Hopkins Lectures 2007

Hopkins and the Background to the Breastplate of Saint Patrick

Sean Bagnal Naas

Some years ago during the Hopkins Festival, Ernest Ferlita, SJ , described Hopkins' love of Saint Patrick's Breastplate. He also spoke of Hopkins intention to publish a new critical edition of Saint Patrick's Confession.

St Patrick

Hopkins was aware of and interested in these documents before he ever came to Ireland.

The coming of Christianity to Ireland

Most of us think immediately of the
coming of Patrick in 432AD.But we fail to think of the
possibility of Christianity and Christians having Ireland before Patrick's arrival. This is relevant because there is some evidence of

Christian communities and we can speculate about such communities in here in the East of the Country before Patrick came to Ireland. We will look at this question from several directions.

Firstly we will examine evidence and thinking for the first arrival of Christianity in Ireland. Then we will look at the coming of Patrick and some of his contemporaries. We may even be able to look at some early Christian settlements here in County Kildare. We examine what Patrick had to say of himself in his known Writings, in both his Confessions and his Letter to Coroticus. Finally we will say what we can of the prayer: Saint Patrick's Breastplate.

The Romans occupied Britain for c. 350 years, leaving eventually in 409 AD. (1) There was extensive contact between Ireland and Britain during the entire Roman period. Incidentally it was Pytheas of Massilia, the great navigator at the time of Alexander the Great who wrote of his voyage beyond the Pillars of Hercules and called the collection of islands he found off the western coast of Europe the "Pretanic Isles" (2) Hence the "British Isles".

We traded with Britain. We imported wine. In the second century AD Ptolemy was able to give a good description of the Irish coast and some estuaries: information he probably collected from merchants and sailors. We traded slaves and frequently raided for them in Britain.

There is also evidence of Irish mercenaries having served in the Roman Legions. The ogham writing of ancient Ireland is based on the Latin alphabet. We also imported and imitated here Roman pottery, metal work and decorative crafts. (3) Saint Patrick

Emperor Constantine Decreed Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire in 324 AD. This was at least in part because Christianity had become predominant throughout the Empire by that time and he had decreed tolerance for Christianity in 313 AD. Therefore Britain was officially Christian for almost one hundred years before the Romans left and most likely had substantial Christian communities before that. Indeed Alban became the first Christian martyr in Britain in about the second century AD and British bishops attended a council in Gaul in 314 AD.(4)

Archaeological evidence of Christianity in the 2nd century has surfaced in Manchester. (5)

During all of this time the Britons and the Irish traded, migrated, traded slaves and settled among each other. 6) Towards the end of this period, as Roman power in Britain declined, the Irish established a substantial presence in Britain and some scholars describe their presence in western Britain in particular as colonies. These colonies were in western Scotland, in the Devon / Cornwall area and most heavily in western and southern Wales.(7)

In all of this contact it would be likely that Christian people came to Ireland or indeed Irish travellers themselves became Christian in sufficient numbers to form Christian communities here in Ireland. The story of Patrick is itself one of a Christian slave from Britain. By 431 AD knowledge and awareness of this Christian community in Ireland had reached such a level that Pope Celestine sent Palladius to Ireland as the first bishop to minister to the Christian community there. This is significant on two levels: it indicates an existing and substantial community of Christians in Ireland "pre Patrick". It is also the first recorded instance of a Christian bishop being sent to a Christian community outside of the boundaries of the Roman Empire. (8)

There may have been a second motive for sending this man to Ireland. While some Christians may have come directly from the Continent, for the reasons we have already spoken about we must assume that almost all of the Christian community here came from Britain. At that time there was a heresy raging in Britain called Pallagianism after Pallagius who had developed a doctrine of human free will. To combat this, Germanus of Auxerre was sent to Britain to deal with this heresy. Venerable Bede tells that Germanus did this by emphasising the use of relics as a source of grace so that Christians would accept the received wisdom of the church.

Some modern sources are starting to suggest that Pellagius may have been Irish and that the church in Ireland at this time may have been substantially following his teachings.

