St Patrick was born somewhere on the (N-) W coast of Britain. We do not know when or where, or when he died. He had a Roman name; his father was a deacon, his grandfather a priest in the British church. They lived in a city, had some wealth, even a villa. At the age of 16 Patrick was taken captive by pagan raiders and sold into slavery in Ireland; he escaped, got on a boat, and eventually got back to Britain. He returned to Ireland many years later, with companions, as a missionary. He spoke in Irish; he preached, baptised and ordained extensively. He wrote a ‘Confession’ (= statement) of faith and also a Letter ‘to Coroticus’ in Latin. His ‘Confession’ is perhaps the most original and vigorous testimony to apostolic labours since St Paul.
St Patrick does not tell us where he went overseas. A ‘Saying’ of his, apparently preserved, runs: ‘The fear of God I had as my guide through Gaul and Italy and the islands of the Tyrrhene Sea’. But where we can only guess. Patrick’s two ‘Lives’ by Muirchu and Tirechan written possibly between 661-668 and 665-680 claim to be using oral tradition from known people such as St Ultan of Ardbraccan Co Meath (fl 570?); both ‘Lives’ are preserved in the ‘Book of Armagh’. The ‘Tripartite’ Life (‘3 parts’, for public reading) is dated c 895-901. By this time Patrick was acquiring a fame which eclipsed all others. He is regarded as intercessor for and patron of all Ireland.
St Patrick worked for 30 years (some say 60) and is said to have founded many churches (60?), bishoprics and monasteries. Not all these claims will be true. Patrick was little mentioned after his death. Once he had became famous later through the promotion of his ‘cult’ – which had a lot to do with the church politics of the time. Every origin-conscious Irishman wanted to claim him as founder of their church or monastery. Places from Donegal to Tipperary lay claim to visits from him. We shall never know where or how far he went. On the other hand if we cut out the traditions, St Patrick would have done virtually nothing in his 30 years or more. The Irish love these stories. They will never be swept away. They will always tease us.
In reality Patrick did have many years and Ireland is not too large a country. ‘I journeyed among you, and everywhere, for your sake, often in danger, even to the outermost parts beyond which there is nothing, places where no one had ever arrived to baptise or ordain clergy or confirm the people’. Though his words may reflect some rhetoric, they need not be taken as exaggeration.
For all this, Patrick viewed the world in terms of the Roman Empire with its spiritual centre in Jerusalem. Ireland was truly ‘at the very ends of the earth’, ‘on the shore of the Western sea’, ‘on the fringes of human space and time’. For us this re-emphasises the unity of the church at this time. As the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed of AD 381 put it, that church was everywhere ‘holy, catholic and apostolic’, and orthodox in both belief and practice.