Just who was St Patrick?

by Marese Farrell

March 17, St Patrick’s Day, and all over the world people are celebrating Ireland’s patron saint. But, just who was St Patrick?

His full name was Magonus Sucatus Patricius, and he was a Briton. To give the date of his birth is not easy, but it was probably near the end of the fourth century – 380AD. He was brought up in the latter days of the Roman occupation.

He was born into a family of some means and social standing. His father owned a villa and estate near the west coast of Britain. His name was Calpurnius and he was a ‘deacon’ in the church. He also held an official position associated with the Roman administration. His native tongue was an old Celtic language, of which the present-day Welsh is a modified form. Being among the privileged classes, he would also have been familiar with Latin.

Although his father was a deacon, there does not appear to have been a strong religious influence in the family home and Patrick was a fairly undisciplined youth. His life changed drastically when he was sixteen, when a party of Irish raiders descended onto the estate; and Patrick was captured and shipped across the sea to a life of slavery in Ireland.

As they headed back across the sea, little did the pagan raiders know that, centuries later, the name of one of the captives sitting in the bottom of the boat would be a household word, better-known than any of the Emperors of Rome. By the time Patrick reached Ireland, he was near to the point of collapse, having suffered hunger, nakedness and ill-treatment. Upon his arrival in Ireland, he was sold and spent the next six years as a slave working as a herdsman, tending sheep on the dramatic mountains in Co Antrim, or possibly in Co Mayo, in the service of his master who – tradition has it – was a druid.

Over that six years, his faith in God grew and he prayed for divine help every day. His prayers were answered one night, as he lay in his straw bed. He had a dream, in which he heard a voice telling him it was time for him to return home; he was to go to the coast and catch a boat to Britain. The next evening, Patrick set off on foot to walk the two-hundred miles to the coast. Once there, he sought out sailors but all his requests for passage were vigorously rejected. As he walked along the shore, he started praying, and the next sailor he asked for passage said yes. Soon, he was saying farewell to the shores of Ireland.

As soon as Patrick got home, he entered the church, as his father – Calpurnius – had done before him. After his theological studies were complete, he became a deacon and was ordained as a bishop by St Germanus, the Bishop of Auxerre.

In 429, the question arose of sending a Bishop to Ireland. Patrick’s name was turned down, apparently, after the indiscretions of his youth were revealed; and Palladius was sent instead.

It was around this time that Patrick had another dream: this time of the people of Ireland calling him back to their homeland. In one of two surviving letters accredited to St Patrick, he wrote: “They cried out as with one voice; we appeal to you holy servant boy, to come and walk among us.” Patrick decided to return to Ireland soon after that dream, only to find on his arrival that Palladius was dead. Returning to Britain, Patrick was consecrated Bishop of Ireland. He was soon back in Ireland to take up his responsibilities, and settled as a missionary in Slane, Co Meath, in 433.

Patrick soon set about converting the princes of many small states into which Ireland was divided at that time. He recruited many of his new clergy from the ranks of the young nobility. His task of converting all of Ireland was fraught with difficulty, as there was opposition not only from the old druidic tradition, but also from some elements of the ruling classes. He was sensitive to local customs, having lived for six years in captivity. But, as a foreigner, his position was not an easy one. His refusal to accept gifts from those in power placed him outside Irish society.

For the next 40 years, he evangelised all over Ireland, reaching out to both Kings and their lowly subjects. This astonishing missionary work was given the official seal of approval by Pope Leo I.

There are a number of legends concerning Patrick and his work in Ireland. One has it that he met an Irish chieftain once, who tried to kill him, but he was overcome by the power of God and quickly converted to Christianity. On another occasion he wrote of having been beaten, robbed of all he had and put in chains. Another act occurred when an Irish local asked for an explanation of the Holy Trinity – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Thinking on his feet, Patrick reached down and picked up a shamrock. Its three leaves proved the perfect example of how three entities could exist as one whole. The wild plant has been a symbol of Ireland ever since.

St Patrick’s other famous deed was to banish all the snakes from Ireland. All saints are said to have had divine powers, but most historians agree that St Patrick probably did not achieve this great feat. In many pagan religions, serpent symbols were common and often worshipped. Driving the snakes from Ireland was probably symbolic of putting an end to pagan practices.

There are various accounts of St Patrick’s death, but the most widely-accepted record is that he died at Downpatrick, Co Down, on March 17, in 470AD.

The modern secular holiday is based on the original saint’s feast day – on the date of St Patrick’s death. It was centuries before the first ‘modern’ St Patrick’s Day was celebrated. In 1737, Irish immigrants in New England began observing the holiday publicly, in Boston. The first St Patrick’s Day Parade was held in New York, in 1762.

Today, St Patrick’s Day is celebrated by people of all backgrounds in Ireland, the United States, Canada, Australia and even in Japan!

**This story was first printed in Ireland’s Eye, March 2011**

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