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The Life And Writings Of Saint Patrick -Saint Patrick

So now that the six long years of penance, prayer and suffering were over it pleased God to release the saint from his penitential captivity. He was a stone sunk in the mud, he tells us, before God had humbled him in captivity; but the Mighty One now raised him and placed him high as a living stone in the spiritual edifice of His Church. God had destined him for a great work; and under His special guidance Patrick was enabled to return to his own country. It was brought about in this way:—

He heard the Angelic voice saying that his ship was ready, and urging him to set out at once on his journey. Thereupon the saint forthwith betook himself to flight, and by divine guidance was enabled to make his way direct to the port where the ship of which the Angel spoke was tarrying. Neither did he find anything to fear on the way, for God, who was guiding him to a higher destiny, protected him from every danger.

This is his own account. There is no need to go beyond it, or to suppose that Patrick paid a ransom in miraculous gold to his master. He needed no ransom, for he was captured, not in just war, but by violence and injustice, and he might lawfully escape whenever he got the chance. The Tripartite says that Patrick, at the suggestion of the Angel, asked Milcho’s permission to depart; but Milcho refused, unless a lump of gold equal in weight to Patrick’s head were paid to him. Then the Angel who appeared to him on Skerry Hill told him to follow a certain boar from the herd he was tending, and that the boar when rooting in the soil would turn up a lump of gold large enough to pay the required ransom. So Milcho getting this gold for the time was content, and Patrick was allowed to depart. This story savours of later times; and appears to us inconsistent with the language of the Confession. It is in our opinion a clumsy attempt to justify—what needed no justification—St. Patrick’s escape from an unjust and galling servitude.

There has been much difference of opinion regarding the port from which Patrick effected his escape—whether it was from the Boyne, or from Wicklow, or further south from Bantry Bay, or finally from Killala. In our opinion everything points to Killala as the port of departure, for the following reasons. Patrick tells us that the port was about 200 (Roman) miles from Slemish; and that he had never been there, and knew none of the people there. When the Saint was writing this Confession he must have been well acquainted with distances in Ireland, and especially with the country from Antrim to Killala, for in his missionary journeys he had more than once travelled over many parts of it. Now 200 Roman miles is equivalent to something like 185 miles English, and Killala, across the country, is about that distance from Slemish. So also is Wicklow town; but the mouth of the Boyne is, of course, only a little more than half that distance from Antrim, and therefore cannot have been the port of departure.

Bantry Bay, on the other hand, would be, not 200, but nearly 400 Roman miles from the place of the Saint’s captivity. If, therefore, we accept as fairly accurate his own statement of the distance, we must leave both Bantry Bay and the Boyne out of consideration. Neither would the Saint be likely to come to Wicklow, for that route would bring him along the eastern coast through the most fertile and populous parts of the country, where a runaway slave of the Britons would almost certainly be re-captured. Then he had been there before, whereas he tells us himself he had never been in the part whence he escaped.

Besides, there is one all-powerful reason in favour of Killala. The Wood of Focluth was there along the shore of the western sea, as all admit, and the Saint tells us more than once that it was from that Wood of Focluth the Angel Victoricus brought him the letters calling him back to Ireland; and it was the voice of those who dwelt by that wood that called him again and again, inviting the holy youth to come once more and walk amongst them. It is clear that these words imply his presence at an earlier period, whilst he was still a boy, amongst those who dwelt by Focluth Wood on the western sea; and that previous presence can only refer to his brief visit to the place when escaping from captivity. Lanigan admits the force of this argument, and makes the ridiculous suggestion that perhaps Patrick went there with his master to buy or sell pigs, just as people in our own time go from all parts of Ireland to the fairs of Ballinasloe! When so acute a writer was driven to offer such an explanation, it shows pretty clearly that there is no satisfactory way of meeting the difficulty except that which we have suggested.

