HRISTIANITY AS IT SPREAD ACROSS EUROPE always had to accommodate itself to some extent with paganism, usually by giving saints the same attributes as the old gods and displacing their temples with churches. This happened in Ireland after its conversion by St Patrick as much as anywhere, but somehow a different relationship and attitude towards the old gods developed there. They were demonised much less than usual and their continuing parallel existence as faeries was far more accepted than in most of continental Europe and what was soon to become England.
Much of this must have stemmed from the character of St Patrick himself who was determined enough in his challenges to the authority and religion of the druids, but charitable in victory. In fact druids were among his prime targets for conversion and he seems to have been able to first challenge them on their own terms in contests of magic and then persuade them with argument that the doctrines he taught were superior.
The background of his mission to Ireland is fascinating. In his own all too brief and modest Confession Patrick tells how he was born in Britain at Bannavem Taburniae, which was probably near the mouth of the Severn River, the son of a Christian deacon and grandson of a priest (celibacy not then being a necessary part of priesthood). Then at the age of sixteen he was captured along with several thousand others by Irish raiders and taken back as a slave. For the next six years he tended the herds of a minor noble named Miliuc or Milcho on Mt Slemish in County Antrim. By his own admission Patrick had not been a religious youth but now he took to praying and at the end of the six years his prayers were answered by a voice which told him in his sleep that it was time to leave, and that a ship would be waiting for him some two hundred miles away. Following his vision, Patrick ran away and did indeed find a waiting ship, probably around Wexford, which took him to France, from where he eventually found his way back to his family in Britain.
Patrick had not been home long though when he had another vision in his sleep of a messenger from Ireland who gave him a letter calling him back there. Similar visions followed and thus he found his vocation; but it was many years before he could follow it because he had first to train as a deacon and priest in France and Italy; then finally he was consecrated bishop in Auxerre and sent as an official missionary to the Irish from the Pope in Rome.
What exactly his methods were it is hard to say for certain because he frustratingly says nothing at all about them in his own brief writings. Many wonder tales were later written about his contests with the druids, but it is hard to separate fiction from fact in them. One such is a charming account by the seventh century chronicler Muirchu which tells how Patrick converted Laoghaire’s two daughters Eithne and Fedelm:
‘But St. Patrick [and his people] then came, before sunrise, to the well which is called Clebach, on the eastern side of Crochan, and they seated themselves near the well. And behold the two daughters of King Laoghaire, Eithne the Fair and Fedelm the Ruddy came in the morning to the well to bathe, as women are wont to do; and they found the holy assembly of bishops and priests at the well.
‘And the maidens said to them: “Who are you, and whence do you come?” And Patrick said to them: “It were better for you to confess our True God than to enquire about our race.”
‘The maiden said: “Who is God? And where is God? And of whom is God? And where is His dwelling? Has your God sons and daughters, gold and silver? Is He everliving? Is He beautiful? Did many foster His Son? Are His daughters dear and lovely to the men of the world? Is He in the heaven or on earth? In the sea? In the rivers? In mountains? Make Him known to us. How is He to be seen? How is He to be loved? How is He to be found? Is it in youth? Is it in old age that He is to be found?”
‘But St. Patrick, filled with the Holy Ghost, answered and said: “Our God is the God of all men; the God of heaven and earth, of the sea and rivers; the God of the sun, the moon, and the stars; He has a dwelling in heaven and earth, and the sea and all therein; He gives breath to all; He gives life to all; He is over all; He has a Son co-eternal and co-equal with Himself; the Son is not younger than the Father; and the Father is not older than the Son; and the Holy Ghost breathes into them; the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost are undivided; but I wish to unite you to the Heavenly King, as you are daughters of an earthly king, by believing.”
‘And the maidens, as if with one voice and with one heart, said: “Teach us most exactly how we may believe in the Heavenly King; show us how we may behold Him face to face, and we will do whatever you shall say to us.”
‘And they were baptised and clothed with a white garment on their head. And they besought that they might behold the face of Christ. And the Saint said to them: “You cannot see the face of Christ unless you taste death, and unless you receive the Sacrifice.”
‘And they answered: “Give us the Sacrifice, so that we may be able to behold the Son, our Spouse.”’
Continued in the published book . . .