On this day: St. Patrick

On this day, we celebrate the feast of St. Patrick, "the first human being in the history of the world to speak out unequivocally against slavery."

--from How the Irish Saved Civilization, by Thomas Cahill, Doubleday, New York, 1995, p. 114.

To hear Irish spoken and Irish music played, go to RTÉ Raidió na Gaeltachta.

For modern scholarship on St. Patrick, who was held as a slave in Ireland from the time he was taken in chains from England at the age of sixteen, to his escape six years later, see Early Christian Ireland, by T. M. Charles-Edwards, Cambridge University Press, 2000.

"The slave class was recruited by birth, judicial penalty and, most importantly, force -- as in the great slave raids on western Britain in the fourth and fifth centuries. Slaves from overseas were usually more valuable than natives for they found it more difficult to escape: Patrick had to cross the width of Ireland and secure passage in an Irish ship before he could get to his native island. His venture remained on a knife-edge throughout. Female slaves were valued partly because they could be sexually exploited, partly because escape was, for them, even more difficult than it was for the men. . . . Slavewomen even supplied a standard unit of value, the cumal, . . . because the slavewoman was ubiquitous, a regular and commonplace consequence of violence."

(A cumal was worth three to ten milk cows, depending on the time and place.)

Thomas Charles-Edwards also wrote the foreword to the 2010 edition of John Bagnell Bury's monumental 1905 work. The Life of St. Patrick and His Place in History, by J. B. Bury, Macmillan and Co., London, 1905, is a free Google book. It can also be read online here at Open Library.

St. Patrick of Ireland: A Biography, by Philip Freeman, Simon & Schuster, 2005, contains a good deal of information on St. Patrick and slavery. Freeman's book also contains his own translations of "Patrick's Letters" and a section on the pronunciation of "Irish Names and Words".

A very happy St. Patrick's Day to one and all!

Join the Conversation

Send your thoughts and reactions to Letters to the Editor. Learn more here