A history of St Patrick
The history of St Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland who was born in the second half of the 4th century, is inevitably sketchy. Even his year of birth is uncertain, with some scholars hitting on 373 while others calculate 390.
Similarly, the place where St Patrick was born cannot be confirmed.
It is known that he was raised near a village called Banna Vemta Burniae but its location cannot be identified. It may have been lowland Scotland but is equally likely to have been Wales, which was under Roman control at the time.
Patrick's real name was probably Maewyn Succat. His father, Calpornius, was a Roman-British army officer and a deacon.
Despite this family involvement in the church, the young Patrick was not a believer. His life was ordinary, and completely unexceptional, until the age of 16.
But dramatic events then occurred which set the history of St Patrick, and the history of Ireland, on a new course.
The kidnapped shepherd
The young lad was kidnapped, along with many others, by Irish pirates and sold into slavery in Ireland. According to his autobiographical Confessio, which survives, the next six years were spent imprisoned in the north of the island and he worked as a herdsmen of sheep and pigs on Mount Slemish in Co. Antrim.
During this period, he became increasingly religious. He considered his kidnapping and imprisonment as a punishment for his lack of faith and spent a lot of time in prayer.
After a vision led him to stow away on a boat bound for Britain, Patrick escaped back to his family.
There he had a dream that the Irish were calling him back to Ireland to tell them about God. This inspired him to return to Ireland as a priest, but not immediately. At this point he didn't feel adequately prepared for a life as a missionary. His studies took him to France where he was trained in a monastery, possibly under St Germain, the bishop of Auxerre, and he dedicated this period of his life to learning. It was some 12 years before he returned to Irish shores as a bishop sent with the Pope's blessing.
The next chapter of the history of St Patrick is better known than his earlier life. He landed at Strangford Loch, Co. Down. Although he is often credited with having brought Christianity to Ireland, he was not the first to have done so.
An earlier mission had seen Palladius preach to the Irish.St Patrick meets King Lóegaire to ask permission to preach Christianity.
Of course, it wasn't all plain sailing. The history of St Patrick is littered with periods of imprisonment when his teachings had upset local chieftains or Celtic Druids, but he always escaped or gained freedom by presenting his captors with gifts.
For twenty years he travelled the length and breadth of the island, baptising people and establishing monasteries, schools and churches as he went.
By the time he died, on 17 March 461 (or 493, depending on which date you started your calculation), he left behind an organised church, the see of Armagh, and an island of Christians. This date – 17 March – has been commemorated as St Patrick's Day ever since.
Irish Saint Patrick's feast day
Saint Patrick's feast day, as a kind of national day, was already being celebrated by the Irish in Europe in the ninth and tenth centuries. In later times, he became more and more widely seen as the patron of Ireland. Saint Patrick's feast day was finally placed on the universal liturgical calendar in the Catholic Church due to the influence of Waterford-born Franciscan scholar Luke Wadding in the early 1600s. Saint Patrick's Day thus became a holy day of obligation for Roman Catholics in Ireland. It is also a feast day in the Church of Ireland, which is part of the worldwide Anglican Communion.
Freedom & Religious Calling
Around 408 A.D., the idea of escaping enslavement came to Patrick in a dream, in which a voice promised him he would find his way home to Britain. Eager to see the dream materialize, Patrick convinced some sailors to let him board their ship.
After three days of sailing, he and the crew abandoned the vessel in France and wandered, lost, for 28 days — covering 200 miles of territory in the process, with Patrick ultimately becoming reunited with his family.
A free man once again, Patrick went to Auxerre, France, where he studied and entered the priesthood under the guidance of the missionary Saint Germain. He was ordained a deacon by the Bishop of Auxerre around 418 A.D.
As time passed, he never lost sight of his vision to convert Ireland to Christianity. In A.D., he was ordained as a bishop and was soon sent by Pope Celestine I to Ireland to spread the gospel to non-believers while also providing support to the small community of Christians already living there.
