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History, Myth and Genocide: Real and Imagined

Or, The Pagan Problem with Patrick

By Sionnach Gorm

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Published by An Chuallacht Ghaol Naofa.


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Published March 2015.

Copyright 2015 Gorm Sionnach.


All Rights Reserved.

Published in Scotland.

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________________________________________________________

Introduction
________________________________________________________

Ever since the real meaning behind the legend of St. Patrick driving the serpents
from Ireland became popularised within Neopagan circles that it was the expulsion of
the druids and their pre-Christian ways modern pagans have been getting themselves
riled up about St. Patricks Day.1 So prevalent and insidious is this myth, that many among
the pagan and polytheist communities have tried to re-brand the day as All Snakes Day,2
as a feast day for the Irish hero C Chulainn, 3 and even as a day of mourning and
remembrance for all the pagan Irish murdered by Patrick and his monks. 4 As a Gaelic
Polytheist of a reconstructionist nature, this is particularly problematic for me.
Already the thought of the 17th of March evokes shudders of revulsion, as an ocean
of tinsel and plastic the colour of sick will soon be washing through the streets. Every
terrible stereotype about the Irish and those of us of Irish ethnicity will be trotted out for
chuckles. Tired racists in the diaspora are looking to imagined oppression and proof that
racism against the Irish (i.e. white people) is still severe and prevalent in places like
1

The exact history of the story's interpretation as an allegory for druids is fuzzy, but does predate
Neopagan movements. Certainly Big Name Pagans such as Isaac Bonewits have played a large part in
bringing the idea to wider attention and appeal within Neopagan communities, however. See
Pitzl-Waters, Saint Patrick, Druids, Snakes and Popular Myths. Accessed March 13, 2015.

Pitzl-Waters, J. Saint Patrick, Druids, Snakes and Popular Myths. Accessed March 13, 2015.

Sufenas Virius Lupus, P. Liberalia: Hero-Feast of Cu Chulainn. Accessed March 13, 2015. Personally I
think Oisn would be a more appropriate choice, particularly as he has become associated with Patrick
and his mission through texts like Acallam na Senorach. Further, if the idea is as a more
pagan/polytheistic appropriate feast day, Oisn is often portrayed as a figure who speaks on behalf of
the pre-Christian people and against St. Patrick and elements of Christianity. For more see ODaly,
John (ed. and tr.) Agallamh Oisn agus Phdraig, Laoithe Fiannuigheachta; or Fenian Poems Vol. 2,
Transactions of the Ossianic Society 4, 6, 1859-1861, pp3-65.

St. Patricks Day Protest, accessed March 13, 2015.

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America or Canada where the Irish have been seen as white for many generations now
as if Cromwell himself was still milling about and keeping them oppressed. But all of
this is becoming old hat, tired and asinine, utterly stupid but wholly expected. What
continues to gall, what really rubs the proverbial salt in the wound isnt any of this
nonsense, but a particularly virulent strain of ignorance that continues to incubate and
spread among people who really ought to know better: a Neopagan community that
continually clings to imagined and mythic oppression for reasons I can only guess at. What
remains, however, is that lies and falsehood are never noble, and crowing about pretend
oppression really does a disservice to those whose communities have, and continue to
suffer from it. All one need do is look at the comments from Neopagans which followed the
theft and destruction of the statue of Manannn Mac Lir from Limavady and the trying to
finish what Patrick started sentiment was endemic. 5
These sorts of sentiments and attitudes have sprung from the two-fold well of
ignorance and hate; ignorance of history and culture, and hatred for a religion many have
been burned by. Yet lies told for Lugh are no better than lies told for Jesus; so as
someone who has a deep love of my ancestral culture and heritage, and who has no
particular fondness for Christianity, I find it troublesome that I none the less have to come
to the defense of a much maligned saint. I recognise that at the heart of the movement
among pagans to reclaim or reinvent St. Patricks Day is an opposition to what the figure of
Patrick has come to represent in Irish history and myth, the coming of and conversion to,
Christianity. It is perfectly obvious that as a polytheist, the celebration of a Catholic saints
missionising efforts among my ancestors, appears at first blush to be self-defeating,
particularly as I endeavour to restore and disseminate the worship of the pre-Christian
gods of the Gaels. Yet, this particular aspect has very little to do with why I choose to
celebrate on the 17th of March.

Bring Back Manannan Mac Lir the Sea God. Accessed March 13, 2015.

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Im not going to spend any more time on why, despite its obviously Catholic origins,
it is perfectly reasonable for pagans/polytheists to celebrate the 17 th of March.6 No, this
effort is going to be two fold, and decidedly historical in nature. The first section will
examine the historic, mythic and hagiographic Patrick, his mission in Ireland, the state of
religion after his death and why so many modern pagans seem to believe the man and his
cohorts were genocidal maniacs. The second section will focus on a historic genocide that
was perpetuated against the Celts and their religious leaders, and why so few modern
pagans really seems to care or mourn this historic reality.

