|Picture Credit: “St. Patrick” by Thad Zajdowicz is marked with CC0 1.0, and marked as dedicated to the public domain.|
Patrick, The Patron Saint of Ireland
How a man from Britain (possibly England, Scotland or even Wales, but nobody knows for sure) became the Patron Saint of Ireland is a remarkable story. The man, Saint Patrick, (Latin: Patricius, (Irish: Pádraig, Welsh: Padrig), was a 5th century Romano-British Christian missionary and bishop in Ireland. He was the son of wealthy parents who weren’t particularly religious.
Known as the “Apostle of Ireland”, he is the primary Patron saint of Ireland, the other patron saints being Brigit of Kildare and Columba. Patrick was never formally canonised, having lived before the current laws of the Catholic Church in these matters came into being. Nevertheless, he is venerated as a Saint in the Catholic Church and in the Eastern Orthodox Church, where he is regarded as equal-to-the-apostles and Enlightener of Ireland. He is also considered a Saint by the Anglican Communion and the Lutheran Churches. The dates of Patrick’s life cannot be fixed with certainty, but there is general agreement that he was active as a missionary in Ireland during the fifth century.
St. Patrick’s Day
Each year, 17th March marks St. Patrick’s Day or the Feast of St. Patrick. It is a public holiday in the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland, the Canadian province of Newfoundland and Labrador (for provincial government employees), and the British Overseas Territory of Montserrat. It is also widely celebrated in the United Kingdom, Canada, United States, Brazil, Argentina, Australia and New Zealand, especially amongst the Irish diaspora. Saint Patrick’s Day is celebrated in more countries than any other national festival. The Irish diaspora has greatly influenced modern celebrations, particularly in North America. However, there has been criticism of Saint Patrick’s Day celebrations for becoming too commercialised and fostering negative stereotypes of the Irish people.
The celebration marks the anniversary of St. Patrick’s death in the 5th century AD and represents the arrival of Christianity in Ireland. The Irish have observed this day as a holiday for over 1,000 years, and while the festival began as a religious feast day for the patron saint of Ireland, today it has become an international celebration of Irish culture.
Lá Fhéile Pádraig is the Irish for St. Patrick’s Day. The holiday honours its 5th century namesake, St. Patrick, who died on 17th March 461 AD. Ironically, the holiday is observed worldwide to celebrate Irish cultural heritage, yet Patrick himself wasn’t Irish. Nor was Patrick his real name.
Picture Credit: “St. Patrick’s Day Parade In Dublin, Monday 17th 2014” by infomatique is marked with CC BY-SA 2.0.
The Legend of St. Patrick
In the 1,600 years since Saint Patrick preached his way across the Emerald Isle, the legends and folk stories surrounding his life have become ever more ingrained in the Irish culture. He is credited with expelling all snakes from Ireland and using a shamrock – a three-leaf clover – to explain the Holy Trinity to the Pagan Irish (see the end of this section).
Patrick was born into a wealthy family in Roman Britain in 385 AD and originally carried the name Maewyn Succat. He lived a relatively peaceful existence until he was 16 when he was abducted from his home by Irish pirates and was sold as a slave to a local chieftain in Ireland named Miliue of Antrim and was forced to herd sheep and swine for six years, bitterly isolated and poorly clothed for the harsh winters. In Saint Patrick’s biographical Confessio, he reflected on the reason for these events.
During his time as a slave, Patrick turned to religion and pleaded to God for a way to escape his hell. His exhortation brought a vision in which he was told to flee to the coast, where a ship would be waiting to take him home. Patrick made a break for it and travelled through 185 miles of wilderness to the shoreline. Just as he had dreamed, a British ship stood waiting to take him home.
Later, back at home, another vision came to him. This time, he dreamed that the people of Ireland were beckoning him to come and bring Christianity to them. The vision prompted Patrick to train for the priesthood.
Patrick travelled to Gaul, where after some 15 years of study, he was ordained by St. Germanus, the Bishop of Auxerre, and sent to take the Gospel to Ireland. He arrived in Slane, Ireland, on 25th March 433 AD and began his mission.
Early medieval tradition credits Patrick with being the first bishop of Armagh and Primate of Ireland and regards him as the founder of Christianity in Ireland, converting a society practising a form of Celtic polytheism. He has been generally considered such ever since, despite evidence of some earlier Christian presence in Ireland.