The Tripartite states that Milcho regretting the loss of a faithful slave, although he had got his gold, pursued Patrick with a view of bringing him back by force. But the light-footed youth, who was well acquainted with the wilds of Slemish, was enabled to evade his pursuers and continue his journey. Milcho, greatly disappointed, returned home only to find that the gold which was the price of Patrick’s liberty had also disappeared. It was only quite natural that Milcho should pursue a fugitive slave; but the story of the gold here also reveals itself as a later addition. Then—continues the Tripartite—the young fugitive continuing his flight came to the mouth of the Boyne, where he met with a certain Kienanus, who seized Patrick, as a runaway slave no doubt, and sold him to certain merchants who were there at the time for a bronze pot, such as was used in Ireland at that period. But when he brought the pot home and hung it on the wall he found his hands fastened to it, so that he could not loose them. When his wife came to help him her hands in like manner clung to the pot, and finally all the family got their hands glued to it, until they were glad to call on Patrick to release them, which he did. This whole story is ridiculous and wholly inconsistent with the account of his flight given by St. Patrick himself. Focluth Wood, by the western sea, is one of the most interesting places referred to in the Lives of St. Patrick. The name still survives in a form only slightly changed from the original. In the Irish Tripartite the name is Fochlad—Caille Fochlad—of which the present form is beyond doubt a corruption, or rather a modification, in accordance with well-known phonetic laws. The modern townland of Foghill is a little to the south of Lackan Bay, and is marked in the County map of Mayo; but in ancient times the Woods of Fochlad extended all along the low ground from the head of Lackan Bay to Killala, and even some distance to the south-east of that ancient church. There is a little to the west of the present railway line, just before it enters Killala, an extensive marsh, which was once a lake surrounded by rather steep hills on the west, where in places the natural wood still survives. We can easily gather from the Tripartite, as will be seen hereafter, that all this marshy ground was in the time of St. Patrick a portion of the great Focluth Wood; and it was probably that part of it to which he expressly refers, when he describes the voices of those who dwelt near it as calling him back to Erin in language so pathetic and endearing.

Killala was at the time, as it is still, a much better harbour for boats and light craft than for large ships. It has many quiet coves sheltered from every wind and sea, where the lighter craft of the olden time could easily glide in and out with the full tide, and lie not only secure, but completely hidden from inquisitive eyes at low water. Just before reaching the station of Killala the railway crosses over such a cove at the present day. In old times the trees of Focluth Wood surrounded these quiet coves, for there was no Killala then, that is before St. Patrick had founded its church for his disciple Muiredach, whom he placed over his converts, that were newly baptized in the spring still flowing by the edge of the sea. It was there, in our opinion, or in some cove near at hand, that the ‘ship,’ all unknown to its crew, was awaiting, by Divine providence, the runaway slave—the ship destined to be laden with the most precious freight that ever left the shores of holy Ireland.

About two miles more northward and seaward, near the point where the Rathfran river enters the bay, there is a low-lying ridge of rocks, still called ‘St. Patrick’s Rocks,’ and marked as such on the Ordnance map. Beyond these rocks, a little more to the north, and just under the ancient church of Kilcummin, is a small bay sheltered by the rising ground to the west, and protected from the ocean swell by a low rocky ledge running out at right angles to the shore. It affords secure anchorage against all winds and sea, except the north-east gales, which sometimes break into this estuary with great fury. It was here the French ships, under Humbert, landed in 1798; and it may have been here, as some think, that Patrick’s ship was drawn up on the sandy beach just under the rocks where the coast-guard station now stands. The modern townland of Foghill, representing the old Fochluth Wood, is less than a mile to the west, and the spot certainly affords a convenient and secure harbour in the summer months. We think, however, that the place where the ship abode was in the inner harbour of Killala, close to the spot where St. Patrick long after built a church for the maidens whose sweet young voices in many a dream and vision called him to come over the sea and walk once more amongst them. A remnant of an old Patrician church still stands over the sea where the full tides fill the grassy meadows beneath its venerable walls. We have seen it when the beautiful estuary was lit up with the glory of a summer’s sun setting in the north-west, and the murmuring wavelets lapped the foot of the rocky ridge on which the church was built. Some have thought that this venerable ruin—perhaps the only Patrician ruin still remaining in Ireland—was that Cill Forgland of which the maidens ‘Crebrin and Lesru, the daughters of Gleru, son of Cummene, were the patronesses,’ and doubtless the original custodians. “It is they,” says the Tripartite, “that called to Patrick out of their mother’s womb when he was in the isles of the Tyrrehene Sea.” Others, however, place the church of Cill Forgland about a mile further to the north beyond Killala, as we shall see hereafter—but still by Focluth’s Wood, on the marge of the western sea.