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The Myth
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The hagiography of St. Patrick is extensive, to say nothing of the numerous texts that
do not strictly fall under the category of hagiography, and which contain any number of
legends, stories, tales and other narratives. The earliest hagiographical sources date from
the late 7th century, the earliest being produced by a monk named Muirch Moccu
Macthni, The Life of St. Patrick (henceforth The Life), and another by the Bishop Trechn
who produced a text entitled An Account of St. Patricks Churches. 7 The Life is one of the
most well-known Patrician texts, though it is necessarily fanciful. It does incorporate
genuine historical information which can be sourced to St. Patricks own writings, but is

If you are interested, see: Sionnach Gorm, Pagans, Polytheists and St. Patricks Day. Accessed March 13,
2015.

Patrick (Patricus), in Connolly, Oxford Companion to Irish History, 2nd Ed, 2007, p457.

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chock-full of more mythic elements. 8 Of particular interest to the purpose of this work, this
is the earliest example of St. Patrick confronting the established political and religious order
of pre-Christian Ireland in the persons of the High King Legaire and his two chief druids
Lochru and Ronal.9 The two druids long prophesise the coming of Patrick, and warn that:

When all this happens (the druids would say) our kingdom, which is a
pagan one, will fall. And so it happened afterwards: when Patrick came the worship
of idols was abolished and the catholic Christian faith spread over our whole
country.10

Before going much further it ought to be pointed out that this essay isnt intended to
delve or examine in great detail the entirety of Patrician hagiography. Rather, by looking at
those narrative elements where Patrick confronts either the druids or pagan kings, mythic
patterns will emerge and showcase the legendary aspects of Patricks mission. What is
apparent, even in the earliest sources, are the direct parallels specific episodes from
Patricks mission share with scenes from the Christian Bible. The most obvious of which
occur first in The Life, and in most subsequent legends. Returning to the scene mentioned
above, eventually Patrick challenges the druids. Lochru and Ronal are presented as the
most powerful of all in contest but both fail to defeat Patrick. 11 The first to stand against
Patrick is Lochru, who after contesting and arguing, insults the Christian religion; Patrick
prays and the druids head is smashed against a stone, killing him. 12 Ronal next directly
8

See discussion of Patricks Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus and Confessio below.

Koch and Carey, The Life of Patrick by Muirch Moccu Macthni. In The Celtic Heroic Age: Literary
Sources for Ancient Celtic Europe & Early Ireland & Wales, 2003.

10

Bieler, Muirchs text in English. Accessed March 13, 2015. Section I-10. The foreshadowing of the
coming of Christianity to Ireland is a theme which runs through the Mythological, Ulster, Fenian and
Kings Cycles, given that there are to varying degrees Christian glosses to the entirety of the literature.

11

Bieler, Muirchs text in English.

12

Ibid, I.17.

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challenges Patrick to a contest of miracles and suffers a terrible death in a burning house. 13
After having witnessed the defeat of his two chief druids, and being directly threatened by
Patrick, King Legaire converts, as do all those in his kingdom.14
Clearly these sorts of stories inspired the notion that Patrick not only went to war
with the established political and religious order of the day, but that he tended to convert
the former and kill the latter! Before addressing this particular accusation, it will be
worthwhile to take a step back and examine one significant source the medieval scribes
relied on, rather heavily it can be argued, to flesh out and aggrandise Patricks mission; the
Christian Bible.
The parallels attempting to be drawn between Patrick and Legaires druids and the
Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar as portrayed in The Book of Daniel is unmistakable,
given that both Babylon and Nebuchadnezzar are mentioned. 15 In fact, taking these sections
from The Life and comparing them with passages from The Book of Daniel, the
contemporising and localisation of an existing Biblical narrative becomes obvious. The first
example compares the summons that King Legaire issues with a similar one from King
Nebuchadnezzar:

It so happened in that year that a feast of pagan worship was being held,
which the pagans celebrate with many incantations and magic rites and other
superstitious acts of idolatry. There assembled the kings, satraps, leaders, princes,
and the nobles of the people; furthermore, the druids, the fortune-tellers, and the
inventors of every craft and skill were also summoned to king Legaire at Tara. 16

13

Ibid, I.20.

14

Bieler, Muirchs text in English.

15

Ibid, I.15.

16

Ibid.

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King Nebuchadnezzar made an image of gold, sixty cubits high and six cubits
wide, and set it up on the plain of Dura in the province of Babylon. He then
summoned the satraps, prefects, governors, advisers, treasurers, judges, magistrates
and all other provincial officials to come to the dedication of the image he had set up. 17

The next quotes come from similar situations, where the kings have issued strict
orders, and the evil religious officials seek to accuse and persecute the offending party:

And the king called together the elders and said to them: Who is the man
who has dared to do such a wicked thing in my kingdom? He shall die. They all
replied that they did not know who had done it, but the druids answered: King, may
you live forever!18
At this time some astrologers came forward and denounced the Jews. They
said to King Nebuchadnezzar, May the king live forever! 19

To show that these similarities are not simply Muirchs particular preoccupation
with Babylon, what follows are the descriptions of the idol Crom Cruaich and the golden
idol built by Nebuchadnezzar:

Thereafter Patrick went over the waters to Mag Slecht, a place in which was
the chief idol of Ireland, namely, Cenn Cruaich, covered with gold and silver, and
twelve other idols covered with brass about him. 20
17

Daniel 3:1-2, Christian Bible (New International Version). Accessed on March 13, 2015.

18

Bieler, Muirchs text in English, I.15.

19

Daniel 3:8.

20

Stokes, Tripartite Life of Patrick. Accessed March 13, 2015.