Patrick was born over 1,600 years ago about 389 AD He was the next great Christian missionary that we know of after the Apostle Paul, even though he wasn't born for over 300 years after Paul's death.
His impact was so profound it is not surprising that his life became embellished with legends. But even if Patrick did not drive the snakes out of Ireland, such a legend testifies to the pervasive power of his ministry. Fortunately we have two documents from Patrick himself that give us valuable information about him. They are his Confession, written near the end of his life, and his Letter to Coroticus, his urgent plea to a king who had captured many of his converts. Following is a sampling of highlights from Patrick's life and excerpt from his confession of faith.
From Patrick's Confession
I was sixteen years old and knew not the true God and was carried away captive but in that strange land (Ireland) the Lord opened my unbelieving eyes, and although late I called my sins to mind, and was converted with my whole heart to the Lord my God, who regarded my low estate, had pity on my youth and ignorance, and consoled me as a father consoles his children. Well every day I used to look after sheep and I used to pray often during the day, the love of God and fear of him increased more and more in me and my faith began to grow and my spirit stirred up, so that in one day I would pray as many as a hundred times and nearly as many at night. Even when I was staying out in the woods or on the mountain, I used to rise before dawn for prayer, in snow and frost and rain, and I felt no ill effect and there was no slackness in me. As I now realize, it was because the Spirit was glowing in me.
St. Patrick's Breastplate
This famous prayer, one of the earliest known European vernacular poems, has been attributed to Patrick, but scholars say some of the words used indicate the versions available come from a later period. But there is no question that they ooze the spirit and content we see in Patrick's Confession, and they vibrate with the power of Christianity that Patrick gave to his adopted land. Some Christians today find great value in memorizing this classic prayer and repeating it each morning upon arising.
I arise today
Through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity.
Through belief in the threeness,
Through confession of the oneness
Of the Creator of Creation.
I arise today
Through the strength of Christ's birth with his baptism,
Through the strength of his crucifixion with his burial,
Through the strength of his resurrection with his ascension,
Through the strength of his descent for the judgment of Doom.
I arise today
Through God's strength to pilot me:
God's might to uphold me,
God's wisdom to guide me,
God's eye to look before me,
God's ear to hear me,
God's word to speak for me,
God's hand to guard me,
God's way to lie before me,
God's shield to protect me,
God's host to save me
From snare of devils,
From temptations of vices,
From everyone who shall wish me ill,
Afar and anear,
Alone and in multitude.
I summon today all these powers between me and those evils,
Against every cruel and merciless power that may oppose my body and soul
Against incantations of false prophets,
Against black laws of pagandom,
Against false laws of heretics,
Against craft of idolatry,
Against spells of witches and smiths and wizards,
Against every knowledge that corrupts man's body and soul.
Christ to shield me today
Against poison, against burning,
Against drowning, against wounding,
So that there may come to me abundance of reward.
Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me,
Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ on my right, Christ on my left,
Christ when I lie down, Christ when I sit down, Christ when I arise,
Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me,
Christ in every eye that sees me,
Christ in every ear that hears me.
I arise today
Through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity,
Through belief in the threeness,
Through confession of the oneness,
Of the Creator of Creation.
It's an incredible and largely unknown story. It's told in How the Irish Saved Civilization (Doubleday, NY 1995), Thomas Cahill's excellent book on St. Patrick and his spiritual descendants. Though located at what was perceived to be the edge of the world, the hearty Irish who succeeded Patrick emerged as one of the most vital missionary and educational movements in all history.
As wave after wave of German barbarians swept over the Roman empire in the fifth and sixth centuries, Roman political structure disintegrated, and centers of learning and education disappeared. Some call this period the Dark Ages, when civilization itself seemed on the verge of vanishing. During this dismal time, it was the Irish who preserved the books and learning of the classical and Christian authors.
Ireland was one part of Europe which had never been part of the Roman Empire, and their Celtic Christianity was distinctly un-Roman. Not connected with the papal system or the Roman hierarchy, Celtic Christianity developed around individual leaders and monasteries, and the Irish monks were leaders in spreading and preserving the Christian faith.