The Saint having arrived at the place where the ship was, tells us that on the very day of his arrival she left her moorings to start on her voyage. Patrick, just then coming up, asked to be taken on board as a passenger, working his way, it would seem, but the skipper, in anger, replied to the fugitive slave—“You must not on any account attempt to come with us.” Thereupon, the poor youth hearing these angry words, left the vessel to return to the hut where he lodged, and where, it would appear, he had stayed for some time before he found the ship. On the way he began to pray; and lo! before the prayer was finished he heard one of the crew shouting aloud:—“Come back quickly, they are calling you.” “I immediately returned,” says the Saint, “and then they said to me: ‘Come with us; we will take thee in good faith,’ ”—which seems to mean on credit, that is, trusting to your word for payment. “Make friends with us,” they added, “on your own terms.” “I refused, however,” says the Saint, “to become intimate with them, through fear of God, because they were gentiles. Yet I had some hopes that they might come to the faith of Christ; therefore I kept with them, and forthwith we set sail.”

The whole account of this incident is obscure, and the text seems to be corrupt. We have given what appears to us to be its true rendering in English. It is worth noting that Patrick cannot have remained long at Focluth Wood, since he found the ship, as he says, on the very day of his arrival at the harbour. Yet we find that he lodged for some time, at least, in a hut—tergoriolum he calls it—where, no doubt, he found rest and refreshment after his long journey. He may have been there, however, some time before he found the ship, for what he states is that she unmoored ‘on the day he came to where she was.’ It was, no doubt, in this poor hut by Focluth Wood that Patrick saw the children ‘all light and laughter, angel-like of mien,’ whose voices afterwards called him back to Erin, growing up in beauty and innocence, yet walking in the shadow of death. His heart was touched, and it is not unlikely that there, for the first time, the idea occured to him of one day returning to rescue those fair young souls from sinful bondage and spiritual death—a thought that has been beautifully expressed by Aubrey de Vere:—

From my youth

Both men and women, maidens most, to me

As children seemed; and oh! the pity then

To mark how oft they wept, now seldom knew

Whence came the wound that galled them. As I walked

Each wind that passed me whispered, Lo, that race

Which trod thee down. Requite with good their ill;

Their tongue thou knowest; old man to thee and youth,

For counsel came, and lambs would lick thy feet,

And now the whole land is a sheep astray

That bleats for God.

Gratitude, too, was a striking trait in the character of St. Patrick, as is shown throughout his whole career. We see it here too. He was, it would seem, received in the poor hut where he lodged with genuine Irish hospitality. He was a fugitive, hungry, foot-sore, and friendless, when they took him in, and gave him food and shelter. The two sweet little maidens, like Milcho’s children in Ulster, were kind and confiding. He pitied them, and he loved them with the divine love which our Saviour had for the little children who were brought to Him. Ever after in distant lands, their faces were before his mental vision; their voices were in his ears; he heard their pitiful cry over distant seas and mountains, and we know from his subsequent history, that he never rested until once more he turned his steps to the western sea, to lead them out of darkness into the glorious light of the Gospel. It is the most touching incident in the whole history of our great Apostle, and of itself proves, as we think conclusively, that Killala was the port from which Patrick escaped.

