Time for the wearin’ o’ the green this month as we bid fare thee well to winter white and look forward with hope of greener grasses and the harbinger of spring–St. Patrick’s Day! And, to that end, my annual re-post of a valuable slice of history we should all know and make the hallmark of our St. Patrick’s Day celebrations. Of far more worth than green beer, beads, and bowler hats. Patrick, himself, wouldn’t know what to do with some of the such things. His life was spent on nobler endeavors. Here’s a condensed version of the real story . . .
“Wherever they went the Irish brought with them their books . . . tied to their waists as signs of triumph, just as Irish heroes had one tied to their waists their enemies’ heads. Wherever they went they brought their love of learning and their skills in bookmaking. In the bays and valleys of their exile, they re-established literacy and breathed new life into the exhausted literary culture of Europe.”Thomas CahillHow the Irish Saved Civilization
Telling the tale of St. Patrick and “How the Irish Saved Civilization” is one of my favorite story programs to perform. Each year I re-post the meat and potatoes of the story – all for God’s Glory – so we can remember more than myth and legend, but take joy in the truth and impact of this important figure in Christian History.
Part 1 – The Fall of Rome and the Rise of the Irish Raiders*
The world ended in August, AD 410. That was the day Alaric and his band of Germanic Visigoths entered the city of Rome, sacking and looting the capital of the greatest empire the world had ever known. The fall of the city sent a shudder through the Mediterranean lands, but in Roman Britain no one even noticed beyond the swift retreat of Caesar’s battalions . Once the barbarians entered the gates of Rome, the Roman army was summoned to defend their capital and left the British Isle with no protection from her enemies – so the Brits had enough to concern them without worrying about the end of civilized society in Rome.
The collapse of the Roman power was welcome news to the Irish who made their living raiding isolated British farms for slaves. The capture of young boys was the most lucrative since they could be broken easily and were useful in the dirty, dull tasks of farm life. The withdrawal of the Roman navy from the Irish sea made more daring raids possible, so one moonless night in late summer we can imagine that a few boats slipped into the narrow waterway separating Ireland from Britain and headed for a tempting prize – the rich settlements on Britain’s western coast, a land that included scores of poorly protected villas spread across open green fields dotted with sheep.
Their footsteps were muffled as the men marched inland through the fields, til at last, in the distance, they could see their destination – a modest but prosperous villa of a loyal nobleman – a small two-story building with no more than a dozen rooms. The wall surrounding the structures stood no higher than a man’s neck.
Part 2 – Young Patrick is Seized!*
The Irishmen quickly moved over the wall or perhaps through an unlocked gate, with most slipping into the servant’s quarters while a handful carefully worked up the stairs of the main building into the sleeping chambers of the owners.
The young man in the second bedroom had no time to fight back. His parents were away in another town where his father served on the city council. He was alone on the villa’s second floor with only a few household servants downstairs when the raiders entered his room. They had him gagged and bound before he was fully awake. A chain was fastened around his neck, and along with the villa’s servants he was marched off in line to the waiting boat. Surely someone from the local guard would rescue him. Surely his parents would pay anything to ransom him. He was educated. He was of noble birth, due to inherit power and position in the city.
But the raiders moved with a swift efficiency, killing any captives who cried out for help or slowed them down. And there was no hope for rescue – the wild island where he was heading was beyond the reach of civilized Britain. His life of privilege and luxury was over – Patricius, known to later ages as Saint Patrick, was now a slave.
Part 3 – In His Own Words*
I, Patrick, am the most unlearned and the lowest of all the faithful. My father was a deacon, and my grandfather a priest. At the age of sixteen I was taken captive and shipped to Ireland, along with thousands of others.
When I arrived in Ireland, I was sent to tend sheep. I used to pray many times each day; and as I prayed, I felt God’s love fill my heart and strengthen my faith. I had to stay all night in a hut on the mountain, looking after the sheep, and each day I would wake to pray before dawn in all weathers – snow, frost, and rain. I remained as a slave in Ireland for six years.
One night when I was asleep, I heard a voice speaking to me. It told me that a ship was waiting to take me home. I awoke, and immediately ran down the mountain, and hurried to the coast. I found a ship about to set sail; and although the captain did not want to take me, one of the old sailors smuggled me aboard. I was overjoyed to see my family again, and at first thought I should never leave them again.
But one night I had another dream in which a voice spoke to me. The voice implored me to return to Ireland, and preach the Gospel. When I awoke I felt as if I were a slave again – but now God was my master.
