[Editor’s Note: This film was originally scheduled to be released by Fathom Events March 17, 18 and 24. Due to coronavirus complications closing many theaters, it’s producers have decided instead to release it directly to DVD on March 17.]
So, who was Patrick, patron saint of Ireland, really? Did he have a thing for shamrocks? Did he really drive away all the snakes on the island? Did he ever drink green beer?
Truth is, most of what we know about Patrick has been embellished or even wholly made up in the centuries since he lived. We know very little about the man behind his myth: We don’t know when he was born. We don’t know when or where he died. And if he ever did rid the Emerald Isle of snakes, Patrick himself never wrote about it.
But he did leave behind a couple of letters—the most prominent which serves as both a short autobiography and a scathing rebuttal to his critics. Yes, it seems, even saints had haters.
This docudrama—about 80% reenactment, 20% expert interview—gives audiences a look at who the real Patrick was. It recounts his rather luxurious (for the time) and spiritually indifferent beginnings. It recounts how he was abducted from Roman Britain and sold into slavery in Ireland—a harsh, pagan land. It tells us how he escaped from slavery, returned to Britain, became a priest and, in a staggering reversal, returned to the very land of his enslavement to bring people to Christ.
So when you learn the real story behind Patrick, the whole snake thing feels pretty anticlimactic.
Patrick had some grit to him. Ireland was not a cozy little place to preach the Gospel. The movie tells us that the island was ruled by scads of petty kings and chiefs. The only folks who could walk through Ireland unmolested were those chiefs, the sons of those chiefs and the occasional wandering bard. Patrick had no such assurances. Experts suggest that the cleric was likely imprisoned several times, and his life was threatened at least once.
But that didn’t stop Patrick from traipsing across Ireland, starting churches and training priests wherever he went. He also took a dim view of slavery (particularly the enslavement of Christians), and the second letter from him that we have record of is a letter to Coroticus, a nominal Christian whom Patrick essentially excommunicated for enslaving and murdering members of the Christian body.
He was also, the movie suggests, a spiritual reformer. He had lots of critics even within the Catholic Church (in the 5th century, all Christians were Catholic), and many may have been put out because Patrick preached to them in Gaelic—the native language of Ireland—instead of Latin, which was the mandated liturgical language of the day. He ordained priests who were otherwise, by Roman standards, fairly uneducated. The film suggests that as the leadership of Catholic Britain was growing a bit more elitist, Patrick had his eyes firmly fixed both on God and his flock.
Patrick’s life is defined by, and revolves around, Christianity. But he only seems to have become Christian while enslaved. Oh, he and his family were nominally Christian, but Patrick’s own faith was nominal at best. But when he was captured and shipped to Ireland (where he tended sheep), he experienced a spiritual awakening—to the point where he was praying 100 times a day. He fasted, too, even though he was probably not getting much food to begin with. “The spirit was fervent within me,” an older Patrick recalls.
When he escapes his enslavers and talks himself aboard a ship returning to the main isle of Britain, he tries to convert his cohorts. He has little success until they land and spend weeks wandering through the woods, starving. The ship’s captain mocks Patrick’s “almighty” God in light of their hardships. But Patrick tells them that if they turn to God sincerely, they’ll find food, “For He [God] has abundance everywhere.” No sooner does Patrick speak but a herd of wild pigs comes into view, providing much-needed sustenance for them all.
“After this they thanked God mightily and I became honorable in their eyes,” Patrick says.
Throughout, we see Patrick preach and pray, discussing his love of Christ and the eternal perils of those who don’t find Him. He blesses and baptizes, and when a woman comes to offer her life to the Church (that is, to become a nun), Patrick accepts her with a smile—and tells her protective father to shove off.