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Your Majesty looked, and there before you stood a large statue an
enormous, dazzling statue, awesome in appearance. The head of the statue was made
of pure gold, its chest and arms of silver, its belly and thighs of bronze, its legs of
iron, its feet partly of iron and partly of baked clay. 21

One could spend a great deal of time pouring through the hagiography of St. Patrick
and find all the references/borrowings from the Christian Bible, but suffice to say that
Patriarchs like Moses, Elijah and Daniel are frequently referenced, as are figures like the
priests of Baal, Moloch and Simon Magus. Turning now to something which ties into the
above quote, but also into extra Biblical areas of interest, it would be remiss of any
examination of St. Patricks mission to not look at the depictions of the idols we are told
he was so eager to smash.
According to the medieval (and later) texts there were two major cults/deities
worshipped: Crom Dubh and Crom Cruaich (aka. Cenn Craich). Crom Cruaich is the preChristian deity who is most commonly associated with Patrick and his mission. A later text,
The Tripartite Life of St. Patrick (henceforth TPL), where the above description of the
Cenn Craich idol appears likely would have drawn on texts like The Life, but by this time
the elaborations were considerably hyperbolic. The TPL also contains one of the earliest
examples of St. Patrick Idol Smasher, and from this particular mythic narrative sprung the
notion that St. Patrick travelled about Ireland and destroyed all the idols. Again such an
accusation bears examination, but this will be done so below. For now, it will be worth
remembering that the last Sunday in July/first in August was celebrated as Domhnach
Chrom Dubh, Crom Dubhs Sunday, well into the 20th century.22

21

Daniel 2:31-33.

22

Crom Dubh, in MacKillop, Dictionary of Celtic Mythology, 1998, p100.

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________________________________________________________

The Man
________________________________________________________

As far as early Christian saints go, and historic figures in general, we actually know
quite a lot about Patricus, son of Calpurn. We have copies of documents that can credibly
be sourced to him, which provide a tremendous degree of insight into the character of the
man; something which is exceedingly rare for a figure so early in Irish history. 23 A very
quick biography: Patricus was born to a well to do family in Britain. 24 In his 16th year he was
captured by a raiding group of Irishmen, brought back to Ireland and sold into slavery. His
servitude lasted six years, after which time he managed to escape and sail back to Britain.
During his trip back to his relatives in Britain he performed one of the few miracles he
personally wrote about:
We didnt have any food, and hunger was making everyone weak. The next
day the captain said to me: Well Christian, what are you going to do? You say this
God of yours is so great and powerful-why dont you pray to him for us? Were
dying of starvation here! I dont think well see another living soul again. But I
answered his with great confidence: Just turn with your whole heart to the Lord my
God, because nothing is impossible for him. Today hes going to send food right into
your path plenty to fill your bellies because his abundance is everywhere. And
by the help of God thats exactly what happened. 25

23

Freeman, St. Patrick of Ireland: A Biography, 2004, p143.

24

Traditionally the place is given as Bannaventa Berniae, but the actual location is disputed, Freeman, St.
Patrick of Ireland: A Biography, 2004, p3.

25

Freeman, St. Patrick of Ireland: A Biography, 2004, p181.

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The next, and considerably important, segment of Patricus life is not very well
known. He claims he received two visions via dreams, extolling him to become a priest, and
then to return to Ireland to minister to the Irish. There is no record of his training, and little
is known outside of conjecture. He eventually rose to the rank of priest before seeking to
become a Bishop, taking over the pastoral care of the Irish Christian community, after the
failure of Palladius.26 Upon his arrival in 432 CE, and until his death traditionally held to
be the 17th of March, 493 Patrick spent the rest of his life caring for the growing Christian
community already present in Ireland, and succeeded in converting some kings and their
families. Towards the end of his life, he wrote his Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus
following the murder and enslavement of some recently converted Irish. 27 Contrary to what
may have been an easy evil pagans moment, the perpetrators of the crime were actually
soldiers under the lordship of Coroticus, a British Christian, whom Patricus castigates and
condemns to hell.28 Shortly thereafter, some Bishops in Britain began to call for the
dismissal of Patrick, causing him to respond with his Confessio, where he lays out his life,
his mission, and his ardent desire to be allowed to continue to minister to the Irish. 29
So a number of historic realities, which directly contradict the hagiography, ought to
be addressed. Firstly, Patrick was not the cause of the establishment of Christianity in
Ireland: Palladius preceded him by at least a year, and the Catholic Church was not in the
practice of sending Bishops to places where Christian communities did not already exist. 30
Secondly, despite the late medieval and early modern accounts of Patricks mission, the
whole of Ireland was not converted during his life time; even the accounts found in The
Annals of Ulster, claiming some 12,000 baptised seems much more reasonable, but still

26

Freeman, St. Patrick of Ireland: A Biography, 2004, p70.

27

Ibid, pxvii.

28

Ibid, p133.

29

Ibid, p192.

30

Ibid, p74.

