About two hundred years after Patrick’s death. Muirchu wrote a Life of Ireland’s leading saint. He was encouraged by one of the bishops named Aed, from Sletty (Co. Laois) in the midlands. He realised the difficulty of his task and describes himself as a rather nervous author who has heard much about Patrick but cannot always be sure of his facts. It was hard for him to know the difference between the legends and the history that surrounded Patrick.
Yet often the seeds to truth and hard fact lie hidden in fantastic legends. In the days before records and reminiscences were written down, a very small incident could soon become exaggerated. We know what is meant by a ‘fishing story’ among anglers who speak with pride of the size of their catch. So it came about that a sign of Patrick’s great faith could easily become a miracle with some magical additions. A miracle can happen, but sometimes it is tempting to emphasise the wonder-work in the very terms that soothsayers and wizards were fond of using in the days of the druids.
Muirchu received encouragement from one Cogitosus whom he called his ‘father’. Cogitosus may have really been Muirchu’s patron and instructor; he had written a Life of Saint Brigit of Kildare. Muirchu with his Life of Patrick would point to the leadership of Armagh, the city which even today is called the ecclesiastical capital of Ireland.
A Humble Writer
Muirchu in his introduction, addressing ‘My Lord Aed, the bishop, writes in the style of Luke, the evangelist, in the opening words of his Gospel. Both writers attempt to tell the correct version of their story, drawn from the many different versions that exist. Muirchu is so conscious of the difficulty he faces in making a connected story out of the rumours and whispers about Patrick that he feels he must tell the world about his problem: he writes:
‘I have taken my little talent, like the boys who make their first speech in the schoolplay. I take a boy’s paddle-boat, as it were, out on the deep and dangerous sea of my holy story. The waves rise to towering heights among the sharp rocks hidden in the waters. No boat apart from my father Cogitosus’s has ventured forth on such a sea.’
Muirchu goes on:
‘I do not want to give the impression that I want to make something big out of something small. I shall try to describe, bit by bit, a few of the numerous deeds of Patrick, with my little knowledge of my sources, from an unreliable memory, written in a poor style, but prompted by my great affection for holy Patrick …’
The Book of Armagh in which Muirchu’s Life of Patrick appears also has a copy of the Life of St. Martin, written by Sulpicius Severus. This may have been a model biography to help Muirchu with his writing. The seventh century also saw Adomnan’s Life of Columba. In this period of monastic life, the Church’s history was taught through the lives and experiences of outstanding Christian leaders – Brigit, Colomba, Martin, Adomnan and, of course, Patrick.
Muirchu fills out the story which Patrick told about himself in the Confession. Even if he admits that he cannot be certain of his facts, he counts it important to pass on to others what traditions and rumours were going round among the Christians who felt they owed much to Patrick’s leadership.
From Muirchu’s Life we learn that Patrick went to France after he escaped from his life as a slave in Ireland. When he found Germanus (A.D. 380-448) who was in charge of Auxerre and clearly a very much important Church leader in France, Patrick stayed with him and received training for his future missionary work in the monastery. Germanus was an inspiration. Patrick sat at his feet ‘just as Paul sat at the feet of Gamaliel’. While there, news came of the death of Palladius who had been sent to look after the Christians in Ireland. Palladius had scarcely been there a year when his appointment came to an abrupt end.
At this point in the story, Patrick was made a bishop by Amator. Together with two companions, Auxilius and Iserninus, he set sail across the sea across the sea of Ireland once more.
Patrick Meets The Heathen King
Soon we hear of Patrick’s encounter with Loeguire ‘the fierce heathen emperor of the barbarians who reigned in Tara’. This king had been told by the ‘wizards, soothsayers and enchanters’ who surrounded the royal court at Tara in the plain of Co. Meath that there was trouble ahead. Loeguire was greatly disturbed by these gazers into the future. He heard that ‘a certain foreign practice like a kingdom’ would be introduced from across the sea to kill the kings in Ireland; the people would be won over by this strange teaching, and all the local gods would be destroyed.
This prophecy was puzzling and the words of magic were frightening. They sounded like poetry when recited as follows:
Adze-head shall come,
With his crooked-headed staff
And his house with a hole in its head.
He shall chant blasphemy from his table,
From the eastern part of his house,
And all his household will answer him:
‘So be it, so be it’.
When all this happens
Our kingdom, which is heathen, shall not stand.
Things of the strangest kind certainly did begin to happen. It was the year when there was a very special festival at Tara. The idols were worshipped with magical ceremonies. All sorts of enchantments and idolatries were performed in the presence of kings, governors, commanders and other very important persons. Muirchu compared the scene with Babylon in the time of King Nebuchadnezzar.
All this happened on the very night when Patrick was celebrating the Christian Easter festival not far away across the plains of Meath. Patrick lit a holy fire. Its bright blaze gleamed in the darkness and was seen for miles across the plain as far as Tara.
The king cried: ‘What is this? Who is it who has dared to commit this sacrilege in my kingdom? Let him be put to death.’
The elders and councillors replied to the king: ‘O king, live for ever. This fire which we see and was lit this night before one was lit in your house, that is, in the palace of Tara, will never be put out, never, unless it is put out this night on which it has been lit.’
King Loegaire was greatly alarmed to hear this. He felt like King Herod. He went out intending to kill and destroy. He took with him twenty-two chariots and two of his best qualified wizards, and made for Slane, where Patrick was.
The wizards advised the king not to go too near to the fire which Patrick had lit. Patrick was then summoned by the king to come forward. He came, with the brave words of the psalm on his lips:
Some may go in chariots,
And some on horses,
But we will walk in the name of our God.
