St Patrick was an undocumented migrant - but the immigration debate was as complex in his time as it is today

A Syrian from the Christian village of Maaloula once told a BBC reporter, when his hometown was besieged by al-Qaeda militants: “we sent you St Paul to take you out of the darkness”.

It always struck me, because from a historical point of view what happened on these islands before Christianity arrived really was darkness, in the sense that the new religion brought with it literacy.

Today we celebrate St Patrick, a British slave whose message of hope was so rapidly taken up on the emerald isle that almost uniquely it had no martyrs; Irish people often complain their country is conformist and Christianity seems to have been taken up as rapidly then as centre-Left ideas now.

In contrast, England took several generations to come around and was converted from two separate directions, via St Augustine’s Italian mission in the south and the Irish St Aidan in Northumbria.

Ireland’s rapid and enthusiastic embrace of the new faith is impressive, in particular their attraction to the originally Egyptian and eastern Mediterranean idea of monasticism. Irish monks loved the austerity and self-inflected misery associated with the religious life, and the country’s harsh environment provided the perfect backdrop; the most extreme was Skelling Michael, off the coast of Kerry, an isolated mountain island that can only be reached on calm days (to a younger generation made famous in the closing scene of The Force Awakens). There seems to have been some competition among Irish men to find the most inconvenient and uncomfortable place to settle down in, to show how holy they were.

In doing so Irish monks helped to preserve many of the ancient texts, and the Irish took to literacy so rapidly they had as far as I know the only war ever held over copyright, called the Battle of the Book. It took place in the kingdom of Cairbre Drom Cliabh in the north-west of the country between 555 and 561, and began after St Columba had illegally copied a version of the Psalms belonging to St Finnian. The battle between the two groups led to ‘thousands’ of deaths.

St Patrick brought a universalist creed, but as the faith has declined in Europe so its secular heresy, progressivism, has flourished. Among the tenets of this belief system are that there are no borders, an idea that traces its descent from St Paul’s command that there are “neither Jews nor Greeks”.

It is this idea that drives the Church to support immigration, reiterated by Patrick’s successor Archbishop Eamon Martin who has marked March 17 by calling Patrick an “undocumented migrant”.

Perhaps, but Patrick lived during a period of chaos where there were no nation-states with the power to check migrant flows, a fact lamented by a near-contemporary saint with rather less sentimental views about undocumented migrants.

“The groans of the Britons… The barbarians drive us to the sea, the sea drives us to the barbarians; between these two means of death, we are either killed or drowned.” So recorded Gildas, writing from what is now Brittany about the desperate appeals of the British leaders to Rome when faced with the onslaught of Germans.

Gildas was a sort of proto-doom-mongering newspaper columnist predicting everything was going to the dogs, and of course, he was completely right – Britain was doomed.

Gildas described the arrival of the Saxons as being like “a pack of cubs” followed by “a larger troop of satellite dogs” and his rather immigration-sceptic book curses the various rulers who had brought disaster on Britain by inviting over these Germans.

Among these are Constantine, “the tyrannical whelp of the unclean lioness of Damnonia”, “thou bear” Cuneglasse, whoever he was, and another, Maglocune, who he calls the “dragon of the island”.

Gildas wrote how “The first wave landed on the eastern side of the island… and there they fixed their terrible claws, as if to defend the country, but in fact to attack it. Their German mother-land, seeing them successfully installed, dispatched a wonderful collection of hangers-on and dogs, who, arriving by the boatload, joined up with their misbegotten comrades”.

What he didn’t understand, of course, was that these Saxon “dreamers” were simply doing the jobs natives wouldn’t, and that they probably increased GDP by 0.05% a decade, while bringing vibrant diversity to Britannia.

Gildas’s feast day is January 29. I hope the Church in England and Wales has a special event next year to celebrate his contribution to the immigration debate.

Ed West’s Saxons vs. Vikings: Alfred the Great and England in the Dark Ages is out in August