Even if you don’t live in Ireland, chances are you still celebrate the Feast of Saint Patrick come March 17th. If you’re a kid in America, the evening before usually finds you scrambling to get something, anything green to wear to school in a desperate bid to avoid getting pinched. The older American will typically imbibe too much green beer, wear a silly hat, and get thrown out of their local Irish pub a few hours prior to last call.
Londoners, Canadians, and Bostonians throw lavish parades, while Tokyo commences with its celebrated two-day “I Love Ireland” festival. In Buenos Aires, you can expect raucously wild street parties and live music, and revelers in search of a tropical locale will find much to do on the Caribbean island of Montserrat.
To say that the holiday is well-known and beloved globally is an understatement. But what of Saint Patrick himself? Sadly, not too many of us know much about the patron saint of Ireland, Nigeria, Australia, and Montserrat. For example, he was actually a Roman citizen of Britain, most likely a resident of Wales, and not actually Irish. He was also one of the most successful Christian missionaries in history.
His first trip to Ireland was neither for religious reasons nor for a relaxing vacation — he was captured by marauders at the tender age of 16 and brought to the island against his will, where he was sold into slavery.
What must be mentioned is that there are differing accounts as to what truly happened. Incidents that occurred during the 5th century are naturally difficult to verify, and much of what we know about Saint Patrick’s life comes from his autobiography, the Confessio. As such, it’s important to bear in mind that the Patron Saint has had quite a heavy hand in the way we remember him. As you read, let the words wash over you with the tinge of legend versus absolute truth.
The Man, The Myth, The Legend
No one can agree on where exactly Saint Patrick, nee Maewyn Succat, was born or when. Up until his adolescence, it’s said that he had lived with his family, which included Calpornius, his deacon/civil servant father, and Potitus, his grandfather, a priest from Bonaven Tabernia. For his part, Maewyn did not share the same devout feelings as his forebears — that wouldn’t come until later.
At age 16, Saint Patrick alleges that he was stolen from his home and ferried away to Ireland by plundering pagan pirates, where he was a slave for six years. He spent his time in captivity tending sheep and praying frequently. He was deprived of food and clothing and kept in constant isolation. You can imagine it: a young man ripped from his home and family, stolen away to a foreign land. Little to wear, less to eat, and made to spend his days alone, roaming the lonesome hillsides of Northern Ireland with no one but God to talk to. He prayed 100 times a day and another 100 times at night.
Eventually, an angel came to him in a dream and urged him to return home. “You have fasted well,” it said, “very soon you will return to your native country.” Thankfully, this helpful spirit also told him that his ship was ready. What ship and when, Patrick didn’t know, but he was soon in pursuit of one that would take him back home. He trekked over 200 miles of forests, bogs, and brambles until at last, he reached a port that may have been Wexford.
The angel was right — a cargo ship was indeed preparing to depart. At first, the captain refused him passage. Patrick’s reaction to this was to pray, but no sooner had he begun than a crew member yelled from the ship, “Come quickly! Those men are calling you!” Whether this means that his captors had been hot on his heels for hundreds of miles or some other men happened to be shouting in his direction at that precise moment remains to be seen. Patrick interpreted it as God’s will. How else could he pull off such an unlikely escape? Scholars are still locked in debate over the validity of it all, but the point remains the same — the soon-to-be saint went home.
Interestingly, there are some who believe that, rather than being forcefully kidnapped, the Patrick had actually fled his home deliberately to avoid inheriting his father’s job as a Roman tax collector. In a time of dwindling Roman influence, it was a dangerous and joyless job that often cost the practitioner his money and life.
Ain’t No Rest for the Pious
Upon his return, his dire straights remained so. After docking, the crew was stranded, doomed to wander the wilderness with little to eat. The sailors would scoff – where is your god now? What has your incessant praying accomplished? To which Patrick replied, “Turn in faith with all your hearts to the Lord my God, because nothing is impossible for him.” As he led the men in prayer, a stampede of deliciously edible pigs ran across their path. And just like that, a ragtag crew of sailors with empty bellies became his first converts.
Patrick eventually made his way back to this family. He was hardened by his experience and hopelessly behind his peers in education. The trajectory of his life would now have to be very different from the one he may have initially followed. While he was at home with his parents he had another significant dream. This time, a man he had known in Ireland named Victor presented him with letters. He recalls:
“And there I saw a vision during the night, a man coming from the west; his name was Victorious, and had with him many letters; he gave me one to read, and in the beginning of it was a voice from Ireland. I then thought it to be the voice of the inhabitants of Focluit Wood, adjoining the western sea; they appeared to cry out in one voice, saying, `Come to us, O holy youth, and walk among us.’ With this I was feelingly touched, and could read no longer. I then awoke.”
He decided to return to the pagan island he so narrowly escaped — he had a new flock to tend to. He underwent religious training and was ordained as a deacon in 418 A.D., then consecrated as a bishop and given the name Patricius around 432 A.D.
There is evidence of Christian presence in Ireland prior to Patrick’s arrival. But that shouldn’t minimize his achievements in the country, which may or may not have included banning nonexistent snakes from the entire land. But that’s a tale for another time.