August 2003

Michael Farrelly

nonfiction

Patrick: the Pilgrim Apostle of Ireland by Maire B. de Paor

In the interests of full-disclosure I must admit to a severe dislike of St. Patrick.It’s not my fault… not really. I grew up in an Irish-Catholic home with an Irish-Catholic family who swore by their patron saint. I even attended St. Patrick High School. To me St. Patrick is a bunch of nonsensical stories about snakes and shamrocks. On some molecular level I blame him for introducing Christianity to Ireland, which is second only to whisky in sheer trouble-making for the Irish.So it is with some trepidation I approached Patrick: The Apostle Pilgrim of Ireland by Marie B. de Paor.

Again in the interest of disclosure, de Paor is, according to her author’s note, a Presentation Sister and religious scholar. The book is essentially a compilation of two surviving texts by Patrick, Confessio and Epistola which chronicle his ministry in Ireland. The texts are an interesting read in and of themselves, but considering the veneration of Patrick over the centuries their editing by third parties could be copious.

De Paor is academically sound in much of her analysis of Patrick. Her main thesis is a defense of Patrick against those who would cling to the anachronistic notion of him as the ignorant former slave. She paints a picture of a Patrick possessed of a complex character, putting a new spin on Patrick as a symbol of the struggle between the Christianizing Europe and the Pagan old ways.

It’s here that De Paor’s biases become quite evident. The Christianizing of Europe was a complex ballet that had ebbs and flows. The celebration of Christmas near the Pagan New Year, the incorporation of pagan idols into the pantheon of saints and other compromises were the heart of the conversion of not only Ireland but the whole of the continent. DePaor paints Patrick’s mission in simple, heroic terms that ignore this cultural exchange in many respects.

This is not to say that DePaor’s work is lacking in academic quality. Her research is thorough and extensively sourced throughout her analysis of Patrick’s life and writings, but there is an underlying notion that her affection for Patrick is sourced in a shared religious belief. This coupled with clear biased language (referring to Christianity throughout as “The Word”) and a rather unflattering opinion of Pagans as nothing but the most brute of savages, can make Patrick a book that, while scholarly, has a clearly Catholic audience in mind.

Those issues aside there is a great deal of enjoyment to be derived from reading the writings of Patrick, whether they are wholly authentic or not, and using individual judgment as to their further interpretation.

Patrick: The Pilgrim Apostle of Ireland by Maire B. de Paor
Regan Books
ISBN: 0060009020
320 Pages