Saint Patrick and the art of public relations

Separating fact from fiction can be difficult, but St. Patrick definitely won the war for popular historical memory

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Pat MurphyGrowing up in Dublin in the 1950s, Saint Patrick’s Day wasn’t the big deal that it is now. Oh, the fact that it was a statutory holiday meant that you got a day off school or work, which was never something to be sneezed at. And in addition, if you’d promised to forsake some pleasure for Lent – such as giving up chocolate or cigarettes – you had a dispensation to indulge on Saint Patrick’s Day.

Mind you, you did have to attend Mass, not because of any legal obligation but rather because Catholic Ireland’s then dominant social ethos rendered it essentially non-negotiable – unless, of course, you weren’t Catholic. However, as virtually everyone was Catholic, that was a distinction without a difference.

Otherwise, celebrations tended to be low-key. Yes, people often did wear a sprig of shamrock on their clothing, but there were no greeting cards, no funny hats, and certainly no green beer. In deference to Saint Patrick being Ireland’s patron saint, pubs were actually closed. If the beer flowed freely in New York or Toronto, drinkers in Ireland went thirsty.

So who was Saint Patrick? When did he live? And did he really introduce Ireland to Christianity?

In reality, much of what we think we know is just informed speculation. After all, Saint Patrick lived in the fifth century, and the only contemporary witness to his life comes from two Latin texts he himself wrote. Although more material followed in subsequent centuries, sorting out fact from cult-creating hagiography presents a major challenge.

Historians do generally agree that Patrick was a native of late Roman Britain who was kidnapped in an Irish raid, brought to Ireland and put to work as a slave tending sheep. Six years on, he escaped and left the country, only to return later as a Christian missionary. In his own telling, this return was inspired by a dream in which Irish people asked him to “come and walk once more” among them. True or not, it’s the kind of mystical imagery that packs a real punch for those disposed to believe.

Patrick, however, didn’t introduce Christianity to Ireland. Instead, it’s likely that missionaries first arrived as early as the late fourth century, perhaps with an assist from Irish military and colonial adventurism.

As Roman imperial power waned, the empire’s frontiers became vulnerable to incursions from tribes living just beyond the fringe. In the case of Roman Britain, the Irish were among the most prolific raiders, subsequently upping their game and establishing settlements in Wales and Cornwall. From this, it’s likely there’d have been exposure to Christianity, some of which might have trickled back home.

Regardless of how it happened, we do know that there were Christian communities extant in Ireland by the early fifth century. In 431, Pope Celestine even ordained a bishop for “the Irish who believe in Christ,” a formulation that presupposes the prior existence of believers. Named Palladius, he was probably what we’d now call French.

If reliable documentation on Patrick is sketchy, our knowledge of Palladius is even iffier. In terms of timeframe, he roughly coincided with Patrick or perhaps slightly preceded him. And his geographical sphere of activity was different, Patrick operating in the northern half of the island while Palladius was focused on the eastern seaboard.

Patrick, though, won the war for popular historical memory, thanks in part to the diligence of his hagiographers. The art of public relations, it would seem, has an ancient pedigree.

And like all winners in the historical reputation stakes, Patrick found himself being appropriated by later savvy political operators. Ambitious Irish dynasties like the O’Neills and the O’Briens sought to link themselves to his memory. Even the newly-arrived Normans got into the act. In 1185, John de Courcy managed to “discover” Patrick’s remains in Ireland’s northeast, which conveniently happened to be territory he’d just conquered. Associating yourself with local legends was useful for establishing legitimacy.

Indeed, the latter tactic was something the Normans were particularly adept at. In England, several generations of Norman kings publicly aligned themselves with the legend of King Arthur and the supposed discovery of his bones at Glastonbury. Shrewd men, they did what was necessary.

Hey, if it works, don’t knock it. Being a king wasn’t always easy.

Pat Murphy casts a history buff’s eye at the goings-on in our world. Never cynical – well, perhaps a little bit. For interview requests, click here.


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