Many priests and monks from England and the continent fled to monasteries in Ireland to escape the barbarian invaders. Some came from as far as Egypt, Syria, and Armenia. The study of the Scriptures was central to the Celtic monastic schools, and the scriptorium was a key part of the monastic compound. Here the monks carefully copied the Scriptures and many of the Greek and Latin classics. Many of the earliest Latin manuscripts available today are those made by the Irish monks, and over half of our Biblical commentaries between 650 and 850 were written by Irishmen. For them, writing was an art. Using seashells and plant juices for color, they decorated the manuscripts with the most elaborate designs.
Leaving their homeland and carrying the gospel elsewhere was an important part of the Irish Christian tradition. It was these traveling monks who kept Christian literacy alive in barbarized Europe. In the century after Patrick, the Irish monk Columba established the monastery of Iona off the west coast of Scotland and began to create a literate, Christian society among the Scots and Picts of north Britain. His followers later went to Lindisfarne and began the same transformation among the Angles of Northumbria. Other Irish monks went to the mainland and established at least 60 monasteries throughout France, Germany, Switzerland, and Italy. Traces of their work can be found as far east as Kiev in Russia and as far west as Iceland.
Celtic Christianity differed from Roman Catholic Christianity in a number of ways. The Irish did not have an authoritarian church hierarchy, and the monks looked more to Scripture than tradition for their rule. They also followed a method of dating Easter common in the eastern churches. The Irish introduced a system of private confession and penance, practices later adopted by the Roman church.
Viking invasions of the eighth and ninth centuries disrupted the Celtic monasteries in Britain and Ireland. By then, however, the Irish had already planted the seeds of Christian learning throughout Europe.
And, as Cahill points out, "In all disasters, Patrick would insist, there is ground for hope." Indeed, Patrick would probably even find hope for us today.
If you have enjoyed this special issue, then give your favorite Irish friend a big hug.
Patrick the Saint
A fleet of 50 currachs (longboats) weaved its way toward the shore, where a young Roman Brit and his family walked. His name was Patricius, the 16-year-old son of a civil magistrate and tax collector. He had heard stories of Irish raiders who captured slaves and took them "to the ends of the world," and as he studied the longboats, he no doubt began imagining the worst.
With no Roman army to protect them (Roman legions had long since deserted Britain to protect Rome from barbarian invasions), Patricius and his town were unprepared for attack. The Irish warriors, wearing helmets and armed with spears, descended on the pebbled beach. The braying war horns struck terror into Patricius's heart, and he started to run toward town.
The warriors quickly demolished the village, and as Patricius darted among burning houses and screaming women, he was caught. The barbarians dragged him aboard a boat bound for the east coast of Ireland.
Patricius, better known as Saint Patrick, is remembered today as the saint who drove the snakes out of Ireland, the teacher who used the shamrock to explain the Trinity, and the namesake of annual parades in New York and Boston. What is less well-known is that Patrick was a humble missionary (this saint regularly referred to himself as "a sinner") of enormous courage. When he evangelized Ireland, he set in motion a series of events that impacted all of Europe. It all started when he was carried off into slavery around 430.
Escape from sin and slavery
Patrick was sold to a cruel warrior chief, whose opponents' heads sat atop sharp poles around his palisade in Northern Ireland. While Patrick minded his master's pigs in the nearby hills, he lived like an animal himself, enduring .
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The St. Patrick’s Day Timeline
In Ireland, typical Saint Patrick’s Day celebrations resembled other religious holidays, with participants attending church, eating a special meal, and spending time with loved ones. But by the time the holiday made its way to America, it had changed significantly.
East coast cities like New York and Boston were flooded with a new group of people and a culture full of proud traditions that they wanted to continue to celebrate in their new home.
The first official Saint Patrick’s Day parade was in 1762, but it wasn’t until the nineteenth century that Irish-American populations grew strong enough for a call to celebrate the day on a citywide scale.
