We all know that Saint Patrick is the patron saint of Ireland and that on March 17 we celebrate him – even if some of us do so more for fun than for religious reasons. Only two letters written by Patrick, the “Confession” and the “Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus,” survive. They are considered to be the best sources about his life. With such little evidence, it’s difficult to know much about Ireland’s patron saint, but these are the details generally accepted by historians and those interested in Irish history and folklore.
Patrick was most likely born sometime in the late fourth or early fifth century in the final days of Roman-controlled Britain. Although the son of a Christian deacon, he was not a religious boy. At age 16, he was captured by Irish raiders who took him back to the Emerald Isle. For six lonely, cold years, he tended to sheep as a slave. During these years, he turned to faith and constantly prayed to God.
When he was 22, the shepherd Patrick heard a voice telling him that a ship would take him home. He fled his master and boarded a ship to return home. After spending some time home, he studied for the priesthood in Auxerre in Gaul (France) under Saint Germanus.
One night, a vision of man named “Victorious” came to Patrick telling him to return to Ireland to evangelize its people. In the “Confession,” Patrick recounted:
[The man’s] name was Victoricus, and he carried many letters, and he gave me one of them. I read the heading: ‘The Voice of the Irish.’ As I began the letter, I imagined in that moment that I heard the voice of those very people who were near the wood of Foclut, which is beside the western sea—and they cried out, as with one voice: ‘We appeal to you, holy servant boy, to come and walk among us.’
Patrick returned to Ireland as a missionary and bishop, possibly sent by Pope Celestine. The history gets confusing here as another man named Patricious Palladius may have also been sent by Pope Celestine around the same time to convert the Celts. Some historians believe they were the same person. Others believe Palladius had arrived before Patrick, but had to leave as he had irked the High Kings, the Filí (poets), and Druids (pagan religious leaders and members of the upper-class).
Although Christianity may have had a beachhead in Ireland before Patrick’s return, the former slave was the driving force behind the island’s conversion. He migrated to Ulster (Northern Ireland) and established a church in Armagh. The lower-classes supposedly were quick to accept Patrick’s message, but the upper classes were tougher to crack. Patrick refused to accept gifts from the pagan kings. In his open “Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus,” the bishop explained in wrathful language that he has excommunicated Coroticus, a Briton noble, who had enslaved Christian converts. Patrick may not have been Irish by birth, but I would argue he’s the model of a tough Irishman who does not mince his words and will pick a fight for his beliefs.
The legends surrounding Patrick and his evangelization are voluminous. Most were written centuries after his death. Many are probably pure myth, but they still make good stories. Here are a few of the best:
The shamrock: When the people of Ireland had difficulty understanding how there were three persons in one God (Father, Son, and Holy Ghost), St. Patrick picked a shamrock out of the ground, showed it to the people, and used it as a parable: three leaves in one plant. I’m inclined to believe in this story.
Chasing out the snakes: There are no native-born snakes in Ireland. Serpents may have been a Druid symbol, and St. Patrick supposedly banished the creatures into the sea. Most scientists will tell you that there probably never were any snakes on the island, in the first place.
Speaking with mythic figures: Celtic and Gaelic heroes were warriors and adventurers who enjoyed life’s pleasures; they did not epitomize the peaceful, simple lifestyle of Christ. This would be great cause for the Druids to not accept Patrick’s missions. Oisín and Caílte mac Rónáin, warriors and relatives of Finn Mac Cumaill (think of him as Ireland’s Beowulf), either returned from the dead or lived hundreds of years. They regaled Patrick with stories of Ireland’s warrior traditions and argued with him over the true religion.
Impaling a chieftain in the foot: When Patrick had finally converted a particular chieftain and administered the Sacraments to him, the bishop, in his passion, struck his crosier (a bishop’s hooked staff), into the leader’s foot. The chieftain, thinking this was part of the ceremony, did not budge, and the focused evangelist did not even realize what he had done.
The patron saint’s work would extend well beyond his lifetime. The Roman-blooded Patrick brought Christianity to Ireland as the Roman Empire crumbled. In addition to religion, Patrick brought aspects of Roman culture, most important of which was writing. Monasteries became centers of learning and preserved knowledge of antiquity. Oral histories were also finally recorded. The Book of Kells, an ornate manuscript of the Gospels of the New Testament, was created around the year 800. Now housed at Trinity College in Dublin, it is considered to be a masterwork and Ireland’s greatest literary treasure.
The monks who produced works like the Book of Kells would go to Scotland and the European Continent to evangelize. In doing so, they brought back much of the knowledge that had been lost at the onset of the Dark Ages. The bishop Columbanus founded monasteries in France and northern Italy. The Würzburg Cathedral in Bavaria is dedicated to Saint Killian. Fiescole, near Venice, had an Irish bishop in the Ninth Century. Philosopher John Scottus Eriugena served in the Court of Charles the Bald where he translated texts from Ancient Greece. Vienna and Cologne were among other cities where Irish monks built monasteries.
Frequently depicted in green robes and a mitre (a bishop’s hat), while holding a crosier and bell, Patrick is recognized as a saint in the Roman Catholic, Anglican, Orthodox, and Lutheran Churches. His feast day is on March 17, which is believed to be the day of his death. Some say he died in 492 at the ripe age of 120. March 17 is both a day of celebration and holy obligation in Ireland.
Celebrations of Saint Paddy’s Day began as early as the 1730s in America. The waves of Irish immigration to the U.S. have left an indelible mark on this country as March 17 is a fun unofficial holiday. Almost all major U.S. cities have parades. The city of Chicago famously dyes its river green. You will also find parties and parades in places as varied as Russia, Switzerland, Malaysia, and Argentina. For a people from a small island, the Irish have managed to export their culture far and wide. That’s reason enough to have a Guinness. Sláinte!