Saint Patrick is Ireland’s patron saint, known for spreading Christianity throughout the country as a missionary during the 5th century.
Who Was Saint Patrick?
The man who would come to be known as Saint Patrick was captured by pirates as a child and brought to Ireland. During his enslavement, he was called to Christianity and escaped his captors after six years. He returned to Ireland as a missionary, and in his teachings combined Irish pagan beliefs with Christian sacrament. He is annually honored on his feast day, March 17.
READ MORE: Little Known Facts About Saint Patrick
The man who would come to be known as Saint Patrick, apostle of Ireland, was born in Britain circa 386 A.D. Much of his life is unknown to historians and can’t be verified, though some sources have listed his birth name as Maewyn Succat, with the name Patrick later taken on during his religious journeys or ordainment.
His father, Calphurnius, was a deacon from a Roman family of high social standing. Patrick’s mother, Conchessa, was a close relative of the great patron Saint Martin of Tours. Patrick’s grandfather, Pontius, was also a member of the clergy.
Surprisingly, Patrick himself was not raised with a strong emphasis on religion. Education was not particularly stressed during his childhood either. Later in life, this would become a source of embarrassment for the spiritual icon, who would write in his Confessio, “I blush and fear exceedingly to reveal my lack of education.”
Enslaved as a Teen
When Patrick was 16 years old, he was captured by Irish pirates. They brought him to Ireland where he was sold into slavery in Dalriada. There his job was to tend sheep. Patrick’s master, Milchu, was a high priest of Druidism, a Pagan sect that held major religious influence over the country at the time.
Patrick came to view his enslavement as God’s test of his faith. During his six years of captivity, he became deeply devoted to Christianity through constant prayer. In a vision, he saw the children of pagan Ireland reaching out their hands to him and grew increasingly determined to convert the Irish to Christianity.
Freedom & Religious Calling
Around 408 A.D., the idea of escaping enslavement came to Patrick in a dream, in which a voice promised him he would find his way home to Britain. Eager to see the dream materialize, Patrick convinced some sailors to let him board their ship.
After three days of sailing, he and the crew abandoned the vessel in France and wandered, lost, for 28 days — covering 200 miles of territory in the process, with Patrick ultimately becoming reunited with his family.
A free man once again, Patrick went to Auxerre, France, where he studied and entered the priesthood under the guidance of the missionary Saint Germain. He was ordained a deacon by the Bishop of Auxerre around 418 A.D.
As time passed, he never lost sight of his vision to convert Ireland to Christianity. In 432 A.D., he was ordained as a bishop and was soon sent by Pope Celestine I to Ireland to spread the gospel to non-believers while also providing support to the small community of Christians already living there.
Upon his arrival in Ireland, Patrick was initially met with resistance but managed to spread Christian teachings far and wide, along with other missionaries, through preaching, writing and performing countless baptisms.
Recognizing the history of spiritual practices already in place, nature-oriented pagan rituals were also incorporated into church practices. It is believed that Patrick may have introduced the Celtic cross, which combined a native sun-worshiping symbology with that of the Christian cross.
Throughout his missionary work, Patrick supported church officials, created councils, founded monasteries and organized Ireland into dioceses.
Death and Legacy: Saint Patrick’s Day
Saint Patrick died circa 461 A.D. in Saul, Ireland, and is said to have been buried in the nearby town of Downpatrick, County Down. Saint Patrick is recognized as the patron saint of Ireland, and his writings, noted for their humble voice, include the autobiographical Confessio and Letter to Coroticus.
Many legends also have been associated with his life including that he drove away all the snakes from Ireland and he introduced the Holy Trinity through the three-leaved shamrock.
Saint Patrick is annually honored with the celebration of Saint Patrick’s Day on March 17 (which some cite as the date of his death), which falls during the Christian season of Lent. For more than 1,000 years, the Irish have observed Saint Patrick’s Day as a religious holiday.
Traditionally, on Saint Patrick’s Day, families attend church in the morning and observe other rituals — including eating a traditional meal of cabbage and Irish bacon. The holiday has expanded into the secular world as well, becoming a robust international celebration of Irish culture and heritage.
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