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exaggerated.31 No, despite all the rhetoric and medieval legend, Ireland was still very much
a polytheistic land by the time of his death, and there is very good reason for this. 32
While the image of Patrick breezing in, sparring with druids, smashing idols and
cowing kings may make for effective hagiography, the historic reality of the society Patrick
would have encountered in the 5 th century CE belies such fanciful notions. Ireland in the 5 th
century was a land of many petty kingdoms, almost completely lacking in urban
development (an innovation the Vikings are usually accredited with bringing with them),
and wholly decentralised in terms of political structure. As often as both the hagiographic
and mythic literature utilise them, the Ard R (High King) existed more as a literary figure
than a historic personage.33 Certainly later Irish dynasties, particularly the Ui Neill, would
have had a vested interest in trying to establish a more centralised, universal, kingship, but
even then it wasnt until the Norman conquests that any sort of centralised government
developed.34
Despite the lack of a stereotypical medieval monarch ruling from on high, the power
of the tribal king was still considerable and for a wandering bishop, entering into nonChristian territories, caution would have been required in all his dealings. Legally, owing to
the strictly hierarchical nature of early Irish society, protection and rights extended from the
tribe one belonged to, and to be without would leave one rather unprotected. 35 Considering
that Patrick would have spent much of his early mission among the fledgling Christian
community (likely made up of British settles and locals) and the Christian slaves of Irish
masters, his prominence and access to the channels of power were very limited. 36 As
31

Annals of Ulster, p55, Entry U492.1. Accessed march 13, 2015.

32

Freeman, St. Patrick of Ireland: A Biography, 2004, p153.

33

Connolly, Oxford Companion to Irish History, 2 nd Ed, 2007, pp252-53; Freeman, St. Patrick of Ireland: A
Biography, 2004, p90; Ard R, in MacKillop, Dictionary of Celtic Mythology, 1998, p20.

34

Killeen, A Brief History of Ireland: Land, People, History, 2012, p49; Patterson, Cattle-Lords & Clansmen:
The Social Structure of Early Ireland,1994, p36-38.

35

Patterson, Cattle-Lords & Clansmen: The Social Structure of Early Ireland, 1994, p39-40.

36

Freeman, St. Patrick of Ireland: A Biography, 2004, p90.

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Patricks own letters tell us, he regularly made payments to the kings he encountered,
reciprocity (that is, the exchanging of gifts) being a major element of Irish society at the
time; certainly this would have helped to increase his stature. 37 Similarly, the idea that
Patrick would have sought out to antagonise, let alone persecute the regional/tribal
religious order by contesting with druids or destroying religious sites is not at all
reasonable, as he was unlikely to have insulted the very people upon whose protection he
relied on.
Patrick and the Christians he visited had only a tenuous foothold from which to live,
and though Patricks mission was certainly a boon for the cause of Christianity in Ireland,
by the time of his death the vast majority of people would have still been polytheists. In his
Confessio, Patrick states that, Also among the pagans of Ireland I have lived and will
continue to live in honesty and truth, 38 and given that the probable date of writing was
toward the end of Patricks life, these hardly seem like the words of an all-powerful bishop.
Even in one of the more famous of Patrician texts, the Lorica or Breastplate, a prayer that is
usually ascribed to Patricks hand (though unlikely in actuality), a request is made for
protection from druids.39 Further, texts dating from the 7th century still make known the
existence of pagans and/or druids, so while it is apparent that the druids and the preChristian religion gradually moved or were pushed to the periphery, this was something
that occurred over the course of many centuries. 40
Patricks mission was remarkably successful, and it could certainly be argued to be
the thin wedge that lead to the eventual Christianisation of the Irish. Still the historic
reality falls well short of either his medieval mythologisers claims of divine power, idol
smasher and total conversion or the modern day cries of religious persecutor, genocidal
37

Freeman, St. Patrick of Ireland: A Biography, 2004, p90.

38

Ibid, p190.

39

Freeman, St. Patrick of Ireland: A Biography, 2004, p161-164.

40

Freeman, St. Patrick of Ireland: A Biography, 2004, p155.

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fiend and bringer of cultural catastrophe. Instead, the lore that developed around Patrick
reinforced the very central importance of Irish culture, and the legend of Patrick would be
made to not only reflect Biblical patriarchs, but pre-Christian heroes as well.

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The Man in the Myths


________________________________________________________

To illustrate this point, a slight diversion is in order, which will eventually bring us
right back here, though hopefully with a little more clarity. A three panel comic strip began
to circulate among pagan and polytheistic types a few years ago, which was titled The
Evolution of Irish Heroes. The first panel featured the Irish literary hero, C Chulainn, hair
flowing, a behemoth of rippling muscle, blood spattered and clutching the head of a
recently slain enemy. The accompanying text extolled some of his most notable feats. The
second featured the almost as literary, but certainly more folkloric hero, Fionn mac
Cumhaill; splendidly arrayed, his foot resting on a pile of skulls, with similar text boxes
speaking of his prowess. The final panel showed aged, St. Patrick, stooped on and
shooing a small (but indignant) snake. Har-dee har-har, it is to laugh! What a deplorable
state to have abandoned such a masculine, hunky, and heroic tradition in favour of an aged
bishop whose claim to fame was kicking some serpents to the curb. Excepting, of course,
that the writer/illustrator doesnt actually know nearly as much about Irish mythology as
they would have you believe.41
41

Actually, the author of the web comic has done an admirable job illustrating and ripping on Irish
Mythology, and I would recommend having a look through the archives of www.happletea.com if
you enjoy humour and/or Irish/Celtic mythology. My criticism is more properly directed at those