Three legends stand out:
St. Patrick using shamrock in an illustrative parable
Legend credits Patrick with teaching the Irish about the doctrine of the Holy Trinity by showing people the Shamrock, a three-leafed plant and now the national flower of Ireland, using it to illustrate the Christian teaching of three persons in one God.
The earliest written version of the story is given by the botanist Caleb Threlkeld in his 1726 Synopsis stirpium Hibernicarum, but the earliest surviving records associating Patrick with the plant are coins depicting St. Patrick clutching a shamrock which were minted in the 1680s.
St. Patrick banishing snakes from Ireland
The absence of snakes in Ireland has been mentioned from as early as the third century by Gaius Julius Solinus, but later legend has attributed the banishment of all snakes from the island to St. Patrick. The earliest text to mention an Irish saint banishing snakes from Ireland is the Life of Saint Columba (chapter 3.23), written in the late 7th or early-8th century. In the 13th century, Gerald of Wales expressed scepticism about the story’s veracity. The more familiar version of the legend is given by Jocelyn of Furness, who says that the snakes had all been banished by St. Patrick chasing them into the sea after they attacked him. The hagiographic theme of banishing snakes may draw parallels with the Biblical account of the staff of the prophet Moses. In Exodus 7:8–7:13, Moses and Aaron use their staffs in their struggle with Pharaoh’s sorcerers, the staffs of each side turning into snakes. However, all evidence suggests that post-glacial Ireland never had snakes at all. “At no time has there ever been any suggestion of snakes in Ireland, so [there was] nothing for St. Patrick to banish”, says naturalist Nigel Monaghan, keeper of natural history at the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin, after searching extensively through Irish fossil collections and records.
St. Patrick’s fast on the mountain
Tírechán wrote in the 7th century that Patrick spent forty days on the mountaintop of Cruachán Aigle, as Moses did on Mount Sinai. The 9th century Bethu Phátraic says that St. Patrick was harassed by a flock of black demonic birds while on the peak, and he banished them into the hollow of Lugnademon (“hollow of the demons”) by ringing his bell. St. Patrick ended his fast when God gave him the right to judge all the Irish at the Last Judgement and agreed to spare the land of Ireland from the final desolation. A later legend tells how St. Patrick was tormented on the mountain by a demonic female serpent named Corra or Caorthannach. St. Patrick is said to have banished the serpent into Lough Na Corra below the mountain, or into a hollow from which the lake burst forth. The mountain is now known as Croagh Patrick (Cruach Phádraig).
Saint Patrick established the first church at Saul, in Northern Ireland and planted more and more churches as he crisscrossed his way through Ireland. The Saul site is known as the Cradle of Christianity in Ireland. Tradition holds that St. Patrick and his companions landed at the mouth of the Slaney river, a few miles from here, in 432AD. Patrick met Dichu, the local chieftain, who gave him a barn for shelter. The word for a barn in Irish was Sabhall, from which comes the anglicised word, Saul. From Saul, Patrick travelled extensively, sharing his message of Jesus Christ. St. Patrick died at Saul in March 461, and for more than 300 years afterwards, there was an abbey on the site until it was plundered and burnt by Vikings.
In the 12th century, Saul was refounded as an Augustinian Priory, but it too was plundered (in the 14th century by Edward Bruce). Only one wall of this abbey remains, along with an intact monastic cell in the old graveyard. The present church building, which replaced a very simple building constructed in 1788, was erected to commemorate the 1500th anniversary of the landing of St. Patrick in Ireland and was opened on All Saint’s Day 1933.
St. Patrick’s Birthname and Place of Birth
The only name that St. Patrick used for himself in his writings is Pātricius, which gives Old Irish: Pátraic and Irish: Pádraig; English Patrick; Scottish Gaelic: Pàdraig; Welsh: Padrig; Cornish: Petroc. Hagiography records other names he is said to have used. Tírechán‘s seventh-century Collectanea gives: “Magonus, that is, famous; Succetus, that is, god of war; Patricius, that is, father of the citizens; Cothirthiacus, because he served four houses of druids.” “Magonus” appears in the ninth century Historia Brittonum as Maun, descending from British Magunos, meaning “servant-lad”. Cothirthiacus also appears as Cothraige in the 8th century biographical poem known as Fiacc’s Hymn and a variety of other spellings elsewhere and is taken to represent a Primitive Irish: Qatrikias, although this is disputed. What is not disputed is St. Patrick’s birth name: Maewyn Succat.
