When it comes to Patrick," wrote Thomas Cahill in his notes for How the Irish Saved Civilization, "no one agrees with anyone about anything. … There is not a datum of Patrick's life that has not been questioned, including his existence. During the course of the twentieth century, moreover, the library of Patrician studies has grown into 'a mountain of Himalayan proportions,' to quote E.A. Thompson."

Unfortunately, much of that mountain is, to put it mildly, rubble.

While some writers question the existence of Patrick, others treat the subject with such careless research that their books are filled with traditions from the last two centuries.

Skepticism and awe are both helpful historical tools. But beware of material with too much of either.

In Their Own Words

The best starting place is with Patrick's own words. Few doubt his authorship of the autobiographical Confession and his angry Letter to Coroticus, available in several books, including a new translation by John O'Donohue (Doubleday 1998).

The works are also available in Saint Patrick's World by Liam De Paor (University of Notre Dame, 1993). Combining primary source documents (including lives of saints, lists, and councils) with an informative 50-page "introduction," it should be on the library of anyone interested in this topic.

Or you can get the writings of Patrick and other Celtic Christians, including their hagiographies, for free online. Two of the best places: The Ecole Initiative (www.evansville.edu/~ecoleweb/) and The Christian Classics Ethereal Library (ccel.wheaton.edu).

Bestsellers and Scholars

Cahill's How the Irish Saved Civilization (Doubleday, 1995), still on the bestseller lists as of press time, has been attacked by some scholars as too misty-eyed and dependent ...

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