One of the king’s company was convinced that Patrick had the true faith. He was the only one to rise to his feet. His name was Eric. Patrick blessed him. The others began to insult Patrick and to curse the Christian faith. Patrick answered with a prayer, asking God to deal with these enemies. A wizard met his death; he fell to the ground, and his skull struck a stone.
Chaos followed. The king threatened while Patrick prayed: ‘Let God arise and let his enemies be scattered. Let those that hate Him flee before Him.’
Darkness fell. An earthquake overthrew the chariots. Everyone retreated in confusion.
Then the queen spoke to Patrick. She asked him not to destroy the king. she said that the king would come and worship Patrick’s Lord. The king came, but he only pretended to worship the Christian god. He still wanted to kill Patrick and tried to trick the saint and his companions. The story continues, with an astonishing surprise:
‘The king counted [Patrick and his followers] as they approached and immediately they disappeared clean out of the king’s sight. The heathen saw just eight deer with a fawn, heading for the wilds.’
The next day was a time for feasting in the palace at Tara. It was Easter Day and Patrick with his companions came to preach and to declare ‘Jesus Christ is risen today.’ Only one person stood up. This time it was Dubtach.
The heathen king cunningly invited Patrick to come and eat at his feast. Patrick accepted the invitation. Drink was poured into his cup. A wizard added a drop to it. Patrick blessed into his cup and the liquid froze like ice.
When the cup was turned upside down only the drop which the wizard had poured in fell out. Patrick blessed the cup a second time and the liquid returned to its natural state, amazing everyone.
The Heathen King Becomes Christian
The wizards tried all sorts of magic but each time they failed to impress Patrick. Patrick’s prayers seemed to spoil all their efforts. The king was in despair. ‘It is better for me to believe than to die,’ he said.
The king believed that day. Patrick said that although the king’s day at Tara would be prolonged, no member of his royal family would be king after him, because Loegaire had attacked Patrick’s teaching and had stood in his way, opposing his message.
Patrick Seeks His Old Master
Patrick’s name is associated with many places in the north of Ireland. Muirchu tells us of people and districts with names which Patrick never mentioned in his Confession. For example, the master who owned Patrick as a young slave boy is given the name ‘Miliucc’.
When Patrick, by this time a bishop, lands at the harbour of Inverdee ‘laden with wonderful sacred treasures from across the sea’, he is determined to set out to pay Miliucc a double ransom for release from his bonds of slavery. We hear of him on Co. Down at Strangford Lough. One named ‘Dichu’, ‘a pagan but good at heart’, makes friends with him. Very soon at a place called Sabhall or Saul, near Downpatrick, where it is said that Patrick died, this Dichu becomes a Christian. Patrick pressed on to Mount Slemish, in what is now Co. Antrim, near Ballymena, to find Miliucc. This part of Ireland was called te country of the Cruithne.
Muirchu writes: ‘It was from this mountain that long before, when he had been in slavery as a captive there, Patrick saw the angel Victoricus before his very eyes ascend swift-footed into heaven and leave the imprint of his step on the rock of the other mountain.
Miliucc was alarmed at the thought of his former slave Patrick coming to visit him. ‘To avoid being subjected to his slave lording it over him,’ he made a great fire, setting alight all his possessions, and throwing himself into the flames, preferring to be burned to death rather than to be humiliated.’
When Patrick discovered what had happened there on the south side of Slemish mountain, he exclaimed: ‘I do not know, but God knows; this man, this king who consigned himself to the flames to avoid believing at the end of his life and serving the eternal God… I do not know, but God knows… his descendants shall be slaves for ever.’
A Site For His Church
Soon Armagh comes into Muirchu’s story. Patrick wanted a place for Christian worship. He asked Daire, a rich and respected citizen, to give him a site for a church.
The wealthy man said to the saint: ‘What place do you want?’
‘I want you to give me that piece of high ground, which is called Willow Ridge [Drumsill] and I shall build a place there.’
But Daire refused to give the saint the high ground which is now the Martyrs’ graveyard near Armagh, and Patrick lived there with his followers.
There soon followed a row between Daire and Patrick. A dispute had occurred over a horse who came in to graze on the ground given to Patrick. The horse died and the groom blamed Patrick for killing the animal. Daire determined to kill the Christian, but, as he spoke, he himself suddenly dropped dead. Patrick went to him and, with prayer and sprinkled water, brought both Daire and the horse back to life.
Diare’s attitude towards Patrick changed after this and he wanted to present him with a very special gift, ‘a wonderful bronze’. Also he climbed up with Patrick to the high ground, the hill of Armagh, where they found a hind with her little fawn lying on the spot where there is now the altar of the North Church in Armagh. Patrick’s companions wanted to kill the fawn but Patrick did not allow this. He carried it gently on his shoulders and, with the hind following, let the fawn go free in another wood on the north side of Armagh.
Miracles And Wonder-Working
Muirchu writes of Patrick’s miracles and wonder-works. At the end of his biography he also makes mention very briefly of Coroticus, that ‘very great persecutor and murderer of Christians’, the subject of the Letter, written by Patrick.
We see in many of the incidents which were collected and described in Muirchu’s life, the outstanding qualities of Patrick’s life which are also apparent in the Confession and the Letter. His faith, so firm that it overpowered many who were fearful and jealous of this Christian visitor, shines through the meetings and encounters. He has no need to kill his enemies. Through prayer he confronts them with God’s power and judgement. Small wonder that his spiritual weapons, described in the famous ‘Breastplate of St. Patrick’, still bring protection and strength to the followers of the faith that the saint established in a troubled and dangerous country. These traditional words are still sung today:
I bind unto myself today
The power of God to hold and lead
His eye to watch, his might to stay
His ear to hearken to my need.
The wisdom of my God to teach
His hand to guide, his shield to ward;
The word of God to give me speed,
His heavenly host to be my guard.