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In their mocking, juxtaposed attempt at humour, their stunning ignorance of how


Irish myth (and in particular the literary tradition) functions, shines through. If youve read
this far along, you will already be familiar with the hyperbolic nature of even the earliest
Patrician hagiography. What I havent mentioned yet is that the two most famous
episodes from Patricks mythic resume; the expulsion of all the serpents from Ireland, and
the teaching of the Trinity via the shamrock, are wholly absent from any of these texts. A
strange thing indeed, particularly with the former, as it has become a bit of an obsession
with some of my polytheistic and pagan cohorts. 42 Odd then, considering that if the
supposed symbolic significance of the expulsion of the serpents was to represent the druids
such a tale wouldnt have appeared in the earlier texts, where Patrick literally does battle
with them.
With this in mind (and pretending that it is not widely known among Celtic scholars
that the snake story is a common motif found in a number of hagiographies and even in the
tales of pagan gods)43 why, when the earlier hagiographic texts single out the druids
specifically, would later scribes resort to symbolic or secret language? To whose benefit
would the hushing up of the imagined expulsion of all the druids be? Would it not make
more sense, especially from the point of view of the Patrician hagiographers, to have
Patrick confront and best the druids, just like the patriarchs of the Abrahamic tradition did?
It would, and so what remains is that a fanciful tale, adapted from an existing, continental
myth, was used initially to bolster Patricks legend and also to provide an explanation
(albeit a false one) as to why there are no snakes in Ireland. Now, in the present day, this
tale has been further misinterpreted and infused with new fictional meaning so modern
pagans/polytheists who posted it as a see what we lost! type deal.
42

St. Patricks Day Protest, Particularly the about description showcases the sort of ignorance and
xenophobia which is endemic among certain segments of the modern pagan and polytheist
communities.

43

Including the French saints, Hilaire and Honoratus, and the Greek gods Apollon and Herakles, for
example. See: Krappe, St Patrick and the Snakes, in Traditio Vol. 5, 1947, pp. 323-330; Krappe, Irish
Earth, in Folklore Vol. 52, No. 3, 1941, pp. 229-236.

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pagans can have a wink, wink, nudge, nudge; very seekrit understanding of the real
history.
Regrettably, historic and mythic ignorance extend further than this, and so we turn
to the second issue with the above mentioned comic strip. The main thrust of the writers
joke is that a decrepit old man is hardly worthy of being among the burly pagan heroes
he replaced. This would be a fair criticism, only the hagiography is bursting with examples
of how, far from bucking the trend of Irish heroic figures, Patrick fits the mold rather
well. Patrick is of noble birth, something both his own writing and that of his hagiographers
attest to.44 The name that posterity would come to recognise him under is not the name he
was born with. Rather, he is born Maewyn Succat, was known as Cothraige during his
enslavement, Magonius when he was taught under Bishop Germanus, and then, finally,
Patricus.45 Patrick as a youth is depicted as a wonder child, working miracles and other
remarkable feats (which then makes it very strange that he was enslaved so easily). He is
fostered, which is a rather strange thing for a young Roman to have been, but was the norm
for medieval Irish society. As already examined, Patrick competes with and bests every
opponent who opposes him. He keeps the company of kings, princes, and in later sources,
even pagan heroes themselves.46
The heroic tradition, the function of the hero in Irish literature, extends back past
both Fionn mac Cumhaill and C Chulainn, and into the Mythological cycle. Of particular
interest is the god Lugh, who among other things, had some degree of recognition well into
the period of Christianisation, as the survival of the fair at Telltown into the medieval

44

Stokes, Whitley (trans.) On the Life of St. Patrick, p5. Accessed March 13, 2015.

45

Ibid, p11.

46

For more on Patrick interacting with pre-Christian heroes see: Dooley, Ann & Roe, Henry. Tales of the
Elder of Ireland: A New Translation of Acallam Na Senrach, 2008. For more on the idea of Christian saints
subsuming the role of heroes in Celtic cultures, see Rees, The Divine Hero in Celtic Hagiology,
Folklore, Vol. 47, No. 1, 1936, pp30-41.

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period, suggests.47 The feast/festival day of Lughnasadh, where Lugh was particularly
honoured, became associated with some of the Patrician folklore and customs. 48 Earlier the
custom of Crom Dubhs Sunday (falling on or around the 1 st of August) was mentioned,
because the day was one of celebration where the victory of Patrick over the god/druid
(euhumerisation has confused things), Crom Dubh, and the choice of the day is no
coincidence. The case has been made that one of the traditional components of Lughnasadh
involved the (temporary) victory of the young god Lugh over an older god, generally Crom
Dubh/Crom Cruaich/Donn.49 The case has also been made that clerical authorities, rather
than attempt to stymie the celebrations, turned it to the triumph of Christianity over
paganism, with Patrick subsuming the role of Lugh. 50
This shouldnt come as a surprise to anyone familiar with the body of medieval texts
where Irish mythology lives, so to speak. The scribes who wrote down, redacted and
Christianised the stories of their parents, grandparents and culture, did so out of a
profound sense of love for that culture. Far from the irreparable damage Patrick and later
Christian scribes are alleged to have done, they are the reason that we have any record or
notion of pre-Christian Irish mythology at all. Even from the narrative within the mythic
corpus, Patrick does not storm in and invalidate the nobler elements of pre-Christian
Ireland. Rather he fulfills the traditional role of the culture hero, as best as could be
accommodated in the new Christian worldview.
Aside from the desire to incorporate the Christian religion and world view into the
Irish culture, there was a much more practical reason: promoting the power of the Catholic
See of Armagh. Armagh was the preeminent site associated with Patrick, and therefore the

47

enach Tailten, in Connolly, Oxford Companion to Irish History, 2nd Ed, 2007, p425.

