Who was Saint Patrick? Was he a real person? Children are told "Saint Patrick wore a green suit, talked to leprechans, and while trying to convert the pagans with a shamrock, he marched all the snakes out of Ireland." 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 six years in slavery, he said 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. Imagine that! He took off and walked about 200 miles because of a dream! Amazing. Even more amazing was that he found the ship, and though he had to finagle his way aboard, he successfully escaped, and spent the next 20 years of his life as a monk in Marmoutier Abbey. There he once again reported receiving a celestial visitation, calling him to return to the land where he’d been enslaved, though now with a mission as a priest and converter.
Patricius was called to Rome in 432, where Pope Celestine bequeathed the honour of Bishop upon him before he left on his mission.
Patricius returned to Ireland not alone, but with 24 supporters and followers. They arrived in Ireland in the winter of 432. In the spring, Patricius decided to confront the high King of Tara, the most powerful King in Ireland. Patricius believed that if he had the King's support, he would be free to take his Christian message to the people of Ireland.
Patricius 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 to explain to the Druids and the King the concept of 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. The Trinity is a universal principle, though does not seem to have been a part of the earliest Judeo-Christian teachings. Regardless, King Laoghaire was impressed with Patricius. He chose to accept Christianity, and gave Patricius the “green light” to spread Christianity throughout Ireland.
When Patricius 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. 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 symbols and beliefs into his Christian teachings.
Patricius 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. There was none of the “convert or die” hard-sell that was so common elsewhere. Patricius’ work ended slavery, human sacrifice, and most intertribal warfare in Ireland.
Patricius 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, Patricius' influence extended far beyond his adopted land. Cahill's book, which could just as well be titled How St. Patrick Saved Civilization, contends that Patricius' conversion of Ireland allowed Western learning to survive the Dark Ages. Ireland pacified as the rest of Europe crumbled. Patricius' 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, says Cahill, a candle still burned in Ireland – the candle that was lit by Patricius.
Veneration of Patricius gradually assumed the status of a local cult. He was not simply remembered in Saul and Downpatrick, but he was worshipped. Indeed, homage to Patricius as Ireland's saint was apparent in the eight century AD. By then, Patricius had achieved the status as a national apostle, completely independent of Rome. He was regarded locally as a saint before the practice of canonization was introduced by the Vatican. The high regard in which the Irish have held St Patricius is evidenced by the salutation, still common today, of "May God, Mary, and Patrick bless you".
Patricius was not Irish, had nothing to do with leprechauns, almost certainly was not a drunkard who drank green beer, and didn't drive snakes out of Ireland. In fact, there were no native snakes in Ireland -- that story is believed to be an analogy for driving out the so-called “pagans,” or, at least, the pagan religions.
Patricius 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. He deserves our accurate memory. Yet, unfortunately, as we should all have learned by now, all of history’s true Saviors are either killed off, or relegated to the closet of ridicule.
[Christopher Nyerges is the author of several books, such as Enter the Forest and 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]