Saint Patrick, the man behind the holiday

Saint Patrick is well known as a patron saint of Ireland. So many legends surround his life that the truth is not easily found, however it is known that he was neither Irish nor ever formally canonised. He is believed to have been born to Calpurnius (a Roman civil servant and deacon in the Church) and Conchessa, around 375 CE in Scotland, at the time when it was part of the western outpost of the crumbling Roman Empire. His parents named him Maewyn Succat.

It is said that, as an adolescent, he had little discipline and even less interest in school. He was rebellious against God and disobeyed the priests, likely embarrassing his grandfather, who was also a priest. Later in life, he often mentioned his lack of skill with Latin, which hindered him in his work as a priest,

As a teenager, he was kidnapped by Irish Sea raiders who were pillaging Britain’s western coasts. Their technique was to stretch nets between their boats, which they beached on the shore, then drive the hapless locals into the nets, capturing them and then transferring them to the ships, which would transport these new slaves to their owners. When they reached Ireland, Patrick was enslaved and made to work as a shepherd. During the many hours he spent alone, his thoughts began to turn to God and he began to pray for the first time, but without much conviction.

Away from home and family, and feeling the pain of loneliness, he began to experience visions and vivid dreams. God would appear in these visions and dreams, showing him the right way to live and to prepare for the future.

Patrick had spent six years in captivity and had become fluent in the Irish language when he heard a voice telling him that a ship was awaiting him. Despite the coast being more than 200 miles away, he made the journey and boarded a ship whose captain took pity on him and gave him free passage. History becomes less clear at this point in the story. Historians have suggested he went to Wales, Cornwall or even Gaul, as France was known at the time. Although there is some evidence supporting his presence in France, the question remains unresolved. He studied for the priesthood – it’s not known exactly where – and was ordained with the name Magonus Succatus Patricius.

About 432 CE — driven by his desire to convert the native pagans to Christianity — he returned to Ireland. There are many legends about exactly how and with whom he carried out his mission, but the only written, factual documents we have today are the ones he himself wrote: The Confessio and the Letter to Coroticus. These writing reveal a Patrick quite unlike today’s legend of a fearless man, one with supernatural powers he used against Druids, turn men into animals, remove fish from rivers and convert pagans to Christians with ease. Patrick was, instead, a humble man, a missionary who struggled with his faith and was often in fear of his life.

For 40 years, Saint Patrick preached and converted all over Ireland. It is said that Ireland was converted to Christianity in 432. As with the rest of the legend, there is debate about the time and place of his death, but most historians believe he died on 17 March 460 at Saul, Downpatrick.

After his death, Irish clans began to argue over who should have the honour of being the location of his final resting place. Seeking to prevent this sacrilegious and petty end to his life, his friends spirited away his body and buried it in a secret grave. There is a permanent memorial to Saint Patrick in Downpatrick, and many believe this is where his body rests.

Though Patrick was neither Irish nor ever formally canonised (there was no formal canonisation process in the Catholic Church at the time), he is the patron saint of Ireland, and the influence of his feast day has spread across the world, with parades, parties, Irish music concerts, and even green beer. Today, Irish people, the sons and daughters of the Irish Diaspora, and those wishing to share a bit of the Irish spirit, celebrate the memory and legend of Saint Patrick and Irish culture. We invite you to do so too!

We leave you with this simple Irish blessing and the hope that it will come true for you this year:

May your troubles be less

And your blessings be more.

And nothing but happiness

Come through your door.

Happy Saint Patrick’s Day!

Image: Rosa Pitt