In 398 AD St Ninian had established the first Christian Church in the British kigdom of Rheged, part of what is now known as Scotland, at Candida Casa (now Whithorn) in Galloway. Although little is known about this great Christian Saint of the Novantes, or the earliest history of his foundation, it is clear that in the fifth and sixth centuries Candida Casa was an important centre of evangelism to both Britain and the northern part of Ireland.To the Irish, however, the main credit for the introduction of Christianity to Ireland belongs to St Patrick. Yet, despite Patrick’s pre-eminent place in the history of the Irish Church, we do not know just how much of his story is historically accurate.
Ironically, the only first-hand accounts of Patrick come from two works which he reputedly wrote himself, the Confession and the Epistle to Coroticus (Ceretic Guletic of Alt Clut, modern Dumbarton). Further, the reference to his arrival in the Annals cannot be taken as necessarily factual either, as it is now believed that the Annals only became contemporary in the latter part of the sixth century, and fifth century entries were therefore ‘backdated’. The question of Palladius and his mission from Rome leads to still more uncertainty, with some scholars even proposing the idea that there could have been ‘two’ Patricks. Francis Byrne suggested that “we may suspect that some of the seventh-century traditions originally referred to Palladius and have been transferred, whether deliberately or as a result of genuine confusion, to the figure of Patrick.”
This uncertainty must be borne in mind when we come to look at his story. Patrick was first brought to Ireland as a slave from Romanised Britain and sold to a Cruthinic chieftain called Milchu, who used him to tend flocks around Mount Slemish in County Antrim. After six years of servitude he managed to escape from Ireland, first going by boat to the Continent, then two years later returning to his parents in Britain. Despite his parents being anxious that he would now remain at home, Patrick had a vision of an angel who had come from Ireland with letters, in one of which was relayed the message: “We beg you, Holy youth, to come and walk amongst us once again.” To Patrick, the letters “completely broke my heart and I could read no more and woke up.”
Tradition tells that Patrick eventually made the journey back to Ireland, finally landing in County Down in the territory of Dichu (of the Ulaid) who became his first convert. Dichu’s barn (sabhall or Saul) near Downpatrick was the first of his churches. Among Patrick’s first converts were Bronagh, daughter of Milchu, and her son Mochaoi (Mahee). St Mochaoi was to found the great monastery of Nendrum on Mahee Island in Loch Cuan (Strangford Lough), and is associated with the saint in the legends which grew around Patrick’s name. These legends firmly place Down as the cradle of Christianity in Ireland. The most enduring of such fictions however was that of Patrick and Tara, making him a national entity. At Nendrum were first educated Colman, who was of the Cruthin, and Finnian, who was of the Ulaid. Colman founded in the early sixth century the famous See of Dromore in Iveagh, while Finnian, British Uinnian, following a visit to Candida Casa, founded the great school of Movilla (Newtownards) in Down. Finnian is also notable for bringing the first copy of the Scriptures to Ireland.
Patrick himself is said to have founded Armagh around 444, and the selection of a site so close to Emain Macha would strongly suggest that the Ulster capital was still the most powerful over-kingdom in Ireland at that time. As far as Nendrum is concerned, the picture of its development is much clearer in the 7th century, for no excavated finds have been found earlier than this.But from 639 onwards the Annals record the deaths of Nendrum clergy, including bishops, abbots and a scribe..This would suggest an active, populous monastery, and an early litany says”nine times fifty monks laboured under the authority of Mochaoi of Noendruim”. From Down the Cult of Patrick spread to Connor in Antrim and then to Armagh, which became the ecclesiastical centre of Ireland.