Monday 23 March 2015

Saint Patrick's Return to Slemish

Yesterday we looked at the account of Saint Patrick's enforced sojourn on the County Antrim mountain of Slemish by the American writer Paul Gallico. Today we are going to continue with this theme by looking at the same author's account of Saint Patrick's return to Slemish. This episode does not form part of Saint Patrick's own writings but is found in the Lives of the saint by later hagiographers. Modern scholarship doubts its historicity and despite Gallico's confidence that Slemish was 'richer in the presence and tradition of Patrick than almost any other spot in Ireland', some modern scholars are unconvinced that our national patron ever spent time here at all. The question of the geographical extent of Saint Patrick's mission, like so many other aspects of his life and career, remains open.

It was on, in and about Slemish and Skerry that Patrick acquired the practical education that in later years fitted him particularly for his mission to the pagan Irish. For it was here he learned the language, beliefs, customs, politics, laws and organisation. He became acquainted with their culture,  characteristics, poetry, government, their strength and their weaknesses, and it was in these formative years that he learned to deal with the Irish.

It was on the approaches to Skerry likewise, and within sight of the Slemish of so many painful as well as sweet memories, that Patrick in later life upon his return to Ireland experienced a deep human tragedy and an affecting rejection, if there is more than the usual single kernel of truth in the legend connected with that return.

It is told that shortly after his landing in Ireland, in the vicinity of Strangford Lough and what is now Downpatrick, the Saint journeyed north to pay a visit to Miliucc, his old master, with a twofold purpose, both of which were characteristic of Patrick. He wished to pay off his debt to Miliucc in money, for Patrick never questioned slavery as an institution or a way of life in his times, and, when he had made his escape, he was well aware that he was robbing his master of a valuable piece of property which he had purchased at full price. It was this price that Patrick would have been eager to restore.

And then he desired to make one who by then must have been an old man his convert and rescue his soul before his death. However hard a lord Miliucc might have been, Patrick felt affection for him. The years that had intervened would have softened the memories of harshness, and left him with the same eagerness and excitement to see this man once again, as we are thrilled and excited over the prospect of returning to our old school after a long absence to hob-nob generously with the stern schoolmaster whom we once feared and perhaps even hated.

But Miliucc, according to the legend, was stubborn, hard-headed and intransigent. For reasons of his own he did not wish to face his former slave now returned as a dignitary of a new religion. It would not have been a guilty conscience, since no one felt guilty about slavery in those time, for there was no place or country in the world  where it did not exist. Perhaps he was afraid that Patrick would convert him. 

His reaction was drastic. According to the story he shut himself up in his Dun with all his treasure and personal belongings, kindled a fire and immolated himself.

Paul Gallico, The Steadfast Man - A Life of Saint Patrick, (London, 1958), 170-171.

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