March 17 – Patrick

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, Christian pioneer

Patrick (c390-c461) 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.

The hymn ‘I bind unto myself today the strong name of the Trinity’ (TIS 478) is attributed to Patrick.

Rev Peter Welsh (alt)