He was the son of a Roman official, probably born sometime between the years 390 and 420. Legend gives his homeland as Taruanna (now spelled Thérouanne) which is in modern day France, but the settlement he lists as his home, Bannavem Taburniae, is now thought to have been somewhere in England or Wales. Whatever the case, he wasn’t from Ireland.
In his mid-teens, Patrick was captured by Irish raiders and brought to Ireland where he was sold into slavery and worked as a shepherd for six years. Then he escaped. Divine guidance in a dream is said to have led him to a ship that took him back to Roman settlements on the continent. Legend has it that he spent some time studying in a monastery near Marseilles.
And then legend says that just as a dream led him away from Ireland, another dream led him back. According to the story, in the dream, the pagan people of Ireland implored him to return and teach them about Christianity.
So he did.
Although St. Patrick left written records of his missionary work in Ireland in his Confession, most of what is popularly celebrated about the man is legend, like the dreams. The best known is the tale of his use of the shamrock to teach converts about the trinity. The Father, Son and Holy Spirit were shown to be three parts of the one God just as the three leaves are part of the same plant. It’s a great story, a beautiful analogy and it made the green shamrock the universal symbol of both St Patrick and Ireland itself.
Unfortunately, there is no evidence that Patrick ever even looked at a shamrock. He makes no mention of it in the writings he left behind, the Confessions and Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus and stories about Patrick date from many years after his death, traditionally said to be on March 17.
Another famous legend tells the tale of how St. Patrick drove the snakes out of Ireland. That story has only symbolic significance. Snakes had not existed on the island since it split from the main continent of Europe sometime during the last ice age. But by spreading Christianity, St. Patrick could be said to have helped expel the serpents that were part of the pagan religions of Ireland or even symbolic of the devil himself.
St. Patrick helped to spread Christianity to Ireland, he did not introduce the religion to the island. Pope Celestine sent the bishop Palladius to minister to existing Christians in Ireland a year before Patrick made his return in 432.
So why do we celebrate a day devoted to Patrick instead of Palladius?
By all evidence, Patrick was a tireless worker and probably a very charismatic leader as well. While he didn’t introduce the Christian religion to Ireland, he is considered the founder of the church on the island. And he used some interesting methods to make Christianity popular.
In a future post, I’ll discuss some of those methods, along with characteristics of the Celtic faith he sought to supplant. Did you know that priests in Ireland were allowed to marry?
Maybe that’s why everyone wants to be Irish!
As they say in Ireland, “Happy Patrick’s Day!”