Saint Patrick Retold: The Legend and History of Ireland's Patron Saint
A gripping biography that brings together the most recent research to shed provocative new light on the life of Saint Patrick
Saint Patrick was, by his own admission, a controversial figure. Convicted in a trial by his elders in Britain and hounded by rumors that he settled in Ireland for financial gain, the man who was to become Ireland’s patron saint battled against great odds before succeeding as a missionary. Saint Patrick Retold draws on recent research to offer a fresh assessment of Patrick’s travails and achievements. This is the first biography in nearly fifty years to explore Patrick’s career against the background of historical events in late antique Britain and Ireland.
Roy Flechner examines the likelihood that Patrick, like his father before him, might have absconded from a career as an imperial official responsible for taxation, preferring instead to migrate to Ireland with his family’s slaves, who were his source of wealth. Flechner leaves no stone unturned as he takes readers on a riveting journey through Romanized Britain and late Iron Age Ireland, and he considers how best to interpret the ambiguous literary and archaeological evidence from this period of great political and economic instability, a period that brought ruin for some and opportunity for others. Rather than a dismantling of Patrick’s reputation, or an argument against his sainthood, Flechner’s biography raises crucial questions about self-image and the making of a reputation.
From boyhood deeds to the challenges of a missionary enterprise, Saint Patrick Retold steps beyond established narratives to reassess a notable figure’s life and legacy.
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Flechner (Converting the Isles), professor of early medieval history at University College Dublin, attempts a bold reconsideration of the life and work of St. Patrick, unsuccessfully aiming to speak ... Read full review
(Terry Golway, Wall Street Journal, 14 March 2019) St. Patrick's Day is upon us, and with it the celebrations and occasional controversies associated with the eponymous patron saint of Ireland—the distinctly non-Irish missionary credited with converting the Emerald Isle to Christianity in the fifth century. The Irish around the world will mark the anniversary of Patrick's death this weekend with parades, concerts, poetry readings and lectures, only some of which will bear any relation to the saint's life and work. Thanks to the size and cultural power of the Irish diaspora, these annual rituals have transformed Patrick into a saintly superstar of global significance.
Patrick's fame has its origins in piety and faith. The celebrations in his honor, however, are not spent in prayer and reflection but in boisterous celebration of Irish history, culture and identity. This surely would have puzzled him, because, as Roy Flechner reminds us in "Saint Patrick Retold," there wasn't anything Irish about Patrick. He was born in what today is Britain, although, like the woman slopping about in the mud before King Arthur in "Monty Python and the Holy Grail," he likely would have asked, "Who are the Britons?"
More than anything else, Patrick was a Roman, not by birth but by upbringing. He was born into a Christian family around 385, the son of an aristocratic Roman administrator. He was literate and not especially devout. He was set to live the life of a nobleman, but all that changed soon after his 16th birthday. The popular story, familiar to at least some of March's revelers, is that Irish raiders kidnapped him from the family villa and brought him to Ireland, where he was enslaved and experienced a religious awakening during his six-year captivity. He escaped, made his way back to Britain, and then eventually felt the call to return and bring Christianity to Ireland. The rest is history. Sort of.
A good deal of Patrick's story comes from Patrick himself, as he left behind two documents that have been scrutinized over the centuries. Mr. Flechner, a lecturer in early medieval history at University College Dublin, covers the story that Patrick tells in his "Confessio"—an autobiographical account of his life—and in an enraged letter he sent to soldiers under the command of a fifth-century warlord named Coroticus, who kidnapped some Irish Christians and brought them back to Britain, where they were killed or sold into slavery.
Mr. Flechner then consults his own vast scholarship to question Patrick's version of things, including the narrative of enslavement that is central to the saint's biography and ministry. He suggests—though hardly insists—that Patrick may have gone to Ireland to escape the responsibilities that came with being the son of a Roman administrator. He also points out how difficult it would have been for Patrick to move through Ireland after having escaped from slavery. "We must allow ourselves to be—of necessity—critical of Patrick's version of events and somewhat irreverent towards it, even challenging his integrity and his motives," he writes.
Mr. Flechner is hardly the first scholar to raise questions about Patrick's life, but his brilliant use of source material from Irish, British and Roman writers provides context and historical sweep. He states up front that he is writing for a "wider" readership as well as for specialists. For the general reader, some of the book's arcane subject matter—like the connection between Celtic languages and Celtic culture—and the author's interrogation of ancient sources will require the patience of a saint. His approach leads him to ask some rather dense questions, such as whether it is "possible to argue for continuity from the prehistory of Britain and Ireland (or their Iron Age) into the historical era of these isles in the early centuries A.D."