Beyond the colorful tales of snakes and shamrocks, what do we know about the real person? We turned to an Irish priest for answers, and found one with a story of his own. To understand Father Liam’s interest in Saint Patrick, the fifth-century missionary, it first will help to understand Liam.
Father Liam Lawton, of Carlow, Ireland, is a platinum-record-selling musician whose passion is Irish history. How often do you find those three—priest, star, history buff—in one package? His is a household name in Ireland. His musical programs have been narrated by Gregory Peck, John Malkovich, Frank McCourt, and others; he has recorded 15 albums. He has performed in Chicago Symphony Hall, Carnegie Hall in New York, the White House, the Vatican, on TV and radio specials, on national stages in Ireland.
He came to know Saint Patrick well due to some American friends. Leaders at Old St. Patrick parish in Chicago—the family of famed sociologist and fiction writer Father Andrew Greeley, to be specific—wanted to commission original music for the renovated church’s rededication. After meeting Liam in Carlow, Joyce Durkin, Andrew Greeley’s sister, invited Liam to Chicago to see the church.
Liam, keen on Irish tradition, was blown away. A century earlier, artist Thomas O’Shaugh-nessy had created stained-glass windows and wall paintings for the church inspired by Ireland’s ninth-century Book of Kells. That illuminated, hand-lettered book of the Gospels is a world treasure.
“Basically, he recreated the Book of Kells in the church, right on the ceilings and walls. It was just amazing!” recalls Liam of his first visit to Old St. Pat’s. “It’s the only thing like it in the world.” In the mid-1900s, as church membership dwindled, the building had fallen into disrepair. The 1990s saw a renaissance of membership. Now, in 1997, Liam was seeing the newly renovated church. The Greeleys were looking for music for the rededication Mass. Would Father Liam write for the occasion?
The performance of the subsequent setting, “Mass of the Celtic Saints,” along with a new collection he created, “The Clouds’ Veil,” became a turning point in Father Liam’s growing popularity. More to our point, the rededication Mass became an entrée for Liam to write music for the annual Saint Patrick’s Day celebration at Chicago’s Symphony Hall. “The Shepherd Boy,” which Father Liam composed, based upon the life of Saint Patrick, was performed there in 2000, with orchestra and Irish musicians, with film icon Gregory Peck serving as narrator. (It would be Peck’s last public performance.) For two days he and Liam worked on the script, as Peck made the telling of St. Patrick’s story his own.
“He was 84 years of age, and he was so gracious,” recalls Liam. In the coming years Liam’s warm music on life’s themes, to be recorded by EMI record label (of Beatles fame), would find a stronger home in the United States. The Church-devoted portion of his music would be distributed by GIA, the Chicago company behind many of the hymnals and musicians serving parishes in this country.
Father Liam gladly took on the piece about Saint Patrick because of his own Irish tradition. He grew up in a bilingual, working-class household, in a small town where Irish (Gaelic) and English both were spoken. His father came from a region where Irish was the main language (a Gaeltacht). A favorite uncle, Patrick, an accomplished traditional musician, had taken young Liam under his wing and passed along a love of traditional Irish culture.
Now, perhaps, you can see why we called this priest about Saint Patrick. We rang Liam up, as he might say, a few months ago at his rectory across the Atlantic. He had a few days off between concerts across the country and a Christmas special on the BBC radio/TV network—all that before the three parish Masses on Christmas Eve. Yet it didn’t take much to get the Saint Patrick stories coming.
Life of Patrick
We all know the legends of Patrick, but Liam can tell of the man behind the legends. Patrick’s real method? Imbibe the local culture. Learn and use the Gaelic language. Use Gaelic symbols and sacred places. For example, “the Celtic cross we know today was basically a cross superimposed on the sun,” says Liam. “Patrick converts sun worship to Son worship.” The Celtic cross, sign of Christianity across the Irish countryside, is the result.
Saint Patrick at about age 16 was captured from his British home in a raid and lived as a slave in Ireland, in the wilderness, in extreme privation, tending flocks. He escaped after six years, his writing, Confession, tells us, but couldn’t forget “the plight of the Irish people,” says Liam.