48

Lughnasa, in MacKillop, Dictionary of Celtic Mythology, 1998, p274.

49

MacNeill, The Festival of Lughnasa, 1962, p413.

50

Ibid, p427.

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centre of Christianity in Ireland in the early and late medieval periods. 51 Though there were
certainly rival ecclesiastical centres, particularly Kildare, which is located south-west of
Dublin, and held by popular legend to have been founded by Irelands only female patron
saint, Brigid.52 The case certainly can be made that it was the contest between Armagh and
Kildare, each positioning for chief ecclesiastic/monastic centre in Ireland which spurned on
a great deal of the growing hyperbole and aggrandisement of both Patrick and Brigid in the
myths and legends written about them. Clearly then, the accusations of Patrick
spearheading a massive wave of religious oppression and genocide of the non-Christian
Irish are as fanciful as the stories and legends written about the man. With a profound sense
of irony, it becomes apparent that the vitriol many modern pagans and polytheists have can
be sourced to the very hyperbole the monks and scribes who sought to aggrandise Patricks
life and mission created.
If, however, the reader is genuinely interested in an account of what can certainly be
argued to be a historic genocide that was perpetrated against the Celts and druids, then the
time and place being examined needs to shift from 5 th century Ireland to Gaul in the 1 st
century BCE.

51

Armagh, in Connolly, Oxford Companion to Irish History, 2nd Ed, 2007, p25.

52

Freeman, St. Patrick of Ireland: A Biography, 2004, p155-56.

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________________________________________________________

Rome
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Christian Rome slaughtered Druids and Heathens in the name of their God, yes, but
they also killed at the behest of their Empire. 53

It is perfectly reasonable to decry the perpetrators of genocide; any sensible person


who has a conscience would be remiss to ignore it. Yet so many prefer the convenient lie to
the complicated truth that history presents, and so much deep seated anger is directed at
Christianity as some monolithic behemoth, that clearly mythic and imaginative evidence
is heeded, when sound history is ignored. Particularly when that history contradicts a
popular and persistent narrative which informs the worldview of many modern pagans
and polytheists: that pagans are good and Christians are bad. This state of affairs is not
helped by the fact that, for the most part, the accounts of persecution of Christians by
pagans were overblown, exaggerated and mythologised, while the inverse was hushed up,
brutal and far reaching.
When it comes to the persecution of early Christians at the hands of the Roman
empire, recent scholarship has cast serious doubt on the historicity of the accounts of the
Christian martyrs, and the extent of any organised and systemic persecution of Christians
by the Roman state, especially on religious grounds. 54 On the other hand, that Christianity
was spread by the sword across great swaths of Europe (and the rest of the world) is a
matter of the historic record. Yet, outlying examples like Ireland do exist and as has been
53

Wildermuth, Rhyd.The Fires of Brigid. The Wild Hunt. Accessed March 13, 2015.

54

For an excellent examination of this doubt see: Moss, The Myth of the Persecution: How Early Christians
Invented a Story of Martyrdom, 2014.

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argued above, to simply fabricate a mythic persecution, aside from being dishonest, does an
immense disservice to the cultural legacy of the living Irish culture.
Turning back to Rome, however, and in particular focusing on arguably the most
famous of all Romans, Julius Caesar, and his role in what would later become known as
The Conquest of Gaul: The reasons for the Gallic wars, like any war, are varied, complex
and likely muddied by the historic accounts that are accessible. Rome was expanding and
consolidating its power, the growing incursions from Germanic tribes north of the Rhine
was becoming a significant security risk to the republic, and the Gaulish druids are
recorded as practicing the most horrendous forms of human sacrifice imaginable. 55
Considering how cosmopolitan Rome was, and how religious tolerance was actually a
necessary facet of civic cohesion, that the druids received such attention in Caesars
writings, and that their barbarism was used as a justification for the conquest, the
suppression of the druids of Gaul and Britain by pagan Rome is one of the clearest
examples of religious persecution in the ancient world. 56
The Mediterranean world had had a tumultuous relationship with their northern
Celtic neighbours, both Greece and Rome having been attacked by raiding Celtic parties;
Rome was sacked in 390 BCE.57 While this was a critical blow to the Roman psyche, the
lasting damage was minimal and Rome rebounded to become the dominant power in the
Mediterranean, and then the world. In 232 BCE, Celtic territory in the north of Italy was
confiscated and as Rome continued to expand northward, a unified Celtic force met them

55

Koch (trans.) and Julius Caesar, De Bello Gallico Book 6, section 16, p22. For more on the issues
surrounding the evidence for sacrifice, see Chapter 14: The Druids and Human Sacrifice of Bruce
Lincoln's Death, War and Sacrifice: Studies in Ideology and Practice (1991), or Green, Humans as Ritual
Victims in the Later Prehistory of Western Europe, 1998. Note: Green comes as a qualified
recommendation in The CR FAQ, which makes some very good points. Generally speaking, these
problems are less of an issue when she sticks with her own area of expertise, as in this article.

