[Christopher Nyerges is author of several books, such as Extreme Simplicity: Homesteading in the City (co-author), and How to Survive Anywhere. He has led wilderness expeditions since 1974. He can be reached at Box 41834, Eagle Rock, CA 90041 or via ChristopherNyerges.com]
On the 17th of this month, we celebrate “Saint Patrick’s Day,” that day when people pinch each other if they’re not wearing green, when Trader Joe’s starts selling little potted shamrocks, and where the local bars sell green beer. But what’s this really all about?
First, a little wake-up call about “Saint Patrick.” Patrick was not Irish, had nothing to do with leprechauns, almost certainly was not a drunkard, and didn't drive all the snakes out of Ireland. In fact, there were believed to be no native snakes in Ireland, though this story is generally regarded as an analogy for driving out the so-called “pagans,” or, at least, the pagan religions.
Patrick was one of the "greats" of history who nearly single-handedly preserved the best of Western culture when much of Europe was devolving into chaos and ruin. He deserves far better than remembering him in the silly ways we do today, such as wearing green, pinching each other, and getting drunk. Rather, he deserves an accurate memory, and our emulation. Unfortunately, like all true Saviors of history, they are either killed off, or relegated to the closet of ridicule.
So who exactly was Saint Patrick? Will the real Saint Patrick please stand up?
His real name was Maewyn Succat, born around 385 A.D., somewhere in Scotland, or possibly somewhere else, as there is conflicting historical data on his exact date and place of birth. His baptismal name was Patricius.
Around age 16, he was sold into slavery in Ireland and worked for the next 6 years as a shepherd. Keep in mind that human slavery, as well as human sacrifice, was considered “normal” for those times.
After his six years in slavery, he believed that an angel came to him in a dream, prompting him to escape and seek out his homeland. He actually walked about 200 miles to the coast, where his dream indicated a ship would also be waiting for him. He successfully escaped, found the ship he dreamed about, and spent the next twenty years of his life as a monk in Marmoutier Abbey. There he again received a celestial visitation, this time calling him to return to the land where he’d been enslaved, though now with a mission as a priest and converter.
Patrick was called to Rome in 432, where Pope Celestine made Patrick a Bishop, and sent him off on his mission.
Patrick returned to Ireland with 24 supporters and followers. They arrived in the winter of 432. In the spring, Patrick decided to confront the high King of Tara, the most powerful King in Ireland. Patrick knew that if he had the King's support, he would be free to take his Christian message to the people of Ireland.
Patrick and his followers were invited to Tara by the King of Laoghaire. It was there that he was said to have plucked a shamrock from the ground as he tried to explain to the Druids and the King that the shamrock had three leaves just like the idea of God’s three aspects, the Trinity: The Father, The Son and the Holy Ghost.
Of course, triads and trinities were a common concept among the Druids. In fact, one could argue that the trinity (a term not found in the Bible) was a concept given to Christianity by the Druids, rather than the other way around. Nevertheless, whatever momentousness Patrick conveyed, King Laoghaire was very impressed with Patrick, and chose to accept Christianity. He also gave Patrick the freedom to spread Christianity throughout Ireland.
When Patrick returned to Ireland, he treated the "pagans" with the respect implicit in his dream. Part of this respect was attempting to communicate with the Druids on their terms, which is why he used the shamrock as a teaching tool. He also blended the Christian cross with the circle to create what is now known as the Celtic cross. He used bonfires to celebrate Easter, a Holy Day that Christianity supplanted with the already-existing spring equinox commemoration. In fact, he incorporated many of the existing “old religion” symbols and beliefs into his Christian teachings.
He spent his last 30 years in Ireland, baptizing the non-Christian Irish, ordaining priests, and founding churches and monasteries. His persuasive powers must have been astounding, since Ireland fully converted to Christianity within 200 years and was the only country in Europe to Christianize peacefully. Patrick's Christian conversion ended slavery, human sacrifice, and most intertribal warfare in Ireland.
Patrick was also unique in that he equally valued the role of women in an age when the church ignored them. He always sided with the downtrodden and the excluded, whether they were slaves or the “pagan” Irish.
According to Thomas Cahill, author of How the Irish Saved Civilization, Patrick's influence extended far beyond his adopted land. Cahill's book, which could just as well be titled How St. Patrick Saved Civilization, contends that Patrick's conversion of Ireland allowed Western learning to survive the Dark Ages. Ireland pacified and churchified as the rest of Europe crumbled. Patrick's monasteries copied and preserved classical texts. Later, Irish monks returned this knowledge to Europe by establishing monasteries in England, Germany, France, Switzerland, and Italy. When the lights went out all over Europe, a candle still burned in Ireland. That candle was lit by Patrick.
Veneration of Patrick gradually assumed the status of a local cult. He was not simply remembered in Saul and Downpatrick, he was worshipped! Indeed, homage to Patrick as Ireland's saint was apparent in the eight century AD. At this time Patrick's status as a national apostle was made independently of Rome. He was claimed locally as a saint before the practice of canonization was introduced by the Vatican. The high regard in which the Irish have held St Patrick is evidenced by the salutation, still common today, of "May God, Mary, and Patrick bless you".