Saint Patrick: The Legends and History of Ireland’s Patron Saint
by Roy Flechner (Princeton University Press, £22.00)
The feast of Ireland’s national apostle is upon us, in all its curious modern forms. And here just in time for the world-wide celebrations is a new inquiry into the history and the legends that surround St Patrick.
But readers expecting from the title a narrative account of the saint, a sort of biography with diversions, may be disappointed.
Roy Flechner, a lecturer at UCD, takes a different approach. While dealing with the saint himself, the medieval legends about him, and the modern devotions to him, his approach is to take a series of topics and to deal with these, presenting not a narrative but “an exegesis” of what has been written and claimed about Patrick.
He is happy to demolish earlier theories, but that done, he replaces them with some perhaps extravagent theories of his own.
The leading idea, which has already proved controversial, is his notion that St Patrick fled to Ireland to escape the hereditary duties that devolved on him from the social position of his grandfather and father not only in the Church, but also in the local administration of Roman Britain.
Needing money to support his work in Ireland he brought the family’s slaves with him and traded in these.
This is an idea derived from Flechner’s understanding of Roman law as it was applied in Britain. But to think that a man with a mission might need money in a society that did not use money is odd.
In fact it would seem that Patrick was self-confident enough, from his own time in Ireland as a bondsman, to rely on the obligation on chiefs and others of hospitality to entertain strangers. As a sort of druid (so to speak) Patrick would have been of a class greatly respected and welcomed in Ireland. The idea of being a slave trader is not only surprising, it seems unbelievable.
In dealing with the medieval accounts of St Patrick he thinks they have been manipulated, which makes them quite unreliable. But behind them lay centuries of tradition. Yet he takes no account of the conservative strength of oral tradition in an pre-literate society such as Ireland then was.
Studies in Africa, Asia and the Pacific have demonstrated that oral tradition does preserve true facts from the quite distant past.
I suspect the interest of most readers will be more in the biography of the saint. What do we know, what can we know? Not too much perhaps, aside from what can be gleaned in some way from the Confession and the Letter to Coroticus.
Those medieval legends of the saint tell us little about Patrick the man, but more about the social and religious rivalries of medieval Ireland. And the recent forms of celebration are also aspects of various societies in North American, Ireland and elsewhere.
They are quite remote from the real life of Patrick – whatever it may have been. Croagh Patrick, Lough Derg, the holy wells, these owe as much to prehistoric Ireland as they do to medieval beliefs.
More striking is the fact that Patrick introduced an episcopal Church on the Roman model, but very quickly Ireland had adapted the new faith to its own social ways, and the Church was dominated by abbots and monasteries, modelled on the way Celtic Ireland was run, with coenobitic ideas derived from Egypt. St Patrick was honoured, but not always imitated.
One would have liked some comparison of how Christianity leaked beyond the Imperial frontiers into Germany, Scandinavia and the Middle East. But there is nothing on this which would have provided a context to think about Patrick’s mission.
Despite the criticism that will come its way, Dr Flechner’s book is to be welcomed to some extent. By its controversial ideas it will serve a very important and necessary role. It will arouse others to debate and so to further research and to the constant and important reappraisal of the old materials and of new sources which will enlarge in some ways what we know.
As yet the definitive life of Patrick, if such a thing is possible when history is as a matter of course a process of constant revision, has yet to be written. This book re-imagines St Patrick, but perhaps goes only a little way towards revealing the real man for what he actually was.