christian ireland

This is the second article in my Irish History Week series.

St. Patrick is indelibly associated with Ireland. Famed in legend and a goodly number of historical accounts as the bishop who brought Christianity to Ireland in the 5th century CE, he is Ireland’s patron saint and the day of his death, March 17, is still celebrated by millions of people today, including in pubs in Boston and Chicago. But the real historical facts of St. Patrick, what he did and generally what was going on in Ireland at that time are less than clear. In fact, it may be that Patrick simply got the credit for the work done by somebody else years earlier.

That somebody else was Palladius, a clergyman sent by Pope Celestine to be the first Bishop of Ireland in 431. This seems to have been before Patrick arrived, but historians are less sure of Patrick’s dates than they are of Palladius. The Palladius who turned up at Hy-Garchon–near the modern town of Wicklow–in 431 may well have been the same man called Palladius, from the province of Aquitaine in France, who went to Rome to serve the Catholic Church there in the 410s and 420s. Palladius was evidently instrumental in urging Pope Celestine to send Christian missionaries to Britain. Ireland was the next logical step.

Palladius arrived in Ireland with four companions: Sylvester, Solinus, Augustinus and Benedictus. Ireland in the early Middle Ages was a patchwork of kingdoms and fiefdoms, many of whose rulers feuded with each other, and preaching Christianity in such a wild and untamed place must have been a great hardship. Indeed it seems Palladius’s early attempts failed. He preached mostly in Leinster, and some sources claim that the king of that province banished him. Palladius evidently couldn’t hack it in Ireland, and he went to Britain instead, although Sylvester and Solinus reportedly remained.

grave of patrick

This is the traditional grave of St. Patrick, located in Downpatrick, near Belfast. It’s a site of pilgrimage for Irish Christians today, but evidently there is some question about whether he’s really buried here.

Palladius spent the rest of his life preaching in Scotland. He died and was buried in Auchenblae, in Aberdeenshire, either in 457 or 461. However, some accounts give these dates as the dates of Patrick‘s death, not Palladius’s. Yet Patrick is said to have been consorting with characters who were known to be alive at the end of the 5th century. Other chronicles of St. Patrick’s life record his death date as March 17, 493. What’s going on here?

One possibility is that the “Patrick” who died in 457 or 461 was in fact Palladius, who may have also been called Patrick during his life, and the “Patrick” who was still alive in the 490s–and whose death is celebrated with green beer in Boston–was the man who came to Ireland after Palladius had already been there. While Palladius did not leave Ireland a Christian land when he sailed away to Scotland, if this is in fact what happened Patrick certainly must have built on the work that Palladius had done in Leinster years before. It’s also possible that, if this confusion of Palladius and Patrick occurred with regard to his death dates (and possibly the date of his arrival in Ireland), there could be other deeds attributed to Patrick that were done by Palladius. Whenever you get into a period like 5th century Ireland, where reliable sources are scarce and what few there are usually contradict each other, it’s hard to determine what actually happened there so long ago.

But we do know that Palladius was the first Bishop of Ireland, even though Patrick gets most of the credit. I don’t suppose that most of the folks swilling green beer in Boston really care that much, and “St. Palladius’s Day” just doesn’t have the same ring to it.