This is the first time I've posted on two books together. They are a new edition of John Bagnell Bury's 1905 The Life of Saint Patrick and His Place in History republished in 2008 by Paraclete Press with excellent annotations, including boxes with explanatory and background material and quotations, by Jon Sweeney under the title Ireland's Saint: The Essential Biography of St. Patrick, and a 1998 Image/Doubleday edition of Patrick's Confession and the Letter to Coroticus, Patrick's only known writings, translated by John Skinner with a forward by John O'Donohue.
The real Patrick had very little to do with either snakes or drinking, but what is known about his life is positively cinematic and I'm surprised more novelists and film-makers haven't taken a crack at it. The son of a Latin-speaking, provincial Roman magistrate in western England, he was carried off by Irish (most likely Pict) slavers sometime around 405 AD, aged seventeen, and spent the next six years in Connaught, in the northwest (then as now with a reputation for natural isolation), mostly herding sheep. He then, by his own account, made his toilsome way by foot back to the east coast of Ireland (presumably having walked away from his servitude, although what his servitude amounted to is uncertain), where he took ship (after an initial rejection: a distinctly dramatic touch) and sailed, apparently, to Gaul (modern day France) and there had even more adventures as he and the vaguely threatening crew found themselves in the middle of a desolate wilderness, where Patrick performed a little magic involving a heaven-sent herd of pigs, before Patrick could, apparently, flee from the sailors. Finally making his way to the appropriate Church fathers, he obtains leave to proselytize the faith in Ireland, and begins the long trip back to his ancestral home and the preparations to return to Ireland.
All of that, mind you, is mere prelude to his return to Ireland and his role as self-appointed point man for the church (with quite a few more miraculous acts of magic along the way) for 12 years until his death circa 440, having firmly established the Roman church in Ireland. Late in his tenure as Bishop of Ireland he fell out of favor with the ecclesiastical authorities in England (it may have been a turf fight)and wrote for them the Confession, the basic source for the story of his life. It is more of an apologia than a confession as most would understand those terms: Patrick is at pains to convey all of the hardship and sacrifice he has endured in the service of the Church. He presents himself as someone with no interest in worldly power or things.
Bury points out that Patrick was relatively unlettered for a man of his rank owing to the exigencies of his life and probably insisted on speaking the local language. This may explain why his only two extant writings are Latin documents, written for official purposes to possibly unsympathetic readers, and why both are chronicles of hardships and injustices borne by Patrick and his followers. That is, the man may not have been as self-promoting as these writings make him appear. He wasn't a fluent writer of Latin, probably he rarely wrote anything at all unless forced to put pen to paper. The Letter to Coroticus was written after some of Coroticus' men had raided one of Patrick's ordination ceremonies where young men and women pledged chastity and service to God. Apparently the young men were killed and the young women sold into slavery. Patrick wrote the letter to denounce Coroticus (a Christian himself) and sent it back to England where he hoped it would be widely read. There is no record of its effectiveness.
Bury is at pains to show that, while Ireland was never formally part of the Roman Empire, Roman influence was certainly felt there by the fourth and fifth centuries. In fact people who lived on the other side of the Roman frontier were keenly aware of the great power, both hard and soft, that dominated their world. It would be a mistake to imagine a serenely pagan Ireland insulated from Latin influence, a temptation as Irish history tends to be romanticized. As to the pagans, local kings were sophisticated in dealing with Patrick and the Church, making deals and compromises; several of Patrick's monasteries were built on land provided by pagan kings, and any number of his converts were connected to ruling clans. The Druids, legendary pagan shamans, are said to have battled with Patrick in contests of magic (and the occasional assassination attempt). Patrick meets magic with magic, putting spells and hexes on his antagonists (he never shies from cursing his foes). We will never know what all that actually amounted to (movie directors: help yourselves!), but no doubt these episodes involved politics as much as potions.
In the end Patrick must be seen as an essentially conservative figure. He built up a system of monasteries and ministry that was within the catechistical bounds and under the ultimate control of the Roman Church (although the early Irish Church has a greater monastic component than is found in other regions, no doubt because there was a local culture that was already congenial to such behavior). He was an excellent organizer, a tireless trouper and with the visionary's single-mindedness. Part of his motivation had its origins in his early years as a slave; he probably didn't understand completely his own feelings towards the Irish (who were ethnically divided, in any case, between the Scottish Celts in the north and the Picts in the south). It is ironic that the actual life story of this very serious man is more fantastic than the facile legends that have grown around his name.
I strongly recommend Sweeney's annotated edition of Bury which is loaded with good information. Skinner's translation of the Confession and the Letter is clear, but there is almost no critical apparatus and John O'Donohue, who wrote the very brief forward, has a spacey Jungian vibe which is pleasant but uninformative.
Related topics of earlier posts include Thomas Cahill's essential How the Irish Saved Civilization, Ciaran Carson's recent translation of the Tain Bo Cualnge, and Philip Freeman's entertaining 2006 The Philosopher and the Druids (Freeman has also written a biography of Patrick).