Still, it took nearly a century for the celebrations to involve non-Irish Americans, too. But by the 1960s and 1970s, parades, festivals, and other events began popping up in cities across the country.
The holiday is now one of the most widely celebrated and anticipated days of the year in America, and it is most often commemorated with parades and festivals, but also plenty of traditional Irish foods and drinks.
Cities that have held on to their strong population of Irish-Americans typically participate in days of events leading up to Saint Patty’s. Some, like Chicago (which dyes its river a vibrant green each year), have even taken to transforming parts of the city itself in honor of the day.
From coast to coast, Saint Patrick’s Day has now become one of America’s most exciting days of the year, and no matter how you choose to celebrate or where you live, you are bound to encounter a touch of green come March 17.
The Modern St. Patrick's Day Parade Emerged
In 1891 the Ancient Order of Hibernians adopted the familiar parade route, the march up Fifth Avenue, which it still follows today. And other practices, such as the banning of wagons and floats, also became standard. The parade as it exists today is essentially the same as it would have been in the 1890s, with many thousands of people marching, accompanied by bagpipe bands as well as brass bands.
St. Patrick's Day is also marked in other American cities, with large parades being staged in Boston, Chicago, Savannah, and elsewhere. And the concept of the St. Patrick's Day parade has been exported back to Ireland: Dublin began its own St. Patrick's Day festival in the mid-1990s, and its flashy parade, which is noted for large and colorful puppet-like characters, draws hundreds of thousands of spectators every March 17th.
The real story of Saint Patrick
Everyone knows about Saint Patrick — the man who drove the snakes out of Ireland, defeated fierce Druids in contests of magic, and used the shamrock to explain the Christian Trinity to the pagan Irish. It’s a great story, but none of it is true. The shamrock legend came along centuries after Patrick’s death, as did the miraculous battles against the Druids. Forget about the snakes — Ireland never had any to begin with. No snakes, no shamrocks, and he wasn’t even Irish.
The real story of St. Patrick is much more interesting than the myths. What we know of Patrick’s life comes only through the chance survival of two remarkable letters which he wrote in Latin in his old age. In them, Patrick tells the story of his tumultuous life and allows us to look intimately inside the mind and soul of a man who lived over fifteen hundred years ago. We may know more biographical details about Julius Caesar or Alexander the Great, but nothing else from ancient times opens the door into the heart of a man more than Patrick’s letters. They tell the story of an amazing life of pain and suffering, self-doubt and struggle, but ultimately of faith and hope in a world which was falling apart around him./>Saint Patrick stained glass window from Cathedral of Christ the Light, Oakland, CA. Photo by Simon Carrasco. CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
The historical Patrick was not Irish at all, but a spoiled and rebellious young Roman citizen living a life of luxury in fifth-century Britain when he was suddenly kidnapped from his family’s estate as a teenager and sold into slavery across the sea in Ireland. For six years he endured brutal conditions as he watched over his master’s sheep on a lonely mountain in a strange land. He went to Ireland an atheist, but there heard what he believed was the voice of God. One day he escaped and risked his life to make a perilous journey across Ireland, finding passage back to Britain on a ship of reluctant pirates. His family welcomed back their long-lost son and assumed he would take up his life of privilege, but Patrick heard a different call. He returned to Ireland to bring a new way of life to a people who had once enslaved him. He constantly faced opposition, threats of violence, kidnapping, and even criticism from jealous church officials, while his Irish followers faced abuse, murder, and enslavement themselves by mercenary raiders. But through all the difficulties Patrick maintained his faith and persevered in his Irish mission.
