St. Patrick, the Patron Saint

Irish tradition credits St. Patrick with bringing Christianity to the Irish and transforming the island from a wild warrior society to a peaceful, scholarly kingdom. Not much is known about his life, or whether he existed at all.

Most of what modern scholars know about the historical Patrick comes from his Confession, an autobiographical sketch he (supposedly) wrote toward the end of his life. It's very short, and actually pretty readable, though some parts of it are incomprehensible — Patrick wasn't very good at writing Latin. Patrick never mentions dates, so any dates that scholars claim for his deeds are just guesses.

Early Life

Patrick's family was of British Celt (Briton) ancestry, who had lived in Britain for several centuries. His father was a well-to-do landowner, and Patrick probably grew up as a privileged young man, waited on by servants and educated in the classical tradition as it survived in Britain at the end of the Roman Empire.

His family was Christian; his father was a deacon and his grandfather a priest. Young Patrick was not a pious youth. By his own account, he had turned his back on the Christian god, and he committed some serious, unknown crime in his midteens (more on that later).

When Patrick was almost 16, he was captured by a group of Irish slave traders and was sold into slavery in Ireland. Patrick spent the next six years herding sheep alone in the hills, hunger and cold his constant companions. In his desolation, he turned to God and prayed constantly.

St. Patrick

Patrick's Great Escape

One day God spoke to Patrick, telling him that his ship was ready to take him away from Ireland. It was not nearby, but in fact 200 miles away (which is unlikely, since very few places in Ireland are 200 miles from any body of water). Patrick set off on foot over the countryside, taking a great risk by running away from his master; he had no idea what he was headed for, but Patrick had no fear.

He reached the coast and found a ship ready to set sail. He asked the captain if he could sail with them, and the captain brusquely refused. So Patrick returned to the hut where he was staying and started to pray. Before he had finished his prayer, the sailors called him back and said that he could sail with them.

Tradition says that Patrick established his own church in Armagh, Northern Ireland; the cathedral of the Church of Ireland is still there. Armagh was an important ancient and medieval town. The legendary queen or goddess Macha supposedly lived there before Christianity, and Brian Boru was buried there in 1014.

The ship sailed for three days and then landed. It's not clear where; Patrick reports that he and the sailors wandered “in a desert” for 28 days, and there's no place three days' sail from Ireland that matches that description. Some scholars have suggested that they landed in Gaul (modern France) after it was ravaged by barbarians in 407; others think it more likely that they were making circles around Britain.

In any case, they had nothing to eat. The captain turned to Patrick and asked him what his Christian god could do for them. Patrick admonished him to put his faith in God and ask Him to send them food that very day. Sure enough, a whole herd of pigs came running across their path. The sailors killed and cooked a few, and their problems were solved.

A Divine Calling

Eventually, Patrick got back to his parents, who were overjoyed to see him after so many years and begged him never to leave them again. But Patrick discovered that home wasn't home anymore; he had changed too much in the last few years to feel comfortable resuming his life as a British landowner.

One night, he dreamed about a man named Victoricus, whom he had known in Ireland. Victoricus gave him a letter entitled “The Voice of the Irish.” At the same time, Patrick heard the voices of Irish people calling him back to them. He knew that Ireland would be his destiny.

He left home again and studied for the priesthood. Some scholars think he went to Gaul, while others are sure he stayed in Britain, but it doesn't really matter. Patrick struggled with his coursework. His education had been interrupted by his abrupt enslavement back when he was a teenager, and he never did make up the ground he had lost; in his later writings, he often laments that his Latin is not very good and that he is uneducated. But he managed to learn the required material and was ordained a priest.

The night before his ordination, Patrick confessed some old sin to a close friend. He never reveals in his Confession what this sin was, but it did come back to haunt him in later life when some bishops tried to use it to ruin his career. Although Patrick's confession obviously didn't stay private, it was the origin of the Catholic ritual of private, confidential confession.

Spreading the Word to the Irish

Now a priest, Patrick went back to Ireland as its bishop, one of the first Christian missionaries in history; the traditional date for this journey is 432.

There was a lot for him to do in Ireland. The Irish were still barbarians, worshipping Celtic gods, raiding one another's cattle, and abducting slaves. Patrick was genuinely concerned about these problems; he found slavery to be particularly bad for women (his respect and concern for women made him very unusual among early medieval leaders).

Patrick was incredibly successful. He converted thousands of Irish to Christianity, established monasteries, and ordained priests all over the island. He placed bishops next to local kings, both to improve the Church's position with the Irish and to have someone to keep an eye on the worst raiders and warriors. By the end of his life, the Irish had stopped their endless tribal warfare and the slave trade had ended.

Converting the Irish wasn't always easy. As the Romans left Britain, local British kings grabbed the abandoned territory and took over the piracy trade. One British king named Coroticus attacked in northern Ireland and killed or carried off thousands of recent converts. Patrick sent some priests to Coroticus to ask for the return of his people, but the king only laughed at them.

Patrick responded with his “Letter to Coroticus,” one of the two pieces of writing he left behind, in which he took the king to task for visiting this horror on his people. He also excommunicated him from the Christian faith, the worst punishment a priest could inflict on a believer. Patrick knew firsthand what it meant to be a slave, and his genuine love of his flock and grief at their suffering comes through in his prose quite clearly.

Were there any snakes in Ireland before Saint Patrick?

Alas, for believers who would love to credit him with removing serpents from the Emerald Isle, it appears that there were not. This story was concocted about 300 years after his death. It is possible, though, that snakes was a metaphor for pagans.

Myths about St. Patrick

Over time, Patrick developed into a legendary figure. As the patron saint of Ireland and founder of Irish Christianity, he has been credited with numerous deeds that may not have a basis in historical fact. Here are a few of them:

  • He banished snakes from Ireland — standing on top of Croagh Patrick, a hill in County Mayo, he rang a bell, and all the snakes in Ireland fled.

  • He used the Irish shamrock, a three-leafed clover, to teach his converts about the Trinity, the one-in-three union of God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit.

  • He argued with High King Laoghaire at Tara and won for the side of Christianity.

  • He was on speaking terms with both God and an angel, and once climbed Croagh Patrick to speak with God.

  • Croagh Patrick is a hill in County Mayo; according to legend, this is where Patrick blasted venomous snakes out of Ireland. On Reek Sunday, the last Sunday in July, thousands of people climb to the top of the hill as an act of penance.

  • He wrote the lovely prayer known as “Saint Patrick's Breastplate.”

None of these myths can be verified, at least not as they are described today. The shamrock story appeared centuries after Patrick's death, and the “Breastplate” was probably written in the seventh or eighth century. It is possible that Patrick did face down a king over some issue of Christianity, but probably not as it is told in the famous story about Laoghaire.

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