Snaking through Irish history

Today we celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. While the popular tale has him running the snakes out of Ireland, that aspect of his life is more a metaphor for what we know he actually did — supplanting Ireland’s dominant pagan traditions with mass conversions to Christianity. Perhaps the most interesting thing about Ireland’s patron saint is the fact that he wasn’t Irish.

He was born to Calpurnius and Conchessa, who were Romans living in Britain. Depending upon which source one consults, he was born either in Roman England or Scotland around 385 AD. His birth name was probably Maewyn Succat. Patricius (Patrick) is the Romanized version of it. The holiday celebrated on March 17 commemorates his death around 460 AD.

There is no evidence Patrick came from a particularly devout family. While they were Christians — his father was a church deacon — there is evidence that Calpurnius’ piety stemmed from certain local tax advantages.

Rather, it appears that Patrick’s devotion arose as a consequence of grave personal hardship. At age 16, he was taken prisoner by a group of Irish raiders who attacked his family’s estate. They took him to Ireland where he spent six years in captivity.

During his captivity, he worked as a shepherd, out and away from people. He was lonely and afraid, and it is during this time he became a devout Christian. Of this time he wrote, “The love of God and his fear grew in me more and more, as did the faith, and my soul was rosed, so that, in a single day, I have said as many as a hundred prayers and in the night, nearly the same… I felt no hurt from the snow or ice or rain.”

After more than six years as a prisoner, Patrick escaped his captors. 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. He was ordained by St. Germanus, the Bishop of Auxerre, under whom he had studied for years. After ordination, he was sent to Ireland with a mission to minister to Christians living there and to convert the pagan Irish.

While there were a small number of Irish Christians on the island when Patrick arrived, most 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. Cleverly, he melded traditional Irish beliefs and folkways with Christian practices — instead of just trying to eradicate native Irish beliefs. One of the most enduring confluences is the Celtic cross — a Christian cross with the sun (a prominent symbol in pagan Irish beliefs) superimposed upon it.

Owing to his deft integration of native traditions with Christian theology, Patrick’s mission work was extremely successful. This can be measured not just by his direct impact, but by that of his disciples. Among the most notable were Beningnus, Auxilius, Iserninus, and Fiaac, all of whom were later canonized.

Then as now, Irish culture is centered around a rich tradition of legend and myth. Accordingly, it’s no surprise that Patrick’s life was a tale that grew in the telling. As a consequence, the legend with which most people associate St. Patrick is the driving of snakes from Ireland. 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.