinful disobedience. But God was very merciful to him. In this state he remembered his years of sin and rebellion against a holy God and the godly instruction of his elders.
The Holy Ghost opened his hard heart and he turned to God in true repentance receiving God’s good gift of salvation by faith alone. He was immediately lifted out of the mire of sin by the hand of God and made a living stone in the house of God - the Church of the redeemed. Although a captive outwardly he was now inwardly free in his heart for the first time in his life.
From the beginning of his new walk with God he was gripped with a desire to pray. He would wake in the night to pray. He would rise early before dawn to seek God. Even in rain, frost and snow without any ill effect to his health. On mountain tops, forests and fields he prayed daily, continually and earnestly. The love of God and fear of God grew steadily in his heart over the next few years.
He believed the reason for this great fervency of heart and life was that the Spirit of God was burning in him as a fire. He was aware that this zeal and desire came from God - not man, tradition or religion. Captivity was God’s place of preparation for this missionary vessel for the next six years during which time he learnt the language, ways and customs of the Irish people.
HIS ESCAPE AND LONG JOURNEY HOME TO BRITAIN
Then one night during a time of fasting and seeking of God in prayer the Lord spoke to him in a dream and told him that he would soon return to his own land. Again a second time the Lord came to him in a dream and showed him a boat prepared for his deliverance at a place he had never been to before which was 200 miles away.
It is remarkable that during his six years of captivity, as far as we know, he had never tried to escape but now being convinced that this was the Lord speaking to him he acted upon it immediately. Obedience to God was now a stronger power over his heart and actions than even the desire for freedom itself.
And so at the word of the Lord he fled the sheep hills and his owner of six years and went in the strength of the God of Elijah. On the very day he arrived at his destination a boat was there ready to leave just as had been revealed to him. He offered the captain money for the journey but in an angry and harsh manner the captain turned him down. Patrick turned his back and walked away praying earnestly unto the Lord. As he did so one of the other men called out to him ‘come, hurry’ and so he joined them in the vessel.
By sea they travelled for the next three days eventually lost in the storms. When they reached dry land they walked for the next twenty-eight days through a barren landscape. This was most likely Gaul (present day France). Some think it was Britain. But there is still something of a mystery attached to it. By now they were hungry, weak and half dead. All through the journey Patrick was a witness to them concerning the only true and Mighty God and Jesus Christ His Son. When these rough pagan men reached a stage when all hope of life itself was gone they scornfully sought this Christian to call upon his God, if indeed his God was real, for they would surely die of hunger.
With full confidence Patrick proclaimed that his God was able to provide for them that very day, for nothing was impossible for Him. Just then a heard of pigs appeared it seemed out of nowhere and just stood before them on the path. Quickly these sailors caught, killed and ate them. The men remained in that same spot for two days until they regained full strength.
Again after some years Patrick fell into captivity, it would seem again in Gaul, but again the Lord encouraged him saying it would last but two months and so it did. Eventually after years of tribulation he returned to Britain and his family.
They were so glad to see him and with great joy besought him to remain with them forever more. There cannot be any doubt that this spiritually matured young man who was on fire for God and constant in prayers, who had been faithful through many trials would deeply impress family and friends especially the devout. He left a rebellious youth but he had returned as a man of God.
He was soon fully established back into community life and before long was accepted as a deacon like his father before him in the local church. After he had settled at home for a period of time he had a vision in the night like Paul's Macedonian call in the Book of Acts. In the vision an Irishman called Victoricus came to Patrick. In his hand he carried letters. He gave one to Patrick who then read it.
It began with the sentence “The voice of the Irish...” As he read he began to hear the voice of those who dwelt near the western sea (Irish Sea). They called to him to “come and walk among us once more.” This broke him deeply in his heart then he woke up. Again at other times these same voices would come to him in the night and the Spirit of God prayed and interceded through him for this people. It was the Spirit of God burdening him and compelling him to return to Ireland as a preacher of the Gospel.
A situation was also to arise which would change his good standing amongst his own people. It had seemed that his good character and calling was manifest to all as he served as a deacon and many believed he should be made a bishop. In those days a bishop was the same in function and authority as a local presbyter or overseer. But a number of the older brethren turned upon him so very viciously by casting up his past sins that it almost caused him to stumble in his walk with God. They brought accusations against him concerning the sins of his youth when he was only fifteen years old which was before he knew Christ.
On the day of his rejection the Lord came to him and revealed to him who it was that was behind this attack. It was the closest friend of his youth to whom he had revealed his innermost heart in confidence when being made a deacon. At the time his friend had assured him that such a sin would not hinder him being fit for ministry but now this friend had betrayedhim. But the Lord assured him that whoever touched him was touching the apple of His eye and so strengthened His servant.
No matter the dealings of man the call of God continued to come to Patrick. He could not escape it. Many tried to prevent him going to the Irish. They whispered behind his back, they laughed and scorned at him. Some opposed his commission and his calling to the Irish because of his youthful sins but others opposed it because they thought it foolish and impossible. Why should he go to such a pagan godless people? If God was going to send someone to do such a task it would certainly not be such as him. Others out of love and concern for him even offered to pay him money to stay.
