By Carmel McCaffrey
The feast day of St. Patrick on March 17th has been celebrated by the Irish people for well over 1,000 years. Recorded in the ancient Irish annals as the day of Patrick’s death it has been a day of celebration for his life since at least the eighth century.
Yet what do we know of this man who is probably one of the most famous saints on the Christian calendar? So many myths and stories have been grafted onto his life that it is sometimes almost impossible to see the real person behind the myth.
But real he was, and although the shamrock and the snakes and his supposed confrontations with Druids are all later inventions, his life was one of dedication to his mission and his love for the Irish people.
Patrick first came to Ireland as a teenage boy when he was captured by Irish sailors from his home in Britain and then sold into slavery in Ireland. He wrote a small biography about his life experiences called his Confession in which he describes his life as a slave tending sheep on an Irish hillside and praying to this Christian God for comfort.
Patrick’s writings are a valuable source of information for us about his life and his deep attachment to the Irish. Although there were some Christian missionaries in Ireland at this time, Ireland was still a pagan land with the old Celtic religion very much a central part of Irish life.
Lying outside the Roman Empire, life in Ireland would have been a very foreign experience for the young Patrick. Eventually he escaped from captivity and made his way back to his home in Britain. Yet he had grown to love the Irish people and the memory of Ireland and the Irish stayed with him.
After some years he was ordained a priest and then he writes about an amazing experience. One night he had a vision of an Irishman coming to him with a letter headed “The Voice of the Irish” asking him to return to Ireland and convert the Irish to Christianity. The Irish annals record the year of his arrival in Ireland as a missionary as 432.
Patrick was a humble man. His writings repeatedly convey this aspect of his personality. He describes himself as “a simple country person” and even apologizes for the imperfect way he expresses himself. He didn’t seek glory or fame but both would come to him. He left no direct record of where exactly he travelled in Ireland or which churches he founded but it is thought that he was mostly in the northern part of the country during his years of preaching and converting.
Along with other missionaries before and after him, St. Patrick converted the Irish to Christianity with impressive speed. Within a hundred years the country was Christianized and Ireland had developed a strong monastic system which would ultimately form the structure of Irish religious and social life.
Also remarkably, Ireland’s conversion to Christianity was without the bloodshed that newly converted Christians encountered elsewhere. There were no martyrs in Ireland during this time as no one was challenged or put to death for converting to Christianity.
The new religion was not seen as a threat but formed a harmony with the native Celtic religion. Patrick describes using a clever method of blending the older pagan icons with the new Christian religion. Christian saints became a substitute for the older pagan gods and goddesses.
This convergence of the old and new was so widespread that hundreds of years later many pagan practices were still quite commonly woven into the texture of Christian practices.
Initially Patrick’s fame had grown mostly because he had left personal writings behind while other missionaries did not. This gives him some uniqueness.
But it would be some two hundred years after his death that many of the heroic stories attached to his life would be invented in order to further enhance his life and place him at the center of Irish Christian conversion.
The myth that he was the sole converter of the Irish also took hold at this time even though there is no foundation to this. His feast day would be celebrated throughout Ireland as a holy day.
Irish missionaries and scholars who travelled to continental Europe to bring the Christian message to Dark Age Europe during the eighth and ninth centuries were so influenced by his missionary zeal that they often claimed that they did so in imitation of Patrick and his life.
They called their mission to the European continent ‘white martyrdom’ — a bloodless act of sacrificing their lives to live and teach in far off places. Living abroad these Irish scholars always remembered and celebrated their national saint’s day.
Many hundreds of years later Irish emigrants living in the USA and other parts of the world would also remember and celebrate Ireland’s patron saint — although it’s probably safe to say that our modern day ebullient celebrations would likely amaze and surprise the humble and diffident man that St. Patrick was.
Carmel McCaffrey was the series historical consultant for the PBS/RTÉ TV series In Search of Ancient Ireland and is the co-author of the accompanying book of the same title.