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Monday, March 08, 2004 - Page updated at 02:55 P.M.
By Tim McNulty
As St. Patrick's Day approaches, a new biography, "St. Patrick of Ireland," fleshes out the life of Ireland's celebrated patron saint. With uncommon insight and clear, unadorned prose, Philip Freeman supplants old myths with a true-life tale no less wondrous. No snake herding or mystic battles with druids and kings here, just the intriguing story of a runaway slave who changed the course of Irish history.
Patrick was born a nobleman in late fourth-century Britain as Rome was losing its grip on the western empire. His father was a government official and deacon in the Christian church, his grandfather a priest.
Ireland at the time was a remote island untamed by Roman law. Sparsely settled and ruled by warrior chieftains, it was a barbarian realm to Patrick and his fellow Roman citizens, the far edge of the inhabited world.
Patrick was not yet 16 when he was captured and taken off in chains by Irish pirates. Young and fit, he was spared from the massacre visited upon older captives and children and was sold into slavery in northwestern Ireland. He spent six years there, herding sheep on the storm-swept uplands of Mayo.
Remarkably, Patrick escaped. In a flight worthy of the old Irish epics, he traveled some 200 miles overland across the island and found passage on a trading ship back to Britain. There, in a dream, he heard a chorus of Irish voices urging him to return "and walk among us," to minister to Ireland's people in need.
Most of what is known of Patrick comes from two remarkable letters he wrote late in his ministry. One was a scathing condemnation sent to the soldiers of Coroticus, a British village king who captured, massacred and enslaved a community of Irish Christians newly converted by Patrick. The other was a defense of his work among the Irish to British bishops who attacked his integrity from afar.
Both are biographical, deeply personal and passionate. They represent the earliest written record to come from Ireland and provide unprecedented insight into the soul of an extraordinary historic figure.
Freeman, a classical historian who has written extensively about Ireland and Celtic culture, gives these letters a new translation. Drawing on recent archaeological and historic research, ancient literature and Irish law, he frames a portrait of Patrick within the context of his times that is both discerning and fresh.
Freeman stresses the importance of Patrick's work with oppressed populations in Ireland, particularly women. Women were classed with children and slaves under Irish law. Seen as property, they had no legal rights. Female slaves were subject to immeasurable abuse.
Patrick introduced Christian ideals of human dignity and equality under God, and women from all ranks of society converted to Christianity in large numbers.
Patrick finessed the dangerous political landscape of prickly tribal chieftains with goodwill, fortitude and well-placed bribes. Throughout his three or four decades of missionary work he traveled much of northern Ireland, established churches, ordained Irish priests and bishops and inspired a scholarly and monastic tradition that became a touchstone of civilization for Middle Age Europe.
As writer Thomas Cahill pointed out, Patrick was the first human being in the history of the world to speak out unequivocally against slavery. The Christian church sanctioned it, of course, which no doubt led to some of Patrick's trouble with the bishops.
When the bishops summoned him back to Britain to face review, he refused. He saw his work in Ireland as a mission given him by God.
"God chose foolish little me from all of you who seem so wise and expert in the law," he wrote to the bishops, "... and without any of you complaining at the time." Even in the fifth century, he had mastered the bite of Irish wit.
Patrick's unmarked grave remains somewhere in Ireland; a few sites claim him. But anyone wishing to pay contemporary tribute would do well to visit this fine biography.
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