The years of rough treatment, isolation, and meager food had turned him inward. In his writings he admits to never caring much about God before his captivity; on the lonely hills, though, the shepherd boy had turned to constant prayer. One might expect that: his father was a deacon, his grandfather a priest, in those days of married Catholic priests. After returning home, he left again, perhaps to enter a monastery across the English Channel in Gaul, and eventually was ordained.
After many years (one biography suggests 18), in 432 he was nominated to succeed a deceased bishop among the scattered Christian communities of Ireland. Was he known there, or did his confreres know of his dreams of returning? We don’t know. But he used that scattered Christian community as a springboard for his amazing work of the next 30 years.
By the end of his life, by one report he had consecrated 350 bishops and brought the faith to thousands from all across Ireland. There really is no hard historical data beyond Patrick’s writings, though, and he includes no count. The writings usually accepted as authentically his are the Confession and his “Letter to Croaticus.” Other writings, such at Saint Fiacc’s early biography of Patrick, corroborate the incidents that Patrick describes. Future Bishop Fiacc, as a boy, 1600 years ago last year, saw Saint Patrick light Ireland’s first Easter fire, on the Hill of Tara, near Liam’s parish today.
“One of the things that struck me in his Confession is the humility of Patrick,” says Liam. “He must have been terribly moved by the plight of the Irish people to come back, but also trusting that God would protect him.” In Patrick’s writings, the modern Irish priest also was struck by Patrick’s “own sense of weakness and vulnerability.” In one writing, recalls Liam, Patrick bemoans that “many people were killed because of conversion to Catholicism. He was very cognizant that these people had lost their lives.” Patrick asks for forgiveness for not protecting the people more.
We often think of songs with Saint Patrick, or of prayers such as the well-known “Breastplate of Saint Patrick.” But these are later works, probably from the monastic tradition, attributed to the saint. Patrick was more likely to pray the Psalms, says Liam. “He translated the Bible for the people—he was one of the first to put the Bible into the Irish language. So he was very much based on the Scriptures, I think.
“The one thing that made Patrick successful,” suggests Liam, “is that he befriended the chiefs, and in a lot of cases educated their sons.” He would use that relationship for gaining safe passage into the next clan’s territory. “I think it’s amazing, when you think of it, what he achieved, when you consider that Ireland was covered with deciduous forest, and that traveling around was not easy. It’s amazing that so many people were converted— and without much bloodshed.”
A Spirituality in Threes
Patrick indeed promoted the Trinity, of course, but there was another trio that Patrick helped to develop in Irish spirituality, says Father Liam: three practices of prayer. The first of these was the desert, though in a figurative sense in this lush countryside. “In Gaelic, they call it the diseart,” explains Liam. “It was in keeping with the early Desert Fathers. Patrick climbed the mountain in County Mayo, called today Croagh Patrick, which is still a place of pilgrimage.” Every last Sunday in July, 15,000- 20,000 faithful will climb that mountain together, in a day of prayer, though pilgrims climb the mountain yearlong. “In pre-Christian times, it probably was a place to ascend, to meet with the gods, so Patrick Christianizes it and makes it a place of Christian pilgrimage,” explains Liam.
A second pillar of Patrick’s prayer is penance. In County Donegal, in the lake Lough Derg, is Station Island, also known as Saint Patrick’s Purgatory, a retreat of penance and pilgrimage still in steady use. Patrick is said to have established this retreat, says Liam, and there are European frescoes from the Middle Ages showing monks and lay pilgrims going there. He highlights part of the retreat offered there, which he himself has taken twice: barefoot, the first night sleepless, nine penitential beds. “It’s difficult,” he admits, and advises, “Google it if you want to get a better sense.”
The third element of Irish spirituality springing from Patrick is Anam Cara, a “soul-friend.” This person, man or woman, explains Liam, is your “spiritual accompanier throughout your life. If you read the lives of the Celtic saints, they always have a mentor.” Saint Brendan (“who discovered America, we believe, right?” Liam teasingly offers), for example, had a mentor, Saint Ita. “This was the precursor of spiritual direction, and also of [the current form of] the Sacrament of Reconciliation,” he suggests, that notion of “penance, the notion of unbinding your vulnerability, your fragileness, your habits, your sinfulness, to another person.”