Patrick never thought he’d see the shores of Ireland again. He finished his education and entered the ministry. As he sought the will of God for his life, he knew he must take the power of God’s Word to transform lives to the people of Ireland – the very people who had enslaved him in his youth for so many years. When he went, he brought with him the fruits of man’s literary achievements in addition to the Bible. Literacy was a tool he used to change the course of a nation – and ultimately the world.
Part 4 – Patrick’s Song*
St. Patrick was a shepherd slave keeping flocks of sheep.He lived alone in a mountain home with freezing hands and feet.He prayed all day – he prayed all night and the Lord God he did meet:
And God said . . .
Do not fear, I am near – feed your hungry sheep.
St. Patrick was a holy man, he served God with his heart.
One day God freed him from his woes to make a brand new start.
He sailed away no more to stay with sheep in Irish fields:
Because God said . . .
Do not fear, I am near – Through you men will be healed.St. Patrick was a good student who learned his lessons well.He went to school for discipline to read and write and spell.In his new life there was no strife he loved to learn and grow;Then God said . . .Do not fear, I am near – back to Ireland you must go!
St. Patrick was obedient to God’s call to leave his home.
He sailed away to Ireland’s shore with books about Greece & Rome.
He taught them all the Bible’s call to love God and fellow men;
And God said . . .
Do not fear, I am near – to do miracles with a pen.
St. Patrick taught men how to love, how to read and write and live.
Patrick’s Ireland rose to save the day –
What a great gift they would give.
Through their pen and art now we can be smart
Reading tales of long ago:
When God said . . .
Do not fear – I am near – I will always love you so!
Part 5: Ireland’s Legacy to the World Excerpted from How the Irish Saved Civilization*
Now, while Patrick and the men who followed him built great monasteries the length and breadth of this remote and forgotten island called Ireland, bringing light and life to a dark and violent world through love, literature, and learning, the rest of the world was in shambles due to the barbarian hordes sweeping across the Roman Empire with their darkness, illiteracy, and uncivilized ways. They “lost almost everything . . . titles, property, way of life, learning – especially learning. A world in chaos is not a world in which books are copied and libraries maintained. It is not a world where learned men have the leisure to become more learned. It is not a world for which the Latin professor schedules regular classes of young scholars and knowledge is dutifully transmitted year by placid year. . . As Roman culture died out and was replaced by vibrant new barbarian growths, people forgot many things – how to read, how to think, how to build magnificently.”
But, learning was a raging fire across Ireland. Towns grew up around monasteries built by Patrick and his followers – where everyone could come and learn, and rise to greater potential because of literacy and peace. People adopted civilized manners and ways due to Patrick’s influence.
Dedicated monks labored to copy books, preserving 1200 years of civilization, recorded history, art, and literature that had been rescued from the marauders in the southern Roman cities across the channel. Here, in Ireland, the very least of nations, these works were hidden, until the day when the world knew better how to steward her wealth.
I and Pangur Ban my cat, ‘tis a like task we are at:Hunting mice is his delight. Hunting words I sit all night.‘Tis a merry thing to see, at our tasks how glad are weWhen at home we sit and find, entertainment to our mind.“Gainst the wall he sets his eye, full and fierce and sharp and sly;“Gainst the wall of knowledge I, all my little wisdom try.So in peace our task we ply. Pangur Ban my cat and I;In our arts we find our bliss. I have mine and he has his.
* The following works have been excerpted for this article:Part 1 & Part 2: St Patrick of Ireland, A Biography, by Phillip Freeman, pages xi-xiiiPart 3: Celtic Parables, by Robert Van De Weyer, Abingdon Press, page 9Part 4: Patrick’s Song, by Kathryn RossPart 5: Excerpted from How the Irish Saved Civilization, by Thomas CahillRECOMMENDED READING: I can’t say enough about Thomas Cahill’s How the Irish Saved Civilization! The historical picture he paints of a world in chaos, and how God prepared a land and a man to protect the treasure of the gospel and the literary record of mankind for future generations, has become a “spiritual landmark” for me in strengthening my faith and confidence in a God whose good will towards man cannot be thwarted by the evil in man’s heart. In the light of the darkness that is swiftly enveloping our planet, we are on the verge of another dark age . . . in the last age. If you’ve read the Bible, none of this is a surprise. But, reviewing His Story in His Word and History, there is hope in the Christ that Patrick prayed to surround him . . . “Christ over me, Christ under me, Christ beside me, on my left and my right.”“And we know that all things work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to His purpose for them.”Romans 8:28
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