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Rome had virtually abandoned Britain in 410 when its troops were needed to defend Rome against Alaric the Goth. Britain was left undefended, and this gave rise to Irish raiders, who excelled in the slave trade. They were very good at silently snatching children from their beds at night and sailing back to Ireland before the parents knew what had happened.
Patricius, or Patrick, was a middle-class boy in Britain. His grandfather had been a Catholic priest. At the age of sixteen, Patrick was taken captive to the district of Antrim in Ireland and sold to a local king named Miliucc. He was enslaved for six years, working as a shepherd boy. The Irish at that time were not Christians, and most were illiterate.
During those difficult six years of slavery as a shepherd boy, Patrick had much time to pray and to develop his relationship with God. Then, while sleeping one night in the hills, a voice came to him, saying, “Your hungers are rewarded. You are going home.” He awoke with a start, and the voice then continued, “Look, your ship is ready.”
He was inland from the sea, but he began to walk, not knowing where he was going, until he reached the southwestern part of the island. There he saw his ship. The captain at first refused to take him, because he had no money, but later changed his mind. The ship sailed to Gaul (now France), where they found only devastation, and they walked for two weeks trying to find a single soul who might sell them some food.
This was about the year 407 A.D., the year that the Germans had crossed the Rhine, wreaking havoc on Gaul before moving south to sack Rome in 410. The captain finally challenged Patrick that if his God was so powerful, why couldn’t he pray for some food. Patrick replied, “From the bottom of your heart, turn trustingly to the Lord my God, for nothing is impossible to Him. And today He will send you food for your journey until you are filled, for He has an abundance everywhere.”
The crew awkwardly closed their eyes and had a moment of silent prayer. Suddenly, the sound of a stampede was heard, and a herd of pigs came running down the road toward them. They were soon feasting on the pigs sent by God from out of His abundance!
From there Patrick was able to return to his parents’ home in Britain. No longer a teenager, his hard experience and his time with God had matured him.
One night, while in his parents’ house, he had a vision of an Irishman that he had known in Ireland. His name was Victorinus, and he was holding a huge stack of letters. He handed one of them to Patrick, and it had a heading: Vox Hiberionicum, “The Voice of the Irish.” He then heard a multitude saying, “We beg you to come and walk among us once more.” This was similar to Paul’s Macedonian call in Acts 16:9, 10,
9 And a vision appeared to Paul in the night; a certain man of Macedonia was standing and appealing to him, and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” 10 And when he had seen the vision, immediately we sought to go into Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them.
Patrick was not as quick to respond to the call as Paul was. But his visions continued, and finally Christ began to speak more directly to him from within: “He who gave His life for you, He it is who speaks within you.” So he returned to Gaul and joined a monastery on an island to receive a more formal Christian education and eventually became a missionary to Ireland. At about the age of 47, he was the first missionary to the “barbarians,” those outside of the sphere of Roman law. It was around the year 430-432, about the time that the Vandals had conquered Carthage in North Africa. (Augustine had died there in 430 during the siege.)
Patrick was very successful in his missionary work, and thousands came to Christ as the result of his efforts. However, he had a problem with raiders from the slave trade. With the Roman troops gone from Britain, many petty kings arose to carve out new territories and to conduct raids to gain more slaves. One of these, Coroticus, raided the peaceful northern coast of Ireland and carried off thousands of Patrick’s coverts to Christ. Patrick sent a delegation of priests to Coroticus, but he only laughed at them. To him, the Irish were “barbarians,” which at that time was a term comparable to “savages” in later centuries. They were hardly capable of being real Christians, for Christianity and Roman civilization were firmly linked in the minds of the people.
Patrick then wrote an appeal to the British churches and to the Christians themselves. In so doing, he became the first in history to speak out clearly against the practice of slavery.
Patrick devoted the last thirty years of his life to his missionary work in Ireland. He died around 461 A.D., while the Western Roman Empire was in chaos and nearing its final collapse. During his years of ministry, Patrick realized that in order for Christianity to survive long-term, the people had to become literate.
