The Conversion and Preaching of (St) Patrick in Ireland
An extract from the “History of the Reformation of the Sixteenth Century” by J. H. Merle d’Aubigné (1794-1872)
On the picturesque banks of the Clyde, not far from Glasgow, in the Christian village of Bonavern, now Kilpatrick, a little boy, of tender heart, lively temperament, and indefatigable activity, passed the earlier days of his life. He was born about the year 372 A. D., of a British family, and was named Succat.1 His father, Calpurnius, deacon of the church of Bonavern, a simple-hearted pious man, and his mother, Conchessa, sister to the celebrated Martin, archbishop of Tours,2 and a woman superior to the majority of her sex, had endeavoured to instil into his heart the doctrines of Christianity; but Succat did not understand them. He was fond of pleasure, and delighted to be the leader of his youthful companions. In the midst of his frivolities, he committed a serious fault.
Some few years later, his parents having quitted Scotland and settled in Armorica (Bretagne), a terrible calamity befell them. One day as Succat was playing near the seashore with two of his sisters, some Irish pirates, commanded by O’ Neal, carried them all three off to their boats, and sold them in Ireland to the petty chieftain of some pagan clan. Succat was sent into the fields to keep swine.3 It was while alone in these solitary pastures, without priest and without temple, that the young slave called to mind the divine lessons which his pious mother had so often read to him. The fault which he had committed pressed heavily night and day upon his soul: he groaned in heart, and wept. He turned repenting towards that meek Saviour of whom Conchessa had so often spoken; he fell at His knees in that heathen land, and imagined he felt the arms of a father uplifting the prodigal son. Succat was then born from on high, but by an agent so spiritual, so internal, that he knew not “whence it cometh or whither it goeth.” The gospel was written with the finger of God on the tablets of his heart. “I was sixteen years old,” said he, “and knew not the true God; but in that strange land the Lord opened my unbelieving eyes, and, although late, I called my sins to mind, and was converted with my whole heart to the Lord my God, who regarded my low estate, had pity on my youth and ignorance, and consoled me as a father consoles his children.”4
Such words as these from the lips of a swineherd in the green pastures of Ireland set clearly before us the Christianity which in the fourth and fifth centuries converted many souls in the British Isles. In after-years, Rome established the dominion of the priest and salvation by forms, independently of the dispositions of the heart; but the primitive religion of these celebrated islands was that living Christianity whose substance is the grace of Jesus Christ, and whose power is the grace of the Holy Ghost. The herdsman from the banks of the Clyde was then undergoing those experiences which so many evangelical Christians in those countries have subsequently undergone. “The love of God increased more and more in me,” said he, “with faith and the fear of His name. The Spirit urged me to such a degree that I poured forth as many as a hundred prayers in one day. And even during the night, in the forests and on the mountains where I kept my flock, the rain, the snow, and frost, and sufferings which I endured, excited me to seek after God. At that time, I felt not the indifference which now I feel: the Spirit fermented in my heart.”5 Evangelical faith even then existed in the British islands in the person of this slave, and of some few Christians born again, like him, from on high.
Twice a captive and twice rescued, Succat, after returning to his family, felt an irresistible appeal in his heart. It was his duty to carry the gospel to those Irish pagans among whom he had found Jesus Christ. His parents and his friends endeavoured in vain to detain him; the same ardent desire pursued him in his dreams. During the silent watches of the night he fancied he heard voices calling to him from the dark forests of Erin: “Come, holy child, and walk once more among us.” He awoke in tears, his breast filled with the keenest emotion.6 He tore himself from the arms of his parents, and rushed forth – not as heretofore with his playfellows, when he would climb the summit of some lofty hill – but with a heart full of charity in Christ. He departed: “It was not done of my own strength,” said he; “it was God who overcame all.”
Succat, afterwards known as Saint Patrick, and to which name, as to that of St Peter and other servants of God, many superstitions have been attached, returned to Ireland, but without visiting Rome, as an historian of the twelfth century has asserted.7 Ever active, prompt, and ingenious, he collected the pagan tribes in the fields by beat of drum, and then narrated to them in their own tongue the history of the Son of God. Erelong his simple recitals exercised a divine power over their rude hearts, and many souls were converted, not by external sacraments or by the worship of images, but by the preaching of the word of God. The son of a chieftain, whom Patrick calls Benignus, learnt from him to proclaim the Gospel, and was destined to succeed him. The court bard, Dubrach Mac Valubair, no longer sang druidical hymns, but canticles addressed to Jesus Christ. Patrick was not entirely free from the errors of the time; perhaps he believed in pious miracles; but generally speaking we meet with nothing but the gospel in the earlier days of the British church. The time no doubt will come when Ireland will again feel the power of the Holy Ghost, which had once converted it by the ministrations of a Scotchman.
1 In baptismo haud Patricum sed Succat a parentibus fuisse dictum. Usser. Brit. Eccl. Antiq. p. 428.
2 Martini Turonum archiepiscopi consanguineam. Ibid.
3 Cujus porcorum pastor erat. Ibid. p. 431.
4 Et ibi Dominus aperuit sensum incredulitatis meæ, ut vel sero remorarem delicta mea, et ut converterer toto corde ad Dominum Deum meum. Patr. Confess. Usser, 431.
“HISTORY OF THE REFORMATION IN THE SIXTEENTH CENTURY,” by J. H. Merle d’Aubigné, 1846. French edition 1835. Published by Baker Book House (USA), reprinted from the edition issued in London in 1846. Vol 5, pp 679-680.