How Patrick Won the Right to Preach in Ireland

This is the story of how Saint Patrick won the right to preach in Ireland. Patrick arrived to be Bishop of Ireland in the year 432. He was Bishop, however, only in his and the Pope’s eyes, not the High King of Ireland’s. So Patrick and his followers joined a procession to Uisneach for the Bealtaine festival. During Bealtaine, all of the hearths in Ireland are quenched and then relit from the high king’s fire to welcome in a fruitful summer.

When Patrick got to Uisneach, though, he kindled his own fire, before which he said mass and gave communion to his companions. High King Leary sent his men to find out the meaning of it. They reported a confident and learnèd man with a score of men and women dressed plainly like him — no colors to mark them as noble or otherwise — who asserted the authority of the “One God”. After listening to Patrick a while, Leary was impressed enough to set him a test. He promised Patrick that if he could match wits with his chief poet, the Archdruid, he would be free to travel and teach throughout the land.

(The chief poet, or ollave, was at the back of the king’s power. He was an expert in all knowledge, in law and history, poetry and music, etymology and philosophy, augury, medicine, and astronomy, and of course magic and the dangerous power of satire. In fact, the king was king only with the blessing of the ollave. Often the ollave himself was king.)

After several parries that showed Patrick to be a worthy opponent, followed by hours of argument, the Archdruid of Ireland wrapped up his argument.

— No man is free, what he drinks today shapes his tomorrows, and all is illusion: What we see as a rock, a tree, an animal is not what it is but what it reflects, the light that it does not absorb as itself.

— But the high seer, the most learned person in Ireland — the only person with the High King to wear the cloak of 7 hues — can see the true reality, the thing in itself, the light inside.

Patrick didn’t even seem to be listening. By this point, he was humming in prayersong with his companions, and the Druid became increasingly strident, his voice rising to win their submission.

— High King Leary’s fiery hair is the color of sorrel, his muddy tunic and saffron kilt the color of boiled spinach, his golden torc is cabbageleaf, his verdant hat like laurel leaves, his azure eyes are thyme chopped with parsley, the indigo gems on his fingers are olive and lentil, and the violet wounds of war that decorate his face are hues of hemp, all one!

Was he describing a salad or a king?

— High King Leary is this green and fruitful land. That is the thing that is in him, and no other authority is there. His realm is not grey!

The Druid hunkered down onto his heels to show he was finished, and Patrick considered his reply. He and his followers paused in their song.

— Your calling a thing great (or otherwise) does not make it so. The cart does not draw the horse. The pot of gold does not create the rainbow. The land makes the king, not the king the land. Patrick bent down. Here is a clump of clover: We see in this single shamrock the trinity in your druid’s green — of Jehovah, the Christ, and holy wisdom that they inspire, the thing that is in everything. From the celestial rainbow to the turf you are squatting over. One in all!

The Druid leapt to his feet, looking to his king in fear, but Leary was only laughing.

— Patrick, you are welcome to Ireland! ’S é do bheatha go hÉirinn, a Phádraig!

[adapted by Eric Rosenbloom from Finnegans Wake by James Joyce (1939), pages 611–612]