Who was St. Patrick?
Unless you’ve been living under a (sham)rock your entire life, you’ll have heard of St. Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland. But what more do we know about him other than something about snakes, wearing lots of green clothing, and drinking Guinness?
Truth be told, Guinness came many years after St. Patrick (Arthur Guinness’ world-famous brew started production in 1759 when he signed a 9,000 year lease on St. James’ Gate Brewery—you gotta hand it to him, he knew what he was doing!). It’s the most famous alcoholic drink to come out of Ireland, which makes it the perfect choice to be considered the national drink of Ireland.
And wearing green? That’s actually an American tradition that started, coincidentally, around the same time as Arthur was filling his barrels in Dublin. It was thought that wearing green would make you invisible to the leprechauns who would try to steal you if then could find you (because everyone knows leprechauns are colour-blind, right?)
But what about the snakes?
Actually, that’s also a myth. When Ireland was separated from Britain around 14,000 BC, reptiles hadn’t made it across to the Emerald Isle from the main continent. So by the time St. Patrick arrived in Ireland, there were no snakes. It has been likened to St. Patrick converting the Irish Celtic pagans to Christianity, driving out the “snakes” of paganism and replacing it with Christianity.
Okay, so he wasn’t a snake-killing, green-wearing, Guinness-drinking badass. But who exactly was he?
Separating Fact from Fiction
There are many myths that surround the life of St. Patrick, from the snakes we’ve already mentioned, to his magic fire that could not be put out, and, of course, his use of the shamrock plant to illustrate the Holy Trinity.
The shamrock, a three-leafed plant that grows in abundance across Ireland, was used, it is said, by St. Patrick to show that God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Ghost are three elements of the one entity. This story first appeared in the early 18th century, more than 1,000 years after the life of Patrick. There isn’t any evidence that the shamrock was sacred to the Irish Celts, but it is certainly clear that the number three was of great significance, which will have aided Patrick’s conversion efforts.
Thanks to his own writings (The Confession of St. Patrick) and other historical accounts, what we know is this: his name was Patricius (which gives us Pátraic or Pádraig in Irish), and he was previously enslaved and made to work in Ireland before he escaped and returned to Britain.
BORN IN: ROMAN BRITAIN
FATHER’S NAME: CALPURNIUS
ARRIVED IN IRELAND: c. 432
ENSLAVED FOR: 6 YEARS
KNOWN WRITINGS: CONFESSIO and LETTER TO THE SOLDIERS OF COROTICUS
In his Confession text, he writes that he was enslaved by a group of Irish raiders who took him to Ireland (at the age of 16) where he was held captive for six years. It was during this time that he “heard the voice of God” and he became an active believer.
A voice told him that a ship was ready for him, and he travelled to the coast and escaped Ireland.
A few years later, having continued to work towards a Christian life, Patrick is said to have had a vision of an Irish man (Victoricus) bringing to him a number of letters, and he heard the voice of the Irish people saying, “We appeal to you, holy servant boy, to come and walk among us.”
It was then that Patrick returned to Ireland as a Christian missionary.
It is generally written that he arrived in Ireland in the year AD 432, but his own writings aren’t specific on dates beyond being in the 5th century.
St. Patrick continued to spread his Christian teachings after his return to Ireland, and is said to have baptised thousands of pagan Celts, successfully converting them to Christianity.
This is just a brief overview of St. Patrick. If you want more information, you can read the following works.
“Saint Patrick’s World: The Christian Culture of Ireland’s Apostolic Age”
De Paor, Liam
Four Courts Press, 1993
“Saint Patrick Retold”
Princeton University Press; 2019