56

Moss, The Myth of the Persecution: How Early Christians Invented a Story of Martyrdom , 2014 , p477;
Cunliffe, The Ancient Celts, 1997, p191.

57

Cunliffe, The Ancient Celts, 1997, p76.

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for a decisive battle at Telemon in 225; the Celtic warriors were crushed between two
Roman forces.58 In the subsequent decades Rome moved swiftly to conquer and subjugate
the whole of Cisalpine Gaul, and establish Roman settlements throughout the region; they
relied on a strategy of Italianisation to prevent any further invasions. 59
Jumping ahead in time, the Gallic wars essentially finished what had been started a
century before, instead this time the goal was the conquest of the much larger Transalpine
and central Gaul. The accounts of the war are thoroughly Roman and Greek, so like all the
continental sources there is an inherent bias (but then what sources are without bias?), but
still held to be a reliable account of the unfolding of events. Without going into too much
detail, the encroachment of Germanic tribes further and further south, into Gallic territory,
caused great concern for the security of Rome, and the decentralised nature of the myriad
Celtic tribes caused some of them to seek aid from the more stable Roman state. Things
came to a head in 60-59 BCE, and for the next decade Caesar would lead a campaign
through the heart of Celtic Gaul, reaching as far as southern Britain. 60
The accounts of the campaign can be read in great detail, either through the several
books Caesar himself penned about his years fighting in Gaul, through contemporary
observers of the unfolding of the events, or through secondary sources written by more
recent historians. There is a reason the book series Caesar wrote is known as the Conquest
of Gaul, because that is precisely what happened. By the time the decade was over, and
Gaul wholly under the control of Rome, of a population of between 6-7 million people, 1
million had been killed and another million captured as slaves. 61 Thats anywhere from 2833 percent of the entire population of Gaul; it may have been motivated by political need

58

Cunliffe, The Ancient Celts, 1997, p77.

59

Ibid, p78.

60

Ibid, p238.

61

Ibid, p76.

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and personal aggrandisement (Caesar obtained both wealth and prestige through the
campaign) as opposed to ethnic hatred, but it was a genocide all the same.
So where are the black armbands mourning the slaughter of the Gallic people at the
end of Roman swords? Where are the calls for modern adherents of Celtic and Celticinspired pagans and polytheists to hold members of the Religio Romana to account? Why is
pagan Rome held to be a victim, and given great sympathy, because of the coming of
Christianity, when they themselves committed such atrocities? The probable answer would
be one of ignorance of the history, and that the notion of pagan, and not Christian, Rome
being the bad guys contradicts the established narrative of pagans good/Christians
bad.
Lets be clear, this isnt some call to arms for every Celtic Pagan or Polytheist to rise
up and oppose the Religio Romana; that would be monumentally stupid. While the image
of the barbaric, blood thirsty and manipulative druids was certainly utilised in Roman
propaganda (both before and after), it would be foolish to think that the religious
oppression of the druids was the only (or even most significant) reason for the war to have
occurred. The example of the Gallic war is simply being utilised because it supports the
idea of a double standard among modern pagans and polytheists. That more effort and
pathos is spent in decrying and mourning for an imaginary genocide of a Celtic population,
than for a real, historic genocide of a Celtic population, is both infuriating and
disheartening. What is particularly galling is that despite numerous attempts to provide
historic and cultural insight into the reality of a figure like Patrick, and how Ireland
peacefully and gradually converted to Christianity, the lie that pagans were expelled and
should be mourned remains, and seems to be more pervasive than ever.

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_______________________________________________________

Conclusion
________________________________________________________

So, aside from the obvious issue of the importance of history and truth, why is the
persistence of this inaccurate historical view of Patrick a problem for modern pagans and
polytheists? Modern pagans are familiar with the concept of utilising a myth (as opposed to
history) to illustrate some point or establish some narrative which may be historically
inaccurate but feels right; modern mythos and all that. Well, being a reconstructionist,
such an explanation or argument doesnt mesh particularly well with how things ought to
be done. Rather, those arguing for the Christian genocide against the druids and the preChristian culture of Ireland as being a historic reality, establish a narrative which is false.
This isnt a matter of having a fun little modern myth about the existence of modern
pagans, but rather marginalises or wholly ignores the reality of cultural continuity
including the polytheistic practices that have lived on alongside Christianity, and largely
been maintained by those who consider themselves Christians. 62 This ignorance, willful or
genuine, of how the coming of and conversion to Christianity did not cause irreparable
damage to Irish culture is something which is echoed among those pagans/polytheists who
consider the 17th a day of mourning. To the point where some (almost always among the
diaspora in America or Canada) argue that they are the real Irish, and therefore the only

62

The Creideamh S, or Fairy Faith is the living Gaelic tradition of interaction with the spirits. These
simple folkways, combined with the many surviving prayers and songs to the powers of nature, form
the foundation of Gaelic Polytheism as practiced and preserved by Gaol Naofa. For more on the
surviving polytheistic traditions our Christian ancestors preserved, see, Ritual in Gaelic
Polytheism along with most of the articles on the Gaol Naofa website.

