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A day late I realize, but I didn’t think about St. Patrick’s Day until my son asked me yesterday who Patrick was. This question forced me to pull down from the shelf one of my favorite history books. It’s not a page turner, but I learned something on every page. Actually, I learned something with almost every paragraph. The book is The Barbarian Conversion: From Paganism to Christianity by Richard Fletcher. For a readable, scholarly treatment on the long, slow, amazing transition in Europe from paganism to Christianity there is simply no better book.

So what does Fletcher say about Patrick?

Well, first you need to know what Patrick did not do.

He did not expel snakes from Ireland: the snakelessness of Ireland had been noted by the Roman geographer Solinus in the third century. He did not compose that wonderful hymn known as ‘Saint Patrick’s Breastplate’: its language postdates him by about three centuries. He did not drive a chariot three times over his sister Lupait to punish her unchastity. . . . He did not use the leaves of the shamrock to illustrate the Persons of the Trinity for his converts: true, he might have done; but it is not until the seventeenth century that we are told that he did. (82)

Determining fact from fiction for Patrick is difficult, in part because his writings were not always passed along reliably. More important, Patrick wrote in particularly poor Latin. He received little education and did not handle Latin well. Fletcher says his Latin is “simple, awkward, laborious, sometimes ambiguous, occasionally unintelligible” (83). This makes it hard to know too much for certain.

But here’s what most scholars agree on: Patrick–whose adult life falls in the fifth century–was actually British, not Irish. He was born into a Christian family with priests and deacons for relatives, but by his own admission, he was not a good Christian growing up. As a teenager he was carried by Irish raiders into slavery in Ireland. His faith deepened during this six year ordeal. Upon escaping Ireland he went back home to Britain. While with his family he received a dream in which God called him to go back to Ireland to convert the Irish pagans to Christianity.

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