What Would Patrick Do?
Patrick, the missionary, built up the Church across Ireland when it had barely been planted. What would Patrick do today in the face of the Church’s many challenges? Is there anything in his approach that we might heed? Liam is quick to answer: “Like Pope Francis, Patrick had a common touch: he got down and he learned the language of the people, and spoke it so that he could communicate with them on a day-to-day, ordinary level. It was by befriending them and getting to know them—their habits, their ways of life, their children, their education—that’s how he brought God to the people.”
Today, as we know, the Church is seen as irrelevant by some people, especially many young adults. “I could be wrong,” qualifies Liam, “but I think we’ve overinstitutionalized the means by which the Gospel is spread. We’ve put it out of reach of ordinary living, in the sense that people don’t identify with us.” He contrasts that with his parish’s food kitchen, feeding about 100 each day. “For me, that’s where Christ would be, in the ordinary bits and pieces of life.”
For Liam, those ordinary bits and pieces are the songs his uncle taught to him, and now his own music, echoing Irish tradition, touching and transforming people across continents. This year he’ll perform at the Archdiocese of Los Angeles Religious Education Congress, Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in New York (April), and then later in Australia. “I see constantly how God touches people’s lives. I’m not going to give up on that,” he insists. That brings to mind an Irish saint.
Saint Patrick was one of the Church’s great missionaries, but does Liam, this musical priest who has brought his own faith-building music to faraway places, see himself as a missionary? He doesn’t use that language. We all have gifts, he says. On the other hand, he knows his life is blessed: “I never dreamed I would get to the places I have gotten,” he says. “I never had an ambition to do so.”
Liam receives a steady outpouring of letters and stories from the countries where his music is played, documenting changed lives. His song “The Clouds’ Veil” has become a standard at funerals across Ireland. Though Liam tells stories from Australia and other countries, perhaps the most poignant is from our own New York City, where the song was used first at one funeral of a 9/11 victim, then in funeral after funeral in the weeks following. The song was sung again at the 10th anniversary of the terrorist tragedy, and will be performed by Liam in New York next month: “Even though the rain hides the stars/Even though the mist swirls the hills/Even when the dark clouds veil the sky/You are by my side.”
The melodic song is beautifully accompanied, offering a note of hope and faith in the face of grief. People, lots of them, have used that music to help them cope. Liam has the stories to prove it. “Music is a divine gift,” he offers. “I think, if it is used from the right place, God can do boundless good with it, his gift, if we give it back to him.” That understanding of grace drives him.
He originally wrote this most popular of his songs after the tragic death of his uncle Patrick, his mentor in the ways of Irish tradition. Now he reflects, “You never know. It was out of my own brokenness that I wrote that, and yet I suppose the Lord allows it then to be used in the lives of others.”
That brings us back to Saint Patrick, himself no stranger to suffering. “It’s how God works in the vulnerability and the brokenness of the human condition,” Liam says of Patrick. “It was a very dark place. If you read Patrick’s writings, he’s sometimes almost on the point of despair. And yet, underlying it, there is a trust, and hope comes out of that.”
Liam Lawton’s best-selling records include “Healing Song,” “The Clouds’ Veil,” and his newest, “The Best of Liam Lawton.” His books include Songs of My People.
One month ago this month was the Easter Rising, which marked the beginning of events leading to the Irish War of Independence three years later. Ireland is in the midst of a yearlong celebration of the rebellion. The centenary itself, celebrated on Easter Monday, falls only a few days after Saint Patrick’s Day this year, which will undoubtedly take on an even more celebratory character because of it. Patrick, after all, is an icon of Irish identity. “Patrick had sought to bring Christ to the people,” says Father Liam, “but [the revolutionaries] sought to bring a new kind of freedom that would allow freedom of thought, culture, and expression, which also included a faith culture.”
The Rising was on Easter weekend for a reason, says Liam: “They saw their struggle as part of the story of Christ’s passion, death, and resurrection.” In January the Irish bishops issued a statement calling upon the war-scarred Irish to nurture “healing conversations” and to “reflect on whether we have been sufficiently courageous in promoting a radical culture of peace.” There has been a fear among many Irish that the upcoming anniversaries could lead to more violence in Northern Ireland.