St. Patrick

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St. Patrick

Born c. 396

Died c. 459

Roman-Irish saint

P atron saint of Ireland, St. Patrick remains one of the Middle Ages' most well-known saints, thanks in large part to the wild celebrations on his festival day on March 17. Wherever there are sons and daughters of Ireland—as in America, a country with far more people of Irish heritage than Ireland itself—there is plenty of merry-making on St. Patrick's Day.

Yet it might astound many to learn, first of all, that Patrick was not Irish; rather, he was a missionary, a religious teacher sent to people in a foreign land, from Roman-controlled Britain. Nor was he a particularly jolly figure, despite all the fun associated with his day. Furthermore, many of the feats attributed to him—for instance, driving all the snakes out of Ireland—are the product of medieval legend-making, not fact.

Sold into slavery

Patrick, or Patricius, was the son of Calpurnius, a minor Roman nobleman in Britain. Rome had controlled that island, whose people were of Celtic origin, for about four centuries when Patrick was born. He lived at a time before the Roman Catholic Church had declared that its priests could not marry, and in fact his grandfather was a priest. Patrick's family were Christians, but as a boy he did not care much about religious matters, preferring to devote himself to pleasure. Then his life changed completely.

At the age of sixteen, Patrick was kidnapped by pirates, who carried him across the sea to the neighboring island of Ireland. There he was sold into slavery and forced to tend sheep. In his loneliness, he turned to prayer, and later wrote in his Confessions: "The love of God came to me more and more, and my faith was strengthened. My spirit was moved so that in a single day I would say as many as a hundred prayers, and almost as many in the night."

It was Patrick's belief that he had been enslaved as punishment from God. This was a common Christian idea, reflecting concepts from the Bible—for instance, the enslavement of the Israelites by the Babylonians, which the Hebrew prophets explained was a consequence of forsaking God. And just as he believed that God had caused his enslavement, Patrick at age twenty-two believed that God had called on him to escape from slavery.

Escape and return to Britain

In Patrick's Confessions, one of the few reliable sources about his life, he reported that one night he had a dream in which he was told to escape and return home. He crossed many miles to get to the Irish coast, he wrote, and there talked his way on to a ship bound for Britain. After three days of sailing, the ship landed, and the travelers journeyed for twenty-eight days through "wilderness" without finding any food.

Though the Confessions contains far fewer stories of miraculous occurrences than do later chronicles of Patrick's life, in some cases it is difficult to make sense of claims he made in the book. An example of this is the part about wandering for four weeks. Both Britain and France (Gaul at that time) are too small to contain a wilderness big enough—even in the early 400s—that people could be lost in it for a month.

In any case, Patrick was finally reunited with his family, and would probably have never left them had it not been for another dream. In this second vision, he said, he was told by a man to go to Ireland and convert the Irish to Christianity. It is possible Patrick's story of his life was influenced by passages from the Bible. The Old Testament tells how the children of Israel under Moses' leadership wandered for forty years in a tiny desert between modern-day Egypt and Israel, and the New Testament contains an account of the Apostle Paul being visited in a dream by a man from Greece who asked him to teach the Greeks about Christianity.

Priest and missionary

Feeling that he had heard from God, Patrick began preparing for the priesthood. He may have studied under Germain, a celebrated French saint, in the town of Auxerre (oh-SUR). He then asked church leaders to authorize his going to Ireland as a missionary, and at first they were skeptical—in part, he later wrote, because he was not very well educated, despite his noble birth.

Patrick finally gained permission to go to Ireland as the church's representative. Contrary to popular belief, he was not the first missionary sent to the Irish. A few years earlier, in 431, a missionary named Palladius had gone there, but his success had been limited.

Ireland at that time was dominated by pagan religions that worshiped many gods, most of them associated with natural forces. In fact the word paganus in Latin means "country-side-dweller," a reflection of the fact that at that time, Christianity's strongest influence was in large cities such as Rome. Ireland was mostly countryside, and Patrick was one of the first missionaries anywhere in the Christian world to preach mainly to country people.

Challenges in Ireland

Perhaps taking his cue from the Apostle Paul, who had lived about four centuries earlier, Patrick never spoke out actively against slavery, despite the fact that he had been a slave. He saw his mission as primarily a spiritual rather than a political one. Nonetheless, he expressed concern for the slaves who converted to Christianity, because he knew that they were far more vulnerable to persecution for their faith.

A Gallery of Saints

The Middle Ages, as well as the late ancient period, produced literally thousands of figures who later became recognized as saints, Christians so devout that they served as a model to others. There were Roman Catholic saints such as Bernard of Clairvaux or Joan of Arc, and there were Eastern Orthodox saints such as Cyril and Methodius; then there were figures such as Augustine who were revered throughout the Christian world (see entries).

Some saints are particularly well known, primarily through popular legends that have little to do with the actual people themselves. Such is the case with St. Valentine, whose feast day on February 14 is even more well known than Patrick's on March 17. Perhaps these two events became so popular because they break up the dreariness of wintertime; in any case, the romantic associations of Valentine's Day have as little to do with the real St. Valentine as the feasting and drinking on St. Patrick's Day have to do with that saint.

There were at least three St. Valentines, one of whom lived in North Africa.

