Saint Patrick was not quite the snake-chasing evangelist of Ireland that he is most commonly misperceived to have been. In How the Irish Saved Civilization, Thomas Cahill explains that Patrick (Naomh Pádraig) was a Welsh farm boy kidnapped into slavery at the age of sixteen by pagan Irish raiders early in the fifth century CE, and that after six years tending sheep for his captors he escaped and returned to his family and entered service to the Catholic Church.
Patrick’s calling was to return to the land of his captors and convert them to Christianity. Returning to Ireland was a bold move, as the Irish of the time were less than cordial toward strangers, and even less so toward escaped slaves. Patrick faced near certain death upon his return to the Emerald Isle.
However, the Irish were so impressed by Patrick’s bravery that they invited him to live freely among them, and they listened to what he had to say.
In a single generation, Patrick spread literacy across the land. He and his newly minted Irish monks embraced the task of rescuing classical works of science, philosophy, history, and literature from the rubble of the collapsing Roman Empire, copying them by hand, word for word, and then disseminated copies to monasteries throughout Europe. Patrick and his monks preserved nearly all of the pre-Roman classical knowledge that remains to this day. No one knows how much was lost in the collapse of Rome, but there is little doubt that the Dark Ages would have been much darker if not for Patrick’s efforts.
Patrick’s Ireland is but a sampling of the intense drama that has unfolded for most of Ireland’s history. As I research my current project, an Irish trilogy set against the backdrop of the Penal Laws of the 18th century, the Great Famine and diaspora of the 19th century, and the 1916 Rising that gained the partial independence that inspired a brutal civil war, I am continually amazed at the intensity of the drama that has dominated Irish history, and the failure of that drama to extinguish the strength, the warmth, the humor, or the hospitality that are hallmarks of the Irish people.
It will be a challenge to present the Irish story in a manner that does its participants justice, but that will be my guiding aspiration throughout this epic adventure.
Happy Saint Patrick’s Day. May the warmth of the Irish fill your days.
In celebration of St. Patrick’s Day you might also be interested in looking at Richard Sutton’s two historical novels about Ireland, The Red Gate and The Gatekeepers, as well as P.B. Ryan’s Nell Sweeny mystery series, which features an Boston Irish governess, and M. Louisa Locke’s Victorian San Francisco mystery series, which has several important Irish and Irish-American secondary characters.