Likewise, because they had no martyrs to honor, they found meaning in a different type of martyrdom. Instead of “Red Martyrs,” whose blood had been spilled in the Roman Empire, they created “Green Martyrs.” These were men and women who left tribal jurisdictions and retreated to the forests or to a mountaintop or to a lonely island to study the Scriptures and to commune with God. Such was the case during Patrick’s life time.
But this separatist movement did not last, due to the Irish innate need for sociability and through the efforts of another priest-monk named Columcille, “the dove,” who arose in the next century.
“In the early days, soon after the time of Patrick, the anarchistic anchorites [He is comparing these Irish monks to the earlier monks in the Egyptian desert, who were called anchorites.] sought out rocky islands for their hermitages, places like Inis Murray and Skellig Michael off the western coast. ‘It is hard to believe,’ wrote Kenneth Clark, ‘that for quite a long time—almost a hundred years—western Christianity survived by clinging to places like Skellig Michael, a pinnacle of rock eighteen miles from the Irish coast, rising seven hundred feet out of the sea.’ (The hundred years of which he speaks stretch from the late fifth century, after Patrick’s death, to the late sixth century, by which time, as we shall see, the Irish monks had reconnected barbarized Europe to the traditions of Christian literacy.)….
“The power of the druids, who had lived and worshiped in sacred groves, had been easily handed over to the Green Martyrs, who also lived and worshiped in sacred groves. But the access of the new, literate druids (the monastic successors of the Green Martyrs) to the books of the Greco-Roman library—that is, to the whole of the classical sciences and the wisdom of the ancients—gradually created new centers of knowledge and wealth such as Ireland had never known.” (How the Irish Saved Civilization, Thomas Cahill, pp. 171, 172)
The “Green” movement evolved into monastic colonies, which became the centers of learning, art, and prosperity. Messengers were sent throughout Europe to find books of every kind, including the Roman and Greek classics.
At the same time, a huge influx of monks fled from Gaul to Ireland as Roman civilization broke down and gave way to the warlords of the Goths.
“After Patrick, they [the Irish] experienced an influx of anchorites and monks fleeing before the barbarian hordes, and these no doubt provided them with some finer points on eremitical and conventual life. ‘All the learned men on this side of the sea,’ claims a note in a Leyden manuscript of the time, ‘took flight for transmarine places like Ireland, bringing about a great increase of learning’—and, doubtlessly, a spectacular increase in the number of books—‘to the inhabitants of those regions” (Cahill, p. 180).
It was not long before thousands of hopeful students flocked to these learning centers in hopes of receiving an education. They were taught the Scriptures and also learned to read and write. Not being influenced by Roman Christianity, they were unconcerned about the church creeds set by church councils which had divided the Christians of the Empire. It never entered their minds to persecute or execute people for “heresy.” Thomas Cahill writes,
“Irish generosity extended not only to a variety of people but to a variety of ideas. As unconcerned about orthodoxy of thought as they were about uniformity of monastic practice, they brought into their libraries everything they could lay their hands on. They were resolved to shut out nothing. Not for them the scruples of Saint Jerome, who feared he might burn in hell for reading Cicero. Once they had learned to read the Gospels and the other books of the Holy Bible, the lives of the martyrs and ascetics, and the sermons and commentaries of the fathers of the church, they began to devour all of the old Greek and Latin pagan literature that came their way. In their unrestrained catholicity, they shocked the conventional churchmen, who had been trained to value Christian literature principally and give a wide berth to the dubious morality of the pagan classics….
“It was not that the Irish were uncritical, just that they saw no value in self-imposed censorship….” (Cahill, pp. 138, 139).
This new-found desire to read and write quickly created a huge need for more books to read—and to copy.
“Like the Jews before them, the Irish enshrined literacy as their central religious act” (Cahill, p. 163).
