At the turn of the 5th century the Roman Empire was on the verge of collapse. With it’s power crumbling, the coast of Britain was subject to attacks by violent Irish slave traders. In 401 a 16 year old boy named Patrick was taken in one of these raids. Stripped from the comforts of his home life and a future which would have included a classical education and career, Patrick was made the slave of an Irish chieftain and assigned the role of shepherd. The life of a shepherd-slave was miserable – isolated for months on end in mountains that were bitterly cold, in a land where he did not know the local languages, and experiencing times of severe hunger.
Such severe circumstances drove the young man to God. His grandfather had been a Christian priest, and Patrick turned to his family’s faith. He spent his bitter days in constant prayer. As he did, a deep love of God and a profound sense of God’s Spirit at work within him grew in the young man.
Six years after his kidnapping Patrick had a dream-vision. In his sleep he heard a voice say “Your hungers are rewarded: you are going home.” He sat up, startled, and the voice continued: “Look, your ship is ready.” Patrick got up and started walking. Two hundred miles later he came to the coast and saw a ship. No ship was about to give passage to a fugitive slave and the captain told the young man to move on. But Patrick knew this was his ship. He spent some time in prayer and before he had finished one of the sailors came after him with the message that he could sail with them.
It takes him two years but finally the young man arrives home to Britain. His overjoyed parents beg him not to ever leave them again. But one night Victorious, a man who he knew in Ireland, appears to him in a vision. Victorious holds a letter with the heading “The Voice of the Irish”. The young man then hears a voice of a multitude crying “We beg you to come and walk among us once more.”
Try as he might Patrick cannot put the Irish out of his mind. The visions keep coming until finally he gives in. He enrolls to be trained for the ministry and emerges some time later an ordained priest and bishop. And so a young bishop by the name of Patrick heads off to become the first known missionary to Ireland. His mission is astonishingly successful. The Irish rapidly embrace the Christian faith. By the time of his death Christianity has been established across Ireland, the Irish slave trade has ended, and murder and inter-tribal warfare have markedly decreased.
One of Patrick’s greatest achievements was the salvation of Western civilisation. After the “barbarians” overran the Roman Empire nearly all the great literary works were destroyed. Hundreds of years of learning literally went up in flames. But there was a place the Latin books were copied and preserved – in the monasteries established by Patrick throughout Ireland. When Europe emerged from its Dark Ages it was to the monasteries of Ireland that they turned to recover their learning.
Source: Reported in Thomas Cahill, How the Irish Saved Civilisation (Hodder, 1995)