A Good Read: St. Patrick of Ireland, A Biography

2 mins read

Biographies of people lost in legend and myth can be infuriating, and I was curious to see what could be inferred about St. Patrick from the thin material available. This little book turned out to be a happy surprise. Classics professor Philip Freeman bases Saint Patrick of Ireland on two extensive letters written by Patrick and on the known context of the times. It delivers everything it promises and is an absorbing read. (I actually listened to the audio–more on that later.)

This is not, I understand, the definitive St. Patrick, but it’s a fascinating story of the man. He was born late in the fourth century to a well-off family in Roman Britain and kidnapped into slavery in Ireland at 16, finally escaping and making his way back to his family. He experienced a calling to bring the Christian message to pagan Ireland and returned to that land as its second bishop. The rest of his life was devoted to the Church and the Irish people.

Freeman writes informatively about the British corner of the Roman Empire and, in particular, about Ireland. At no time does he misrepresent supposition as fact, and when he suggests that someone might have felt or behaved a certain way, or that a particular Christian legend may have its roots in a pagan theme or ritual, it’s always plausible, respectful and well-reasoned. Much of what we think we know about Patrick is gently debunked.

Patrick’s “Confession” and “Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus” are presented at the end of the book. They provide a surprisingly vivid impression of the man, and with the added value of Freeman’s context and wonderful writing style, we have a very satisfactory introduction to the life-and-times.

The audio presentation had the usual limitations: no access to the maps, charts, photos, diagrams, notes and bibliography. They were sorely missed in this case but Alan Sklar’s reading is so fine that if you can get your hands on both the book and the CDs, you’ll have the best possible experience. Even without seeing the supplemental material, I have no hesitation in giving five stars to this excellent and inspiring biography.

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