Sure and His Was a Wonderful Life: Part I

Magonus Succetus: The Boy Who Would Be St. Patrick, Apostle of Ireland

StPatrickMineIn preparation for St. Patrick’s Day on March 17, this is the first of a series of stories about St. Patrick. Many details were collected from the entry, “St. Patrick,” by Cardinal Patrick Francis Moran in The Catholic Encyclopedia of 1911; other details are from St. Patrick’s Confessio, and other sources that I’ll mention as we go along. This first part today will cover the saint’s life from his capture and enslavement in Ireland until the time he was able to escape and return to what was left of his family six years later.

The details of St. Patrick’s life are even more amazing than the broadly sketched stories I heard about him as a child in the 1950s and early 60s, from the sisters at Mount Alvernia Academy in Chestnut Hill and at Notre Dame Academy in Roxbury, MA, from my father’s relatives, who were the Irish side of the family, and, by absorption, from the predominantly Irish-American culture in which I was immersed, while growing up in Eastern Massachusetts. I learned back then that Patrick was from a family of Roman citizens, and that he was taken prisoner at a young age by raiders from Ireland and forced to be a sheepherder for an Irish pagan master. The young captive was led by this terrible misfortune to repent his earlier lack of belief, and he prayed to God many times a day and night during his exile. After a long time of captivity, he was told by a voice to escape, go to a port hundreds of miles away and board a ship back to Roman territory.

As the story went on, Patrick miraculously got away, managed to find his way after the long journey to the port, found a ship that was just about to depart, and was allowed to board. After being reunited with his parents, Patrick experienced several visions in which the voice of Ireland begged him to return. After a time of preparation during which he became a priest and then a bishop, Patrick was able to travel back to Ireland as a missionary to the pagans he had lived as a slave among for so many years. We all know that his attempts at converting the Irish met with a great deal of success, to put it mildly.

St. Patrick was said to have used the famous shamrock — which is now trademarked by the Irish government as a symbol of Ireland — to explain the Trinity to the pagans. The shamrock with its three leaves on one stalk served as visual metaphor of how the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost could be three persons but still be One God.

It was also commonly said of St. Patrick that he drove all the snakes out of Ireland, and that they never returned. I have some things to say to the debunkers who claim that Patrick’s use of the shamrock and the story of him driving out the snakes are completely fictitious, but I’ll save my rebuttals for a later post.

ShamrockSeamrogSt. Patrick and the SnakesSt. Patrick’s Birth Name and Birth Place

According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, St. Patrick was born in 387 and died on March 17, 493, although the date of his death is disputed and some think he died in 460 or 461. St. Patrick’s birth name was Maegwyn in Celtic and Magonus in Latin. The name of his noble family is Succat in Celtic and Succetus in Latin. Magonus is known to have been born on an estate called Enon, which was first owned by his grandfather, Lord Potitus, who was a priest, and then by his father Lord Calpurnius Succetus, who was a deacon.

Several places are put forth as the location of the estate, including Wales. The Catholic Encyclopedia says that he was born at Kilpatrick, near Dumbarton, in Scotland, in the year 387. In its favor as a plausible site for St. Patrick’s birth, Kilpatrick (Patrick’s Church) has many memorials of Saint Patrick, including the St. Patrick’s Church, and the Catholic Encyclopedia states that “Frequent pilgrimages continued far into the Middle Ages to perpetuate there the fame of his sanctity and miracles.”

Kirkpatrick Clan Crest at St. Patrick's Church, Kilpatrick, Scotland

Kirkpatrick Clan Crest at St. Patrick’s Church, Kilpatrick, Scotland


However, almost 100 years after the Catholic Encyclopedia article was published in 1911, in an article titled “Saint Patrick’s Family,” which was copyrighted in 2007, the author, Lord Aurelius Joseph Michael Isamat Anax of Catalania, scoffs at any scholar who attributes any birthplace to St. Patrick that was located outside of the Roman province of Brittania. Anax writes that in St. Patrick’s own writings “his native land is called by the plural, Britanniæ ‘the Britains,’ which could only refer collectively to the two Roman provinces named Britannia (both on the island), or universally to the old province of Britannia (the entire island South of Hadrian’s Wall).” Anax believes that St. Patrick was born in one of the two Roman provinces named Britannia Prima and Britannia Secunda.

Anax points out that Wales couldn’t be where St. Patrick was born because it wasn’t one of the Britains (it isn’t on the island). He also points out that the region of Kirkpatrick in Scotland could not have been in Britannia, because that part of Scotland lies north of Hadrian’s Wall. Anax writes, “[A]t the time of Saint Patrick’s birth, the Romans had abandoned all territories to the north of Hadrian’s Wall… for two centuries. Moreover, even during the short period of Roman occupation, the area between the two walls was conquered but not colonized. Near the Clyde River there was never any palatial Roman estate such as villa Enon.”