All that is known for certain about his birthplace is that he was born in ‘Roman Britain’. His actual birthplace is not known with any certainty, although some traditions place the birthplace as Roman England, there are plenty of options:
- Identifying it as Glannoventa (modern Ravenglass in Cumbria).
- In 1981, Thomas argued at length for the areas of Birdoswald, twenty miles (32 km) east of Carlisle.
- In 1993, Maire de Paor glossed it as “[probably near] Carlisle”.
- There is a Roman town known as Bannaventa in Northamptonshire, which is phonically similar to the Bannavem Taburniae mentioned in Patrick’s Confessio, but this is probably too far from the sea.
- Claims have also been advanced for locations in present-day Scotland, with the Catholic Encyclopedia stating that Patrick was born in Kilpatrick, Scotland.
- In 1926, Eoin (John) MacNeill advanced a claim for South Wales as St. Patrick’s place of birth.
- Patrick’s father, Calpurnius, is described as a decurion (Senator and tax collector) of an unspecified Romano-British city and as a deacon.
- Patrick’s grandfather Potitus was a priest from Bonaven Tabernia.
- According to the Confession of Saint Patrick, it says that at 16, he was captured from his family’s Villa at “Bannavem Taburniae” by a group of Irish pirates. There is some dispute over where this captivity took place. Although many believe that he was taken to live in Mount Slemish in County Antrim, it is more likely that he was held in County Mayo near Killala.
St. Patrick’s Writings
Only two Latin works survive, which are generally accepted as having been written by St. Patrick. These are:
- the Declaration (Latin: Confessio), a spiritual autobiography; and
- the Letter to the soldiers of Coroticus (Latin: Epistola), a denunciation of British mistreatment of Irish Christians, from which come the only generally accepted details of St. Patrick’s life.
The Declaration is the more biographical of the two. In it, St. Patrick gives a short account of his life and his mission. Most available details of his life are from subsequent hagiographies and annals, which have considerable value but lack the empiricism upon which scholars depend today.
Two works by late 7th century hagiographers of St. Patrick have survived. These are the writings of Tírechán and the Vita sancti Patricii of Muirchú moccu Machtheni. Both writers relied upon an earlier work, now lost, the Book of Ultán. This Ultán, probably the same person as Ultan of Ardbraccan, was Tírechán’s foster-father. These works thus date from a century and a half after Patrick’s death.
At first, St. Patrick’s goal of seeing pagan Ireland converted did not sit well with the locals. It is recorded in the Annals of the Kingdom of Ireland that he was temporarily imprisoned, and several attempts were made on his life. It is said that St. Patrick found a method that would eventually succeed, enabling him to convert the Irish without either sword or an army. As well as working to build alliances with local leaders, he popularised the faith by harnessing the knowledge he had gained of the native language, culture and religion during his time in slavery, and using this to merge Irish lore and celebrations with Christianity.
St. Patrick moved the dates of early Christian celebrations to dates that were sacred to the Pagans and merged Christian symbols with Pagan ones so that the new religion could be more easily assimilated. An 18th century historical account records that Saint Patrick used the shamrock, a three-leaf clover, to explain the Holy Trinity. In Pagan Ireland, three was a significant number and the Irish had many triple deities. The triple spiral symbol, or Triskelion, appears at many ancient megalithic and Neolithic sites in Ireland. As stated in the Annals of the Kingdom of Ireland:
“Nothing is clearer than that Patrick engrafted Christianity on the Pagan superstitions with so much skill that he won the people over to the Christian religion before they understood the exact difference between the two systems of belief.”
How did St. Patrick Succeed?
In truth, it does appear that St. Patrick was very successful at winning converts to Christianity. Familiar with the Irish language and culture, he adapted traditional rituals into his lessons of Christianity rather than attempting to eradicate native beliefs. He used bonfires to celebrate Easter since the Irish were used to honouring their gods with fire. He also superimposed a sun, a powerful native symbol, onto the Christian cross to create what is now called a Celtic cross.
