When we are celebrating Saint Patrick’s Day, are we (just maybe) celebrating two saints that became conflated? Or, to pose a maybe controversial question, was Saint Patrick really the "lone gunman" of the Christianization of Ireland? Or did he have some help? Was he even the first missionary to come to the Irish? Or ... are there (at least) two historical Patricks, which we now see as one person? Questions that may well be asked. Though the popular image of the saint could suffer a bit ... in a quest for historical probabilities and (maybe) truth.
Saint Patrick - the Official Story
According to some hagiographers (these are official, yet very biased biographers - basically fans of the saint, and intending to further his cult), folklore and legend, Patrick was the main man. Alone. Coming from somewhere East with a Papal blessing, he single-handedly converted the Irish to Christianity, spread the gospel in all parts of the island and, of course, banished the snakes while he was at it.
He was the undisputed superstar of Irish Christianity, which did not even exist before him, and would not exist without him. So far folk knowledge. But even Patrick’s own words contradict this ...
Saint Patrick - the Evidence
We have two works attributed to Saint Patrick, his autobiographical "Confessio" and a letter to a renegade chieftain, both of which contain almost none of the claims above.
Taking these as evidence, Patrick was a deeply troubled, though successful, missionary, more than likely working on a fairly local basis. He was also not adverse to self-congratulation: He honestly believed that by bringing the gospel to "the end of the world" (at that time, Ireland), and by converting the last Pagans, he would bring about the end times. Second coming imminent, prepare for the kingdom of heaven, milk, honey, and hosannas. Geographical problems notwithstanding (even in Patrick’s time there was knowledge about other “ends of the world”, in Asia and Africa) ...
if Patrick was even remotely as active and important as his hagiographers wanted him to be, he would have told us so. In all humility.
What is more ... there is evidence that a certain Palladius was sent on a Papal mission to Ireland before Patrick was dispatched. And even Patrick’s marching papers sent him “to the Christians in Ireland”, so there must have been some before he arrived on his mission.
Palladius - the Great Contender
Palladius was, in fact, the first Bishop of the Christians of Ireland, preceding Saint Patrick by a few months. He may have been deacon of Saint Germanus of Auxerre. Ordained a priest around 415, he lived in Rome between 418 and 429. Remembered fondly for urging Pope Celestine I to send Bishop Germanus to Britain, to bring the Britons back (!) into the Catholic fold.
Then, in 431, Palladius himself was sent as "first bishop to the Irish believing in Christ". Notice that even here it is assumed that there are already Christians in Ireland. Who just need encouragement and guidance from Rome. Assumed? We may take it for certain - Saint Ciaran Saighir, first bishop of Ossory, died in 402. Thirty years before Palladius and Patrick headed for Ireland.
Thus Palladius was handed his marching orders. And somehow disappeared off the earth ... or so it seems.
Muirchu, author or compiler of the "Book of Armagh", wrote two centuries later that "God hindered him". What is more, "those fierce and cruel men" wanted everything but to "receive his doctrine readily". As Muirchu fails to explain how those same savages apparently greeted Patrick a year later with (at least moderately) open arms, and not by taking up arms ... it seems that it was God's will that Palladius was doomed to failure. Maybe because he was not cut out of missionary material, as the learned follower of Patrick further explained: "He did not wish to spend time in a strange land, but returned to him who sent him." A shirker in the face of the Lord!
But Muirchu may have had a vested interest in promoting Patrick over Palladius, and thus be considered a far from reliable source.
Other evidence points to Palladius being actually successful. He is associated with some places in the Province of Leinster, especially Clonard in County Meath. But there is also a cluster of places dedicated to Palladius in Scotland. The village of Auchenblae is even believed to be his last resting place - an annual "Paldy Fair" was held here. Remember – the northern part of Britain, inhabited by Picts and Welsh, became only known as Scotland after the Scots made their mark on it. And “Scots” was what the Irish were called for a long time.
In the "Annals of Ulster", we also find an intriguing reference: "Repose of the elder Patrick, as some books state." Hang on ... the elder Patrick? Meaning there is a younger one?
Patrick - What's in a Name?
Actually there may have been several Patricks - today Patrick is a common name in Ireland, at least. But was it in the fifth century? Maybe not. And what is more: in Latin it would be "Patricius", and this can also be a honorific, a title, somewhat like "The Honourable". So any big cheese at the time may have been called “Patrick”, despite actually being Tom, Dick, or Harry.
Two Patricks Would Explain a Lot
It was T. F. O'Rahilly who first expounded the "Two Patricks" theory. According to this, much of the information that we think we have on Saint Patrick today originally concerned Palladius.
Churches associated with Palladius (and some of his followers) are clustered around Leinster power centres - close to the Hill of Tara for instance. But we find none in Ulster or Connacht. Here Patrick seems to have flourished.
In later times, Palladius was still remembered in Scotland (at least up to the Reformation), while Patrick's memory eclipsed Palladius' in Ireland. And as both may have been referred to as "Patricius" (in honorific title at least), their separate traditions merged into one. With Patrick becoming the lone star ... and missionary gunman.
Finally - Can We Prove It All?
No, unless indisputable documentary evidence turns up - which is unlikely, though not impossible. But would it really matter?