St. Patrick does not himself tell us where the ship was bound for, but he says that the Angel had told him that he was about to return to his native country. Both Muirchu and the Tripartite, however, like almost all the other ancient authorities, state that she was bound for Britain—that is the Roman Province of Britain. Indeed the reference could not be to any part of France, for in three days they could not possibly make the coast of France, especially at Bordeaux, which is more than 800 miles distant from Killala. Even Brest, the nearest port of France, is nearly 600 miles distant by sea from the mouth of the Moy, a voyage that no vessel of that period could accomplish in three days. On the other hand, any craft with a tolerably fair wind could easily make the western coast of Scotland—which was then called Britain—in three days; and there can be no reasonable doubt that such was the destination of the ship—that very country from which he had been carried off a captive six years before.

The Tripartite and some other Lives speak of a great storm that threatened shipwreck, but was quelled by the prayers of Patrick, and was followed by a favourable breeze that carried the vessel in safety to its destined port in Britain. St. Patrick himself, however, makes no reference to this storm, though he is very minute in detailing their troubles after landing in Britain.

A recent interesting writer of lively imagination holds it as quite certain St. Patrick and his companions were driven by north-western gales into Morecambe Bay in Lancashire. They stuck fast on the sands at the mouth of the Duddon, but the rising tide carried them ashore near Heysham; St. Patrick’s sker, or Rock, still marks the spot. Patrick then undertook to lead the shipwrecked mariners to Dunbarton. They were nearly perishing of thirst on the sandy coast of Bare, but in the end they found their way to the Clyde, and left their footprints in many local names along their route.

It is only necessary to observe with reference to this ingenious speculation that it is all conjecture and no proof. It may be all true, but we have no means of ascertaining it. In truth, we cannot even conjecture at what British port St. Patrick landed, nor do we know whether his crew were Irish, or Pictish, or British. They were certainly pagans; and as we know that they had many dogs along with them, it is not improbable that they were a hunting or marauding party from Tirawley, who crossed over to Britain to hunt the deer and wild boar in the great Caledonian Forest. This immense forest, extending from the Grampians to the western ocean, was not unknown to the Romans, and we learn from many of our Irish bardic tales that Irish warriors were in the habit of making hunting excursions to Caledonia long before their kinsmen of Dalriada had established a Scotic colony in Kintyre and Argyle. And we know, too, from many a bardic tale, when the Irish warriors of the North got into trouble at home they fled for refuge to the glens and islands of Scotland, just as readily as their descendants slip off to Glasgow at present when they wish to avoid the police after a hard-fought faction fight or other trouble of that kind.

We can conjecture, however, but vaguely that the crew of Patrick’s ship landed somewhere on the western coast of Scotland, and suffered much in that wild, uninhabited country. St. Patrick gives the following account of their wanderings:—

After three days (from Killala) we made land, and then for twenty-eight days travelled through a desert. They had no food, and were sorely pressed with hunger. Then one day the captain (gubernator) said to me:—

“Well, now, Christian, you say your God is great and omnipotent. Why can you not then pray for us, for we are in danger of perishing from hunger, and we can hardly see anywhere a single human being.”

Thereupon I plainly said to them: “Be ye truly (ex fide) converted to the Lord my God, to whom nothing is impossible, that He may send food in your way and you may be filled—for He hath abundance everywhere.” And so, through God’s help, it came to pass. A herd of swine appeared on the road before their eyes, and they killed many of them, and remained there for two nights until they were well refreshed. Their dogs, too, were filled, for many of them had been left half-starved by the wayside. Then they gave great thanks to God, and I was honoured in their eyes. They also found wild honey and offered me a part; but as one of them said it had been offered to idols I, thank God, tasted none of it.

