It is a question whether Patrick was born in Scotland, at a place called Kirkpatrick, near the river Clyde, or in France, near Boulogne. But wherever it may have been, his birth took place about the year 387. His father was a deacon of the church, his grandfather was a presbyter, and thus Patrick had the opportunities of a religious training from his infancy. He did not, however, use these opportunities so well as he might have done; but it pleased God to bring him to a better mind by the way of affliction.
When Patrick was about sixteen years old, he was carried off by some pirates (or sea-robbers), and was sold to a heathen prince in Ireland, where he was set to keep cattle, and had to bear great hardships. But "there," says he, "it was that the Lord brought me to a sense of the unbelief of my heart, that I might call my sins to remembrance, and turn with all my heart to the Lord, who regarded my low estate, and, taking pity on my youth and ignorance, watched over me before I knew Him or had sense to discern between good and evil, and counselled me and comforted me as a father doth a son. I was employed every day in feeding cattle, and often in the day I used to betake myself to prayer; and the love of God thus grew stronger and stronger, and His faith and fear increased in me, so that in a single day I could utter as many as a hundred prayers, and in the night almost as many, and I used to remain in the woods and on the mountains, and would rise for prayer before daylight, in the midst of snow and ice and rain, and I felt no harm from it, nor was I ever unwilling, because my heart was hot within me. I was not from my childhood a believer in the only God, but continued in death and in unbelief until I was severely chastened; and in truth I have been humbled by hunger and nakedness, and it was my lot to go about in Ireland every day sore against my will, until I was almost worn out. But this proved rather a blessing to me, because by means of it I have been corrected of the Lord, and He has fitted me for being what it once seemed unlikely that I should be, so that I should concern myself about the salvation of others, whereas I used to have no such thoughts even for myself."
After six years of captivity, Patrick was restored to his own country. It is said that he then travelled a great deal; and he became a presbyter of the Church. He was carried off captive a second time, but this captivity did not last long, and he afterwards lived with his parents, who begged him never to leave them again. But he thought that in a vision or dream he saw a man inviting him to Ireland, as St Paul saw in the night a man of Macedonia, saying to him, "come over into Macedonia and help us" (Acts xvi.9). And Patrick was resolved to preach the Gospel in the land where he had been a captive in his youth. His friends got about him, and entreated him not to cast himself among the savage and heathen Irish. One of them, who was most familiar with him, when there seemed no hope of shaking his purpose, went so far as to tell of some sin which Patrick had committed in his boyhood, thirty years before. It was hoped that when this sin of his early days was known (whatever it may have been) it would prevent his being consecrated as a bishop. But Patrick broke through all difficulties, and was consecrated bishop of the Irish in the year 432.
There had already been some Christians in that country, and a missionary named Palladius had lately attempted to labour there, but had allowed himself to be soon discouraged, and had withdrawn. But Patrick had more zeal and patience than Palladius, and gave up all the remainder of his life to the Irish, so that he would not even allow himself the pleasure of paying a visit to his native country. He was often in great danger, both from the priests of the old Irish heathenism, and from the barbarous princes who were under their influences. But he carried on his work faithfully, and had the comfort of seeing it crowned with abundant success. His death took place on the 17th of March, 493.
The greater number of the Irish are now Romanists, and fancy that St. Patrick was so too, and that he was sent by the Pope to Ireland. But he has left writings which clearly prove that this is quite untrue. And moreover, although the bishops of Rome had been advancing in power, and although corruptions were growing in the Church in his time, yet neither the claims of these bishops, nor the other corruptions of the Roman Church, had then reached anything like their present height. Let us hope and pray that God may be pleased to deliver our Irish brethren of the Romish communion from the bondage of ignorance and error in which they are now unhappily held!
The Church continued to flourish in Ireland after St Patrick's death, and learning found a home there, while wars and conquests banished it from most other countries of the West. In the year 565, the Irish Church sent forth a famous missionary named Columba, who, with twelve companions, went into Scotland. He preached among the Northern Picts, and founded a monastery in one of the Western Islands, which from him got the name of Icolumbkill (that is to say, the Island of Columba of the Churches). From that little island the light of the Gospel afterwards spread, not only over Scotland, but far towards the south of England, and many monasteries, both in Scotland and in Ireland, were under the rule of its abbot.
For hundreds of years the schools of Ireland continued to be in great repute. Young men flocked to them from England, and even from foreign lands, and many Irish missionaries laboured in various countries abroad. The chief of these who fall within the time to which this little book reaches, was Columban (a different person from Columba, although their names are so like). He left Ireland with twelve companions, in the year 589, preached in the East of France for many years, and afterwards in Switzerland and all Italy, and died in 615, at the monastery of Bobbio, which he had founded among the Apennine mountains. One of his disciples, Gall, is styled "The Apostle of Switzerland," and founded a great monastery, which from him is called St. Gall.