(HOST) Commentator Willem Lange never fully appreciated the full effect of the career of St. Patrick until a recent VPR tour to the land of the Ould Sod.
(LANGE) Saint Patrick’s Day was yesterday, but it’s celebrated for weeks in Ireland. Patrick’s cheerful ghost haunts the emerald isle the way the spirit of Jefferson pervades Monticello. Cathedrals, holy springs, monasteries – he’s everywhere! Yet this archetypical Irishman – charming, single-minded, energetic, courageous – wasn’t even Irish.
Patrick was born in 385 in what’s now Wales to a family of Roman civil servants. He was named Patricius, after his patris, or fatherland. As a boy, he was destined to be a lawyer or scholar. He would have been well nourished and schooled in sports and the manly arts.
But Rome never managed to tame the wild Irish sea raiders along the West Coast of Britain. When Patricius was 16, he was captured by marauders and found himself a shepherd slave alone in the hills of Ireland. In his autobiography he writes that he prayed continually for deliverance from his slavery or the strength to bear the alternative.
Sleeping fitfully one night in the hills of Antrim, he dreamed he heard a voice saying, “Your hungers have been rewarded. Look! your ship is ready.” Waking up, he set out walking toward the sea where he came upon a ship preparing for a trip to the Continent. He persuaded the captain to take him aboard.
It was a terrible voyage. They dodged German ships the whole way and arrived at last in Gaul half-starved. The land had been laid waste by recent battles. The crew were willing to try anything. “If the god you’re praying to is as all-powerful as you say,” they challenged him, “then ask him to send us some food.” Patricius did; and as he rose, a herd of swine came running down the road. The crew had a feast of roast pork, and Patrick had his first batch of converts.
At the age of 47, after a stint in seminary in France, he returned to the scene of his slavery and began converting the pagan population. He knew the Irish Druids believed in a spirit world of leprechauns and elves, and in an afterlife. So he adapted his approach to those existing beliefs, and Ireland became the only country ever evangelized without bloodshed and martyrs.
Patrick founded churches everywhere and monasteries where monks forsook the world and pursued learning. During the Dark Ages in Europe, they kept the flame of literacy burning and translated thousands of ancient texts into the Irish vernacular. Patrick stopped the practice of human sacrifice, and was the first leader in the world to denounce slavery.
Sixteen centuries later, the little springs out in the Irish countryside, the walls of ancient monasteries and the round towers still attest to what one inspired person can accomplish in the pursuit of an idea greater than himself.
This is Willem Lange up in Etna, New Hampshire, and sure, I gotta get back to work.
Willem Lange is a contractor, writer and storyteller who lives in Etna, New Hampshire. He spoke from our studio in Norwich.