How Ireland recieved the Christian Faith

A. M. Sullivan
c. 1900


To these foreign expeditions Ireland was destined to be indebted for her own conquest by the spirit of Christianity.

As I have already mentioned, in one of the military excursions of King Nial the First into Gaul, he captured and brought to Ireland among other white slaves, Patricius, a Romano-Gallic youth of good quality, and his sisters Darerca and Lupita.

The story of St. Patrick's bondage in Ireland, of his miraculous escape, his entry into holy orders, his vision of Ireland—in which he thought he heard the cries of a multitude of people, entreating him to come to them in Erinn—his long studies under St. Germain, and eventually his determination to undertake in an especial manner the conversion of the Irish,[1] will all be found in any Irish Church History or Life of St. Patrick.

Having received the sanction and benediction of the holy pontiff Pope Celestine, and having been consecrated bishop, St. Patrick, accompanied by a few chosen priests, reached Ireland in 432.

Christianity had been preached in Ireland long before St. Patrick's time.

In 431 St. Palladius, Archdeacon of Rome, was sent by Pope Celestine as a bishop to the Christians in Ireland.

These, however, were evidently but few in number, and worshiped only in fear or secrecy.

The attempt to preach the faith openly to the people was violently suppressed, and St. Palladius sailed from Ireland.

St. Patrick and his missioners landed on the spot where now stands the fashionable watering place called Bray, near Dublin.

The hostility of the Lagenian prince and people compelled him to re-embark. He sailed northward, touching at Innis-Patrick near Skerries, county Dublin, and eventually landed at Magh Innis, in Strangford Lough.

Druidism would appear to have been the form of paganism then prevailing in Ireland, though even then some traces remained of a still more ancient idol-worship, probably dating from the time of the Tuatha de Danaans, two thousand years before, St. Patrick, however, found the Irish mind much better prepared, by its comparative civilization and refinement, to receive the truths of Christianity, than that of any other nation in Europe outside imperial Rome.

The Irish were always—then as they are now—preeminently a reverential people, and thus were peculiarly susceptible of religious truth.

St. Patrick's progress through the island was marked by success from the outset.

Tradition states that, expounding the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, he used a little sprig of trefoil, or three-leaved grass, whence the Shamrock comes to be the National Emblem, as St. Patrick is the National Saint or Patron of Ireland.

Ard-Ri Laori[2] was holding a druidical festival in Tara, at which the kindling of a great fire formed a chief feature of the proceedings, and it was a crime punishable with death for any one to light a fire in the surrounding country on the evening of that festival until the sacred flame on Tara Hill blazed forth.

To his amazement, however, the monarch beheld on the Hill of Slane, visible from Tara, a bright fire kindled early in the evening.

This was the Paschal fire which St. Patrick and his missionaries had lighted, for it was Holy Saturday.

The king sent for the chief Druid, and pointed out to him on the distant horizon the flickering beam that so audaciously violated the sacred laws.

The archpriest gazed long and wistfully at the spot, and eventually answered:

“O king, there is indeed a flame lighted on yonder hill, which, if it be not put out to-night will never be quenched in Erinn.”

Much disquieted by this oracular answer, Laori directed that the offenders, whoever they might be, should be instantly brought before him for punishment.

St. Patrick, on being arrested, arrayed himself in his vestments, and, crozier in hand, marched boldly at the head of his captors, reciting aloud, as he went along, a litany which is still extant, in which he invoked, “on that momentous day for Erinn,” the Holy Trinity, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, ever Blessed Mary the Mother of God, and the saints around the throne of heaven.

Having arrived before the king and his assembled courtiers and druidical high priests, St. Patrick, undismayed, proclaimed to them that he had come to quench the fires of pagan sacrifice in Ireland, and light the flame of Christian faith.

The king listened amazed and angered, yet no penalty fell on Patrick.

On the contrary, he made several converts on the spot, and the sermon and controversy in the king's presence proved an auspicious beginning for the glorious mission upon which he had just entered.

It would fill a large volume to chronicle the progress of the saint through the island.

Before his death, though only a few of the reigning princes had embraced the faith (for many years subsequently pagan kings ruled the country), the good seeds had been sown far and wide, and were thriving apace, and the cross had been raised throughout Ireland, “from the center to the sea.”

Ours was the only country in Europe, it is said, bloodlessly converted to the faith.

Strictly speaking, only one martyr suffered death for the evangelization of Ireland, and death in this instance had been devised for the saint himself.

While St. Patrick was returning from Munster a pagan chieftain formed a design to murder him. The plan came to the knowledge of Odran, the faithful charioteer of Patrick, who, saying nought of it to him, managed to change seats with the saint, and thus received himself the fatal blow intended for his master.

Another authentic anecdote may be mentioned here.

At the baptism of Aengus, King of Mononia or Munster, St. Patrick accidentally pierced through the sandal-covered foot of the king with his pastoral staff,[3] which terminated in an iron spike, and which it was the saint's custom to strike into the ground by his side, supporting himself more or less thereby, while preaching or baptizing.

The king bore the wound without wincing until the ceremony was over, when St. Patrick with surprise and pain beheld the ground covered with blood, and observed the cause.

Being questioned by the saint as to why he did not cry out, Aengus replied that he thought it was part of the ceremony to represent, though faintly, the wounds our Lord had borne for man's redemption.

In the year of our Lord 493, on the 17th of March—which day is celebrated as his feast by the Catholic Church and by the Irish nation at home and in exile—St. Patrick departed this life in his favorite retreat of Saul, in the county of Down, where his body was interred.

“His obsequies,” say the old annalists, “continued for twelve days, during which the light of innumerable tapers seemed to turn night into day; and the bishops and priests of Ireland congregated on the occasion.”

Several of the saint's compositions, chiefly prayers and litanies, are extant.

They are full of the most powerful invocations of the saints, and in all other particulars are exactly such prayers and express such doctrines as are taught in our own day in the unchanged and unchangeable Catholic Church.


[1] My young readers will find this glorious chapter in our religious annals, related with great simplicity, beauty, and truth, in a little publication called, “St. Patrick's: how it was restored,” by the Rev. James Gaffney, of the diocese of Dublin, whose admirable volume on “The Ancient Irish Church,” as well as the Rev. S. Malone's “Church History of Ireland,” will be found invaluable to students.

[2] Son of Nial the First.

[3]The staff of Jesus” is the name by which the crozier of St. Patrick is always mentioned in the earliest of our annals; a well-preserved tradition asserting it to have been a rood or staff which our Lord had carried. It was brought by St. Patrick from Rome when setting forth by the authority of Pope Celestine to evangelize Ireland. This staff was treasured as one of the most precious relics on Irish soil for more than one thousand years, and was an object of special veneration. It was sacrilegiously destroyed in the reign of Henry the Eighth by one of Henry's “reforming” bishops, who writes to the king boasting of the deed!