Such is Patrick’s account of this extraordinary journey, without the additions to be found in some of the later Lives. The whole is perfectly consistent with the hypothesis of the hunters losing their way in the great Caledonian Forest, when seeing neither game nor men they were reduced to the verge of starvation, as has often happened hunters both before and since, especially in that wild region beyond the Grampians, in similar circumstances. The Caledonian Forest was not a growth of tall trees, but rather an immense extent of scrub and bush, such as covered great portions of the Highlands down to a comparatively recent period. It was, in truth, a wilderness, as the Saint calls it—that is, a barren land, such as the Tripartite describes it, empty and deserted. Such a description would apply with even greater propriety to the wilds of Argyle and Inverness in the time of St. Patrick; and, as a fact, we find in a very ancient “Description of Scotland” express mention made of “the mountains and deserts of Argyle.” This view is confirmed by the Scholiast on Fiacc’s Hymn, who, explaining how Patrick after leaving Slemish and crossing the sea “went over all Alban,” points out that this refers to the mount of Alban, that is Drum Alban, the Grampian range. In no other sense can it be explained how Patrick after his escape went over all “Alban”—tar Elpa—except the word means the Alban Hills—the Highlands, in fact, as we call them now.

At this stage of their journey Patrick records a very extraordinary incident which happened to himself, and has sorely puzzled some of his recent biographers. The learned Todd thinks it was a nightmare; but, perhaps, it is safer to take St. Patrick’s own view of the matter at the time, than to go to Trinity College for an explanation in this sceptical nineteenth century:—

On the very night that God had sent (to Patrick and his companions) the hogs and the honey to feed them in their great need, whilst “I was sleeping,” says the Saint, “Satan strongly tempted me; and I shall remember it as long as I live in this body of mine. There fell upon me, as it were, a great rock, and I had no power in my limbs. And then I know not how it came into my mind to invoke Helias. Whereupon I saw the sun rise in the heavens, and whilst I kept invoking Helias with all my strength the light of the sun fell upon me, and at once drove away from me all that crushing weight. And I believe that by Christ, my Lord, I was aided, and that His spirit then cried out on my behalf; and so I hope it will be in the day of my need always, as our Lord says in the Gospel—‘It is not you who speak, but the spirit of your Father that speaketh in you.’ ”

One thing is very clear from this narrative, no matter what others may think, that Patrick believed he was tempted by Satan, that his invocation of Helias, or of Eli—according to other readings—was efficacious, and that Christ and His Holy Spirit thus invoked came to his relief and drove away the tempter. This may not be a scientific explanation, but it was clearly the idea of St. Patrick himself, and with that we may well rest satisfied.

Patrick tells us no more in the Confession of his friends from Killala. We do not know where they went, or what became of them; and, worse still, the corruptions of the text leave us greatly in doubt as to what became of himself during the next few years. The narrative is hopelessly confused. Taking the Rolls Text, Patrick says, “and once more, after many years, I again became a captive.” But we are not told where it took place, or who were the captors, nor how the Saint escaped. We merely know that on the first night of his captivity Patrick heard a voice saying to him, “two months you will be with them,” which was fulfilled, for he was delivered on the sixtieth night by God from his captors, and after a fourteen days’ journey—or as other readings have it, a ten days’ journey—during which God provided them with food, fire, and shelter, they were restored to civilization.

The words ‘post multos annos’ seem to refer to the time when he was first carried off a captive. The meaning would then be, ‘and now so many years after I first became a captive, and having only just succeeded in effecting my escape, I once more became a captive.’ The Lebar Brecc says he was captured on his homeward journey in a foray, and that the raiders kept him with them for two months, when Patrick made prayer, and God delivered him and brought him safe to his parents. A Highland foray was the most natural thing in the world under the circumstances. A party of Pictish warriors seeing Patrick and his Scotic or Irish companions in their territory would naturally try to take them prisoners, and carry them off to their strongholds. Muirchu says the captors were ‘alienigenae’—strangers, therefore, at least not British Provincials. The Tripartite, however, says that this raid took place three months after Patrick had succeeded in reaching his own country (patria)—not his own home—and that the raiders were Britons. If so, they were probably of the Attacottic tribes, who were Britons, but in a state of chronic rebellion against the Romans. It also calls this a third captivity, assuming that Patrick’s brief arrest by Krenanus at the mouth of the Boyne was a second one. We have already seen that such a story is wholly improbable.

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