Palladius and Patrick

Palladius came from Auxerre. (9) Palladius also carried relics of Peter and Paul and we know he founded three churches at least; but we do not know the locations of these churches.(10 It is speculated they may have been close to modern Arklow in east Wicklow. Patrick came and preached to the pagan Irish and Palladius came to the Christian Irish. Scholars have speculated that Patrick's mission was mainly to the north and west of the country while Palladius ministered in Leinster and the southeast. That is, in the areas to which Christianity had crossed from Wales and Britain.(11)

So there were Christians in Ireland before Patrick came and they were mainly along the east and Southeast coasts. Patrick ministered to the Pagan Irish to the North and West while Palladius stayed in the East and founded at least three churches in this part of Ireland. As mentioned it is thought that Palladius may have landed close to Arklow and founded his three churches close to there. (12)

One of the speculations around Palladius is that place names with the Gaelic word 'Domhnach' in them may refer to foundations of his. The Gaelic word 'Domhnach' comes from the Latin word 'Dominicus' meaning a church building. (It also gave the Irish word for Sunday.) We know Patrick was a Briton whose Latin was poor. Palladius on the other hand was a Gaul who was known in Rome and we can reasonably speculate that his Latin was better and may even have been his spoken language. We also know that Irish absorbed a lot of Latin words when Christianity first came to Ireland and Gaelicised Latin words in place names may indicate the more Latinised influence in the original founding of those churches. (13) (Latin "offerenda = Aifreann - the mass)

Scholars further think that these two men have become confused in history and the many stories and legends attributed to Patrick at least to some extent may reflect the activities of Palladius.

One source tells us that Palladius was called by another name "Patricius". (14). On a wider field The Roman grip on Europe was declining and for instance the Goths. First attacked Rome in 410 AD. So spiritual power grew and the power of growing Christianity expanded as the civil power of Rome declined. Other scholars have also speculated that Patrick and Palladius may not have been the first bishops to Ireland but instead were the first bishops loyal to Rome who came to Ireland. But that could be a tangent. Patrick was a citizen of Britain, a province of the Roman Empire.

He cannot be described as English because we are dealing with a time before the Anglo- Saxon invasion: And so the concept of "England" did not exist. He was born at the end of a period when Christianity had gradually established itself as the official religion of the Empire. Theodosius had died in 395 AD and left an empire in which Christianity was the religion which received all official support and it and Roman civilisation had become closely linked in the minds of most people and of Patrick. (15)

The story of Patrick's kidnapping as a youth in his sixteenth year is well known. He spent a number of years in Ireland as a shepherd. Some of this time was spent in north west Mayo and some may have been spent on Slemish in the north east of Ireland. I say "may have" because one source says that Patrick never had a run-in with the High King, never climbed Croagh Patrick, never spent time at Slemish as a shepherd, never banished snakes, never used the shamrock to preach the trinity. (16) He did not succeed in converting Ireland from paganism but only started a process which took a long time to complete. Also he never wore a mitre !

We know of Patrick from several sources

•  He wrote his Confessions and they have come down to us because they were copied into the Book of Armagh.

•  He wrote a letter to a British soldier Coroticus .

•  A small amount of short sayings have been attributed to him. •  Others in later centuries wrote lives of Patrick.

•  There are various mentions of Patrick in the annals of ancient Ireland. (17)

I want at this stage to quote you the first paragraph of Saint Patrick's Confession.

I, Patrick, a most uneducated sinner and the least of all faithful and the most contemptible in the eyes of many, am the son of Calpurnius, a deacon, son of Potitus, a priest, who was from the village of Bannaventa Burniae [or Bannavem Taburniae or the like], for he had an estate near it, where I was taken captive. At that time I was about sixteen years of age. I did not know the true God, and I was carried away to captivity in Ireland with so many thousands of persons - as we deserved, because we departed away from God and did not keep His commandments and were not obedient to our bishops, who used to remind us of our salvation. And the Lord brought upon us the fury of his anger and scattered us among many nations as far as the end of the earth, where now my insignificant self lives among foreigners. (18)

Patrick was self-effacing and had a complicated life. He was the son of a deacon and grandson of a priest. These were usual circumstances at the time. Clerical celibacy only came much later. It may be more surprising that his father was both deacon and the owner of an estate. We are not able to place his home and various locations from Cornwall to Ayrshire have been suggested. All we can know for certain it was within Roman Britain. About a year before his capture he committed some sin. We do not know what it was. But he referred to it later in life in these words .

