Patrick and Celtic Christianity: Recommended Resources
When it comes to Patrick," wrote Thomas Cahill in his notes for How the Irish Saved Civilization, "no one agrees with anyone about anything. … There is not a datum of Patrick's life that has not been questioned, including his existence. During the course of the twentieth century, moreover, the library of Patrician studies has grown into 'a mountain of Himalayan proportions,' to quote E.A. Thompson."
Unfortunately, much of that mountain is, to put it mildly, rubble.
While some writers question the existence of Patrick, others treat the subject with such careless research that their books are filled with traditions from the last two centuries.
Skepticism and awe are both helpful historical tools. But beware of material with too much of either.
In Their Own Words
The best starting place is with Patrick's own words. Few doubt his authorship of the autobiographical Confession and his angry Letter to Coroticus, available in several books, including a new translation by John O'Donohue (Doubleday 1998).
The works are also available in Saint Patrick's World by Liam De Paor (University of Notre Dame, 1993). Combining primary source documents (including lives of saints, lists, and councils) with an informative 50-page "introduction," it should be on the library of anyone interested in this topic.
Or you can get the writings of Patrick and other Celtic Christians, including their hagiographies, for free online. Two of the best places: The Ecole Initiative (www.evansville.edu/~ecoleweb/) and The Christian Classics Ethereal Library (ccel.wheaton.edu).
Bestsellers and Scholars
Cahill's How the Irish Saved Civilization (Doubleday, 1995), still on the bestseller lists as of press time, has been attacked by some scholars as too misty-eyed and dependent on legends. Still, it's one of the better popular books on the subject, and Christian History readers should enjoy how Cahill brings the major characters to life.
Lisa Bitel's Isle of the Saints (Cornell University Press, 1990) takes a wide-ranging, but detailed look at life in the monastic community. With sections about the theft of relics to "the politics of food," it's engaging and readable for such a scholarly book.
Another "starter" book on the subject is the appropriately named An Introduction to Celtic Christianity, edited by James P. Mackey. With 14 essays on Celtic theology, Scripture commentary, monasticism, missions, liturgy, prayers, hymns, literature, and art, it's a rather expansive introduction (sadly, it lacks an index).
It's very difficult to understand Celtic Christianity without knowing something about the Celtic scenery and the early Celtic religion. Nigel Pennick's Celtic Sacred Landscapes is full of fascinating stories about Celtic holy places, both Christian and pagan.
Past and Present
For those interested in Celtic culture in general, from 500 b.c. to more modern times, both The Celtic World by Barry Cunliffe (St. Martin's, 1990) and The World of the Celts by Simon James (Thames and Hudson, 1993) are beautifully illustrated and thorough.
On the other hand, if you're more interested in Celtic Christianity today and how it relates to the Celtic Christianity of Patrick, Columba, and Bridgit, check out Exploring Celtic Spirituality: Historic Roots for Our Future by Ray Simpson (Hodder & Stoughton, 1995) and the video Island Soldiers (Newbridge, 1997, distributed by Vision Video).
Copyright © 1998 by the author or Christianity Today/Christian History magazine.
Click here for reprint information on Christian History.