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A Saint's Confession

March 12, 2000|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF Writer

Not many TV movies can boast having a screenwriter who is not only a Catholic saint, but has been dead for 15 centuries.

According to Robert Hughes, the director and co-writer of Fox Family Channel's "St. Patrick, The Irish Legend," the beloved patron saint of the Emerald Isle is just as much the author of the script as he and co-writer Martin Duffy.

Shot in Ireland, the two-hour drama, which stars Patrick Bergin ("Mountains of the Moon") as St. Patrick, actually uses St. Patrick's legendary writing, "Confessio," as the basis of the movie which premieres Sunday, five days before St. Patrick's Day. It will be the first biographical film based on the life of the saint.

"Those are Patrick's own words [in the movie]," Hughes says. "If you read that document, you hear a real personality and a real voice talking to you across 15 centuries. It gives an insight into the man."

Rich Cronin, the president and CEO of Fox Family Channel, quickly points out that "you don't have to be Irish or Catholic to be inspired by the movie. From a historical perspective, St. Patrick was really an important figure in European history."

Despite the international popularity of St. Patrick's Day, few really know about the man, including Hughes and Cronin, who both attended Catholic elementary and high schools and college.

"People have an image of Patrick and they know about snakes and shamrocks. Some people know he was a slave, but really most people don't know much about him at all," says Hughes. "When you start to scratch the surface, it is a remarkable story of adventure and personal awakening. I am honestly surprised this is the first time the story is being told."

Patrick was born in the village of Kilpatrick, Scotland. At 16, he was kidnapped by Irish raiders and taken to Ireland where he was a slave for six years. It was while he was in Ireland that he believed he was chosen to do God's work. Patrick would come to believe that it was his destiny to become Bishop of Ireland.

During Patrick's time, there was no Roman Catholic Church as it is known today. "There was really just the Christian Church," Hughes says. "The Roman Empire had been divided in two at the time, between the Greek and the Romans and the Romans had embraced the Christian Church."

As the story unfolded in Hughes' research, Patrick not only brought Christianity to the Irish, who were pagan Druids, he also brought education to the people. Under his guidance, the monasteries flourished and "that led to the copying down of manuscripts and the preservation of classic thought and philosophy which later the Irish missionaries spread back into Europe and that led to the Renaissance."

It was Patrick's flaws, rather than his saintliness, that made him so successful in Ireland, Hughes believes. "The Irish wouldn't have warmed to him as much if he had come in there and been pontificating to them.

"Having been a slave in Ireland for six years, he came to know the Irish. He knew what they were afraid of. He knew what they loved. He knew how he could get to them. He learned to speak their language, when he returned, no one was better suited to make inroads as a missionary than Patrick."

Hughes was looking for a flawed landscape as well as a flawed hero. "We tried to portray Ireland in a really rugged way that is not picture-book pretty. You hear about the terrible beauty Ireland is, and that it is something we tried to bring to the screen. It was an Irish crew and principally an Irish cast and they really embraced the project."

"St. Patrick, The Irish Legend" can been seen Sunday at 7 p.m. on the Fox Family Channel. It repeats Thursday at 8 p.m. and St. Patrick's Day at 10 p.m. The network has rated it TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children).

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