Join us once again as Blather.net’s resident graveyard-worrier, Ender Wiggan, regales us with his second part of the epic six-part series “I, Patrick”, in which the young Welshman (that would be St. Patrick) gets kidnapped, sold into slavery, generally wishes he was never born and discovers the singular hospitality to be found in early 5th century Ireland.
Havent read “I, Patrick: Puke the First”? Click here.
Imagine travelling by boat to America during the potato famine in the nineteenth century. The cramped conditions, the paltry meals, slop buckets, the smells of huddled humanity, clearing out the dead in the morning. Now imagine doing it while chained up for several days or weeks, being disgorged at various ports and made to stand in a slave market, before returning to the ship (unsold) at the end of the day. Imagine finally being offloaded into daylight, blinking and shivering, into a cross between a Marrakesh Bazaar and Moore Street (but built on a craggy, rocky peninsula, exposed to rolling Atlantic weather) to be poked and felt up by strangers haggling over your price.
As a female, your immediate future is fucked: quite literally. As a male, your value lies in your capacity for hard manual labour; unless your master has a penchant for slave boys, in which case…
We can only imagine what Patrick went through during those first weeks of captivity. He glosses over it in his documents (well, wouldn’t you?). He more than likely wasn’t sold straight away; given where he ended up (to the west of Killala Bay, Co. Mayo). It probably took a couple of weeks of stopping and sailing on at various points along the northern and western coast of Ireland, before finally ending up being sold to a male master, who put him to work tending flocks on a wooded mountainside. Traditionally this has been portrayed as sheep, but historically and archaeologically, it was more likely pigs and goats. He lived and worked mostly outdoors at all times, in all weathers, in all seasons. He undoubtedly had fellow slaves for company, but also spent a lot of time alone.
I know what you’re thinking: running away, at the first chance. I’m sure he did too.
Let me tell why you wouldn’t.
Fifth century Irish society is incredibly obscure and impossible to pin down. But we have a certain amount of clues and hints from later sources, such as the early Irish laws, Saints lives and annals…along with an exponential increase in archaeological material uncovered over the last ten years. While not definitive, tâ€™s a likely reflection from a century or two afterwards.
Imagine a caste society, with kings and warriors at the top, farmers and cattle lords in the middle, with women and slaves at the bottom. A separate priestly caste operates in tandem, with rankings and privileges for poets, seers, judges and ritual specialists whose worship centres around the sun and sculptured ‘idols’. (With perhaps, the occasional ultra-violent sacrifice in bogs…if you havenâ€™t visited the Bog Bodies exhibition currently in the National Museum in Dublin, have shame and get thee hence). Barter and trade revolved around many things, but were all expressed in a form of dual currency: cattle and female slaves (Here, head-de-ball, how much is dat in Punts?).
Your status is measured in your ‘honour price’, that is, the price someone has to pay if they offend/injure/rob you. Or rather, if they get caught offending/injuring/robbing you. But that status is only guaranteed within your designated tribal boundary. Being caught outside it is akin to wearing a Bobby Sands t-shirt in Portadown. No rights, no protection, no comeback. Yer on your own, mate. The youngest sons of Cattle Lords and Chieftains ran wild about the countryside during their teenage years, (A sort of indigenous Irish ‘Walkabout) sowing their wild Irish oats, generally being boot boys and thugs; until they came of age to inherit their fathers jobs; at which, they promptly ‘calmed the fuck down’ and returned to ‘relative’ normality.
Which means, apart from smiths and poets (heaven knows, theyâ€™re miserable, now: and probably then as well) nobody travels that much. Thereâ€™s very little need to. Todayâ€™s friendly tribal neighbours are most likely tomorrows raging enemies (considering their cattle herd is looking mighty fat and healthy these days and thereâ€™s a general â€œhankerinâ€™ for a prankerinâ€™ ). Insular petty politics was â€˜fluidâ€™ at best and more likely â€˜Machiavellianâ€™ in general.
Just like local county councils today, really.
As a slave, you have no ‘honour price’; you are not even human. You are currency itself. You’re a little rich boy, who can’t even speak the language…you don’t have a clue where you are. You have no friends and you are suddenly faced with all the above in all its glory.
Would you chance it and run away?
Patrick didn’t. He got his head down and survived. Day and night, in sunshine, rain and snow. He wouldn’t have been mistreated as long as he didn’t act the maggot. Slaves are like crops after all; its in one’s interest to keep them healthy and strong. And Patrick must have become incredibly hardy, faced with such a job in such exposed locations. Lean, wiry and hard-boiledâ€¦I’m thinking something like a cross between Rudolf Nureyev’s body and Lance Henriksen face (‘Bishop’ in Aliens. Bishop, get it, huh, huh?) but whatever you want yourself.
It would be enough to drive a man to drink. Or prayer.
In Patrick’s case, he chose the latter (Well, there are no atheists in foxholes, apparently). Except, as a lapsed Christian, who had never taken an interest in theology before…he more then likely had little to go on. (How many lapsed Catholics out there can remember their catechism?) He developed his own personal form of worship…a seemingly fucked-up cross between Catholic Guilt, Sadomasochism and Zen Meditation. By day, he would repeatedly chant prayers… at night heâ€™d stay up on the mountain, kneeling in snow.
He came to view his captivity and enslavement as punishment for his previous neglect. He came to see it as penance for past sins. As a trial to test him – as a means to an end.
Imagine living such an extreme physical existence; while inhabiting an equally extreme psychological landscape in his head. Think of Brian Keenan, John McCarthy and Terry Waiteâ€¦ throw in Russell Crowe in Gladiator: followed by an assortment of Post Traumatic Stress victims returning from WW2, Vietnam and Iraq. The mental stamina, let alone the physical one required to survive it, cannot be underestimated.
He spent six years living like this. All the while being exposed to the indigenous culture. He would have picked up the language, customs and character of his captors. Seen at first hand, their rituals and belief systems. Learnt how they viewed the wider world, their landscape, their wants and desires, their values and traditions.
Today, that would be enough to qualify for an anthropological doctorate.
And then suddenly, after six years, he has a dream so powerful, so inspiring, so real that he wakes up and acts on it. (Iâ€™d like to think, in modern terms, that it was his subconscious/psychosis telling him that he was now physically and mentally equipped to make his escape). He dreams, that a ship is ready and waiting for him; but a long way away, on the other side of the country, on the east Leinster coast.
And just like Kevin Spacey, (puff), heâ€™s gone.
Patrick and Ender shall return in part three of “I, Patrick”