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The history of St. Patrick

  • Mar. 17, 2022 7:00 a.m.

St. Patrick’s Day is celebrated each year on March 17. St. Patrick was a larger-than-life figure who has been ingrained in Irish culture and was the catalyst for a holiday celebration that now stretches around the world.

Much of what is shared about St. Patrick is based on folklore and exaggerated storytelling, according to historians. Snakes famously banished from Ireland? Snakes have never existed on the island to even be banished! Getting to the truth of St. Patrick the man takes a little digging through the fanciful tales.

St. Patrick wasn’t Irish

St. Patrick was born to a wealthy family in modern-day Great Britain near the end of the fourth century. There is no evidence that Patrick came from a particularly religious family, and History.com says it was likely Patrick’s father became a Christian deacon because of tax incentives and not religious devotion.

Patrick only arrived in Ireland after being taken prisoner by a group of Irish raiders who attacked his family’s estate. He spent ages 16 to 22 in captivity and was likely held in County Mayo.

Finding religion

Patrick spent many hours working outdoors as a shepherd during his imprisonment. Being afraid and likely lonely, he found comfort in his religion and became a devout Christian. As Ireland was largely pagan at this time, he began dreaming of converting the Irish people to Christianity.

Even though Patrick escaped imprisonment, believing it was the voice of God telling him it was time to leave, once he returned to Britain, he had a second revelation that he should return to Ireland as a missionary. It was then his religious training began, and it lasted more than 15 years. Eventually Patrick was ordained a priest and began ministering to Christians already living in Ireland and converting others.

St. Patrick wrote an autobiography

Much of what is known about St. Patrick comes from two works that he wrote about his life, known as “Confessio” and “Epistola.” In “Confessio,” Patrick responds to the fact that he was on trial for mysterious reasons, although he never names the crimes for which he was accused. Historians surmise that he took bribes because Patrick mentions returning or paying for gifts given to him.

St. Patrick didn’t introduce Christianity

Although Patrick played the most influential role in spreading Christianity to Ireland, he wasn’t the first to do so. However, he did organize the followers who already existed and converted kingdoms which were still pagan. St. Patrick also connected Ireland with the Church of the Roman Empire.

St. Patrick helped the shamrock become a symbol of Irish nationalism

The shamrock, also known as a three-leaf clover, and formerly the “seamroy” by the Celts, was a sacred plant that symbolized spring. St. Patrick, according to legend, used this familiar plant as a visual guide to explain the Holy Trinity of Christianity. By the 17th century, the shamrock had become a symbol of emerging Irish nationalism, according to History.com.

St. Patrick is well known in Ireland and elsewhere in part because of the legends about his days on earth. The true history sheds even more light on the man behind the legend.