Religious Essays

Who Was Saint Patrick?


St. Patrick



      To many Irish March 17th is a bit more than Clovers, Leprechauns, and Guinness. This is the “traditional” feast day of Saint Patrick. He is, without question, one of the most celebrated and theatrical saints of the church. But who was he?

      To begin with, Saint Patrick was NOT Irish; he was born a Briton by race (an ancient group of Celtic people inhabiting Britain and not Ireland) around the year 389. He was taught the scriptures in early childhood, (it is thought by his parents) but did not take them seriously until adulthood. At the age of 17, Patrick was kidnapped by Irish raiders and sold into slavery. Terrified by his experiences and residing in a strange land, he commenced on a rigorous and zealous practice of fasting and prayer; it is claimed by some medieval writers that Patrick would often recite over a hundred prayers a day to God during his captivity. On such occasion, during the night, Patrick claimed he heard a “voice” instructing him to flee his captives and board a ship. As a result, he found himself taking up residence with the French monks of Lerins Island where he stayed for an unknown number of years and adopting Monasticism before returning to England.

      According to two Latin letters written by Patrick himself, he had a “vision” of Ireland in which he was instructed to convert the Irish to Christianity. However, the Christianization of Ireland commenced a few years before Patrick set foot on the island. The Irish Bishop, (according to the “The Chronicle of Ireland) Palladius, arrived in Ireland in the year 431 from orders of Pope Celestine 1, and Patrick followed a year later; there is a continued dispute among historians as to what actually took place, but the consensus acknowledges them both on the island at the same time. As a result of their actions, Ireland became a center of cultural and religious activity for the next several hundred years; Latin and Greek texts were copied and preserved by Irish monks and “manuscript illumination” was perfected in a time when the rest of Europe wandered aimlessly through the “Dark Ages.” England, Scotland, and the Frankish Empire were eventually Christianized by later Irish missionaries, the most notable, Saint Columba.

      Saint Patrick’s residence during this time in Ireland was an arduous one; his life was constantly under threat, he was beaten and robbed, and was deprived of basic lodgings and affinity. He was not favored by Irish kings because he refused to accept any gifts, land, or money, converted wealthy women, and sons of the kings. Interestingly, however, it is in this period that Saint Patrick emerges as a worker of miracles and a teacher to the pagan tribes of Ireland that are still imputed to him. His use of the shamrock to explain the Holy Trinity and his expulsion of snakes from the island are still highly associated with his character. Throughout the following centuries, Saint Patrick would continue to colour Irish culture and identity. His clever tactics for conversion and obedience to Christ is both controversial and multifaceted in Irish culture and folklore. Nonetheless, he remains one of the most beloved and revered saints of Christianity. Despite these impeccable testimonies, he has not been officially canonized as a saint by any Pope! In the early years of Christianity, specifically in Europe, Christians who were considered holy could be regionally celebrated as saints in the liturgy. March 17th, 460 AD, is believed to be the date of his death; Irish tradition tells us that he baptized over 120,000 people in his lifetime. He is said to be buried at Down Cathedral in Downpatrick, Ireland. “La le Padraig!” For more information on Saint Patrick, I recommend a book I read a few years back. I hope you find its contents intriguing for this fascinating man of ancient Ireland. Here is the link:

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