Anax speculates about other St. Patricks that might have been the source of the devotion to St. Patrick (Patricius) at Kilpatrick. One reasonable candidate would be another saint, St. Palladius Patricius, who was sometimes also called St. Patrick. This saint first tried to evangelize the Irish and failed, just before Magonus was given the same title, Patricius, and sent to try his luck with the same violent folk who had defeated his predecessor. St. Patrick’s predecessor went to Caledonia in 432, and founded a church near Aberdeen, Scotland. Anax speculates that this first St. Palladius, who was also called St. Patrick, possibly might have spent his last few months in the area that might later have been called Kilpatrick after him.

St. Patrick, Roman Citizen, and Speaker of Latin

We still have documents in Latin that were irrefutably written by St. Patrick himself, the most significant of them is, of course, his Confessio (translated as The Confession of Saint Patrick), which Saint Patrick wrote in 455. Magonus grew up speaking Latin because he was from a family of relatively high rank in what was left of Roman Empire on the island of Britain at the beginning of the 5th century A.D. But his Latin apparently wasn’t very good, and he apologized in his writings for his lack of knowledge.

His father, Calpurnius held the office of Decurion (municipal councilor), probably in Nentria. His mother Conchessa was a relative of the great St. Martin of Tours (some sources say St. Martin was Patrick’s uncle). Magonus had one brother for sure, named Sannan, according to Anax, and perhaps a second brother named Ruchti. And he had four sisters, Saint Tygrida, Lady Lupait, Lady Richella and Saint Liamain “Der-Erc.”

St. Fiacc’s Hymn of St. Patrick

St. Fiacc’s Hymn of St. Patrick tells more than St. Patrick did about the circumstances of his abduction. St. Fiacc was a bard before St. Patrick made him a Bishop. An article titled, The Real St. Patrick, Bishop of Ireland by Fr. Kristopher and Matushka Elizabeth Dowling, has this to say about St. Fiacc’s hymn, “Although some modern writers believe that St. Fiacc’s Hymn of St. Patrick was written many centuries later; this thought is based on later additions of footnotes following the hymn.” The article also speculates that modern critics may doubt the validity of this hymn because they are “uncomfortable” with the miracles it sings about.

The hymn, as paraphrased in the above-mentioned article, tells how the raid was done by “the seven vengeful exiled sons of a king of the Britons. This happened after Rome required that all Briton soldiers under Roman authority go to Rome to defend that city from barbarians, leaving Britain without any army or police, as recorded by St. Bede….St. Patrick’s father was killed.” [St. Bede is the author of “Ecclesiastical History of the English People,” which he completed in 731, and oddly enough, he did not mention the work of St. Patrick at all, even though St. Patrick had lived and worked in the fifth century in one of the British isles.

While everyone knows that Magonus was captured by Irish marauders at around the age of 16, it’s much less well known that two of his sisters, Tygrida and Lupait, were captured too, along with thousands of others. Magonus was sold to four men as a shepherd, and he didn’t know where his sisters were taken (although they lived past the time of their captivity and their lives are in the historical records of the time). Later one of the men, a Druid chieftain named Milcho or Milchu MacCuboin, bought out the shares of the other three men. For six years Magonus tended Milchu’s flocks, possibly on Slemish Mountain in Dalaradia, a territory of the present county of Antrim in Ireland.

In his Confessio, Saint Patrick wrote, “I went into captivity to Ireland with many thousands of persons, according to our deserts, because we departed away from God, and kept not his commandments, and were not obedient to our priests, who used to admonish us for our salvation.

“Then the Lord made me aware of my unbelief, so that — however late– I might recollect my offences and turn with all my heart to the Lord my God. It was He who took heed of my insignificance, who pitied my youth and ignorance, who watched over me as a father would a son. That is why I cannot remain silent… about the great favours and graces which the Lord deigned to grant me in the land of my captivity. For the way to make repayment for that revelation of God through capture and enslavement is to declare and make known His wonders to every race under heaven….

“I know for certain, that before I was humbled I was like a stone lying in deep mire, and he that is mighty came and in his mercy raised me up and, indeed, lifted me high up and placed me on top of the wall. And from there I ought to shout out in gratitude to the Lord for his great favours in this world and for ever, that the mind of man cannot measure.”

He also wrote the following about how he grew in love, in faith, in fear, and in the spirit of the Lord:

“But after I had come to Ireland, I was daily tending sheep, and I prayed frequently during the day, and the love of God, and His faith and fear, increased in me more and more, and the spirit was stirred; so that in a single day I have said as many as a hundred prayers, and in the night nearly the same; so that I remained in the woods, and on the mountain, even before the dawn, I was roused to prayer, in snow, and ice, and rain, and I felt no injury from it, nor was there any slothfulness in me, as I see now, because the spirit was then fervent in me.”

In Magonus’ time as a slave, he learned the Celtic tongue and he learned the Druidic pagan beliefs, and in that way he was prepared for the mission God had in mind for him.

