Early in the 5th century, an Irish ship beat against the waves along the western coast of Great Britain. On the far edge of the crumbling Roman Empire, a band of Irish marauders crept into a secluded cove and raided the village of Bannavem Taburniae.
Among the plunder captured by the band of warriors dispatched by Ireland’s King Niall of the Nine Hostages was a 16-year-old boy named Succat. Although brought to Ireland against his will, the teenager would go on to become Ireland’s patron saint. St. Patrick may have been a foreigner who arrived in Ireland in the hold of a pagan king’s slave ship, but he would become synonymous with the island itself.
Established facts about Patrick’s youth are few, and much of what is known comes from the saint himself in his short autobiography, the Confessio. According to the traditional narrative, Patrick was born into a well-to-do family around 386 A.D. and grew up along Great Britain’s western coast, likely in Wales, which was part of the Roman Empire at the time. His father was a Christian deacon and a minor Roman official, his grandfather a priest.
The raid that tore him away from his family was not all that unusual in the early 5th century, says Philip Freeman, author of St. Patrick of Ireland: A Biography. “We know from a few other late Roman sources that the Irish had been raiding western Britain regularly for at least a century before Patrick was captured in the early 400s, just as the Saxons had been raiding in the east of Britain,” he says.
“One of the most horrifying features of the period is the wholesale enslavement of freemen and -women,” writes Thomas Cahill in How the Irish Saved Civilization. “In the slavery business, no tribe was fiercer or more feared than the Irish.” As Roman power waned, forays by Irish raiders grew more common. On a regular basis, they plundered animals and clothes and snatched children from their sleep in the middle of the night. They abducted young men to herd sheep and cows and young women to serve them.
Ripped from his home, Patrick herded sheep for a local chieftain on the slopes of Mount Slemish in County Antrim in the north of Ireland. Deprived of food and clothes, Patrick lived in virtual isolation. His only companions were his flock and his newfound faith. Amid the desolation, Patrick’s Christianity blossomed. He prayed as many as 100 times during the day—and matched that total at night.
Patrick wrote in the Confessio that six years into his captivity, an angel appeared in a dream and told him, “You have fasted well. Very soon you will return to your native country.” The angel told him of a ship leaving Ireland, and the young slave walked across 200 miles of peat bogs and forests before arriving at a port, possibly Wexford, where he found a cargo ship bound for the European continent.
After the captain refused him passage, Patrick began to pray. Before he could finish, though, a sailor from the ship came shouting, “Come quickly – those men are calling you!” After learning that the captain changed his mind, Patrick sailed away from Ireland, believing that God’s protection must have been responsible for his unlikely escape.
St. Patrick biographer Freeman says that although the escape was unusual, it likely occurred. “It would have been a harrowing and difficult journey, but we have stories of escaped slaves from elsewhere in the Roman world.”
But not all scholars believe it. Roy Flechner, author of Saint Patrick Retold: The Legend and History of Ireland's Patron Saint, has raised doubts about the legend of the saint’s time in slavery. “The traditional story that Patrick was kidnapped from Britain, forced to work as a slave, but managed to escape and reclaim his status, is likely to be fiction,” he said in a Cambridge University study. “The probability that Patrick managed to cross from his alleged place of captivity in western Ireland back to Britain undetected, at a time when transportation was extremely complicated, is highly unlikely.”
Flechner asserts that rather than coming to Ireland against his will, Patrick deliberately fled to the island to avoid inheriting his father’s job as a Roman tax collector, which was becoming an increasingly dangerous and financially risky job in the collapsing empire since collectors were responsible for making up any shortfalls out of their own pockets. He also argues that rather than being a slave, it was more likely that Patrick was actually a slave trader because he proclaimed himself a wealthy man at a time when Ireland lacked a monetary economy and slave-trading was one of the few lucrative businesses.
“The traditional legend was instigated by Patrick himself in the texts he wrote,” Flechner said, “because this is how he wanted to be remembered.”
In St. Patrick's telling in the Confessio, he almost died after his escape from slavery. After landing on the continent, the ship’s crew found itself wandering for weeks in a wilderness devoid of food and began to chastise Patrick for his piety. “What about this, Christian? You tell us that your God is great and all-powerful—why can’t you pray for us, since we’re in a bad state with hunger?” the starving sailors asked him.
“Turn in faith with all your hearts to the Lord my God, because nothing is impossible for him,” replied the young man who led them in a prayer that appeared to be immediately answered when a stampede of pigs crossed their path. Patrick had his first converts.
Patrick eventually returned to his family in Great Britain. His parents begged him to never leave them again, but the religious visions returned and presented Patrick with a different plan. He heard the voice of the Irish call out, “We beg you, holy boy, to come and walk again among us.” After a period of religious training, he was ordained a deacon around 418 A.D. and in 432 A.D. consecrated as a bishop and given the name Patricius.
Although many freed slaves would have dreaded a return to their place of captivity, Patrick asked for an assignment as a missionary to Ireland. When he returned to the pagan island, he tended to a different type of flock. Patrick’s knowledge of Ireland’s language and customs facilitated his work in converting and baptizing Druid priests, chieftains and aristocrats by the thousands before his death on March 17 in 461 A.D.
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