Christ’s commission which he read and meditated on frequently in his Latin version of Scripture burned in his heart and mind. After years of maturing, growth, trials and preparation he was ready. And so imitating the Apostles who first went out to preach the Gospel and believing that it must be preached in all nations as a witness before the end, he went forth to Ireland on this holy and wonderful work to convert the heathen. Some say this was about 405 AD and others 432 AD. One thing is sure. It happened.
For the second time he left country and parents. The day he left them it was amidst many pleadings, gifts to stay and many tears. Some of the older men were also deeply offended by his persistence in going to Ireland.
APOSTLE TO IRELAND
And so he went forth like the apostles of old, who were not called, equipped and sent by man and councils but by the living God who endues with the power of the Holy Ghost. Many Catholic biographies on Patrick perpetuate the fallacy that he was sent by the pope of Rome as a Catholic missionary but as we have already seen he hardly had the backing and support of local church leaders and his own community. In fact in all his writings he never once mentions popes, Rome or foreign jurisdiction when defending his call. The religious authority of both Rome and its bishop were not even heard of in Britain until the end of the seventh century. This is fact and can easily be proven.
He was a debtor to the Irish and God gave him great grace to see many “re-born.” So great was the work that sons and daughters of kings gave themselves to labour for God. Many slaves also believed in the Lord even when forbidden by their masters. Signs and wonders were done which the Lord had shown him would be done many years before. Under his ministry thousands turned from paganism to Christ.
During his evangelistic trips there were those who many times wanted to kill him but God preserved him. He survived and was delivered from twelve attempts upon his life including poisoning. He travelled constantly from community to community and region to region to preach Christ to those who had never heard the gospel. As the years passed he sought to raise up and train a host of labourers to carry forth the Gospel to other unreached regions and also local leaders to teach new converts and to baptise them. He never returned to Britain but laboured in this land of Ireland for some thirty years planting hundreds of churches. He was truly an apostle, pioneer, preacher and prophet.
In his later days he wrote in Latin what he called his Confession which was a simple biography and statement of faith and a Letter to Coroticus. He lamented his inability, simplicity and brevity in writing. Most of the people he had long evangelized could neither read nor write. This letter is filled with Scripture because he was filled with Scripture. It is filled with praise and glory to God because again that is what filled him. It is filled with talk of prayer because his whole life was one perpetual prayer. It is filled with a burden for the salvation of lost souls for that was what filled his heart. And he expected the soon return of Christ to judge the world for its sin.
His life in a striking way resembles that of the Apostle Paul. What is amazing is that Paul began the evangelization of the Celts in the extreme east of their domain in Galatia in the latter part of the first century. But Patrick completed this work in the extreme west in the middle of the fifth century. In the purpose of God and the cause of the Gospel these two men were of a similar calibre.
Shortly before his death he of necessity wrote various letters. Two of them, his Confession, or what we could call his testimony and his Letter to Coroticus have been preserved to us down over the generations and are now available in the English language for all to read. It is worth noting that these are the only historical writings in Latin that exist from the Britain and Ireland in the fifth century. They are unique writings. Other testimonies written hundreds of years after his death add a wealth of rumour and tradition but these two documents preserve the true character, testimony and personal writings of the real saint Patrick.
Little is known of his death, some estimate he died in 461 others in 466, but one thing is sure, he did live and he did make known the Gospel and the glory of God to his generation.
Recent historians not able to understand the sudden change in the convictions and pactises of kings and people of Ireland from magic and Druid gods to Jesus Christ came up with an array of theories. Some state that the Irish just added Jesus to other gods. But this is neither accurate historically or practically. Patrick preached repentance with power. He confronted this national religion and its worship of the sun, idols and trees. He sought for a pure church without mixture or confusion.
Early on in his missionary labours he went to Tara, the centre of religious worship in Ireland to confront druidism. Under his preaching many people believed including one of the high kings of Ireland who had once been set against Patrick. Under the fear of God King Loegaire gathered his elders and council and turned to Christ.
Archaeologists and historians inform us that there was an amazing temple of worship at Tara that was famed throughout the land. They say it was suddenly destroyed, burnt to the ground by the people themselves. To me this sounds like the result of a spiritual revival, the true fruit of repentance.
As Ireland began to blaze Britain began to fall into a deep darkness, for the candlestick had been removed. But Ireland under the impact of Patrick’s ministry became the home of a missionary church and movement for the next 400 years that carried the Gospel back to dark Britain and Europe. During what is known in our history books as the dark ages Ireland experienced its golden age of missionary endeavour. And so Ireland became known as the “Land of Saints and Scholars.”
We have two authenic Letters written by Patrick which have come down to us in the Latin tongue. These are accepted as the only true and accurate testimony of Patrick. There is a great purity in these writings which reveal a man who was truely converted, a man of prayer, a man who was filled with God's written Word. Like the Apostle Paul, Patrick was commissioned by Christ as a messenger of the Gospel to those unreached peoples who lie in darkness. He was the Lord's apostle to Ireland. This is a wonderful testimony of God's grace.