Slavery was as common in pre-Christian Ireland as it was in the rest of the ancient world. Ireland was entirely agricultural, and it was a standard practice for families to have slaves. The man known to history as St. Patrick
is known for evangelizing Ireland, but he is not usually thought of as an abolitionist. However, Patrick ministered equally to free and slave, was militant about the human dignity of all, and worked to emancipate slaves whenever possible.
Patrick was born in the early 400’s, in Britain, the son of a Roman official. Patrick’s father had an estate with many slaves, many of whom were probably Irish. When Patrick was 16, the family estate was raided by Irish pirates. Patrick and a number of the family slaves were seized and transported back to Ireland in bondage, where Patrick was sold as a slave to a wealthy farmer. He pastored sheep and spent much time alone, sleeping in the fields and forests, and praying a great deal. After six years, he escaped on a boat back to Britain and reunited with his astonished parents.
However, Patrick was on a mission. When he was a slave, had a deep Christian conversion. He now sought ordination as a priest, and after many years of education, returned to Ireland. Preaching from farm to farm, Patrick knew that if he could convert the women, then the men in the family would follow. Moreover, as a former slave, he identified with and easily related with the slaves. Among his converts were the sons and daughters of Irish kings and the wealthy but also numerous slaves. Large numbers of women became Christians, including large numbers of women slaves. Under Patrick’s influence, many of these women, including many slave women, also took vows of perpetual virginity.
The life of a woman in Ireland was difficult, not too different than the life of a woman in Rome or Greece at the time. A woman always belonged to a man. They were daughters, wives, or slaves, and Irish law enforced male control over them. If a man had an attractive daughter, he could improve his status and wealth by requiring her to marry the right person. Kings and clans often settled disputes by providing girls as brides. When a woman chose to commit herself to virginity, it often meant a conflict with her family. While not casting doubt on the authenticity of their Christian faith, one reason why so many women chose to remain virgins was that it gave them enormous freedom in society. One pastoral problem that Patrick had to deal with was that female slaves, including Christian ones committed to virginity, were subject to rape and other forms of sexual abuse by their masters. But because they were slaves, pagan society did not consider it rape.
In his ministry, Patrick experienced enormous difficulties including threats, kidnapping, robbery, and other violence. In one abominable incident relating to slavery, Patrick had just baptized an entire clan over Easter. While walking home from the baptism, the clan was set upon by a slave raiding party from Britain, led by a king named Coroticus. They killed several of the clan and transported the rest back to Britain, still in their baptismal robes. Coroticus and his men would have kept the most beautiful women for their own use and sent the rest to the slave markets in Britain.
Patrick sent a message to Coroticus diplomatically asking that the captives be returned to him, but he was laughed at. In response, Patrick, using his full authority as a Bishop, wrote a long, rage filled letter known to history as the Letter to the Soldiers of Cororticus
. Assaulting Coroticus with waves of scripture, Patrick denounced, shamed, and excommunicated him, while still urging that he repent by returning the captives. To bring maximum shame, Patrick sent the letter to all of the Christian leaders in Britain and distributed it throughout Ireland. It should be noted that most Britons were prepared to think of the Irish as subhuman and fit only for slavery. For that reason, in the beginning of his letter, Patrick stressed God’s love for the barbarians and pagans.
History does not record the response of Coroticus, but to the church leaders in Britain, it was considered outrageous that Patrick excommunicated someone who lived outside of his church jurisdiction, and they responded by accusing Patrick of corruption. They accused him of accepting church donations and using the money for himself. Patrick responded with the impassioned letter known today as the Confession of St. Patrick
. Besides refuting the charges of corruption, Patrick detailed his former life as a slave, his escape., and his life as the evangelist of Ireland. The two letters are the only surviving letters that are known for certain to have been written by Patrick. They comprise almost all that we know of him.