Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

St. Patrick of Ireland: A Biography

Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

St. Patrick of Ireland: A Biography

Article excerpt

St. Patrick of Ireland: A Biography. By Philip Freeman. (New York: Simon & Schuster. 2004. Pp. xix, 216. $24.00.)

Patrick, a British bishop, preached Christianity in at least some places in Ireland at some time between the fourth and sixth centuries and wrote two letters: one, later known as his Confessio, addressed criticisms of his ministry; the other denounced the slaving activities of a group of Christian slavers for taking other Christians captive. Every historically 'credible' detail of this bishop's life and work is derived from these two letters by exegesis. This dearth of evidence would normally mean that Patrick would merit a brief entry in an encyclopedia; yet given the status of his cult as 'apostle of Ireland'-and there is no firm evidence for that cult prior to the seventh century-he has been, and is, the subject of major fascination combining for many whose ethnic origins are Irish a heady mix of national myth, religious identity, cultural celebration, and romantic nostalgia. This gulf between the size of contemporaneous evidence and that of the cult has been bridged by the mythopoetic processes of repeated story among those who held that memory as a central feature of their identity and annual liturgy. But these processes of legend have been firmly rejected in recent generations not only by historians but by many others who see the legend as burying the 'real man' and for whom the 'historical Patrick' is the one about whom they really want to know. It is for this group that this book has been written.

Strictly speaking, no biography of Patrick is possible-even his dates are unknown. Yet, this book presents itself as getting at the historical man, setting that apart from later legendary images. It achieves this by painting a generic landscape for the period, adding the meagre details from Patrick's writings, and, then assuming that he was an actor in that landscape, imagining how he and those around him would have felt about such events as his capture as a slave in youth, his return home after escape, and then his preaching in a non-Roman environment. …

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