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The Life of St. Patrick

Ireland’s Saint: The Essential Biography of St. Patrick by J.B. Bury

Not very often do century old biographies on the saints of old stand the test of time, but J.B. Bury’s insightful look at St. Patrick’s life is certainly one of them.  As Professor of Modern History at Cambridge University, Bury was no stranger to the swirling debates around the life of St. Patrick.  This new edition with Jon Sweeney’s editor eyes throughout the whole book is a great way to get introduced to St. Patrick.  Sweeney provides commentary on each side of the page to fill in the gaps where more info is needed, specifically regarding the other characters in the story that Bury mentions.

In the first chapter Bury seeks to put to rest the age old extreme and opposite views of Patrick: “The older view is that he introduced the Christian religion and converted the whole island.  The more recent view holds that the sphere of his activity was restricted to the one, small province of Leinster on the eastern seaboard” (21).  Bury answers this dilemma with proposing that Patrick did three things; organized the Christianity which already existed, converted kingdoms which were still pagan, and brought the church of the Empire part of universal Christendom (22).  With a careful key to the details of Patrick’s life, one startling fact was that Bury mentions that Patrick diffused a knowledge of Latin in Ireland.  Opening up the clergy the whole corpus of patristic literature would preserve the unified Empire of the church in all its lands (27).  The impact on my reading here was that Patrick did not seek to reinvent the wheel for Ireland, but rather sought to align Ireland with universal character of the existing church.  Rather than see Patrick as a rebel without a cause, he was rather a messenger in a strange and frightful land.

We find out in the chapter entitled How Patrick Came to Ireland that ‘Patrick’s father Calpurnius was a  Christian deacon and his father before him had been a presbyter’ (44).  Even in the middle of threats from both sides of the land from warring tribes, Calpurnius thought it a worthwhile calling to be a Christian deacon.  Further in his life, we find out that as Patrick grew he learned the Scriptures but was also not free from ‘Irish freebooters who roamed the coast’ (49).  In fact, Patrick was captured by these Irish freebooters on his father’s land and taken away.  Living the bitter taste of forced labor and bondage was very difficult for Patrick.  Yet, as Bury indicates, “While he ate the bitter bread of bondage in a foreign land, a profound spiritual change came over Patrick” (53).  Taken by pirates, forced to work laboriously for a taskmaster, the Lord got a hold of Patrick as he began to pray early and late in the day.  This period in Patrick’s life was critical in his spiritual and visionary development for the Christian faith and for Ireland. 

This book was a real delight in that it took the various historical details that we find about Patrick and puts them in a larger context of the work of the church.  Furthermore, Jon Sweeney’s work in editing and commenting on the Patrick’s life provides  a great update to what is swirling around in modern Patrician scholarship.  The chapter on Early Conversions and Communities was particularly illuminating regarding the pagan communities who were won over to the Christian faith in the midst of tribes and peoples who would rather go to war than sit at the hands of Jesus Christ.  I heartily recommend this book to those wanting to know more about Patrick’s life.

Thanks to Paraclete Press for the review copy of this book in exchange for review.


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