St. Patrick – a Saint in name only, never having been canonised
While millions worldwide celebrate St. Patrick’s Day every 17th March, the sad (and strange) fact is that although St. Patrick was venerated as a saint in Ireland from the seventh century, he has never been canonised by the Catholic Church and is a saint in name only.
Patrick was the first major figure to reject slavery and, for that alone, he deserves proper canonisation. Writer Ken Concannon said on IrishCentral History.
“There was no formal canonisation process in the Church during its first millennium. In the early years of the Church, the title saint was bestowed first upon martyrs and then upon individuals recognised by tradition as being exceptionally holy during their lifetimes. Consequently, these Irish saints, including St. Patrick, were never actually formally canonised — save one. The exception was Fergal, also known as St. Virgil of Salzburg, an 8th century missionary scholar who was officially canonised in 1233 by Pope Gregory IX. Virgil is one of only four Irish saints to be canonised by Rome.”
There was no formal process for canonisation in place when Patrick died. He was proclaimed a saint by popular acclaim, probably with a bishop’s approval. The official process for canonisation did not come until about the 12th century.”
St. Patrick’s Bell
The National Museum of Ireland in Dublin possesses a bell (Clog Phádraig)& first mentioned, according to the Annals of Ulster, in the Book of Cuanu in the year 552. The bell was part of a collection of “relics of Patrick” removed from his tomb sixty years after his death by Colum Cille to be used as relics. The bell is described as “The Bell of the Testament“, one of three relics of “precious minna” (extremely valuable items), of which the other two are described as Patrick’s goblet and “The Angels Gospel”. Colum Cille is described to have been under the direction of an “Angel” for whom he sent the goblet to Down, the bell to Armagh, and kept possession of the Angel’s Gospel for himself.
The name Angels Gospel is given to the book because it was supposed that Colum Cille received it from the angel’s hand. A stir was caused in 1044 when two kings, in some dispute over the bell, went on spates of prisoner taking and cattle theft. The annals make one more apparent reference to the bell when chronicling a death, of 1356: “Solomon Ua Mellain, The Keeper of The Bell of the Testament, protector, rested in Christ.”
The Bell’s description
The National Museum of Ireland (NMI) describes St. Patrick’s Bell, an extract of which is:
“It is made of two sheets of iron which are riveted together and coated with bronze. The bell, a powerful relic, is frequently mentioned in written sources as one of the principal relics of Ireland. It was also used as a political tool to legitimise Armagh as the most important Christian site in Ireland through its association with St. Patrick.
An inscription on its surface indicates that the shrine for the bell was made around AD 1100. It is trapezoidal in shape, echoing the shape of the bell it was made to cover. Formed of a series of bronze plates joined at the edges by tubular bindings, the shrine is topped by a curved crest which covers the handle of the bell. The front of the shrine is covered with a silver-gilt frame that originally held thirty gold filigree panels. These are arranged in the shape of a ringed cross.”
The bell of St. Patrick and its shrine are on permanent display in the Treasury Gallery at the National Museum of Archaeology, Kildare Street, Dublin 2.
