Saint Patrick’s Day

Sláinte!  Being partly Irish, St. Paddy’s has always been a big deal for me, so for this year I did some historical research about St. Patrick himself.

Saint Patrick was born in Roman Britain, the son of a deacon and grandson of a priest.  This was not unusual given that the celibacy aspect of priesthood is a fairly recent addition to the priestly oaths.  There are multiple accounts of where he was from, so no one knows exactly where.  Some accounts suggest Cumbria, while others say either Wales or Scotland.  He was captured at 16 by Irish pirates, and pressed into slavery.  Before he was captured he was not, himself, religious or spiritual, despite coming from a line of religious men.  However, according to Saint Patrick’s own writings in The Confession he became a religious believer during the six years he spent herding sheep during captivity.  After those six years, he heard a voice telling him to flee, and he did.  When he reached the coastline he found a sailor who was willing to return him to Britain.  

Saint Patrick

Years later, he had a vision of a saint handing him a letter addressing Patrick as ‘The Voice of the Irish’ and pleading with him to return to Ireland to preach to the Irish.  

I saw a man coming, as it were from Ireland. His 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.”

While in Ireland, Patrick converted thousands, according to his own writings.  Everyone knows the story of St. Patrick using the clover to explain the holy trinity, and that he drove the snakes from Ireland.  But I’ve read some historians’ interpretations that this was a metaphor for driving the pagans from Ireland or converting them.  This would pick up on the serpent imagery used in the Old Testament when referring to the devil.  

Children’s stories of the holiday make it seem that this was a simple task, but he raised a lot of controversy among the Irish people by converting the sons of kings, converting women who then became nuns against family opposition, and by not accepting gifts.  Gift-giving was, before the modern period, a way of tying people together, and keeping their loyalties.  Patrick also had trouble in Ireland because he was not himself Irish.  

Saint Patrick wrote a lot about his time in Ireland, and about all of the controversies and struggles involved.  However, since he was writing about himself, he was biased.  Other writings cast him in a stricter, harsher light, and claimed that he accepted gifts only from female converts, although Patrick claimed that he accepted no gifts, and that he paid special attention to his female converts.  The truth is probably somewhere in the middle.  

One twelfth century story claims that Saint Patrick met two ancient warriors of the Fianna.  According to legend Patrick tried to convert them to Christianity and in doing so the story compares the two lifestyles: pagan warrior, and peaceful Christian.  

Saint Patrick's Grave

St. Patrick’s Grave in Downpatrick

When Saint Patrick died, on March 17, there was a battle for his body.  When the two groups who wanted the body for themselves arrived to fight, the river flooded, and when it subsided, they worked out their differences and each went away believing that they had won.  According to legend, the flood and subsequent peaceful resolution was the direct work of God.  

Along with Saint Brigid, Saint Patrick is considered one of the patron saints of Ireland and the Irish people both in Ireland and abroad.  

For further reading about St. Patrick, click here.

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