Patrick has plenty of divine visions and dreams as well: In one, he feels oppressed by Satan himself. In another, while in slavery, he’s told that his ship has literally come in to take him home. (This inspires Patrick to escape and travel more than 200 miles to the shore, where indeed he finds a ship waiting there.) And it’s in one of these visions that Patrick receives what he considers his divine calling back to Ireland, to spend the rest of his life bringing the Gospel to the people there. The film tells us that Patrick thought he was preaching to people at the end of the physical world—which, perhaps, he hoped might usher in Christ’s second coming.
We also hear a bit about Ireland’s druids, clerics for Ireland’s pagan majority and powerful forces within the culture. We see them walk about in robes and make a sacrifice, and we’re told that they were reputed to be powerful prophets. One seems to prophesy Patrick’s influence, in fact—a prophecy that the film suggests is historical.
The day of Easter was a pagan as well as Christian holy day, and light was a big part of the celebration. One Irish chieftain proclaimed that if anyone lit a fire in his land before he did, his life would be forfeit. Patrick, naturally, goes to the top of a high hill in the area and lights a fire. A druid solemnly tells the appalled chieftain that unless the fire is extinguished that evening, the fire will spread “over the whole country and it will reign for all eternity.”
We see mass celebrated and the Host distributed.
When Patrick escapes from slavery and comes upon the ship that’s destined to carry him back to Britain, he’s apparently asked to suck on the chest of the ship’s captain. It’s not sexual, exactly; rather, experts say that it was traditional amongst pagan sailors to express their solidarity with each other in this way. No matter: Patrick refuses, and he gets to go on the boat anyway.
When Patrick is kidnapped, he’s roughed up and hits his head hard on the ground. He looks around blurrily and sees assailants chase and pick up his friends before his own assailant punches Patrick in the face, knocking him out.
Patrick is nearly killed by a sword-carrying soldier much later in his ministry—dodging one blade thrust just in time. He also sees the tragic evidence of a slavery raid. He visits a Christian compound to find several dead and bloodied bodies lying in the rain, including one woman who just a couple of scenes before dedicated her life to Christ (giving up her noble status to do so). He weeps bitterly as he digs their graves.
One use of the word “h—,” and another of the word “d–n,” both as expletives.
Wine is served during communion.
When he’s fairly young, Patrick mentions that he’s committed a sin—one that, in the movie at least, he feels terrible about. The real Patrick makes mention of this sin without mentioning what it is, and the movie doesn’t speculate on what it could be. But the movie also suggests it was a big deal—big enough that it posed (in the movie) the greatest threat to his ministry. Indeed, the bishop of Britain sails over to bring him home. Patrick refused, and we’re told that the future saint “went AWOL,” leaving the rest of his life and ministry a bit uncertain.
Some speculate that this unmentioned sin might’ve been related to accusations that he took money that he shouldn’t have. Again, we don’t know the actual “charges,” but we do hear Patrick vociferously refute them (both in history, in Patrick’s autobiographical letter now known as “The Confession of St. Patrick,” and in the movie).
The movie suggests that the fractured political landscape of Ireland required Patrick to be, shall we say, creative: He’d essentially bribe various chieftains and warlords in order to cross their land in relative safety. And he may have even cut similar deals with the druids, too.
I Am Patrick is, inherently, a curious beast of a movie. Part drama, part documentary and inherently Christian, it’s not a typical four-quadrant cinematic draw. If not for the presence of John Rhys-Davies (who played Gimli in the Lord of the Rings movies), you could picture this film finding a comfortable home on, say, NatGeo or The History Channel.
Still, Patrick’s story is inherently interesting, and for a history/religion wonk like me, pretty engaging. It gives us not just a picture of a man who worked tirelessly to spread the Gospel in a foreign land, but shows us, by context, how difficult that challenge must’ve been. Irish nobles live in muddy hovels that don’t look like a step above most shanty towns today. The Irish landscape we see is sweeping and beautiful, yes, but foreboding and daunting, too.
Patrick’s Ireland was a place where death was rarely more than two steps distant, and thus where the promise of salvation and eternal life all the more important.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.