I had little appreciation for the story of Saint Patrick until I began my research for Enoch's Device. That novel begins in Derry and tells the story of two Irish monks who try to prevent the apocalypse at the end of the Tenth Century – a time when many in Christendom feared the world would end one thousand years after the birth of Christ. Prior to my research, I knew only the most common stories about Ireland's patron saint: the tale of the trinity and the shamrock, and his chasing the snakes out of Ireland (which has no native species of snakes, by the way).
Back then, Saint Patrick's Day was merely a good excuse to drink Guinness at an Irish pub. Once I began my research, however, all that changed, especially after reading How the Irish Saved Civilization by Thomas Cahill. I cannot recommend this book more strongly to anyone who is of Irish descent or who’s even remotely interested in the amazing role the Irish played in the survival of Western civilization during the Dark Ages.
Cahill’s book contained the first account I had ever read about Saint Patrick. Here's the abridged version. By the beginning of the fifth century, with the Goths and Huns threatening Rome, the Roman garrison in Britannia became depleted as troops moved back to defend the continent. This exposed Britannia to attacks by foreign enemies, including the Celtic Irish who ravaged Britannia’s western coast. One of the largest raids occurred around the year 401 A.D., when literally thousands of Britons were captured as slaves by Irish raiders. One of those captured was a teenage boy who we know today as Saint Patrick.
Patrick was a Romanized Briton and the son of a noble family. He was not born “Patrick,” and his original name remains in question, yet at least one source has him named Succat. Patrick served his enslavement as a shepherd to an Irish chieftain named Miliucc, who ruled a kingdom in the hills of Antrim. According to legend, Patrick remained captive for six years before escaping after hearing a voice in a dream about a trader’s ship that would return him to Britannia. After finding the ship and returning home, Patrick eventually made his way to Gaul at a time when hordes of Germans were crossing the Rhine to engage the Roman army. There, Patrick studied religion, became a priest, and later a bishop – the title he held when he returned to Ireland as one of its first and most famous Christian missionaries. It is with this background that I read Stephen R. Lawhead’s Patrick: Son of Ireland.
The bards and druids of Lawhead’s Ireland can use magic, which firmly places this novel on the fine line between historical fiction and historical fantasy. Many of the druids and bards who teach Patrick are also members of the Ceile De, essentially Christian druids who believe in the one true God. Patrick ultimately becomes one of the Ceile De; he never becomes a priest or a bishop, though this is not necessarily foreclosed because the novel ends before the reader learns what becomes of Patrick later in life.
Not surprisingly, this plot point is controversial for those who feel the novel downplays or even eliminates Patrick’s Roman Catholicism. After all, they argue, the Roman Catholic Church would never have canonized a druid. But I view Stephen R. Lawhead as taking artistic license for the sake of his story. And overall, his story works – especially the two-thirds or so of the novel that take place in Ireland.
Although it was not what I expected, I enjoyed this novel, very much at times. And while the author may have taken artistic license with his subject, it works well in the end, telling a story of faith once lost only to be discovered again.
Happy Saint Patrick's Day everyone!