Catholic Culture Resources
Catholic Culture Resources

The Conversion of Ireland

by Warren H. Carroll

Descriptive Title

Conversion of Ireland


Dr. Warren Carroll, a prolific historian and the founder of Christendom College, gives a brief account of the conversion of Ireland by St. Patrick.

Larger Work

The Building of Christendom



Publisher & Date

Christendom College Press, 1987

Ireland had never been part of the Roman empire, nor of the Roman cultural orbit. It was as remote culturally from Rome as the Georgia evangelized by St. Nino, if not quite as different as the Ethiopia evangelized by St. Frumentius. Despite the proximity of Roman Britain, most of the contact across the Irish Sea was that of pirates and slavers. In an Irish slave raid somewhere on the west coast of Britain, most likely in the Severn estuary, probably about the year 415, a sixteen-year-old boy named Patricius, the son of a former city official of Roman Britain who had arranged to have himself ordained deacon solely for the purpose of escaping taxation, was seized and carried off to the shores of broad Killala Bay in County Mayo, in the bleak northwest of Ireland. There he was put to work tending sheep—far from home, alone in an utterly alien land. Then, as he tells us:

After I came to Ireland—every day I had to tend sheep, and many times a day I prayed—the love of God and His fear came to me more and more, and my faith was strengthened. And my spirit was moved so that in a single day I would say as many as a hundred prayers, and almost as many in the night, and this even when I was staying in the woods and on the mountain, and I used to get up for prayer before daylight, through snow, through frost, through rain, and I felt no harm, and there was no sloth in me—as I now see, because the spirit within me was then fervent.

After six years he escaped, and took ship probably to the coast of Scotland, whence he made his way back to his home in Britain. But he had become a very different person from the careless, religiously tepid boy whom the slavers had seized. Many of those thousands of prayers amid the fogs of Connaught had very likely been offered, as Christ commanded, for his enemies; and so, a few years after his return, he heard them calling him:

I saw in the night the vision of a man, whose name was Victoricus, coming as it were from Ireland, with countless letters. And he gave me one of them, and I read the opening words of the letter, which were "the voice of the Irish"; and as I read the beginning of the letter I thought that at the same moment I heard their voice— they were those beside the Wood of Voclut, which is near the Western Sea—and thus did they cry out as with one mouth: "We ask thee, boy, come and walk among us once more."

And I was quite broken in heart, and could read no further, and so I woke up.

It was probably soon after this vision of St. Patrick's that a great churchman from Gaul, St. Germanus of Auxerre, was sent to Britain by Pope Celestine, together with the deacon Palladius, to examine the state of the church there. St. Germanus' mission took place in 429; Britain, though abandoned by Rome and periodically attacked from the sea by barbarian raiders, had not yet been overrun. There is good reason to believe that Patrick met Germanus in Britain during this visit, was ordained deacon by him, and asked to be sent to Ireland as a missionary. Germanus probably told him that he needed more education first, for Patrick knew little Latin, and sent him to Auxerre for this purpose. At that time Patrick probably travelled briefly in Italy and on the Mediterranean, and may well have gone to Rome. In 431, the year the Ecumenical Council of Ephesus confirmed Mary's title as Mother of God, Pope Celestine consecrated the deacon Palladius bishop of Ireland. Palladius probably went to the southern part of the island, where there were a few Christians. Patrick had hoped, despite his relative youth and educational shortcomings, to be chosen bishop himself, because he knew the country and the language. But he was not the man to stand on pride. About 434 he was on the road in Gaul, on his way to Ireland as a newly ordained priest with a party of clerics to assist Palladius, when the news came that Palladius was dead. Patrick was at once consecrated bishop for Ireland at the shrine of St. Amator. In all likelihood the Pope at that time (Sixtus III) was notified and approved.

Travelling through Britain, Patrick obtained assurances of support from his friends among the British clergy, and sailed for that part of Ireland which he knew: the north, Ulster and Connaught, still totally heathen, from which he had heard "the voice of the Irish" calling him. Within ten to fifteen years he had preached all through the northern half of the island, baptizing thousands, ordaining priests, accepting the vows of religious to a consecrated life, and finally setting up his episcopal headquarters at Armagh in Ulster, just two miles from Emain Macha, the capital of the Ulidian tribal state, then the most powerful in the north of Ireland. About 439, it is probable that three other bishops arrived in the south to succeed Palladius, since communication with Britain and Gaul was then still open. They communicated periodically with Patrick in the north, and probably met with him in a synod (most likely in the year 457) to draw up the initial canons governing the Irish church.

