One of our Coordinators, Breda, shared her love of Ireland during our St Patrick’s Day celebrations. She taught us about the legend of Saint Patrick, Patron Saint of Ireland. She also taught us about the game of Hurling, which we were all fascinated with and watched a couple of games on the big screen. Hurling is one of the world’s oldest field sports and has been played in some form in Ireland for more than 800 years. It is often compared to hockey but other than the fact that both games involve a stick and a ball there is no similarity. Some people have called it a mixture of hockey and war!
The curved wooden stick with a flat end is known as a hurl or hurley, or in Irish a camán (say:come-awn), and is made from a single piece of wood, traditionally Ash. The lower end, or blade, is flat on both sides. metal bands are often used around the blades, as on the left, to stop the wood from splitting. The ball, or sliothar (say: shlit-her) is about the size of a tennis ball and is leather covered with raised ridges where the leather is stitched.
The Legend of St Patrick
St Patrick’s story is partly fact, partly legend and partly merging of the two. In popular imagination, he is remembered for supposedly ridding the country of snakes. He is said to have explained the concept of the Holy Trinity by likening it to a shamrock, and in the process turning a small clover into a symbol for Ireland.
He is said to have debated with the Celtic druids and talked with mythical Celtic figures in stories which are highly entertaining if nor reliable. What is certain is that he orchestrated the seismic shift that saw Ireland abandon the pagan religions that had dominated the country for centuries, and adopt the Christian religion that would dominate it for centuries to come.
It was a remarkable achievement, even when the legendary elements are stripped out, making St Patrick one of the most important figures in Irish History.
Much of what we know about him comes from two documents that he wrote once he was established as the head of the church of Ireland. The Confessio describes aspects of his life and how he came to be in Ireland. In the Confessio he describes how he was the son of Roman official, called Calpornius, living in Britain. He doesn’t specify dates, so it is difficult to be precise about when he lived, other than to say it was during the 5th century. During this period, Roman power was on the wane throughout Europe. They were losing their iron grip on Britain, which encouraged Irish pirates and raiding parties to Mount Smash and grab attacks on unguarded British towns.
Captured by an Irish Raider
In the confession, Patrick said that when he was 16, he was captured by Irish raiders who attacked his home at Bannaventium Taburniae. It is said that this place was somewhere on the west side of Britain, possibly Wales.
The raiders took Patrick back to Ireland and sold him into slavery. He was taken about 200 miles, possibly to Co Mayo, where he was made to herd cattle and sheep for six years.
The Roman Empire was Christian by the 5th century but Patrick says he was not religious at this time and had little faith. However, in his isolation and despair, he began to find comfort in God. After six years in Ireland, Patrick described how he heard a voice telling him to escape and return home. A ship would be waiting for him when he arrived at the shore. Patrick took this to be the voice of good and obeyed immediately. He walked the 200 miles, careful to avoid recapture, until he arrived at the Irish Sea.
As the voice had predicted, there was a ship ready to sail and Patrick managed to persuade the captain to take him on board. He eventually made it back home and was reunited with his parents. He then returned to his education, determined to make up for lost time.
Throughout this time, Patrick described how he never forgot Ireland and the people he met. He had another dream in which he saw a moan coming from Ireland. The man handed him a letter with the heading Vox Hiberniae, the voice of Irish. He said that as he read the letter, he heard the people he had known in Ireland calling “we beg you, holy boy, to come and walk among us once again.’
The memory of the voices he heard in the dream stayed with him for many years, he wrote ‘it completely broke my heart, and I could read no more and woke up.’
Patrick said the dream left him in no doubt as to what he had to do, return to Ireland to preach the Gospel and covert the Irish to Christianity. His wish came through when the Roman church in Britain appointed him Bishop of the Irish and sent him to nurture and expand Ireland’s growing Christian community. Patrick says virtually nothing about his achievements in Ireland and his humility means it is difficult to establish when he arrived, what he did and where he visited.
In order to succeed, Patrick would almost certainly have needed the support of the Irish Kings and clan leaders. The UI Neill dynasty were the dominant force in the north and it’s likely they adopted him and ensure his safety. He was clearly pleased with the reception he received and the success of his mission.
St Patrick’s mission was not without its setbacks. He was dismayed and furious when a group of his Irish converts were slaughtered by a raiding party of Christians from Britain. Christianity survived and thrived thanks to the work of St Patrick but the church structure he established did not. He had tried to set up a diocesan structure based on parishes. This worked well in Europe but not in Ireland because there were no towns on which to base it.
After St Patrick’s death, the church took a different turn with monasteries being the main centres rather than parishes and dioceses. This became the norm in Ireland for serval centuries.
St Patrick gave Christianity a firm foundation in Ireland that survives to this day. In the process he became a national icon whose name is synonymous with Ireland. St Patrick’s day is celebrated all across the world, and although those celebrations have little to do with religion, they still show how important a figure St Patrick is to Ireland.