Patrick goes eyeball to eyeball with the King

by Dermot O'Gara

It's often said of the Irish that we are an irreverent bunch, with a cynicism towards authority and a healthy disrespect for figureheads and trappings of grandeur. Picture an Irish man meeting say Bertie Ahern, our prime minister in one of his favourite haunts - maybe a local pub a sporting event. The Irish man is much more likely to react by slapping him on the back saying, "Jaysis. Howya Bertie" than to shake his hand politely and say, "Delighted to meet you Mr Ahern".

When this apparent impertinence first emerged, we can't be sure, but we do know that one of it earliest and perhaps most successful proponents was none other than our patron saint, Patrick.

Seems that back in the fifth century when Patrick was pounding the dirt roads of Ireland, shamrock in one hand, crozier in the other, he encountered considerable resistance to the christianisation of this wee spot we call home.

Now remember that Patrick, still answering to the name of Maewyn Succat, was initially brought to Ireland as a slave when just a teenager. Some years later, having escaped from his wicked captor, he found himself in continental Europe, where he studied first in France and then in Rome.

Studies completed and given that Maewyn knew the lie of the land in Ireland, the Holy Father, Pope Celestine, bade him return to Ireland to christianise a people that still worshipped pagan gods.

So return he did, and the first place he set foot was none other than County Down, where he had spent so much time as a slave. He was greeted by the local Lord, a gentleman by the name of Dicho and it didn't take long for Patrick to turn this man, and by implication the entire local population, toward christianity.

Converting local lords was all well and good, but if Patrick was going make a real impact, he was going to have to go right to the top - the top of the Hill of Tara that is, the seat of power of the High King of Ireland.

The incumbent went by the name of Laoghaire, or Leary as it might be pronounced in English, and Patrick realised that to overcome the vehement opposition his crusade was facing from the pagan religious hierarchy, he would have to get in front of the High King to make his case. So off he went to the royal county of Meath.

As it happened he got there the day before Easter Sunday. Easter happened to coincide with the festival of Bealtaine which the pagans celebrated by lighting a series of bonfires around the countryside. Laoghaire had dibs on the first fire, and it was a bit of a no-no to put spark to your tinder until the boss had a good blaze going on top of the Hill of Tara.

Patrick and his followers were probably aware of this when stole a march on the King and they lit their own fire nearby. Celebrating Easter is what they said they were doing.

It was no great surprise then when Laoghaire and his coterie came down from his hill to find out who this disrespectful upstart was.

Words were exchanged, but in the heel of the hunt, Patrick accepted an invitation from Laoghaire to go to Tara the following day to discuss the situation. Discussion was the last thing on Laoghaire's mind however, and he sent out an order to have Patrick ambushed and killed on the way to the meeting.

Well you can imagine the look of surprise on the King's face when Patrick arrived the next day in time for their get-together. Somehow, whether through the power of prayer or through good fortune, Patrick arrived unharmed.

The sit-down went ahead, and it's fair to say Patrick got a good day's work done. While the king himself was resolute in his determination to remain a pagan, the same couldn't be said for his wife the queen and several of the their household who converted to christianity.

Not only that, but Patrick was given the go ahead to preach his Christian message across Ireland.

So things would never be the same again, and all because of Patrick's fearlessness in the face of authority.


 © 2009