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Who Was St. Patrick?

Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

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Irish communities around the world celebrate St. Patrick’s Day with street parties and parades.

All around the world where there is an Irish community (and even in places where there is not!) there will be a parade where the buildings and streets are turned green for the day, and floats and carnivals line the street. Often taking place during the Six Nations Championship, it’s also a time for Irish rugby fans to be more colourful and vociferous than ever. But what of the man? Who was St. Patrick and why is he the Patron Saint of Ireland?

The Man

Most of what we know of the man comes from two original documents that he penned. These documents are vital for understanding what we know about the early church and the state of Ireland in the fifth century when he was alive. These are Declaration and Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus. The former is a biography and contains some details of his life, but not a great deal. Other details come from later sources such as the Irish Annals. These are considered with caution even amongst historians of the early Christian Church because they were written much later and often paraphrase each other.

The details of his own writing give only minor details about the time of his life – an early 5th century birth is about the best we can state under the circumstances. We know he was born in Roman Britain during the last years of the Empire, probably around the time the final legions were being withdrawn (408-410). Between the age of 14 and 16, Irish pirates abducted him from his home and enslaved him on the Emerald Isle. It is in these years that it is said his spiritual awareness grew. After six years in captivity, he records that he heard a voice that told him he would be going home soon.

The Saint

Not waiting for divine intervention, he escaped and travelled 200 miles, eventually getting passage on a ship. They disembarked in wilderness, probably in some remote part of the British mainland. By this time, his faith was strong and he promised the men that help would come. When they came upon a boar, their faith in Patrick was restored and he saw this as further sign of divine calling. Back home, his faith and his interest in the Christian Church grew further over the next few years. He spent his days learning as much as he could and eventually received a vision. He described the vision in his Declaration as a man named Victorious who looked as though he had come from Ireland. In the image, the man gave him many letters – one of which implored him to return to Ireland, referring to him as a “holy servant boy”. Many observers feel this may have been Saint Victricius, an early French Bishop.

Here his association with the Christian Church in Ireland began. He became a missionary and returned to the Emerald Isle, arriving at what today is Wicklow. In those seminal few months he baptised many people, refusing to take gifts and payment for the holy acts; he ordained priests and converted many of the well to do in Ireland, effectively establishing the church’s presence in the country.

St. Patrick’s Traditions

St. Patrick’s mission in IrelandSt Patrick's Day 3_careco was not all easy for him. Many locals were mistrusting of this foreigner who came from across the Irish Sea to ordain priests and accept a Bishopric. In his defence, he summed up many occasions where he had refused payment for baptism and turned away expensive gifts. His only desire was to Christianise Ireland and he pointed to his relative poverty and lack of personal gain from his pious acts.

Due to the scant information we have about Patrick, we do not even know for certain the date of his death but it is celebrated on 17th March nonetheless. He is credited with banishing all snakes from Ireland – snakes being a symbol of the devil – and for introducing the Shamrock as a holy symbol of the Irish. In a parable, he discussed how the common Irish plant had come to represent the three persons in the one God of Christianity: The Father, The Son and the Holy Spirit. Amongst his other miracles (as in order to become a saint, holy men and women must have been recorded as having performed miracles) it is said that his walking stick grew into a tree.