Book Review: St. Patrick of Ireland: A Biography Written by: Dr. Philip Freeman

 

By: Dominic Silla

 

This semester, as jam packed as I was with my schedule, I tried to carve out a little bit of time for some personal reading. As St. Patrick’ day rolled around, I told my annual joke, reminding my friends that St. Patrick was not an Irishman…pointing out that he was in fact, a Roman, and therefore of an Italian ethnicity. Beyond this I did not know a great deal about Patrick as a person. This troubled me a little bit and decided to pick up something on the topic from my local library[1]. I settled on “St. Patrick of Ireland” by Philip Freeman. This short book runs 193 pages and is a wealth of information and primary source material[2]. Simon & Schuster Inc. published the book in 2004.[3]

The problem facing any historian and biographer regarding St. Patrick and pre-medieval Ireland is the fact that information is scarce, and on top of the information are legends, myths, and changes to historical accounts by later scribes to make the accounts seem larger than life. This is a difficulty that Philip Freeman wrestles with in this particular book. Dr. Freeman is currently the chair for the classical department at Luther College, gaining his doctorate from Harvard University.[4] Dr. Freeman does very good work in not only giving us the fact we know about the life of St. Patrick, but he fills in the gaps of time with what Patrick might have or was likely to experience as a Roman boy of a minor aristocrat, a slave in Ireland, to a returning young man to Roman Britain, and so on.

As a reader, there sometimes seemed to be bits and chunks of information used to fill those gaps that edged closer to educated guesses, based on information we have from the time around the life of Patrick. The author, in the introduction, confesses that “The details that Patrick gives us of his life are few and often tantalizingly vague…”[5] however the author goes onto say that “Taken together with his letters, these sources[6] tell the story of an extraordinary man living in a tumultuous age.”[7] Finally, there is certainly a moving away from the religious history and an attempt to get at the actual life of Patrick beyond all the possible additions, exaggerations and fabrications that have crept in over the centuries.

In addition to the life of St. Patrick, Dr. Freeman also covers background information of the Ireland from the early 2nd century B.C. to the first two centuries after Patrick, bringing to bear all sorts of different accounts, from Greeks and Romans to archaeological evidence from the ancient Mediterranean, Britain and Ireland itself. Dr. Freeman covers succinctly the length and breadth of culture, politics, religion, history, and more in this book. In order to do this however, toward the middle of the book, the author momentarily breaks from the narrative of St. Patrick that we have been tracking with and delves into these subjects to give the reader a broader understanding of early Irish culture and obstacles that Patrick would have encountered.

As a point of interest, shortly before coming to seminary I read another book about the Irish by Thomas Cahill called, “How the Irish Saved Civilization”[8] In that book, Mr. Cahill argues that if it were not for the Irish a great deal knowledge and culture would have been lost, and that it was in fact Irish Christianity that saved the day by planting monasteries and copying vast amounts of text to be reintroduced to the continent of Europe at the close of the dark ages.[9] Whether purposefully or indirectly or by mere happenstance, Dr. Freeman attempts to refute this idea. Dr. Freeman states that,

“The Irish did not save civilization-it had never been lost. The vibrant monasteries and learned nobility of western Europe, not to mention the entire eastern Roman Empire, would have laughed at the notion that the Irish were rescuing them from barbarism.”[10]

Dr. Freeman goes on to note that the Irish were most likely respected for their strict monastic adherence and scholarship[11] but beyond this, the Irish were not the saviors Thomas Cahill makes them out to be, at least this is the inevitable conclusion a reader familiar with both of these works must draw.

In conclusion I would say that this book is certainly worth the read and it is quite entertaining and informative. However, as I would recommend with any work that has at its core the intention to inform the, look to additional sources and take the time to read other books and compare the information received. Be Bereans about it! I for one will certainly be reading more of Dr. Freeman’s books! Check them out at your local library!

 

[1] Shameless plug, use your local library! It is totally worth using to find little gem’s like this one.

[2] The Author considers the two works considered to have been written by St. Patrick in the rear of the book, “Confessions” and “Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus”

[3] https://www.amazon.com/St-Patrick-Ireland-Phillip-Freeman/dp/1439164797/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1493935710&sr=8-1&keywords=st.+patrick+of+ireland

[4] http://www.philipfreemanbooks.com/author.html

[5] Pg. XVIII, “St. Patrick of Ireland”

[6] Listed above this quote, “Archeological excavations and discoveries”, “Greek and Roman writers” and “Later Irish Traditions…” which “…preserve bits and pieces of genuine information.” – Pg. XIX, “St. Patrick of Ireland”

[7] Ibid

[8] https://www.amazon.com/How-Irish-Saved-Civilization-Irelands/dp/0385418493/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1493935737&sr=8-1&keywords=how+the+Irish+save+civilization

[9] If I am mischaracterizing Mr. Cahill’s thesis, I apologize as it has been some time since I read his book.

[10] Pg. 159, “St. Patrick of Ireland”

[11] Ibid

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