(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Although Saint Patrick is revered by the Irish and those of Irish descent around the world, most people attribute to him mythical accomplishments, such as driving the snakes out of Ireland or using the shamrock to teach the mystery of the Trinity. In this excellent biography, Philip Freeman shows that the actual life of Saint Patrick is much more complex and interesting than such legends of medieval origin associated with the patron saint of Ireland. Freeman, who specializes in both classical and ancient Celtic studies, is extremely well qualified to describe the actual conditions of daily life in ancient Britain and Ireland because he has published extensively on archaeological discoveries in ancient Britain and Ireland and can also read both Latin and ancient Irish, the two languages in which the extant documents related to Saint Patrick and the Ireland of his lifetime were written.

Sometime near the end of his life, Saint Patrick wrote in Latin two letters that contain almost all the factual information that exists about his life. Freeman includes an excellent English translation of these two letters and gives bibliographical references to Latin editions of these letters so that readers can read the originals in Latin. In his “Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus,” Saint Patrick excommunicates a British king named Coroticus who had killed Christian converts in Ireland and had taken other Christians from Ireland into slavery in England. Without consulting British bishops, Saint Patrick called upon all people in England to shun the criminal named Coroticus who had so egregiously sinned against God. In his second letter, traditionally called his confession because he calls it in its last line a confession, Saint Patrick describes his life as a youth, his six years as a slave in Ireland, his escape from slavery, his return to his parents’ house in Britain, and his years of service as a missionary in Ireland.

Unlike his eminent contemporary and fellow bishop Saint Augustine of Hippo, Saint Patrick did not write a formal autobiography in his confession. His is, rather, a description of his spiritual development, from indifference to religion to a very strong commitment to Christianity. Although some critics have compared these two confessions by leading fifth century bishops, there is no proof that Saint Patrick ever read Saint Augustine's more famous autobiography.

Saint Patrick's two letters contain numerous surprises for those who know little about ancient Britain and Ireland. Saint Patrick, whom Irish people have admired as the very model of an Irishman, was born in Britain and may have died in Britain as well. Near the end of his confession, Saint Patrick expresses the wish that God allow him to die among his beloved Irish, but no one knows where Saint Patrick actually died. In his confession, Saint Patrick reports that he was born in the British village of Bannaventa Berniae. Freeman indicates that no other ancient source refers to this British village. He argues persuasively that Bannaventa Berniae had to be located near the western cost of Britain, but there is no way to determine whether Bannaventa Berniae was located in the current country of Wales, Scotland, or England. Saint Patrick may thus have been Welsh, Scottish, or English, but he was certainly not Irish.

In his confession, Saint Patrick describes his extraordinary transformation from a spoiled youth into a committed Christian. Although his father, Calpornius, was a deacon and his grandfather Potitus was a priest, the young Patrick was indifferent to religion. Freeman points out that the Catholic Church then permitted priests to marry. Patrick's family was relatively wealthy, and his family belonged to the ruling class in Roman Britain when he was born, perhaps around 390.

When Patrick was just fifteen years old, Irish pirates invaded his British village and dragged Patrick and others from his village in chains into slavery in Ireland. Although Patrick does not describe in great detail the horrors of his six years of slavery somewhere in Ireland, Freeman does an admirable job in explaining how terribly slaves...

(The entire section is 1680 words.)