Because of anxiety, in a sad mood, I made known to my closest friend things which I had done in my boyhood one day, or rather in a single hour, because I had no strength yet. I do not know (God knows) if I was fifteen years of age at the time , and I did not believe in the living God and had not done so from my infancy, but I remained in death and in unbelief until I was severely punished and in truth was humiliated by hunger and nakedness, and that every day. (19)

This sin, whatever it was became of greater importance later in Patrick's life. This is because the deacon to whom he had made the confession disclosed it at the time Patrick was being charged by his senior bishops some thirty years later. We do not know what he was being charged with. It seems to have involved the possibility of his having been ordained in the first place without this sin having been properly purged. It also seems to have involved allegations concerning his use of money.

Time and again in his writings we get the impression of a very humble man who may have been looked down on as uncouth and rural and unfashionably earnest compared with more urban and urbane colleagues. It is conjectured that the senior bishops referred to in his Confession came over from Britain to censure him. (20)

Several things becomes clear from a reading of his Confessions Patrick's Latin was imperfect. Time and again the translators have trouble dealing with this and the meaning of several of the chapters remain to this day obscure because of this.

It is also clear that the driving force for Patrick's mission to Ireland lay in the British church. It appears the British bishops organised the mission in the first place. It also appears that the British bishops exercised some sort of supervisory role in relation to that mission. Thus we have the attack against his onerous work as bishop mentioned in Ch 26 of the confessions followed by the charges in connection with his boyhood sin dealt with in the immediately following chapter.

But the unique character of his mission is also dealt with in The Confessions.

And you must realise how unique Patrick was. There was no parallel or precedent for Patrick's mission in the known world at that time. Nobody had ever planned or attempted to cross the boundary of the roman empire for the purpose of preaching to and converting the non-Christians outside the Empire at that time. (21) This was dramatically new.

We also find that whereas other writers wrote extensively at the time about the Pellagian heresy and the debates surrounding it, Patrick in his Confessions wrote mostly about the conversion of the heathen Irish and never mentioned the Pellagian heresy.

The other subject he mentioned in The Confessions is the subject of money. Patrick stresses that he spent heavily but he also emphasises that he did not accept a whole range of gifts from various people, especially women. (22) It is now argued among academics that his mission was financed from Britain. It used to be thought that his mission was financed from Gaul but that has now lost ground. There are arguments about the form of that financial support as the use of coin in Britain came to a complete stop in 430 AD. (23)

What was money used for? Christian communities in Gaul regularly raised money to buy back the freedom of captured fellow Christians. Can Patrick have used money for this purpose. Certainly slavery and kidnapping for ransom were both rampant in Ireland in early Christian times. (24)

The one thing he specifically mentions is the payments to local judges.

Composition of The Confessions of Saint Patrick

Before leaving his Confessions I want to set out some idea of how that work is put together.

It is written in sixty two chapters or paragraphs. They can be said to be grouped as follows:

•  Patrick's formula of faith (Chapters 1 - 3) Patrick introduces himself, tells of his enslavement by Irish raiders and of his conversion while a slave to a most earnest form of biblical Christianity

•  Chapters 5 - 8 An undertaking to reveal the works of God and to do so truthfully

•  Chapters 9 - 15 His defective education and his hesitation about writing in spite of which defects God chose him in preference to men better educated than himself to go to the Irish bishopric.

•  Chapters 16 - 25 Escape from Ireland and return home.

•  Chapters 26 - 34. Failure to be appointed bishop?

•  Chapters 35 - 55. His aims in Ireland and reflections on his work there.

•  Chapters 56 - 62 Conclusions and emphasis of the reason for going to Ireland (25)

The final paragraph is like an echo:-

But I beg those who believe in God and fear him whoever shall condescend to pursue or to receive this writing which Patrick, a very badly educated sinner, has written in Ireland, that nobody shall ever say that it was I, the ignoramus, if I have achieved or shown any small success according to Gods pleasure, but you are to think and it must be sincerely believed, that it was the gift of God. And this is my confession before I die.