The Irish proved remarkably, almost uniquely receptive to Christianity. Their conversion was far from being virtually instantaneous, as later legends would suggest; but it was unusually rapid, unusually thorough, and above all peaceful. No tradition with any color of historical reliability speaks of martyrdom in connection with the conversion of Ireland. The native priesthood, the druids, feared and opposed Christianity, but seem to have been almost helpless in the face of its rapid and steady advance.

Meanwhile the pressure of the barbarians was growing steadily upon the Britain Patrick had left behind, as it was growing upon all that remained of the Roman empire in the West. Vortigern, head of a confederation of Romano-British local lords who had banded together for mutual security after Rome withdrew following the breach of the Rhine frontier over the ice at the end of 406, called on Saxons from the North Sea coast of Germany to help him. Coming in substantial numbers and settling, they rose against Vortigern in a great revolt, probably in the year 442. The British fought back, winning a battle against them at Aylesford in 445; but they knew the odds were against them. In 446 they made a frantic last appeal for help to Aetius and the Romans, which contains the unforgettable cry: "The barbarians push us to the sea, the sea pushes us to the barbarians." Severely threatened much closer to home, Rome ignored the appeal. Nevertheless the British gradually restored their position until the Saxons treacherously massacred three hundred British leaders at a peace conference in 456, and followed this with massive new invasions. There was then a flight of Britons across the Channel to France, where they settled Brittany (formerly Arrnorica). Communications between the British Isles and the European continent from then on were sporadic and constantly endangered, and they were virtually cut off from Rome. But communications between Britain and Ireland probably remained open a little longer, for the barbarian invaders from the sea had not yet reached the west of Britain, which was still largely held by the descendants of the old Roman Britons who had been Patrick's people, mostly Christians.

Probably about 460 a Briton chieftain named Ceretic or Ceredig (Coroticus) raided the Irish coast and took some of Patrick's new Christians captive, while killing others. Ceretic was nominally a Christian; Patrick wrote him a letter burning with charity for the victims and indignation against Ceretic, denouncing and excommunicating him for what he had done. But Ceretic may well have been an ally of the hard-pressed Romano-Britons against the Saxons, and in any case they could ill afford at that point to add him to their already too long list of enemies so Patrick suddenly found himself the target of considerable criticism in his old homeland. He was now in his sixties, and accordingly could speak of himself in the Customary Latin usage as in senectute mea, "in old age." He prepared a summary of his life and mission in which he so described himself, justifying what he had done by the ways his mission had glorified God—a profoundly humble and moving document, which he called his Confession. It has come down to us, and was probably written about 461 or 462, at just about the time of the death of Pope Leo.

According to the reconstruction of his career adopted here, St. Patrick still had some thirty years more to live, work, and pray. Irish tradition firmly fixes his death in, or very close to, the year 493. The attempts commonly made in recent years to cut his apostolate in half by ending it in 461 are based primarily on J. B. Bury's eighty-year-old chronological reconstruction of his life, which modern research and criticism has severely shaken; yet the more recent attempts of O'Rahilly and Carney to split St. Patrick in two have even less to commend them. As usual, the possibility that the old tradition might be right after all seems to be the last that scholars are willing to consider. It is the consensus of most recent investigators of the "Patrician problem" that Bury's proposed date of 411 for Patrick's return from Ireland—which would make his death as late as 493 quite unlikely—is invalid. The chronological reconstruction here presented fits into a coherent pattern all that is known or reasonably deduced of his life, with a sixty-year apostolate following his consecration as bishop of Ireland in his early thirties, somewhat older than St. Athanasius when he was consecrated Bishop of Alexandria, and his death coming in his early nineties, somewhat younger than St. John the Evangelist, Bishop St. Simeon of Jerusalem, St. Anthony of the desert, Bishop Ossius of Cordoba, and Bishop Acacius of Beroea when they died, to mention only some particularly well-known and well-attested instances of longevity in this period.

Cut off from Rome and the whole continental church, faced with growing hostility in the British church, his fellow bishops in the south apparently dead without successors, St. Patrick was left alone with his converts in the dark years that saw the final fall of the Western Roman empire. But they were not dark years for him, nor for his people. Sunset for the Christian Roman empire in the West was sunrise for Christian Ireland. As St. Patrick said:

I must accept with equanimity whatever befalls me, be it good or evil, and always give thanks to God who taught me to trust in Him always without hesitation, and who must have heard my prayer, so that I, however ignorant I was, in the last days dared to undertake such a holy and wonderful work—thus imitating somehow those who, as the Lord once foretold, would preach His Gospel for a testimony to all nations before the end of the world. So we have seen it, and so it has been fulfilled: indeed, we are witnesses that the Gospel has been preached unto those parts beyond which there lives nobody.

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