Saint Patrick’s Escape
by Mike McCormack, AOH NY State Historian
Many versions of the life of St. Patrick exist. This includes The Tripartite Life of St. Patrick in the Book of Armagh which is made up of three homilies on St. Patrick by St. Fiacc, former Bard and Bishop of Leinster; Tirechan, a 7th century Bishop in Mayo; and Muirchu, a 7th century monastic historian as well as biographies by St, Evin and many others. However taking facts from his own autobiographical Confessio, more than the writings of those who venerated him in later years and tried to glorify his reputation, we get a more intimate picture of the remarkable man behind the saint.
From reliable sources, we know that our patron Saint was named Maewyn Succat when raiders of Irish High King Niall of the Nine Hostages kidnapped him, at about age 16, from his home on the west coast of Wales. He was sold to a Chieftain named Miluic near Ballymena in County Antrim. As St. Patrick, Succat later wrote that he had worked as a slave, tending flocks on Mount Slemish (from the Irish: Sliabh Mis), sleeping in the cold, and often going hungry. We know that he came from a Christian family for his father was a deacon and during his captivity, he turned to God, praying night and day. One night, in a dream he heard the voice of God tell him that a ship was ready to take him away and, after six long years of penance, prayer and suffering, he escaped. He wrote that God had humbled him in captivity and under His special guidance was able to return to his own country. The details of his escape are sketchy and there has been a difference of opinion regarding the port from which he made his escape however, in his own later writings, St. Patrick tells us that the port from which he sailed was about 200 (Roman) miles from Slemish.
When writing his Confessio many years later, St. Patrick was well acquainted with distances in Ireland, especially between Antrim and Mayo, which in his mission he had traveled many times. Further, 200 Roman miles is about 185 English miles, and the port of Killala in Mayo happens to be about that distance from Mount Slemish. Wicklow is also that distance but he wouldn’t be likely to head south for that would bring him along the east coast through the most populated part of the country where a runaway slave would almost certainly be re-captured. The Tripartite states that Miliuc pursued Succat to bring him back, but the light-footed youth was able to evade his pursuers.
Another reason to favor Killala is that the Wood of Focluth was there along the shore of the western sea. The Saint tells us more than once that it was from that Wood of Focluth that a youth (angel?) named Victoricus brought him letters calling him back to Ireland and it was the voice of those who dwelt by the Wood of Focluth that invited him, holy youth come once more and walk among us as before. These words imply that he stayed among people who lived by Focluth Wood for a while and that can only have been when he was escaping. We don’t know how long he stayed at Focluth Wood before he found a ship, but he must have lodged a while with those who took him in after his escape. Seemingly, he was received with genuine hospitality – a tradition among the Irish. He was a fugitive, hungry, foot-sore, and friendless, when he came seeking food and shelter. It may have been in return for work performed, but either way it was most likely here that the runaway slave befriended the children whose voices afterwards called him back to Erin. Still full of religious fervor and gratitude to God who was guiding his escape, he was moved by the fact that these children would grow up without knowing the true God and it is likely that here the idea first came to him of one day returning to rescue those young souls from spiritual exile by teaching them about the true God. Gratitude was a striking trait in the character of St. Patrick, and it is most evident here. Ever after, they were on his mind and he never rested until he turned his steps back toward the western sea, to lead them into the light of the Gospel. It is one of the most touching incidents in the whole history of our great Apostle. Focluth Wood is one of the most interesting places referred to in the biographies of St. Patrick and its name is reflected in the modern town land of Foghill, just south of Lackan Bay. In olden times Focluth Wood extended from the head of Lackan Bay to Killala. Killala was, and still is, a great harbor with many quiet coves where the lighter craft of the time could easily glide in and out with the tide. The trees of Focluth Wood surrounded these quiet coves, for as yet there was no Killala until St. Patrick later founded a church there. It was in one of those coves, that the ship was waiting, by Divine providence, to carry the most precious passenger ever to sail from the shores of holy Ireland.
About two miles north, near the point where the Rathfran River enters the bay; there is a low-lying ridge of rocks, still referred to as St. Patrick’s Rocks. Just above these rocks is the small bay where French ships, under General Humbert, landed in 1798 and that may have been where Patrick’s ship was drawn up on the sandy beach. The Most Rev. Dr. Healy, Archbishop of Tuam, in his Life of St Patrick in 1905, wrote that his research led him to believe that the place where the ship docked was in the inner harbor of Killala, close to the spot where St. Patrick long after built a church, a remnant of which still stands. Either way, the coast around Killala seems to fit the bill. St. Patrick wrote that on the day the ship was about to start on her voyage, he asked to be taken on board as a passenger, but the captain angrily rebuffed him. He left to return to the hut where he was staying and on the way, began to pray and before his prayer was finished he heard one of the crew shouting, Come back quickly, they are calling you. St. Patrick later wrote, I immediately returned and they said to me: ‘Come with us, we will take thee in good faith,’ which Archbishop Healy interprets as meaning on credit. In St. Patrick’s writings he refers to an unexplained tradition of servitude which he refused to do but his prayerful plea must have touched them for he wrote, I had some hope that they might come to the faith of Christ; therefore I kept with them, and forthwith we set sail. Much of the account of the incident is obscure for the original text is corrupt.
The Tripartite states that he was bound for the Roman Province of Britain in a 3-day voyage. Any craft of the time could easily make the western coast of Scotland or Wales (then called Britain) in three days. Though we don’t know exactly where they landed, we do know that they had many dogs with them. It is possible they were a hunting party heading for the Scottish highlands and the great Caledonian Forest. We know from the bardic tales of Finn MacCool that Irish warriors often hunted in Caledonia. Another reason for the trip could have been the sale of wolfhounds which were valued by the Romans in Britain as combat animals in games.
In his Confessio, St. Patrick wrote, After three days we made land, and then for twenty-eight days traveled through a desert. They had no food, and were sorely pressed with hunger. Then one day the captain said to me ‘Well, now, Christian, you say your God is great and omnipotent. Why can you not then pray for us, for we are in danger of perishing from hunger, and we can hardly see anywhere a single human being’. Thereupon I plainly said to them, ‘Be ye truly converted to the Lord my God, to whom nothing is impossible, that He may send food in your way and you may be filled for He hath abundance everywhere’. And so, through God’s help, it came to pass. A herd of swine appeared on the road before their eyes, and they killed many of them, and remained there for two nights until they were well refreshed. Then they gave great thanks to God, and I was honored in their eyes.
Such is St. Patrick’s account of his journey. The story is consistent with hunters losing their way in a great forest and, seeing neither game nor men, being reduced to the verge of starvation, but St. Patrick called it a desert! There is no great desert anywhere on the west coast from Scotland to Wales. However, in the early fifth century, the Caledonian Forest was not a forest of tall trees as we know a forest, but rather an immense extent of scrub and bush. It was, in truth, a barren land, as the Tripartite calls it: empty and deserted. The question was answered by an ancient description of Scotland found in the Chronicle of the Picts and Scots published by H.M. General Register House in 1867; it mentions the mountains and deserts of Argyle! And Succat was on his way home.
Patrick tells us no more in his Confessio about his friends from Killala. We don’t know what became of them although it is significant that he did return, not only to walk among them once more, but to build them a church.