From Muirchu’s Life of Patrick:
“And on the very night that St Patrick was celebrating the Passover, they were partaking of the worship of their great pagan festival. Now there was a custom among the pagans — made clear to all by edict — that it would be death for anyone, wherever they were, to light a fire on the night before the fire was lit in the house of the king (ie the palace of Tara). So when St Patrick celebrating the Passover lit the great bright and blessed divine fire, it shone clearly and was seen by nearly everyone living on the plain of Tara. And those who saw it viewed it with great wonder. All the elders and nobles of the nation were called in the king’s presence and he spoke to them. ‘Who is this man who has dared to commit such a crime in my kingdom? Let him perish by death!” And the answer from those around him was that they did not know. Then the wise men answered: “‘O king, life forever!” This fire, which we see lit this might before the fire of your own house, must be quenched this night. Indeed, if it should not be put out tonight, it will never be extinguished! You should know that it will keep rising up and will supplant all the fires of our own religion. This one who lit it, and the kingdom he bringing upon us this night, will overcome us all — both you and us– by leading away everyone in your kingdom. All the kingdoms will fall down before it, and it will fill the whole country and it ‘shall reign forever and ever.'”
[The king and men confront Patrick to try to kill him but he and his followers escape. The king sees only 8 deer and one fawn in the darkness…]
“The next day, which [for us] was the Day of the Passover [Easter Day], was for the pagans the day of their greatest festival…. While they were eating and drinking in the place of Tara,…Patrick with only five companions appeared among them, having come through ‘closed doors’ in the way we read about Christ. He went there to proclaim and demonstrate the holy faith in Tara in the presence of all nations.” (Davies and O’Loughlin trans, Celtic Spirituality, Paulist press, 1999, p. 99-100, 102)
Theology as narrative at its best. As Thomas O’Loughlin describes it in his Celtic Theology (2000, p. 107):
“Muirchu had a few uncertain traditions about Patrick, but he had one theological certainty: the changing of people from being not-the-people-of-God to being part of Christ was the drama of the Paschal Mystery; the Paschal Mystery was entered through the drama of the liturgy, so the story of his people was the story of Easter Night. From his perspective as theologian/churchman could he have provided a more fitting origin story — a people reborn in the great event of Christian rebirth– for his people’s faith?”
Muirchu never calls Patrick’s fire a bonfire that is our assumption. The divine fire that Patrick lights represents the Paschal candle lit during the Easter vigil symbolizing the light of Christ in the world. Just as Muirchu claims that every fire in the kingdom was to be lit from the king’s pagan fire, every candle used during the easter vigil is lit from the paschal candle. Muirchu wrote for and was read by primarily monastics who would have immediately recognized this divine light as the paschal candle that they light every Easter Vigil. This candle is known to go back to at least the time of Jerome in the 4th century. Paschal means passover, and Muirchu calls Patrick’s Easter Vigil his celebration of Passover. In early medieval literature, including the Historia Brittonum, Patrick is consistently linked with Moses.
Muirchu says that Patrick went to Tara to speak to all the nations this is because the King of Tara was the High King of Ireland and representatives from most of the kingdoms of Ireland would have been present for the greatest pagan festival of the year.
As far as the king mistaking Patrick and his followers for deer in the darkness recall that the prayer known as St Patrick’s Lorica (Breastplate) is also known as “The Deer’s Cry“.
Somehow I think Muirchu would have been very pleased by the convergence of Patrick’s feast day with Holy Week.
Have a Blessed St Patrick’s Day and Holy Week!