The lasting, inclusive nature of this holiday has much to do with the Irish people, their fight for freedom, and their collective experience as immigrants in America. Fittingly, Ireland’s patron saint was himself an immigrant to Ireland from his native Roman-British shores. We celebrate Patrick today because he successfully spread Christianity across 5th century Ireland – a mission that forever altered the destiny of the Irish people. Patrick is beloved for preaching in the Gaelic language, for using natural imagery to illustrate Gospel truths, and for driving away superstitious pagan beliefs.
Like many early saints, Patrick’s story is a mixture of legend and fact. However, beyond the colorful lore stands a real person whose deeds and words continue to inspire and affect us. To help you better know the man behind the myth, here are ten fascinating facts about Ireland’s very first bishop:
1. Patrick was not born Irish. While he spent the majority of his life living among and ministering to the Irish people, Patrick was a Roman Briton by birth. His exact birthdate and birthplace are uncertain, but it is believed he was born in Scotland, England, or in northern Wales around 386 A.D.
2. Patrick first came to Ireland as the captive of Irish pirates. Patrick was a teenager when he and “a large number of his father’s slaves” were stolen and sold into slavery by Irish raiders. This began a six-year stay of captivity in Ireland, during which Patrick’s spiritual conversion began while he labored as a shepherd.
3. Patrick escaped slavery with help from a dream. After years of suffering and intense prayer, a voice in his dream said, “You have fasted well. Very soon you will return to your native country” [Confessio, 17]. The voice then told him where he would find a ship, some two hundred miles away, to carry him home to Britain and his family.
4. Patrick spent time studying for the priesthood in France. After his return to the Britons, Patrick travelled and continued his studies in Christianity at Auxere, France (formerly Gaul), possibly visiting Marmoutier Abbey in Tours, before being ordained.
5. Patrick received a vision calling him back to Ireland. After his parents begged him to cease his adventures, Patrick received another dream in which a man approached him carrying letters from the Irish people and imploring his return. Fr. Jack Wintz, OFM says, “What is interesting about this dream… is that it came not as a directive from God, but as a plea from the Irish…. Patrick wasn't commanded to bring civilization or salvation to the heathens. He was invited to live among them as Christ's witness.”
6. Patrick’s Irish mission was unpopular. Few of Patrick’s brother clergy shared his sympathy for the Irish people, who were viewed as barbaric and hostile. Patrick’s superiors disapproved of his calling; his Confessio (first-person account of his life) was written partially as a defense and a response to critics of his mission.
7. Patrick wasn’t the first Christian missionary to Ireland. Fr. Jack explains, “There were some Irish Christians, mostly on the eastern and southeastern coast. Many of these were probably British slaves who had been taken into captivity by the Irish. There is a record of a Bishop Palladius being sent to Ireland before Patrick. But the mission of Patrick was unique.”
8. Patrick taught the Gospel through Celtic language and symbolism. Patrick preached effectively in the Gaelic tongue, and he employed pre-existing pagan symbols in transmitting the faith. While Patrick’s use of the three-leaf clover to illustrate the Trinity was likely a later addition to his legend, Patrick’s Confessio specifically details his distinctions between Irish pagan sun worship and Christian worship – including Old Latin wordplay of the words sun and Son. Irish priest Fr. Liam Lawton notes, “the Celtic cross we know today was basically a cross superimposed on the sun… Patrick convert[ed] sun worship to Son worship.”
9. Patrick drove out superstitious practices, rather than snakes. Patrick is said to have driven out “all the snakes of Ireland” into the sea. While the National Museum of Ireland’s fossil collections and records provide no evidence for snake species ever having existed in Ireland, Patrick likely did the Irish a greater service through his concrete and traceable efforts to build churches and ordain Irish priests—efforts which helped to drive out the druids who had formerly dominated Irish spiritual affairs.
10. Patrick wasn’t always associated with the color green. Jumping forward in time – Saint Patrick’s Day celebrations first bloomed in America in the early 1700s, where the Irish diaspora developed them into the holiday we recognize today. However, says NYU professor Marion Casey, “It wasn’t until 1798, the year of the Irish Rebellion, that the color green became officially associated with the day.” Before then, “The color associated with St. Patrick was blue, as it was featured both in the royal court and on ancient Irish flags. But as the British wore red, the Irish chose to wear green, and they sang the song ‘The Wearing of the Green’ during the rebellion, cementing the color’s relevance in Irish history.”
Wishing you a blessed and fun Saint Patrick’s Day – Sláinte (Health)!