We have mention yet again of how badly educated he felt himself to be.

Patrick's letter to Coroticus

This is a singular document and is known as the Epistle to the Soldiers of Coroticus.

Who was Coroticus?

Coroticus was a Briton. He is referred to as a Tyrranus, or a ruler. This name was used at this time to describe a man who does not fear either God or his bishops (26) . It is not clear which part of Britain he came from. But an unknown writer added a table of contents to Muirchu's biography of Patrick, written in the seventh century, in which the writer made Coroticus "king of the rock" of the river Clyde. So, Coroticus may have come from Dumbarton. That is all we know of his location. (27)

Patrick had just baptised a large group of people. This may have happened somewhere in the north east of Ireland. - adjacent to western Scotland. But that is my conjecture.

Shortly after Patrick left these people soldiers of Coroticus raided. Patrick, while nearby, was not caught by the raid. The new converts were still dressed in white and were still perfumed by the baptismal chrism.

Several of these people were murdered and the rest were carried off as captives and slaves. (This raiding business was a two-way thing.)

The very next day after this raid Patrick sent a letter by a priest intermediary to Coroticus demanding the return of the looting and of the captured prisoners. But his appeal was spurned. This letter has been lost but Patrick's second letter has survived. (28)

It starts out as follows:

I, Patrick, a sinner, very badly educated, in Ireland, declare myself to be a bishop. I am quite certain that I have received from God that which I am. Consequently I live among barbarian tribes as an exile and refugee for the love of God. God himself is the witness that this is true. It is not that I was anxious to utter from my mouth anything in so harsh and unpleasant a manner. But I am compelled by zeal for God, and the truth of Christ has aroused me out of affection for my neighbours and children for whom I have given up country and kinsfolk and my own life even unto death. If I am worthy, I exist to teach tribes for My God, even though I am despised in some quarters.

Patrick's sense of his own sinfulness and unworthiness always went beyond even the conventions of the time and we see it here again. (29)

In the second paragraph of this letter Patrick goes on to say he would have liked to call these raiders "fellow citizens" , Romans and Christians. These were the marks of his identity which Patrick particularly valued.

His letter makes clear that he thought it particularly despicable that Christians should behave in this way. And he was particularly venomous towards the "Picts" He described them thus :

I do not say, to my fellow citizens, nor to the citizens of the Christian Romans, but to the fellow citizens of the devils, because of their wicked behaviour.

They live in death in an atmosphere of enmity, associates of the Irish and the Picts and of outlaws. Bloodthirsty, steeped in blood, the blood of innocent Christians, whom I have begotten in large numbers for God and have confirmed in Christ. (30)

The word "outlaws" can alternatively be translated as 'Apostates'.

The letter goes on in very strong language to describe Patrick's horror at the behaviour of the soldiers of Coroticus towards these Christians lately baptized.

So in paragraph 12 he speaks as follows:-

I am the object of resentment. What am I to do, Lord? I am greatly despised. Here are your sheep savaged and made a prey, and by the gangsters already mentioned, at the behest of Coroticus with evil intent. One who betrays Christians into the hands of the Irish and Picts is far from the love of God. Voracious wolves have swallowed up the flock of the Lord which was increasing in Ireland nicely as a result of hard work, and the sons of the Irish and the daughters of subkings [were] monks and virgins of Christ - I cannot count them. This is why good men being hurt should not please you, it will be even as displeasing as hell. (31)

It almost seems Patrick is saying that this raid was carried out as an act of defiance aimed at him. This ties in with several mentions both in this letter and particularly in the Confessions of his being despised in Britain, of his being in some way an outsider to his own people.

The next paragraph in this letter goes on to pronounce the actual excommunication. Then in paragraph 14 he sets out his fear for at least the female captives:

You, on the contrary, murder them and sell them to an outlandish race which does not know God. You are virtually handing over the members of Christ to a brothel. What hope in God have you, or who can approve of you or hold any polite conversation with you? God will judge. For it is written, not only those who do evil, but also those who consent to it are to be damned.

