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Saint Patrick

Orthodox Icon of St. Patrick

“My name is Patrick. I am a sinner, a simple country person, and the least of all believers.”


This is how St. Patrick opens his Confessio, one of two remaining writings that were written by his own hand. The Confessio was written later in his life when he was facing some critics from the greater church. And so he wrote this confession and testimony in an attempt to show his faith and work in spreading Christianity in Ireland.


His work during the fifth century gave him the title of saint – before canonizing saints was even a practice in the Catholic church – and he was considered the patron Saint of Ireland by the seventh century. There are many stories and legends about St. Patrick, though it is hard to say which of these truly happened and which were, perhaps, exaggerated.


What we do learn about St. Patrick from his own writings is that he was born in Roman ruled Britain, where he was kidnapped by pirates at the age of sixteen and forced into slavery in Ireland. There, he tended sheep, and it was during this time that he learned of God. He says he had no faith prior to becoming a slave, but during his captivity he prayed hundreds of times a day.


Sculpture depicting the life of St. Patrick in Glasnevin cemetery

After six years, he received a vision in a dream that he would be returning to his homeland soon and he ran away to travel two hundred miles to the place his boat would be. When he first approached the boat, he was turned away. So, he left, starting a prayer as he did so, but before that prayer was even finished, they called him back to the boat, saying they would choose to trust him for the journey.


When they arrived on land, they had to travel another twenty-eight days through the wilderness and their food supplies were running low. The captain, most certainly in an unkind jest, turned to St. Patrick and asked, “If your God is so great, why wasn’t he giving us food?” St. Patrick told them that if they put their faith in God, He would provide for them. Shortly after that, a herd of pigs appeared directly in their path, and for the rest of the journey they never wanted for food. Even when their food supplies ran low once again, they immediately found more people and left the wilderness.


St. Patrick had a warm homecoming, his parents saying he should never leave them again, and he went and studied the faith, becoming a bishop. But one night he had a dream where he was reading a letter and he heard the voice of the Irish people crying out, “We beg you, holy boy, to come and walk again among us.” And so, he returned once again to the land where he had once been a slave in order to spread the good news of the Gospels.


Sketch by James Barry, ‘Baptism of Oengus’

In this time, he baptized thousands of people into the faith, but the Confessio makes no mention of his shamrock teaching, or snakes, or many other stories that exist about him to this day. Perhaps surprising, since most art often depicts the saint with a snake and/or a shamrock. His work throughout Ireland lead to him having the status as a folk hero, and over the centuries, stories befitting of a folk hero developed as wilder and wilder tales were spread through the oral tradition.


The story of St. Patrick driving the snakes out of Ireland does not appear in writing until the twelfth century – nearly 700 years after his passing – in a book by Jocelyn of Furness, where he documented the local legend. As the story goes, St. Patrick fasted for forty days in isolation on a hill where he was beset by demon in the form of hundreds of crows that harassed him. At the end of his forty days, his nerves were so frazzled that when he saw a snake on his return, he struck the ground with his staff and drove out all snakes and poisonous things. In truth, there’s no fossil evidence that snakes ever existed in Ireland (it’s not the best environment for them) and this is simply a fable to explain that phenomenon.


This halfpenny from the 1680's is the first known depiction of St. Patrick with a shamrock.

Similarly, the legend of St. Patrick using the shamrock as a teaching tool was not documented until 1726, though the shamrock started to show up in art in the 1680’s. As legend would have it, St. Patrick used the shamrock – a young three leaf clover – to help in teaching the Holy Trinity to the pagans, as it was one plant with three leaves, so too was the Trinity three facets of the same being. This story is far less fanciful than the snakes, and actually does show how he would often use what was already holy and understood by the pagans to explain Christianity.


While the fantastical stories of St. Patrick are exaggerated at best (and made up at worst) they all show what an influence he had on the population of Ireland. And regardless of if he could turn people into animals, had magical battles or drove all the snakes out at once, he was an incredibly interesting man who left a lasting impact on the world.


In researching for this blog, I found an invaluable source for all the historic information on St. Patrick, including translations of his two surviving writings, and the original monks that first wrote of his stories, and if you wish to really dig into the history of St. Patrick, I could not recommend it more and you can find it here.


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