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legitimate inheritors of some imagined Irish culture, making themselves more Irish than
the Irish themselves, who have been corrupted by Christianity. 63
So the problem as presented isnt actually genocide, but anti-Christian sentiment
bordering on xenophobia. If the black armband crowd really cared about the genocide of
ancient druids and Celtic Polytheists, then theyd be decrying the vile conquest of Gaul and
the slaughter which occurred. Yet they remain silent or unaware; preferring an imagined
genocide to the real thing, because it fits the narrative they are putting forward: Christianity
is evil, a blight upon humanity which need be smashed and overthrown, only then can the
True inheritors of the ancient world, the pagans, thrive once more. Or, in a more melodic
manner, from the pen of Isaac Bonewits:

Both Catholic and Protestant, led us round by our noses,


Distracting from the deadly scent, of Englands bleedin roses!
Kick every preacher cross the sea, burn out their golden dens.
Its the only way well ever be free lets be Pagan once again!
Be Pagan once again, be Pagan once again,
Its the only way well ever be free lets be Pagan once again! 64

It has been mentioned before, but I am not particularly fond of Catholicism,


Protestantism or Christianity in general. I recognise that there are considerable differences
between my own worldview and the one propagated by Christians, and there are elements
of the religion(s), both theological and ethical, that I vehemently disagree with. It is
understandable that those who have been hurt by Christianity want some solace. It is also
understandable that those who exist in a minority religion advocate for more recognition
and to see the hegemony get taken down supports the sentiment that change can occur. Yet
63
64

St. Patricks Day Protest, especially the about section.


Bonewits, Be Pagan Once Again! Accessed March 13, 2015.

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crafting lies, even if entertaining lies that feed into a worldview, flies in the face of the very
values such folks claim they are trying to restore.
Truth the recognition of and the adherence to, what is right and correct is a
value that was central to the culture of pre-Christian Ireland. Truth is also something that
has remained central through the stories and values of the living Irish culture, and so for
those of us who seek to honour the gods of our pre-Christian ancestors, weve come full
circle. We honour and uphold the truth, even when it is not convenient, or flattering, or
popular. Honour your ancestors, but recognise that if you are a member of the diaspora (or
born in Ireland), then youve got rather a lot of Christians among that number, without
whom you would have never been born, without whom we would have no language,
songs, stories or mythology. Recognise that you are part of a cultural continuum that
stretches back into time immemorial, and celebrate your heritage by experiencing some
facet of the living culture. Instead of mourning for an imagined past that pits
pagan/polytheist against Christian, work to preserve the culture, and to promote harmony
and peace here and now.

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________________________________________________________

Bibliography
________________________________________________________

Annals of Ulster (CELT: Corpus of Electronic Texts: a project of University


College Cork College Road, Ireland)
Bieler, L. (trans.). Muirchs text in English. (School of Celtic Studies, Dublin
Institute for Advance Studies)
Christian Bible (New International Version)
N Chonchobhair, Treasa, and Loughlin, Annie. Ritual within Gaelic
Polytheism. (An Chuallacht Ghaol Naofa, 2010)
Connolly, S.J. (ed.). Oxford Companion to Irish History, 2 nd Ed. (New York,
Oxford University Press, 2007)
Cunliffe, Barry. The Ancient Celts (London, Oxford University Press, 1997)
Dooley, Ann, and Roe, Harry. Tales of the Elder of Ireland: A New Translation of
Acallam Na Senrach (Oxford World Classics, 2008).
NicDhna, Kathryn Price (et al). The CR FAQ: An Introduction to Celtic
Reconstructionist Paganism (Massachusetts, River House Publishing, 2007)
Freeman, Philip. St. Patrick of Ireland: A Biography (New York, Simon &
Schuster, 2004)
Gorm, Sionnach. Pagans, Polytheists and St. Patricks Day (An Chuallacht
Ghaol Naofa, 2014)
Green, Miranda. Humans as Ritual Victims in the Later Prehistory of
Western Europe, (Oxford Journal of Archaeology, 1998).
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Robinson, 2012)
Koch, John T. (ed) & Carey, John (col). The Celtic Heroic Age: Literary Sources
for Ancient Celtic Europe & Early Ireland & Wales 4th Ed. (Aberyswyth, Celtic
Studies Publications, 2003)
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Krappe, Alexander H. St Patrick and the Snakes, in Traditio Vol. 5, (1947)


Krappe, Alexander H. Irish Earth, in Folklore Vol. 52, No. 3, (Folklore
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Fiannuigheachta; or Fenian Poems Vol. 2, Transactions of the Ossianic Society 4, 6
(Dublin, 1859-1861)
Patterson, Nerys. Cattle-Lords & Clansmen: The Social Structure of Early Ireland
(Notre Dame, University of Notre Dame Press, 1994)
Pitzl-Waters, J. Saint Patrick, Druids, Snakes and Popular Myths, The Wild
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(March, 1936)
Stokes, Whitley (trans.). On the Life of St. Patrick (CELT: Corpus of Electronic
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Office.)

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About the Author


________________________________________________________

Sionnach Gorm is a Brughaidh and council member of Gaol Naofa. With a BA in


History, he resides in Toronto and has been writing about Gaelic Polytheism since 2009 on
his blog, Three Shouts on a Hilltop. Before that, he spent entirely too much time in online
interfaith forums. He is married with his first child on the way.

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