[An] absorbing investigation into the lives and afterlives of Ireland’s patron saint ... The deep historical shadows pooling around Patrick become in themselves a focus of interest: and, by taking each point of doubt and confusion, and broadening its context generously, [Flechner] turns what might have been a maddening exercise in guesswork into a fascinating and enlightening exploration of early Christian Ireland, Britain and Europe ... Flechner creates a compelling portrait of a society under immense strain ... Flechner is similarly crisp in his analysis of the Ireland in which Patrick was ministering so cannily ... This book is at its most vivid, maybe, as it traces the utility of the saint in more recent times[.]
Mr. Flechner is hardly the first scholar to raise questions about Patrick’s life, but his brilliant use of source material from Irish, British and Roman writers provides context and historical sweep. He states up front that he is writing for a 'wider' readership as well as for specialists. For the general reader, some of the book’s arcane subject matter—like the connection between Celtic languages and Celtic culture—and the author’s interrogation of ancient sources will require the patience of a saint. His approach leads him to ask some rather dense questions ... Of course, that is the world Patrick inhabited, and Mr. Flechner demonstrates why matters of language, identity, religion and culture in Britain and Ireland 1,500 years ago help us better understand this much-chronicled child of the Roman Empire and to see how his legacy has been appropriated by various causes and groups for more than a millennium. That issue—the use of Patrick for political and cultural purposes—comes up in the book, though Mr. Flechner doesn’t dwell on it in great detail.
Flechner’s authorial aim is both academic and popular: his biography is certainly filled with densely sourced information about the Roman world, and early and middle medieval Christianity. Yet Patrick does come across as a genuinely interesting personality. He suffered many hardships, he was sincerely holy and he was very knowledgeable about Scripture. His understanding of the Hebrew Bible was such that one scholarly document has suggested he was Jewish — so maybe those green bagels are justified.