The reference to a brothel arises out of his concern for the female captives. We know from a few references that the sexual mores of pagan Ireland were very different from those of Christianity and it is probable that this aspect of paganism continued for some time into the Christian era. (32) Indeed there is reference later in paragraph 19 to the distribution of baptized women as prizes for the sake of a wretched temporal kingdom which of course may disappear in a moment"

This concern for the women captives is reflected again in the final paragraph of the letter.

But in reading this we should be aware that Patrick was a man of his times. His attitude in matters of morals arises from his Christianity and does not appear to arise from any innate morality. This even though he was the product of a Christian household. For instance his language in this letter condemns the treatment of Christians.

But nowhere does he condemn slavery per se. He grew up in what seems a privileged house. His father had some position and had a small estate. There are other references in his small body of writing which indicates that the Calpurnius household had slaves and servants of its own. Ironically some of these slaves may have been Irish and bought or captured in Ireland or bought in trade with Ireland.

We are given no indication of Patrick's attitude to slaves owned by his father or to slaves who were not Christian. We can only surmise that in this letter where he does condemn so wholeheartedly the enslavement of his Christians by supposedly Christian Britons his failure to include non-Christian slaves in his condemnation indicates acceptance of the status quo he grew up with.

Finally I want to deal with the prayer we have come to call "Saint Patrick's Breastplate".

Early Christian Ireland, in common with other Christian countries expressed its spirituality through monastic texts, through poetry, devotional texts, liturgy and through various other homilies and prayers.

Celtic Christianity is remarkable for the prominence from earliest times of large volumes of vernacular poetry. (33) Many of these poems borrowed from the older secular "praise poetry" or heroic poetry tradition.

A form of this poetry is attributed to Alexander the Great and this form of poetry is called the "Lorica" or Breastplate. A form of breastplate came to be used as a morning prayer originating out of monastic application of texts such as Ephesians. They were used as part of an early monastic practice of continuous prayer. They were maybe similar or parallel to the development of the Divine Office. (34)

The earliest of these Breastplate Poems is the Breastplate of Laidcenn dated to circa 661 AD. (35)

Saint Patrick's Breastplate comes straight out of this tradition. It is written in its original form in old Irish of a style of old Irish which dates the poem to about the same time as the Breastplate of Laidcenn. That is about mid seventh century.

There is no evidence that Patrick wrote it. There is no evidence that Patrick knew it or used it. One commentator says of it that 'though it was probably not written by Patrick, it certainly captures the spirit of the man we see in his letters'. (36)

The Breastplate of Saint Patrick (translation used by Philip Freeman)

I rise today
With a mighty power, calling on the Trinity,
With a belief in the threeness,
With a faith in the oneness
Of the creator of creation.

I rise today
With the power of Christ's birth and baptism,
With the power of his crucifixion and burial,
With the power of his resurrection and ascension,
with the power of his return for final judgement.

I rise today
With the power of the love of the cherubim,
In obedience of angels,
In service of archangels,
In hope of resurrection and reward,
In the prayer of the patriarchs,
In the foretelling of the prophets,
In the preaching of the apostles,
In the faith of the confessors,
In the innocence of the holy virgins,
In the deeds of righteous men.

I rise today
With the strength of the sky,
With the light of the sun,
With the splendour of the moon,
With the brilliance of fire,
With the blaze of lightening,
With the swiftness of wind,
With the depth of the ocean,
With the firmness of earth,
With the strength of rock.

I rise today
With the power of God to guide me,
With the strength of God to raise me,
With the wisdom of God to lead me,
With the vision of God to see for me,
With the ears of God to hear for me,
With the words of God to speak for me,
With the hand of God to protect me,
With the path of God before me,
With the shield of God to guard me,
With the friendship of God to keep me safe from

The contriving of demons,
The temptations of sin,
The inclinations of my nature,
and everyone who wishes me harm,
far and near,
alone and in the crowd.

