Ireland in the Days Before Patrick
Sea-farers and adventurers sailing out from the Mediterranean looked upon Ireland as the last piece of land on their journey out west.
Those who landed upon the Irish coast were reluctant to penetrate the uncharted waters of the mysterious Atlantic ocean. Explorations came to a full stop at this outer edge of the continent of Europe. The island of Ireland was known sometimes as ‘the back of beyond’ or in Latin as ultima Thule, the last stop on the voyage.
Greek writers knew about Ireland. Strabo the geographer called it Ierne. Latin writers named the island Hibernia when they wrote about the Celts of Gaul (France) and the Druids.
The Celts came westward from mid-Europe to Britain, reaching Ireland about three hundred years before Christ. In Britain, they had organised themselves well enough to resist Julius Caesar and his military forces in the campaign of 55 B.C.
Celtic culture had already taken root as a distinctive part of Ireland’s ancient heritage when Patrick first arrived as a boy in his ‘teens as a slave captured to serve an unknown master.
The Ireland of Patrick’s day in the 5th century A.D. had a very small population. A mere quarter of a million inhabitants, compared with today’s four-and-a-half million. Their livelihood depended on the rearing of cattle and sheep and also mixed farming. Thick forests covered large tracts of land. The word for ‘road’ was understandably ‘bother’, a path for the cows.
About 100 chieftains ruled as petty kings among their clans, up and down the country. Remarkably enough, we learn that, within a hundred years after Patrick’s death, these warrior-kings had become Christian. Their form of government, their organisation as families and local communities, continued as before. Their judges or brethons administered the laws and kept the peace. The druids continued to advise their rulers. In Ireland during the early days of the Christian church no martyr’s blood seems to have been shed. The physical persecution that caused so much suffering in other countries did not accompany the introduction of the Christian gospel.
There were no cities at that time. Later, from the sixth century, monasteries were the centres of life and activity. They provided places of education and learning as well as churches for worship and spiritual life. Through their scribes and scholars, the art of writing was introduced to Ireland. The earlier ‘ogham’ script consisted of lines and dots. The psalm books and Christian gospels were copied and circulated in Latin, the language which many of the European countries had in common. Those who came to Ireland, and late the missionaries who went out from Ireland to the continent, shared this lingua franca, this common language of worship, study and teaching. Latin was the language of the educated European.
Before this, Irish was the spoken language. The history and traditions of the country were oral. Many stories and wise sayings well remembered were passed on from mouth to mouth.
Story-telling was an important means of communication. Not surprisingly, many legends circulated round people and places. Important events such as battles, storms, cattle-raids, plagues and famines were remembered. The description of them often became highly coloured when told by dramatic story-tellers who passed on picturesque and evermore vivd accounts of great moments of victory or disaster in the past.
The Venerable Bede, who was born more than two hundred years after St. Patrick, writes about Ireland in his famous book, A History of the English Church and People. Living in Jarrow in Northumbria, he admires the faith and learning of the monasteries in Ireland. He used to recommend his students to spend time there in the course of their training. He wrote that ‘Ireland is far more favoured than Britain by latitude, and by its mild and healthy climate. Snow rarely lies longer than three days, so that there is no need to store hay in summer for winter use, or to build stables for beasts. There are no reptiles, and no snake can exist there; for although often brought over from Britain, as soon as the ship nears land, they breathe the scent of its air and die.’
Bede mentions Irish pirates attacking the coastline of Britain. Strangely enough, he has apparently nothing to tell us about Patrick. He mentions Columba frequently, but makes us wonder why, after his account of Palladius who was sent by Pope Celestine ‘to the Scots [the Irish] who believed in Christ to be their first bishop’, there was no reference to Patrick who came so soon afterwards. We can be sure, however, that, even if nothing survived in writing for such a long time, Patrick was very much in the conversation and story-telling throughout the whole countryside.