Of this one little is known, but slightly more information is available about the other two, one of whom was a priest in Rome, the other a bishop in another part of Italy (they may, in fact, have been a single person). Both—like their namesake in Africa—were martyred, or killed for their faith. The Roman priest seems to have died in 270, during persecutions under Emperor Claudius II. All three Valentines had feast days on February 14, when it was said that birds begin to pair off. There was also a pagan Roman custom associated with mid-February, whereby young men would draw the names of girls and pair up with them.

Then there is the saint associated with the most popular holiday of all: St. Nicholas, who as Santa Claus became a symbol of Christmas. In fact St. Nicholas was a bishop in Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey) during the late third century and early fourth century. The only possible link with Santa Claus is the fact that he was renowned for doing good deeds, and that he became a patron saint of children.

These characteristics led people in Western Europe to give gifts in his name at Christmastime, and eventually he was linked with a pagan figure from Scandinavia known as "Sint Klaes." During the nineteenth century, the Santa Claus legend began to take hold in America, where it bore almost no relation to the original St. Nicholas.

St. Nicholas also became one of the patron saints of Russia, along with St. Andrew. One version of the Russian flag used the cross of St. Andrew, a white X on a navy-blue field. This was also used by Scotland, which likewise claimed Andrew as a patron saint. Neighboring England's patron saint was George, and when these two countries were united as Great Britain in the early 1700s, the two saints' crosses helped form that nation's flag, the Union Jack.

The "real" St. George, like St. Nicholas, lived during the persecutions under Diocletian, the last Roman emperor before Constantine converted to Christianity in 312. It was said that George was a soldier beloved by Diocletian, but when he proudly announced the fact that he was a Christian, the emperor had him tortured and beheaded. Pictures of St. George typically show him in a classic medieval scene, as a knight slaying a dragon to rescue a lady. In Christian symbolism, however, this image has spiritual rather than romantic meaning: the dragon represents wickedness, and the lady stands for truth or the church.

Many Irish leaders at that time were hostile to the new faith, and at one point Patrick and others with him were seized and imprisoned by a group of local kings. They were released two weeks later, but some time afterward, Patrick managed to enrage the king of Tara. Patrick compared Tara, an Irish city, to Babylon, which was both the city where the Israelites were held captive for many years, and also a symbol of wickedness.

Tara had a pagan spring festival inaugurated each year by the king's lighting of a bonfire. However, one year the Christian holiday of Easter, commemorating Christ's death and resurrection, fell at the same time, and Patrick lit an Easter bonfire just before the king was supposed to light his. The king and his magicians, a later biographer wrote, went to attack Patrick, but the lead magician was suddenly pulled up into the air, then tossed to his death.

This miraculous and no doubt fictitious occurrence failed to stir the magicians, so Patrick engaged in a contest of miraculous powers with another magician. He triumphed, and the king of Tara made a half-hearted conversion to Christianity. The conversion became more sincere after the magician challenged one of Patrick's converts to another test, and failed miserably: according to this legend, both men were shut up in a house that was burned to the ground, and the Christian survived while the magician burned to death.

Patrick's writings

Whatever the truth of these stories, it appears certain that Patrick himself was subjected to a number of personal attacks. At some point in his youth, he confessed a past sin to a friend. It is not known what the sin was, but when the friend later had a falling-out with Patrick, he told a number of people about it, and this caused them to doubt Patrick's ability to lead Christians.

He wrote his Confessions in response to these accusations, and to claims that he had gotten rich as a minister of God. With regard to the latter complaints, Patrick admitted that wealthy people had tried to give him jewelry and other gifts, but he had refused them.

Patrick's other important writing was the Epistle (or letter), in which he responded to a British chieftain named Coroticus, who had killed some recent converts to Christianity, and sold others into slavery. The Epistle is a strong attack on Coroticus, who appears to have accepted Christianity earlier, though without much sincerity.

Mythology and fact

Little is known about how or when Patrick died, though it appears to have been in the mid-400s. In the period after his death, all sorts of amazing stories began to circulate about him. The story about Patrick driving all the snakes out of Ireland was probably invented as a way of explaining why Ireland has no native snakes—one of the few places in the world where this is true. Another legend associates him with the four-leaf clover, a symbol of Ireland, which he supposedly used as an illustration to explain to a pagan king about salvation in Christ.

Perhaps the most ironic aspect of the Patrick myth is the fact that Patrick, a figure revealed in his Confessions as an extremely serious, sober-minded, and humorless man whose concern was almost entirely for matters of the spirit, would be associated with a day known for feasting and drinking. But Patrick did convert the Irish, and the fact that Ireland remains one of the most staunchly Catholic countries on Earth is in part a tribute to him.

For More Information


Bunson, Margaret and Matthew. St. Patrick. Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor, 1993.

Dunlop, Eileen. Tales of St. Patrick. New York: Holiday House, 1996.

Reilly, Robert T. Irish Saints. Illustrated by Harry Barton. New York: Wings Books, 1992.

Tompert, Ann. Saint Patrick. Illustrated by Michael Garland. Honesdale, PA: Boyds Mills Press, 1998.

Web Sites

Catholic Online Saints and Angels. [Online] Available (last accessed July 26, 2000).

Patron Saints Index. [Online] Available (last accessed July 26, 2000).

Saints Lives. [Online] Available (last accessed July 26, 2000).

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St. Patrick

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St. Patrick