The Rest of the Story in His Own Words

As for how he escaped and made his way home, let St. Patrick tell the rest of that part of his story in his own words from his Confessio.

“And it was there of course that one night in my sleep I heard a voice saying to me: ‘You do well to fast: soon you will depart for your home country.’ And again, a very short time later, there was a voice prophesying: ‘Behold, your ship is ready.’ And it was not close by, but, as it happened, two hundred miles away, where I had never been nor knew any person. And shortly thereafter I turned about and fled from the man with whom I had been for six years, and I came, by the power of God who directed my route to advantage (and I was afraid o nothing), until I reached that ship.

“And on the same day that I arrived, the ship was setting out from the place, and I said that I had the wherewithal to sail with them; and the steersman was displeased and replied in anger, sharply: ‘By no means attempt to go with us.’

St. Patrick did not tell how he had abstained the wherewithal to pay his passage, but other sources of his life story say he obtained the money in a miraculous way.

Hearing this I left them to go to the hut where I was staying, and on the way I began to pray, and before the prayer was finished I heard one of them shouting loudly after me: ‘Come quickly because the men are calling you.’ And immediately I went back to them and they started to say to me: ‘Come, because we are admitting you out of good faith; make friendship with us in any way you wish.’ (And so, on that day, I refused to suck the breasts of these men from fear of God, but nevertheless I had hopes that they would come to faith in Jesus Christ, because they were barbarians.)”

What a strange thing for our saint to mention so casually! According to several sources, including Jane Gray in her article “Life and Confession of St. Patrick: Captivity in Ireland,” the act of breast sucking that Magonus refused to perform was a practice of binding between men, a “common pagan practice of submission, a practice both crude and unchaste.” To paraphrase the crew’s words in St. Patrick’s account, it was a “way of making friendship,” what one source referred to as a ritual of adoption and loyalty. Philip Freeman wrote in his book St. Patrick of Ireland: A Biography, “This short phrase in his Confession has struck readers as so utterly bizarre that medieval scribes even tried to change the text to say something else entirely, but ‘suck their breasts’ is clearly the original reading…. The sailors saw it as a simple ritual for joining the crew — they had all done it and expected anyone else wishing to become one of their number to do the same.” St. Patrick proudly wrote that “he refused because he feared God.” Perhaps miraculously, the crew offered instead to let the young man “make friendship with us in any way you wish,” and allowed him to travel with them.

“And for this I continued with them, and forthwith we put to sea.

“And after three days we reached land, and for twenty-eight days journeyed through uninhabited country, and the food ran out and hunger overtook them; and one day the steersman began saying: ‘Why is it, Christian? You say your God is great and all-powerful; then why can you not pray for us? For we may perish of hunger; it is unlikely indeed that we shall ever see another human being.’ In fact, I said to them, confidently: ‘Be converted by faith with all your heart to my Lord God, because nothing is impossible for him, so that today he will send food for you on your road, until you be sated, because everywhere he abounds.’ And with God’s help this came to pass; and behold, a herd of swine appeared on the road before our eyes, and they slew many of them, and remained there for two nights, and the were full of their meat and well restored, for many of them had fainted and would otherwise have been left half dead by the wayside. And after this they gave the utmost thanks to God, and I was esteemed in their eyes, and from that day they had food abundantly. They discovered wild honey, besides, and they offered a share to me, and one of them said: ‘It is a sacrifice.’ Thanks be to God, I tasted none of it.

“The very same night while I was sleeping Satan attacked me violently, as I will remember as long as I shall be in this body; and there fell on top of me as it were, a huge rock, and not one of my members had any force. But from whence did it come to me, ignorant in the spirit, to call upon ‘Helias’? And meanwhile I saw the sun rising in the sky, and while I was crying out ‘Helias, Helias’ with all my might, lo, the brilliance of that sun fell upon me and immediately shook me free of all the weight; and I believe that I was aided by Christ my Lord, and that his Spirit then was crying out for me, and I hope that it will be so in the day of my affliction, just as it says in the Gospel: ‘In that hour’, the Lord declares, ‘it is not you who speaks but the Spirit of your Father speaking in you.’

“And a second time, after many years, I was taken captive. On the first night I accordingly remained with my captors, but I heard a divine prophecy, saying to me: ‘You shall be with them for two months.’ So it happened. On the sixtieth night the Lord delivered me from their hands.

“On the journey he provided us with food and fire and dry weather every day, until on the tenth day we came upon people. As I mentioned above, we had journeyed through an unpopulated country for twenty-eight days, and in fact the night that we came upon people we had no food.

“And after a few years I was again in Britain with my kinsfolk and they welcomed me as a son, and asked me, in faith, that after the great tribulations I had endured I should not go any where else away from them.”

But, tempting as the prospect must have been for Magonus to stay close to his kinsmen after all he had endured at the hands of the Irish, the good God who had cared for the lonely shepherd boy and who had led him out of captivity had other plans.

Continued in Part II