The fake Patricks at the head of countless Saint Patrick’s Day parades today are no more a parody of the man than the church has cultivated over the centuries. The church has not been averse to ascribing supernatural powers to saints, to the extent that people still offer prayers to them. The doggerel crediting Patrick with the absence of snakes and toads from Ireland is no more incredible than much that the church has regarded as authentic:
So success attend Saint Patrick’s fist,
for he’s a saint so clever,
he gave the snakes and toads a twist,
and bothered them for ever.”
Read accounts of the supposed feats of Irish saints in early times and the claims do not bear scrutiny, but nor, then, do the miraculous claims of the church in modern times. Read stories of “healings” attributed to visits to shrines visited by countless pilgrims and search for independently verified empirical evidence, and it is entirely absent.
A casual attitude toward the truth surrounding saints has been accompanied by a casual attitude toward church history. Another rhyme,
Saint Patrick was a gentleman,
he came of decent people,
he built a church in Dublin town
and on it built a steeple.
is as lacking in historical foundation as claims concerning Patrick and reptiles, but its historicity is probably not much less than that of the numerous traditions that developed regarding Patrick’s presence: Armagh’s claim to be the ecclesiastical capital of Ireland arose from rhe financial and political interests of the monks centuries after the death of Patrick.
Fake news tends to be regarded by most people as a phenomenon that has only emerged in contemporary politics, but a brief perusal of church history would reveal that bishops and clergy have engaged in fake news for generations. Stories have been shaped to facilitate the power and influence of the church, so Patrick was presented as being subject to Rome; the early Irish chuch was presented as being subject to the Pope; being truly Irish was presented as being Roman Catholic. The authenticity of clerical claims could not be questioned.
To read Patrick’s writings is to recoil from ecclesiastical history, it is to wonder how a man of humility and peace became the reference figure for an oppressive hierarchy. Were Patrick alive he might have laughed aloud at the depictions of him, it would be no more incongruous than the way he was depicted for centuries.