March 17 – Patrick & Ninian

These weekly “People to Commemorate” posts are a kind of calendar for the commemoration of the saints, reproduced here from a Uniting Church Assembly document which can be found in full here. They are intended for copying and pasting into congregational pew sheets on the Sunday closest to the nominated date.

Images (where provided) are of icons by Peter Blackwood; click on the image to download a high resolution copy of the image.

Patrick & Ninian, Christian pioneers

Patrick c390-c461

Patrick was born in Roman Britain. We know little about his life other than what is revealed in his Confession, his Letter to the soldiers of Coroticus, and the Breastplate of St. Patrick, which may have been written by him. All other knowledge is just legends. Accounts of Patrick’s life are so drawn-out (his own Confession) or overblown (later hagiography) that most of what we know about him can neither be proven nor discredited conclusively.

In the field of Celtic history, almost everything we read reflects a political point the author wishes to make. Bede, for example, makes no mention of Patrick. This omission tells us a lot about Bede. He was interested, following the Council of Whitby, in showing how those who had taken the Roman view regarding the date of Easter and the tonsure, were in his eyes correct; those who didn’t were clearly wrong. Bede had no place for Patrick.

Patrick himself was most likely British in origin, and, after being enslaved by an Irish warlord, and then escaping to the Continent, he returned to Britain before evangelizing Ireland. His mission was not to the British; he said his missionary impulse was fuelled by “a vision in my dreams of a man who seemed to come from Ireland—a vision like the apostle Paul’s at Troas.”

Patrick had been sent as a replacement for Palladius who had died shortly after his arrival in Ireland. Whereas Palladius, whose mission lasted about one year, was interested in those who were already Christians, Patrick, it seems, had a missionary zeal to convert the Scots (Irish). It is believed that Patrick embarked upon the first significant missionary endeavour in 432.

While Patrick does not appear to have represented Rome officially, his time on the Continent may have included monastic training; he appears to have studied at a monastery in Gaul. Patrick was ordained a priest and bishop, and this suggests he would have at least been exposed to current thinking and policies from the papacy.

He then travelled to Ireland, where over the course of several years, he converted thousands of people to Christianity, including several Irish kings. Anglo-Saxon warlords made the process very difficult for Patrick and his converts, however. Coroticus, a king from western Britain, swept in and did extensive damage in Northern Ireland, killing many Christians or taking them prisoner.

Irish monasticism as implemented by Patrick continued to grow nonetheless. This monasticism was very similar to that throughout Europe. This form of Monasticism was based on a diocesan approach but within a few years it had become a monastery-based model with a bishop being head of the monastery. Sometime after the death of Patrick the church in Ireland was reorganised on a thoroughgoing monastic basis. The chief person becomes the Abbot not the Bishop. Monasteries were often the only available means of obtaining a useful education.

It is worthwhile noting that Patrick denounced slavery during his life, and the practice was discontinued shortly after his death.

To mark St Patrick’s Day you could always sing the hymn attributed to him found in TiS 478 ‘I bind unto myself today the strong name of the Trinity’ or use the prayer below:

Christ be beside me,
Christ be before me,
Christ be behind me,
King of my heart.
Christ be within me,
Christ be below me,
Christ be above me,
never to part.

Christ on my right hand,
Christ on my left hand,
Christ all around me,
shield in the strife.
Christ in my sleeping,
Christ in my sitting,
Christ in my rising,
light of my life.

Christ be in all hearts thinking about me;
Christ be on all tongues telling of me;
Christ be the vision in eyes that see me;
in ears that hear me, Christ ever be.


We know very little about Ninian and even then the ‘facts’ are disputed. He was reputedly the son of a chieftain who had converted to Christianity and he came from either Cumbria, or the South-West of Scotland. Christianity had spread during the time of Roman occupation and three Bishops from Britain had travelled to the Council of Arles in 314AD. Ninian, who would have been a Roman citizen, is said to have travelled to Rome to study. In Rome he was ordained and consecrated as a bishop, being sent back to his native Britain around 397AD, in order to evangelize his fellow Britons and take the Gospel to the Southern Picts, in what became, much later, Scotland.

Some historians believe that this work of conversion was done by Columba some 150 years later and not by Ninian. It is believed that Ninian was active from 397 to 431AD.

On arrival he is said to have had a monastery built on the north shore of the Solway Firth by masons from St. Martin’s Monastery in Tours, Gaul. This became known as the Great Monastery and it was from here that he, and those he gathered around him, set out on their missionary tours. It is possible that this building was known as Ad Candidam Casam, from the Latin meaning “At the White House”. It would appear to have been painted with a whitewash. It is possible that it was built with white stone, although this would have been unusual to that time. His monastery probably gave the name to the town now known as Whithorn.

The earliest reference to Ninian and to the White House is from Bede, in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, writing around 731AD, almost four hundred years later. In this he says that he is just passing on the knowledge that was traditional at the time of his writing. He does not claim that what he writes is factual. He tells us that Ninian called his monastery after St. Martin of Tours and it is possible that he had met Martin on his way back from Rome. Martin died in the same year that Ninian travelled back to Britain.

Part of Bede’s agenda was to say that Ninian had not been part of the Celtic Church, but loyal to the Roman way of being church.

The first history of Ninian was not written till the 12th Century when Aelred, who was Abbot of the monastery at Rievaulx in Yorkshire, wrote his “Life of Saint Ninian”. By this time many monasteries and places associated with saints from the past had histories written in order to promote their Centre, in order to encourage the pilgrimage trade. It is thought that Aelred was asked by the Bishop of Galloway to write the history to promote his Bishopric.

In his history, Aelred says that Ninian performed a number of miracles both before and after his death. So it is possible that the history was to help secure his sainthood.

After the history was written, Whithorn and Ninian’s tomb, became a very important Centre of pilgrimage.

Written by Rev Peter Welsh