“Ireland, at peace and furiously copying, thus stood in the position of becoming Europe’s publisher. But the pagan Saxon settlements of southern England had cut Ireland off from easy commerce with the continent. While Rome and its ancient empire faded from memory and a new, illiterate Europe rose on its ruins, a vibrant, literary culture was blooming in secret along its Celtic fringe” (Cahill, p. 183).
The collapse of the Western Empire was far more than a change of rulers, laws and political structure. It was a complete disintegration of education and learning, by which Roman culture had been passed down from generation to generation.
“All the great continental libraries had vanished; even memory of them had been erased from the minds of those who lived in the emerging feudal societies of medieval Europe…. By the end of the fifth century, at any rate, the profession of copyist had pretty much disappeared….” (Cahill, p. 181, 182).
Yet during this time, education in Ireland was just beginning, and like a newborn baby, it was growing by leaps and bounds. It was inevitable, then, that the Green Martyrs, who had grown up into educated monks, would finally feel the need to send out missionaries to Europe. These became known as the White Martyrs, sailing into the white morning sky into the unknown, never to return. Such was the dream of Columcille, the spiritual successor to Patrick.
Already, there were foreign students in the monasteries. Many of them returned to their native countries to spread the Gospel. But Irish monks themselves began to set up colonies in “barbarized Europe.”
“More than half of all our biblical commentaries between 650 and 850 were written by Irishmen… and there are traces of the White Martyrs as far as Kiev” (Cahill, p. 195).
When Columcille died, his spiritual heir, Aidan, continued this missionary legacy. Columbanus, who was born about 540 A.D., departed in 590 for Gaul with a dozen companions. He founded monasteries among the Sueves tribes, bypassing the old Roman churchmen who remained behind their walls with no thought of bringing the Gospel to the “barbarians.” Later, he founded a monastery in northern Italy to bring the Gospel to the Lombards.
In other words, this Irishman was a missionary to Italy, which at one time had been the heart of the Western Roman Empire. His monks, along with many others and in succeeding centuries, continued copying books in many languages, preserving the culture of Rome.
“The Hebrew Bible would have been saved without them, transmitted to our time by scattered communities of Jews. The Greek Bible, the Greek commentaries, and much of the literature of ancient Greece were well preserved at Byzantium [Constantinople], and might be still available to us somewhere—if we had the interest to seek them out. But Latin literature would almost surely have been lost without the Irish, and illiterate Europe would hardly have developed its great national literatures without the example of Irish, the first vernacular literature to be written down. Beyond that, there would have perished in the west not only literacy but all the habits of mind that encourage thought. And when Islam began its medieval expansion, it would have encountered scant resistance to its plans—just scattered tribes of animists, ready for a new identity” (Cahill, pp. 193, 194).
We see, then, how God used the Irish missionary monks not only to preserve Christian culture, but also to give Europe a Christian identity that could withstand Islamic religious conquest that began with Mohammed in 612. It would not be until 1453, when the Islamic Turks took Constantinople, and the remnants of the Eastern Roman Empire collapsed, that we would see a comparable influx of learning into Europe proper.
The fall of Constantinople in 1453 brought thousands of Greek scholars, carrying their Greek manuscripts of the New Testament, into Europe. Up to that time, only the Latin Vulgate was used. These Greek manuscripts arrived at the same time the printing press began to be used (1452). New translations were made directly from Greek. The Gospel surged in a way not seen since the Irish saved civilization.
Thomas Cahill closes his book with this conclusion:
“By this point, the transmission of European civilization was assured. Wherever they went, the Irish brought with them their books, many unseen in Europe for centuries and tied to their waists as signs of triumph, just as Irish heroes had once tied to their waists their enemies’ heads. Wherever they went, they brought their love of learning and their skills in bookmaking. In the bays and valleys of their exile, they reestablished literacy and breathed new life into the exhausted literary culture of Europe.
“And that is how the Irish saved civilization” (Cahill, pp. 195, 196).