Every year on this day I hear a lot of nonsense about St. Patrick, chiefly that he was some kind of colonial imperialist who imposed a foreign faith on the people of Ireland.
That simply isn’t true.
The conversion of Ireland was bloodless and couldn’t have been less forcible. Patrick introduced spiritual ideas to the Irish people that they fell in love with, subsumed and adapted to their own culture and religious values. It was a syncretic fusion of beliefs that, for a time, produced wonders.
For hundreds of years, Celtic Christianity flourished independently of Roman authority, a unique spiritual hybrid of ancient Christianity and Irish pagan beliefs, each enriching the other. With so little interference from the Church hierarchy, the Irish developed an indigenous Christian faith of their own: earthy yet cosmic, playful yet deeply mystical, adventurous, reverential of nature, and informed by the wild spirit of the island. Out of this tradition came many legendary spiritual adventurers, clowns, ascetics, saints and scholars. There was an absolute explosion of spiritual genius in Ireland at this time.
On a cultural level, early Celtic Christianity revolved around monasteries, and around these monasteries revolved communities, eating, drinking, partying, praying, having children, studying and dying in the orbit of their spiritual centres. A uniquely progressive justice system was created and there was an increase in the stature of women that, while far from modern standards, was highly advanced for the ancient world.
When the Dark Ages consumed Europe, Ireland remained untouched and these monastic communities became responsible for the preservation of the great texts of European culture, both Christian and pagan. Later, these adventurer-monks entered Europe and started monasteries where they re-taught the European people their own classical traditions.
In time, outside influences put an end to the unique spiritual hybrid that was Celtic Christianity. The Roman Church asserted control over this beautiful satellite that had found its own orbit, and pulled it back in. And the world lost an amazing religious movement that combined the best traits of paganism and early Christianity.
One of course could argue that cultures should just leave each other alone, but that’s not what human beings do. We share, merge, split apart, adapt …. certainly the Irish didn’t leave the mainland alone: Patrick was familiar with Ireland because he spent his boyhood there as a slave of the Celts.
I encourage anyone who has come to accept a black-and-white version of this story to do some serious research. It is fascinating stuff and St. Patrick was a great man.