As Monday marks the annual celebration of St. Patrick’s Day, it’s fitting that we revisit some of the largely forgotten details of the man and his myth. While most people probably associate Saint Patrick with the legend of driving the snakes out of Ireland, the facts of his life would be equally compelling without the slithering egress.
The first thing to know about him is his national origin. He wasn’t Irish. Scholars aren’t certain but, he was born either in Roman occupied England or Scotland during the last years of the fourth century.
His name was probably Maewyn Succat. Romanized, Maewyn becomes Patricius (Patrick). As is the tradition in the Catholic church, a saint’s festival day marks their death, not their birth. In Patrick’s case that took place around March 17, 460 AD.
While it might make a better story if his family were devoutly religious, it seems that was not the case. Rather, his father is thought to have become a Christian deacon because of certain tax advantages.
At age 16, Patrick was kidnapped by a group of Irish raiders who attacked his family’s estate. They took him to Ireland where he spent six years in captivity. There is some dispute over the location, but historians think he was held in County Mayo near Killala. During his captivity (i.e. enslavement), he worked as a shepherd, out and away from people. Lonely and afraid, he found solace in religious reflection. It is during this time that his commitment to Christianity was cemented.
After more than six years in captivity, Patrick managed to escape. He later wrote that a voice — which he believed to be God’s, spoke to him in a dream, commanding him to leave Ireland. To do so, Patrick walked nearly 200 miles from County Mayo to the Irish coast. Escaping to Britain, Patrick reported a second revelation. An angel came to him in a dream telling him to return to Ireland as a missionary.
Moved by this vision, Patrick began a course of religious training that lasted more than 15 years. After his ordination, he was sent to Ireland with a mission to minister to Christians living there and to convert the pagan Irish.
Although there were a small number of Christians on the island when Patrick arrived, most Irish practiced a nature-centered pagan religion. Because his time in captivity gave him a familiarity with Irish language and custom, Patrick was able to reach a broad audience. In his teachings he melded traditional Irish beliefs and folkways with Christian practices. Instead of just trying to eradicate native Irish beliefs, he knew that cooptation of familiar symbols and rituals would make conversion easier for the Irish.
Two interesting examples of this are the use of bonfires and the Celtic cross. He used bonfires to celebrate Easter since the Irish were already accustomed to honoring their gods with fires. Likewise, he superimposed the sun, a prominent symbol in pagan Irish beliefs, onto the Christian cross. What resulted is now known as a Celtic cross.
Then as now, Irish culture is centered around a rich tradition of oral legend and myth. As such, it’s no surprise the story of Patrick’s life became exaggerated across the centuries. The most enduring example of this is the legend with which most people associate St. Patrick, the driving of snakes from the Emerald Isle. That apocryphal tale aside, Patrick’s historical influence is perhaps more important. Having escaped slavery only to return and help his captors, his story is one of forgiveness, charity and compassion. While green beer, leprechauns and shamrocks may be more popular St. Patrick’s Day images, the man rather than the legend is more profound.