I grew up on stories of St Patrick. Some were legendary, some were almost swashbuckling. One tale that particularly appealed to my boyish imagination was about the baptism of a Celtic chieftain.
The story relates that in order to free his hands, it was Patrick’s habit to plunge his crozier into the ground. After he had finished baptising one warrior-like chieftain, Patrick noticed, to his horror, that he had driven his crozier into the man’s foot.
When Patrick asked why he hadn’t cried out, the stoical disciple replied: “Christ shed his blood for me. I presumed I was to shed my blood for him.”
Fiction, most probably, but sometimes our made-up stories convey deep truths. This little story captures something of the truth of values such as faith, gratitude, courage and patience.
It reminds us of the place that Christianity came to occupy, not just in the minds but in the hearts and imaginations of Irish disciples.
Today, there is another story doing the rounds. Like the one I've just told, it is fiction. It, too, conveys some important truths. This latterday legend about St Patrick goes like this: Before Patrick came to Ireland, the Irish were a happy, carefree, pagan society, with no rules, no authorities, no limits. Then Patrick came along, with his rules, his religious practices, his thou-shalt-nots, and he made the Irish miserable. We have laboured under this yoke of misery for 1½ millenniums, and now, not before time, we're shaking it free.
To what truth does this second story point? The truth of historical naivety, resentment and selective memory. It reminds us of the place that Christianity has come to occupy, not just in the minds, but in the hearts and imaginations, of the disaffected.
How are we to assess this story? We must fail it, and on two grounds. First, it is poor logic. Surely our allegedly happy pagan ancestors would have sent Patrick packing? Or perhaps they would have converted him? Real conversion, after all, involves a change to something that is perceived to be better.
If our ancestors exchanged a carefree life for a life of misery, then they were pretty stupid, and since we have inherited their genes, that is rather bad news. But we can be sure the earliest Celtic Christians believed they were being blessed rather than burdened by what St Patrick was offering.
That modern myth about St Patrick is also poor history. The religion of our pre-Christian ancestors was Druidism. We know from archaeology and from historical writings that human sacrifice was central to Druidism.
There are written records, dating from before the time of Christ, of Roman attempts to suppress Druidism in the Celtic parts of Gaul, or present-day Brittany. The reason for this suppression was the savagery of Druidism, which was unpalatable even to the callous Romans.
Yes, the religion of our Celtic forebears was dark, terrible and savage. Shall we whisper to the bodies found in bogs, with signs of ritual killing, that they were butchered as part of the carefree merry-making of their times?
Or what should we tell those who feared they might be the next victims, offered in appeasement to the gods? Druidism was based largely on human sacrifice – the offering of people to the gods.
Patrick told people that God did not want human sacrifice. He had offered his own Son to them, as the end of all sacrifice. This is why the faith took root in Celtic Ireland. The people welcomed Patrick and his message and the God he preached. They fell in love with a God who had banished sacrifice, and with it, banished fear.
The modern myth-makers are wrong. Patrick brought the love of God and the light of Christ to an island that even the Romans considered too savage to bother conquering.
It is not difficult to see where the bitter myth gets its energy. Patrick’s legacy has at times been dragged through the mud, and the gospel of freedom wielded like a cudgel.
When we remember this, let us also remember that what was sometimes tainted was not the goodness of paganism, but the goodness of Patrick’s gospel.
Rev Dr Chris Hayden is a priest of Ferns diocese