Who Were St. Patrick and St. Brigid? Are All the Stories about Them True?

Paul Tambrino, EdD, PhD
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Ask Augustine is a weekly column where professor/author Dr. Paul Tambrino discusses various theological questions with wit, clarity and substance.

Question #19 – Who Were St. Patrick and St. Brigid? Are All the Stories about Them True?

 

The early history of Ireland (Hibernia) is buried in obscurity. The ancient Hibernians were a mixed race, but prevailingly Celtic.

They were devoted to their religion of Druidism, a religion that was manifested through observations of the natural world and often included human and animal sacrifices.

The first traces of Irish Christianity are found at the end of the fourth or the beginning of the fifth century.

During that time, Ireland was converted by two humble individuals, St. Patrick who was reportedly born in the year 387, and St. Brigid, with whom the Catholic Encyclopedia reports he was later united.“If we accept the writings that are ascribed to St. Patrick we must say without reasonable doubt that he preached the Gospel in Ireland in the fifth century; that he was a most zealous and efficient evangelist and worthy to be called the Apostle of Ireland.”

St. Patrick died on March 17, either in 465 or 493.  He was the son of a deacon and the grandson of a priest. At about sixteen years of age, Patrick was carried captive into Ireland where he served six years as a shepherd.

He escaped to either France or Briton and was again enslaved for a short period. During this time he had a remarkable dream in which a man, Victoricius gave him letters from Ireland begging him to come and help.

He obeyed the divine monition and devoted the last 25 or 53 years of his life to the conversion of Ireland.  He died peacefully and was buried in either Downpartick or Gabhul where he began his mission.

Roman Catholic biographers have surrounded his life with marvelous achievements, while some modern Protestant hypercritics have questioned even his existence, as there is no certain mention of his name before 634; unless it be in the Hymn of St. Sechnall which was written about 448.

But if we accept the writings that are ascribed to St. Patrick we must say without reasonable doubt that he preached the Gospel in Ireland in the fifth century; that he was a most zealous and efficient evangelist and worthy to be called the “Apostle of Ireland.”

We have only one or two genuine documents from Patrick, his autobiographical Confessions shortly before his death and his letter of remonstrance (a formal statement of grievances) to Coroticus (or Ceredig), a British chieftain who raided Ireland and sold several of Patrick’s converts into slavery.

Notably in the Confessions of St. Patrick, he never mentions Rome or the Pope, he never appeals to tradition but seems to recognize the Scriptures, including the Apocrypha (those books and portions of books which appear in the Latin Vulgate and in the 1611 King James Version as part of the Old Testament but are not in the Hebrew Bible) as the only authority in matters of faith.“We have only one or two genuine documents from Patrick, his autobiographical Confessions shortly before his death and his letter of remonstrance.”

In his Confessions, he quotes from the canonical Scriptures twenty-five times and three times from the Apocrypha.

Patrick is ignored by early Roman Catholic writers until his mediaeval (8th to 12th century) biographers romanized him by appealing not to his genuine Confession but to spurious documents and vague traditions.

These later biographers attribute to him the conversion of all the Irish chieftains and bards, the founding of as many as 700 churches, the consecration of as many bishops, and 3,000 priests (out of a population which at that time ranged only between two and three hundred thousand).

They also report that Patrick healed the blind, raised nine persons from death to life and expelled all the snakes and frogs from Ireland.

Inseparably connected with St. Patrick is the most renowned female saint of Ireland, St. Brigid (or, Bridget, Brigida, Bride) who was born in 451 or 452.“St. Brigid’s life is surrounded by an even still thicker cloud of legendary fiction than that of St. Patrick.”

She died on February 1, 523 or 525 and is known as “the Mary of Ireland.” (St. Brigid is not to be confused with St. Briget of Sweden who is known for the sublime revelations she received on the wounds and passion of Jesus while on a pilgrimage to Rome).

St. Brigid’s life is surrounded by an even still thicker cloud of legendary fiction than that of St. Patrick.

Reportedly she was an illegitimate child of a chieftain or bard and a slave-mother, received holy orders, became deformed in answer to her own prayer, founded the famous nunnery of Kildare (aka the Church of the Oak), foretold of St. Columba (later to be known as the apostle of Scotland), and preformed all sorts of signs and wonders.

However, the Catholic Encyclopedia admits, “Viewing the biography of St. Brigid from a critical standpoint we must allow a large margin for the vivid Celtic imagination and the glosses of medieval writers.”

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