Sources and Further Reading
- St. Patrick’s Writings: Confessio and Epistola, by David Kelly at: https://www.confessio.ie/more/article_kelly#
- YouTube Video: https://youtu.be/6QhyWUizr24?list=PL58g24NgWPIzvBk2IQVES_xC4WTm6-CDI
- A patron saint, patroness saint, patron hallow or heavenly protector is a saint who in Catholicism, Anglicanism, or Eastern Orthodoxy is regarded as the heavenly advocate of a nation, place, craft, activity, class, clan, family, or person.Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Patron_saint ↑
Source: “Saint Patrick Retold: The Legend and History of Ireland’s Patron Saint”. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. ISBN 978-0691184647. ↑
“Equal-to-the-Apostles is a special title given to some saints in Eastern Orthodoxy and in Byzantine Catholicism. The title is bestowed as a recognition of these saints’ outstanding service in the spreading and assertion of Christianity, comparable to that of the original apostles. ↑
Source: Meekins, Jeannie. Saint Patrick. Learning Island. p. 14. ↑
Read the Confessio, in full, at: https://www.confessio.ie/etexts/confessio_english#01 ↑
Gaul (Latin: Gallia) was a region of Western Europe firSt described by the Romans. It was inhabited by Celtic and Aquitani tribes, and encompassed present day France, Luxembourg, Belgium, moSt of Switzerland, and parts of Northern Italy, the Netherlands, and Germany, particularly the west bank of the Rhine. ↑
Innocent VI. Primate is a title of honour denoting ceremonial precedence in the Church, and in the Middle Ages there was an intense rivalry between the two as to seniority. Since 1353 the Archbishop of Armagh has been titled Primate of All Ireland and the Archbishop of Dublin Primate of Ireland, signifying that they are the senior churchmen in the island of Ireland, the Primate of All Ireland being the more senior. The titles are used by both the Catholic and Church of Ireland bishops. The distinction mirrors that in the Church of England between the Primate of All England, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and the Primate of England, the Archbishop of York. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Primacy_of_Ireland ↑
Sources: (1) Flechner 2019, p. 221. (2) Threlkeld, Caleb Synopsis stirpium Hibernicarum alphabetice dispositarum, sive, Commentatio de plantis indigenis præsertim Dublinensibus instituta. With An appendix of observations made upon plants, by Dr. Molyneux, 1726, cited in “shamrock, n.”, The Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd ed. 1989 ↑
Source: Roy Flechner (2019). Saint Patrick Retold: The Legend and History of Ireland’s Patron Saint. Princeton University Press. p. 213. ISBN 978-0-691-19001-3. ↑
Source: Owen, James (13 March 2008). “Snakeless in Ireland: Blame Ice Age, Not St. Patrick”. National Geographic News. ↑
Thomas 1981, pp. 310–14, see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saint_Patrick#CITEREFThomas1981 ↑
Source: MacNeill, Eoin (1926). “The Native Place of St. Patrick”. Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy. Dublin: Hodges, Figgis: 118–40. Noting that the western coasts of southern Scotland and northern England held little to intereSt a raider seeking quick access to booty and numerous slaves, while the southern coaSt of Wales offered both. In addition, the region was home to Uí Liatháin and possibly also Déisi settlers during this time, so Irish raiders would have had the contacts to tell them precisely where to go to quickly obtain booty and capture slaves. MacNeill also suggests a possible home town in Wales based on naming similarities, but acceptSt the transcription errors in manuscripts make this little more than an educated guess. ↑
lthough his father was a Christian deacon, it has been suggested that he probably took on the role because of tax incentives and there is no evidence that Patrick came from a particularly religious family. Source: https://www.history.com/topics/st-patricks-day/who-was-saint-patrick ↑
Turner, J. H. (1890). “An Inquiry as to the Birthplace of St. Patrick. By J.H. Turner, M.A. p. 268. Read before the Society, 8 January 1872. Archaeologia Scotica pp. 261–84. Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, Volume 5, 1890”. Archaeologia Scotica. 5: 261–284. ↑
A hagiography is a biography of a saint or an ecclesiastical leader and, by extension, an adulatory and idealised biography of a founder, saint, monk, nun or icon in any of the world’s religions. Early Christian hagiographies might consiSt of a biography or vita, a description of the saint’s deeds or miracles (from Latin vita, life), which begins the title of moSt medieval biographies), an account of the saint’s martyrdom (called a passio), or be a combination of these. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hagiographies ↑
See: Aideen O’Leary, “An Irish Apocryphal Apostle: Muirchú’s Portrayal of Saint Patrick” The Harvard Theological Review 89.3 (July 1996), pp. 287–301, traces Muichù’s sources and his explicit parallels of Patrick with Moses, the bringer of rechte Litre, the “letter of the Law”; the adversary, King Lóegaire, takes the role of Pharaoh. ↑
Source acknowledged: https://www.ancient-origins.net/history-ancient-traditions/st-patrick-ireland-001455 ↑
See: “Clog Phádraig agus a Chumhdach [The Bell of St. Patrick and its Shrine]”. Dublin: NMI. 2015. Archived from the original on 26th November 2015. ↑
See: The bell was formerly known as “The Bell of St Patrick’s Will” (Clog an eadhachta Phatraic), in reference to a medieval forgery which purported to have been the Saint’s last will and testament. ↑