The Ireland that Patrick lived and worked in was utterly unlike the Roman province of Britain in which he was born and raised. Dozens of petty Irish kings ruled the countryside with the help of head-hunting warriors while Druids guided their followers in a religion filled with countless gods and perhaps an occasional human sacrifice. Irish women were nothing like those Patrick knew at home. Early Ireland was not a world of perfect equality by any means, but an Irish wife could at least control her own property and divorce her husband for any number of reasons, including if he became too fat for sexual intercourse. But Irish women who were slaves faced a cruel life. Again and again in his letters, Patrick writes of his concern for the many enslaved women of Ireland who faced beatings and abuse on a daily basis.
Patrick wasn’t the first Christian to reach Ireland he wasn’t even the first bishop. What made Patrick successful was his dogged determination and the courage to face whatever dangers lay ahead, as well as the compassion and forgiveness to work among a people who had brought nothing but pain to his life. None of this came naturally to him, however. He was a man of great insecurities who constantly wondered if he was really cut out for the task he had been given. He had missed years of education while he was enslaved in Ireland and carried a tremendous chip on his shoulder when anyone sneered, as they frequently did, at his simple, schoolboy Latin. He was also given to fits of depression, self-pity, and violent anger. Patrick was not a storybook saint, meek and mild, who wandered Ireland with a beatific smile and a life free from petty faults. He was very much a human being who constantly made mistakes and frequently failed to live up to his own Christian ideals, but he was honest enough to recognize his shortcomings and never allow defeat to rule his life.
You don’t have to be Irish to admire Patrick. His is a story of inspiration for anyone struggling through hard times public or private in a world with unknown terrors lurking around the corner. So raise a glass to the patron saint of Ireland, but remember the man behind the myth.
Headline image credit: Oxalis acetosella. Photo by Erik Fitzpatrick. CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
Philip Freeman earned his Ph.D. in Classics and Celtic Studies at Harvard University. He teaches at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa and is the author of fifteen books, including The World of Saint Patrick.
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St. Patrick's Day
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St. Patrick’s Day, feast day (March 17) of St. Patrick, patron saint of Ireland. Born in Roman Britain in the late 4th century, he was kidnapped at the age of 16 and taken to Ireland as a slave. He escaped but returned about 432 ce to convert the Irish to Christianity. By the time of his death on March 17, 461, he had established monasteries, churches, and schools. Many legends grew up around him—for example, that he drove the snakes out of Ireland and used the shamrock to explain the Trinity. Ireland came to celebrate his day with religious services and feasts.
What is St. Patrick’s Day?
St. Patrick’s Day is the feast day of St. Patrick, a patron saint of Ireland. Originally celebrated with religious feasts and services, St. Patrick’s Day became a secular celebration of Irish culture when it reached the United States alongside Irish immigrants.
When is St. Patrick’s Day celebrated?
St. Patrick’s Day is celebrated annually on March 17, the anniversary of St. Patrick’s death in 461.
What is the origin of St. Patrick’s Day?
St. Patrick’s Day was originally celebrated in Ireland with religious services and feasts in honour of St. Patrick, one of Ireland’s patron saints. When Irish immigrants brought St. Patrick’s Day traditions to the United States, the day evolved into a secular celebration of Irish culture.
Who was St. Patrick?
St. Patrick was a 5th-century missionary to Ireland who is credited with bringing Christianity to Ireland. He became a legendary figure by the end of the 7th century and is considered a patron saint of Ireland.
It was emigrants, particularly to the United States, who transformed St. Patrick’s Day into a largely secular holiday of revelry and celebration of things Irish. Cities with large numbers of Irish immigrants, who often wielded political power, staged the most extensive celebrations, which included elaborate parades. Boston held its first St. Patrick’s Day parade in 1737, followed by New York City in 1762. Since 1962 Chicago has coloured its river green to mark the holiday. (Although blue was the colour traditionally associated with St. Patrick, green is now commonly connected with the day.) Irish and non-Irish alike commonly participate in the “wearing of the green”—sporting an item of green clothing or a shamrock, the Irish national plant, in the lapel. Corned beef and cabbage are associated with the holiday, and even beer is sometimes dyed green to celebrate the day. Although some of these practices eventually were adopted by the Irish themselves, they did so largely for the benefit of tourists.