Who Was Saint Patrick?

Who Was Saint Patrick?

Everyone's Irish on Saint Paddy's Day, but who was Saint Patrick? Why celebrate him?

“The Saints were not superhuman. They were people who loved God in their hearts, and who shared this joy with others.”Pope Francis1

On March 17, people around the world gather to watch parades and toast to good health. Music is played, food and drink are dyed green, and everyone wears the same color—woe to the person caught without green somewhere on their body!

Of course, I’m talking about Saint Patrick’s Day, which honors the life and accomplishments of—you guessed it—Saint Patrick. But who was this fellow who incites more celebration than Saint Valentine and whose holiday instigates arguably more inebriation than Mardi Gras?

Early Life and Captivity

Saint Patrick was born during a time of immense world change. During the last century before his birth around 385 AD, the great Roman Empire—which had dominated the Western world for nearly five hundred years—was inching closer to the verge of collapse. Germanic tribes had made small incursions along the northeastern border of the empire and were itching to conquer and settle the luscious lands on the other side of the Rhine.2

In fact, in 410 AD, Saint Patrick and his contemporary Saint Augustine, one of the most influential church fathers, would hear of the sack of Rome—the seat of church and military power—by those same Germanic tribes. Needless to say, Saint Patrick lived in one of the most tumultuous times in history; uncertainty and fear were the order of the day.

Born in Scotland, Patrick grew up as the son of the local decurion (deacon), which was one of the most influential political positions in a Roman town.3 Sometime between ages fourteen and sixteen, Patrick was captured by an Irish raiding party, taken to Ireland, and sold as a slave. Patrick himself considered this to be righteous punishment for past sins, stating, “I had neglected the true God, and when I was carried off into captivity in Ireland . . . it was well deserved.”4

During his forced enslavement, while tending sheep in the hills of Ireland, Patrick began to pray both night and day and felt himself growing closer to God. When Patrick was about twenty, he was instructed in a dream to flee his master and head to the sea, where a ship would be waiting to take him home. Patrick fled and traveled many miles to the sea, where—on the same day he arrived—a ship had fortuitously docked. Patrick was accepted by the crew and, after six years in captivity, was on his way home.5

Transformation Into a Missionary

Shortly after Patrick returned home to his family and England, he had another vision. This time a messenger named Victorious presented him with many letters from the “Voice of the Irish,” imploring Patrick to come and minister to them.6

Patrick immediately left home in order to study in France. Once he became ordained as a bishop, he returned to Ireland in 432 to begin his ministry, which would last for around thirty years.7 During this time, Patrick traveled much of Ireland, converting poor and rich, denying gifts from kings, and living akin to the twelve disciples of Christ. 

In one of his sermons, Saint Patrick famously used the abundance of clovers that blanketed Ireland to illustrate the elusive nature of the Trinity. He explained to his listeners that one leaf represents the Holy Spirit, one Jesus the Son, and one God the Father—but they are all three a part of the same clover.8

Another legend attributed to Saint Patrick is his expulsion of all the snakes from Ireland. However, evidence points to there being no snakes in Ireland after the end of the Ice Age; the closest contenders of animals that fit the bill are certain sea serpents. A prevalent theory is that the expulsion of snakes is thought to represent, symbolically, the supplanting of druidism and the Druids by Christianity through Saint Patrick.9 Supporting this theory is the fact that the Druid priests of the Celtic religion had intricate tattoos all over their bodies, which often included depictions of snakes.   

After ministering to Ireland for forty years, creating converts and starting churches along the way, Saint Patrick died on March 17, 461 AD. He died at Saul, where he had founded his first church in Ireland.10

Saint Patrick’s Legacy

Saint Patrick’s legacy has two sides: one very visible and well known and one that is more incidental but quite fortuitous and no less important. This fortuitous legacy is rooted in the churches founded by Saint Patrick. These created a solid foundation on which nearly the whole of Ireland was converted to Christianity. After Saint Patrick’s death, more and more churches, convents, and monasteries began to dot the landscape.

Because of their distance from what was considered the civilized world (Rome), the Irish were relatively untouched by the invading Germanic peoples who swept across the Western Roman Empire in the fifth century. The Irish became gathers of knowledge and hungered for writings on any subject. Irish monks grew famous for collecting, translating, and transcribing vast amounts of books, from the Bible to works by Plato, Homer, and Cicero.11

When a band of raiders known as the Northmen began to pillage along the coasts of Ireland, Britain, and France, ushering in the Viking Age, these depositories of knowledge helped preserve a large portion of Western literature. Thus the Irish were inadvertently responsible for the Renaissance, which came out of the rediscovery of these ancient works and can be directly attributed to Saint Patrick and his mission to bring Christianity to Ireland.

The second and more overt legacy is the celebration that occurs on Saint Patrick’s Day. Throughout the world, Irish and non-Irish alike gather together to revel in many a sláinte, beer, and shout of “Erin go bragh.”12

But March 17 is a day to celebrate not only everything Irish culture has given and continues to give to the world but also to remember a humble boy who was kidnapped from his home, transformed by his relationship with God, and guided back to the land of his captors in order to bring Christianity to a people he loved.