Patrick: Ireland's Patron Saint

Patrick (c. 389-461) lived in Celtic Britain, not far from the sea on the west coast, perhaps in what is now known as Cumbria, although some think it might have been Wales. He was taken captive from his comfortable home by a ship' s crew from Ireland, just before his sixteenth birthday. Ships often crossed the Irish Sea to trade with Britain and sometimes pirates raided the coast in search of plunder and slave labour.

Patrick wrote that he was one among thousands who were seized and taken on board that fateful day. He was taken to the north-east of Ireland where his new master put him to work looking after the sheep. It was a hard life working outdoors in all kinds of weather. Yet the long hours spent on his own gave him the opportunity to reflect on life and the future. He has written that he began to think about God in quite a new way. He said as many as a hundred prayers every day. Through his thoughts and his prayers he came to know God as a friend and companion. He found it difficult, however, to put his spiritual experiences into words. He felt that if he had been fully educated he could have explained to others something of the joy and confidence he had in believing in and trusting God. While he knew the scriptures and could express himself in writing, he thought of himself as a country fellow and used country expressions so that he might be better understood by his readers.

One night, when Patrick was out in the woods, he heard a voice telling him that his ship was ready. This was strange. He was nowhere near any harbours, which were far away on the east coast of Ireland. So he started on the one-hundred-mile journey to the south-east coast. A ship was about to leave when Patrick arrived. Although the captain at first refused to take him on board, he finally relented and brought Patrick back to Britain. By this time the crew had come to admire Patrick. They were twenty-eight days on the move across country without finding anything to eat. The captain asked Patrick if he could pray to his all-powerful God to save them from hunger. Patrick replied that the captain should turn with complete trust to God and then all would be well. A herd of pigs suddenly appeared. The crew killed some of them and ate their fill. They all gave thanks to the God that had rescued them. Patrick became a hero. After these wanderings, Patrick returned to his parents, who were overjoyed to have him home again. Patrick continued to have visions. One was quite startling. This time the voice was 'the cry of the Irish' . The voice asked him to go to Ireland.

Patrick had been instructed in the teachings of the Church while near his home in Britain, and probably received further training in a monastery in Gaul as he prepared for ordination. Germanus (378-448), Bishop of Auxerre in France, was well known as a leader in Britain and Gaul. It seems likely that Patrick came under his influence during his years of training. After this he was ordained a bishop in 432 and set out for Ireland.

Although Patrick had not taken vows as a monk, he was familiar with the life of prayer, study and practical work which was typical of those who lived in a monastic community. He was steeped in the scriptures and there are many biblical quotations in his writings. There is not much information available about the years leading up to his missionary journey back to Ireland. But there had been Christians in Ireland before his mission began. Palladius was ordained and sent as first bishop to the Irish by Pope Celestine in 431. Tradition claims that other Christians, such as Declan, were in Ireland before Patrick.

At the time Patrick began his mission in 432, Loegaire (Leary) claimed to be Ardri, or high king, of Ireland. His seat was at the royal court at Tara in the plain of County Meath. The king had been told by the wizards and soothsayers that there was trouble ahead. He heard that 'a certain foreign practice like a kingdom' would be introduced from across the sea to kill the kings in Ireland, that the people would be won over by this strange teaching, and all the local gods would be destroyed.

Patrick was celebrating the Christian Easter festival on the plain of Meath on the same night that there was a festival at Tara, where the idols were being worshipped with magical ceremonies. Patrick lit a holy fire and its blaze was seen for miles across the plain as far as Tara. The king was outraged that anyone should dare to commit this sacrilege in his kingdom. The elders advised Loegaire that the fire, which had been lit before the one in the palace at Tara, would never be put out unless it was done that same night. Loegaire was alarmed to hear this and set out for Slane, where Patrick was, with twenty-two chariots and two of his best wizards. The wizards cautioned the king not to go too near to the fire that Patrick had lit. Patrick was summoned by the king to come forward. He came, with the words of a psalm:

Some may go in chariots,
And some on horses,
But we will walk in the name of our God.

One of the king' s company, Erc, was convinced that Patrick had the true faith and he was the only one to rise to his feet. Patrick blessed him. The others began to insult Patrick and to curse the Christian faith. Patrick answered with a prayer, asking God to deal with these enemies. One wizard fell to the ground, his skull striking a stone, and died. In the ensuing chaos, the king threatened while Patrick prayed. Darkness fell. An earthquake overthrew the chariots. Everyone retreated in confusion. Then the queen spoke. She asked Patrick not to destroy the king. She said the king would come and worship the Christian god. But the king only pretended to do this. He still wanted to kill Patrick and tried to trick him. The next day was a time of feasting at Tara and the king invited Patrick. Drink was poured into his cup and a wizard added a drop to it. Patrick blessed the cup and the liquid froze. When the cup was turned upside down, only the deadly drop the wizard had poured in fell out. Patrick blessed the cup again and the liquid returned to its natural state. The wizards tried all sorts of magic but each time they failed to impress Patrick. His prayers seemed to spoil all their efforts. The king was in despair and said" It is better for me to believe than to die" . Whether or not Loegaire adopted the new creed, it seems that he put no further obstacles in the way of Patrick' s mission.

And what about the story of Patrick banishing the snakes from Ireland? It is a myth, as there never were any snakes in Ireland. One possible explanation has to do with the Norse word for 'toad' which is paud. The Norsemen noted that this creature was not to be seen in Ireland. They heard of a man named 'Paudrig' , which they took to mean 'toad-expeller' . So out of that misunderstanding, or so the story goes, the legend came about that Patrick banished not only the toads but the snakes too.

And then there is the shamrock. The traditional story is that Patrick used the shamrock to demonstrate the doctrine of the Trinity. Patrick was undoubtedly a strong Trinitarian, as this point of faith was much in vogue in the fifth century. It seems likely, however, that the Irish wore the shamrock because it resembled a cross. Its association with the Trinity probably came later.

St. Patrick, The Real Story of Patrick by George Otto Simms, (1991)
St. Patrick, A Treasury of Irish Folklore, ed. Padraic Colum, (1967)

Liz Crowe

a member of the teaching staff at the International Study Centre