Who was St. Patrick? The answer involves pirates, snakes, and revelatory dreams.
St. Patrick is one of the most widely known Christian saints and the patron saint of Ireland. But not much is definitively known about his life. He was not the one who introduced Christianity to Ireland, as is sometimes claimed. Nor does he have much to do with luck or leprechauns. And in fact, he wasn’t even Irish!
Patrick was born in Roman Britain near the end of the fourth century. His family was either of indigenous Celtic descent or from Rome. He signed his name Patricius in Latin, but according to some accounts his birth name was Maewyn Succat. Although Patrick’s family wasn’t particularly religious, his father became a Christian deacon in order to benefit from tax incentives.
When Patrick was sixteen, he was abducted by Irish pirates who attacked and raided his family’s estate. They took him to Ireland and imprisoned him for six years in County Mayo near Killala, where he worked as a shepherd. Alone and separated from his family and his country, Patrick turned inward and found solace in his religion. He began to dream of converting the Irish people to Christianity. He continued to receive revelation through dreams and, after six years as a prisoner, heard God’s voice telling him it was time to leave Ireland. He walked 200 miles to the Irish coast and escaped to Britain.
Later, he had another revelation in a dream, where he saw a figure called Victorious who offered him a letter titled “The Voice of the Irish.” In the dream, Patrick was deeply moved by a company of Irish people imploring him to return, and he felt called to go back to Ireland as a missionary. He began training to become a priest and spent 15 years in religious study before he was ordained. Despite the lengthy time he took in filling his educational gaps, he still felt inadequate for the task that lay ahead of him. But once he had embarked for Ireland, he was filled with confidence and determination for his cause—to minister to Christians already there and to convert the Irish. (He did not introduce Christianity to Ireland, as is commonly believed, but he played the largest role in converting the Irish people to Christianity.) Patrick had great success and baptized and confirmed many people into the Christian faith.
He dealt carefully with local authorities and non-Christians, but he was cast into prison at least once and was in constant peril of martyrdom. Those he converted, too, were at times in danger. In his Letter to Coroticus, Patrick denounces the British mistreatment toward Irish Christians and bids those who have died farewell. In his autobiography, Confessio, he humbly poured forth thanks to his Maker for his success in helping the Irish become “people of God.” One scholar stated that “The moral and spiritual greatness of the man shines through every stumbling sentence of his ‘rustic’ Latin.”
Patrick was able to reach so many people in large part due to his familiarity with Irish language and culture. Instead of attempting to wipe out traditional Irish beliefs, Patrick instead incorporated elements of Irish ritual into Christianity. The Irish celebrated their gods with fire, so Easter celebrations included a bonfire. The Irish used the symbol of the sun in their native worship practices, so Patrick superimposed an image of the sun onto the cross, creating what is known as the Celtic cross. This helped the Irish converts understand the underlying similarities between the light of the sun and the light of Christ and incorporate Christianity more naturally into their lives. According to legend, Patrick used the three-leafed shamrock to explain the concept of the Trinity—and though this story is not based in fact, it illustrates St. Patrick’s creativity, passion, and understanding of the Irish people.
In this country with a rich tradition of oral storytelling, Patrick’s life and mission was expanded and exaggerated over the centuries. Other legends hold that Patrick drove all the snakes in Ireland into the sea to their utter destruction, and that is why there are no snakes on the Emerald Isle. One story reports that Patrick prayed for food for a starving group of sailors traveling over land, and a herd of pigs miraculously appeared to sustain them.
In the later years of his life, Patrick retired to Saul, the site of his first church, and died on March 17, 460 AD. He was never formally canonized by the Catholic Church simply because there was no canonization process during the first millennium. Rather, he was almost by default proclaimed a saint due to his widespread popularity. He is widely known as the patron saint of Ireland, and Irish Catholics seek his protection and intercession.
The Feast of Saint Patrick is held on March 17 as a religious celebration. It was traditionally a solemn affair in Ireland, a day of holy obligation and silent prayer rather than rollicking and revelry. Until the late twentieth century, St. Patrick’s Day was actually more widely celebrated in the Irish diaspora than in Ireland itself—most prominently in North America and Australia, where there are large numbers of people with Irish heritage. Starting in the 1700s, Irish immigrants in America began to incorporate celebration of the culture and heritage of the Irish in general on St. Patrick’s Day. Parades and parties, music and dancing now characterized a celebration of Irish pride, and outside Ireland, St. Patrick’s Day has focused mainly on more secular aspects of Irish culture. Many people take this as a day to wear as much green as humanly possible, hunt for four-leaf clovers, and drink green beer. Ireland only began to incorporate these types of festivities beginning in the 1970s.
St. Patrick has become nearly synonymous with Ireland. As we celebrate St. Patrick’s Day and honor Irish heritage, let’s also incorporate his humility and deep respect for Irish culture without resorting to stereotypes.
Biography.com Editors. “Saint Patrick.” Biography.com, April 20, 2021. https://www.biography.com/religious-figure/saint-patrick.
Cohen, Jennie. “St. Patrick’s Day Legends and Myths Debunked.” History. Com, March 8, 2022. https://www.history.com/news/st-patricks-day-myths-debunked.
History.com Editors. “Who Was St. Patrick?” History.com, March 10, 2021. https://www.history.com/topics/st-patricks-day/who-was-saint-patrick.
O’Raifeartaigh, Tarlach. “Saint Patrick.” Encyclopaedia Brittanica. Retrieved March 26, 2022, from https://www.britannica.com/biography/Saint-Patrick.
“St. Patrick.” Catholic Online. Retrieved March 25, 2022, from https://www.catholic.org/saints/saint.php?saint_id=89.