Saint Patrick Retold

The Legend and History of Ireland's Patron Saint

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Roy Flechner
  • Princeton, NJ: 
    Princeton University Press
    , March
     304 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


March brings many Irish-themed publications. Their timing attests to the lasting impact of the island's patron saint, commemorated on the seventeenth day. St. Patrick's immense influence over Ireland and its diaspora, as well as popular culture (what would Guinness do without this feast to market so heavily across the planet now?) provides medieval historian Roy Flechner with a promising subject. Situated in Dublin, his vantage point enables him access to primary sources and locations tied to this mythical eliminator of snakes from the island, making it safe for scholars such as Flechner, thirteen-hundred-odd years on.

Flechner warns that his retelling of Patrician legend and lore risks dismissal as “fatuous” for its departure from “the received wisdom” (6). He explains his aim to produce “a biography that falls somewhere in between the academic and the popular” (6) In this endeavor, Saint Patrick Retold: The Legend and History of Ireland's Patron Saint meets its goal partway. After nearly a hundred pages surveying fabulous or far-fetched stories around the saint, and his British heritage and Irish servitude, respectively, Flechner admits “our knowledge of the political and social circumstances of Ireland in Patrick's time is rather sketchy and depends almost exclusively on his own testimony, which cannot be corroborated” (91-92).

However, the remaining two-thirds of Flechner's account depends as his first part has, upon “some reprieve” (92) from the archaeological record, but those remains prove controversial, “in light of Continental comparanda” (92). This admission stands for the book as a whole. Political structures and social strata remain debated and the evidence on the ground scarce, puzzling, and/or open to conjecture. Flechner spends a great deal of time delving into the meaning of “Celts” or the syncretic legacy in the wake of Constantine's conversion as to the strengths of persistent paganism in light of Christian turns to “Sol Invictus” as the emperor turned his gaze towards another god.

Flechner allots many pages to the meaning of “Celt” or Constantine's conversion's effects on pagan practice. These matters, if relegated to endnotes, would have quickened the pace of his investigation. It bogs down midway.

Such forays into dozens of debates around early medieval transitions from classic civilization in what, for lack of any better term, remains the “Celtic” polity allow Flechner ample space to explore. For instance, he delves deeply into the significance of Patrick and his father's mooted role as a “decurion” charged in a collapsing Roman empire with gathering taxes amidst considerable unrest. Flechner admits the difficulty in guessing the truth of the matter.  “Whatever the actual facts were, it is impossible for the modern historian to recover them entirely, nor should she or he sit in judgement of a late antique personality. The most we can strive for is to insinuate a rival narrative by pointing out the gaps in [Patrick's] account, gaps that we may occasionally try to fill by drawing on the clues that he himself scatters throughout” (107-108) in his Letter and his Confessio.

When Flechner lets his narrative expand, it can reveal a close reading of events which open up new insights. For instance, the conversion of the daughters of King Lóegaire reveal the value of “etiological tales” (198). These tales integrate—or at least jumble—legends, didactic lessons on Christian propriety, cultural commentary, and act “as a store of intertextual references that range across hagiography and other genres” (199).

Similarly, Flechner includes lively anecdotes for the diligent reader which will delight studious recipients of compiled  data. Suffice it to say that the predicament invented by “a certain King Gulinus” who at the penitential “purgatory” at Lough Derg “tests the knight's love for his daughter” (224) will reward one's attention by its clever if gruesome detail. Unfortunately, the extreme compression of post-medieval “remembrances” of St. Patrick means that the gist of this work will likely leave it nestled on the shelf of a library, where scholars may turn to it for what we may distinguish as the latest suppositions as to dependable deductions or as fanciful speculations about this most storied of Ireland's many saints.

About the Reviewer(s): 

John L. Murphy is Assistant Professor in Arts and Humanities at Westcliff University.


Date of Review: 
November 30, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Roy Flechner is Lecturer in Early Medieval History at University College Dublin. He is the coeditor of several books, including The Irish in Early Medieval Europe and The Introduction of Christianity into the Early Medieval Insular World. He lives in Dublin.


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