Although we’re still almost a week away from St. Patrick’s Day, this is the last chance I’ll have to retell an old tale before then, so here goes.
I’ve been studying the Irish language (conveniently called Irish) for three years now. Irish is a difficult language, but it is my goal to become completely fluent. So far, I’m as fluent as an Irish infant, but I’m still trying.
And you can’t study things Irish without bumping into the stories of old. And although it’s not often discussed in polite circles, the Irish of old had a disturbing history of slavery.
In all the Celtic world, the Irish were the most feared slavers. They would sail to the coasts of Britain searching for isolated villages, grab the children in the night, and sail away with them.
These children would then be bartered in the slave markets of Ireland, and most would become servants or shepherds. We have first-hand testimony of one of these slaves. In about 400 A.D. a sixteen-year-old boy was captured by Irish slavers, taken in the night from his home in Britain and trundled off to Ireland.
He was a Christian boy, the grandson of a priest, and his name was Maewyn Succat. Maewyn spent six years as a slave, hungry and cold working as a shepherd before he escaped back to Britain. But even as he endured hunger and cold, something about Ireland caught hold of him, and called on him to return.
While the druids prayed in their sacred groves, making sacrifices to the gods and goddesses, a new religion was on the march. Christianity had already taken hold throughout much of Europe and Britain, and it was about to reach Ireland.
Having escaped slavery in Ireland, Maewyn never felt at home in Britain. He heard voices calling him to God and decided to join the Church. He studied in a French monastery, was ordained priest, and became a missionary. He would take the Good Spell – the Gospel of Jesus to the Irish.
He made it his mission to walk the pagus – Latin for countryside. And Ireland, having not one city, was all pagus. And in this matter, the inhabitants, the pagans, would hear the word of God.
As a missionary, Maewyn took the name Patricius, meaning noble born. And so the French-trained British man who would forever be known at St. Patrick set sail in the year 432 to convert the Irish.
The druids were skeptical, and the kings no less so, but Patrick moved north to the Hill of Tara, where the Irish high kings were crowned.
According to legend, Patrick met High King Oengus at Tara, held up a shamrock and used it to explain the holy trinity, how three things can be one thing, how shapes and forms can shift.
And he introduced the Celtic cross, combining the cross with the symbol for the sun, which respected the pagan reverence for the natural world.
Patrick established monasteries from one end of Ireland to the other. And Ireland became the one country in the world where Christianity was spread without bloodshed.
Since Ireland had no cities, these monasteries became centers of communities. And the natural mysticism of the Irish people was respected and welcomed by these new holy men. The druids were welcomed, and even the pagan festivals were respected and celebrated.
Patrick had made one other significant contribution – wherever he traveled, he condemned the institution of slavery. And who better than a former slave to do that?
By the time of his death in 461or shortly thereafter, Christianity was well established, and the Irish slave trade was no more. And Patrick, the British-born former-slave became the most famous Irishman of all.