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A Feature Review of
The World of St. Patrick
Hardback: Oxford University Press, 2014
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Reviewed by Alden Lee Bass
“I am Patrick, a sinner and a very ignorant man.” With these words Patrick begins both of his surviving works, which do much to make strange this saint we think we know so well. In the first place, Patrick was not Irish as all, but British; as a child he was dragged to Emerald Isle against his will by a band of pirates, and he spent the years of his early manhood enslaved there. He was also an atheist during those early years, despite the fact that his family had been leaders in the British Church for several generations. When he as 22 years old and still a slave, he received a heavenly vision outlining a plan for escape, which he followed, eventually ending up back home in Roman Britain. Patrick did not immediately return to Ireland, but traveled around Europe several years before returning to the land of his captivity. Once there, he never turned back, and with the help of a few friends Patrick is said to have converted most of the island to Christianity by the close of the fifth century.
Philip Freeman, a preeminent Patrick scholar, relates this and other stories in his delightful biography of the saint, St. Patrick of Ireland, published in 2005. In this most recent work, he breathes new breath into the narrative with fresh translations of the earliest existing primary sources on Patrick and the early Irish saints. A couple of the texts were previously published in biography, but most of the translations are presented for the first time. Freeman’s biographical treatment of the legendary saint was minimalist, providing a solid historical reconstruction of Patrick’s life and world without the hagiographical details which have since accrued. Likewise, this new collection of primary texts is presented without embellishment; short introductions provide the date and context for each work, and a concluding bibliography points the reader to further secondary sources. The texts are translated by Freeman, who was trained as a classicist at Harvard, and his annotations appear in the endnotes.
These texts fall roughly into three groups. The earliest material, penned by Patrick himself, dates to the fifth century. This includes his Confession and the Letter to Coroticus. These two brief letters, composed by the bishop in his old age, provide a rare glimpse into Patrick’s island and into his heart. His confession is less of an act of attrition than apologia; it was written to defend his name against charges of corruption brought against him by British bishops. The other text was also an epistle, written this time to excommunicate a British warlord named Coroticus who had recently raided Ireland and taken captive several of Patrick’s converts. Speaking from his own experience of enslavement, Patrick angrily demands the captives’ return under threat of damnation.
The second group of texts consists of hymns, the first attributed to St. Patrick, though most scholars doubtful that he wrote it himself. The “Breastplate of Saint Patrick” is well-known and widely sung. Freeman provides a robust new translation of the ancient song, which invokes the power of God to protect all who sing it against troubles and dangers. “I rise today with a mighty strength, an invocation of the Trinity, believing in the threeness, confessing the oneness, of the Creator of creation.” The Hymn of Secundius (Sechnall in Irish) celebrates the life of Patrick, and was probably written by one of the saint’s companions. According to tradition, anyone who sings the hymn on St. Patrick’s Day will be absolved of sin.
The other group of texts was composed at a later date, probably in the seventh to ninth centuries, and reflects the cult which grew up around the saint in later years. Freeman’s collection is unique in that it gives, besides the well-known Life of Saint Patrick by Muirchú, the Life of Saint Brigid and The Voyage of Saint Brendan. Brigid is greatest female figure in Irish Christianity, but little is known of her historically. Her vita consists mostly of various miracles attributed to her: providing food for the needy, siding with the oppressed, and healing the sick. In a distinctively Irish embellishment of one of Jesus’ miracles, Brigid is said to have turned water into beer for a group of lepers. Brendan’s voyage is a sort of Irish odyssey in which a legendary abbot sails the seas of the North Atlantic with a group of intrepid monks. The holy band encounters fantastic creatures, sea monsters and talking birds, as well as a host of colorful individuals. Throughout their adventures, however, they never fail to observe the daily prayers and services of the seasons of the church year.
Saint Patrick’s world holds many surprises, and it’s well worth exploration. Even though the landscape of sea monsters and beer-transforming saints seems far removed from our own, a journey into early medieval Ireland can give us new eyes to see the marvels in our own time and place. Philip Freeman’s collection of texts is a great place to start.