I summon today all those powers to protect me
Against every cruel force which may attack my body and soul,
Against the incantations of false prophets,
Against the evil laws of unbelievers,
Against the false laws of our heretics,
Against the subtle temptations of idolatry,
Against the magic of women, blacksmiths, and druids,
Against every knowledge which corrupts body and soul.

Christ protect me today
From poison and burning,
From drowning and wounding,
So that I might gain an abundant reward.

Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me,
Christ in me, Christ below me, Christ above me,
Christ to the right of me, Christ to the left of me,
Christ where I lie, Christ where I sit, Christ where I stand,
Christ in the heart of everyone who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me,
Christ in every eye which sees me,
Christ in every ear which hears me.

I rise today
With a mighty power, calling on the Trinity,
With a belief in the threeness,
With a faith in the oneness
Of the creator of creation.


(1) Michael Richter. Medieval Ireland - The enduring Tradition. ( Gill & Macmillan. Dublin. 1988 ) p. 27.
(2) udwig Bieler. St Patrick and the Coming of Christianity. Vol 1. A History of Irish Catholicism. (Gill & Macmillan. Dublin. 1967). P. 1.
(3) Ibid.
(4) R.P.C. Hanson. The Life and Writings on the Historical Saint Patrick. (Seabury Press. New York. 1983.) p.8.
(5) R.P.C. Hanson. The Life and Writings on the Historical Saint Patrick. (Seabury Press. New York. 1983.) p. 8.
(6) Michael Richter. Medieval Ireland - The enduring Tradition. ( Gill & Macmillan. Dublin. 1988 ) p. 29.
(7) Frank Mitchell & Michael Ryan. Reading the Irish Landscape. (Town house. Dublin. 1986) p. 251.
(8) Ibid. p. 251.
(9) Michael Richter. Medieval Ireland - The enduring Tradition. ( Gill & Macmillan. Dublin. 1988 ) p. 43 - 44.
(10) Ibid. p. 43.
(11) Ibid. p. 46.
(12) T.M.Charles-Edwards. Early Christian Ireland. (Cambridge University Press. 2000) p. 235.
(13) Ibid. p. 43, p.46 and p. 47.
(14) T.M.Charles-Edwards. Early Christian Ireland. (Cambridge University Press. 2000) p. 235.
(15) R.P.C. Hanson. The Life and Writings on the Historical Saint Patrick. (Seabury Press. New York. 1983.) p. 4.
(16) Ibid p. 1.
(17) Ibid. p. 12
(18) E.A.Thompson. Who Was Saint Patrick? (Boydell Press. Suffolk. 1985) p. 1.
(19) Ibid. p. 13. (para 27)
(20) R.P.C. Hanson. The Life and Writings on the Historical Saint Patrick. (Seabury Press. New York. 1983.) p. 97.
(21) E.A.Thompson. Who Was Saint Patrick? (Boydell Press. Suffolk. 1985) p. 82.
(22) Ibid. p. 96/97.
(23) Ibid. p. 97.
(24) Ibid. p. 100.
(25) Ibid. p. 103.
(26) Ibid. p. 125.
(27) Ibid. p. 126.
(28) Ibid. p. 125.
(29) R.P.C. Hanson. The Life and Writings on the Historical Saint Patrick. (Seabury Press. New York. 1983.) p. 59.
(30) Ibid. p. 60.
(31) Ibid. p. 68.
(32) Ibid. p. 71.
(33) Oliver Davies. Celtic Spirituality. (Paulist Press, New York. 1999. p.40.
(34) Ibid. p. 46.
(35) Ibid. p. 46.
(36) Philip Freeman. St. Patrick of Ireland. (Simon & Schuster. New York.) p.161.

Links to Hopkins Literary Festival 2007

Faather Hopkins SJ on Retreat || Elizabeth Bishop and Hopkins Poetry || Aubrey de Vere and Gerard Manley Hopkins || Patrick Kavanagh and Gerard Manley Hopkins | | Communion of Saints in Hopkins Poetry || Saint Patricks Breastplate || Place of Church in Hopkins Juvenile Poems || Cardinal Newman and GM Hopkins || Hopkins Misdirected Faith || Father Hopkins SJ the Priest ||