The story of St Patrick

Everyone has heard of St Patrick. It is known that he is the patron Saint of Ireland and that his festival day (which fell on March 17th this year) is a great opportunity for a party and to drink more than is probably 100% healthy for you. What is maybe less well known is who the shadowy figure was behind this personality cult.

Fact

Unlike the more questionable existance of other Saints (St George of England for example), the story of Patrick is actually a real one. Sources differ as to exactly where he was born (though many people suggest that a town on the West Coast of Scotland is the most likely), but what is more certain is that he was captured around the age of 16 and taken to Ireland as a child slave.

He remained in slavery for a period of six years, after which he managed to escape and leave the country. He went on to enter the church, becoming first a priest and then a bishop. His ecclesiastical vocation included a period of time spent in France studying at a monastry – never let people tell you that early modern people don’t travel!

It was during this time that he had a dream in which he felt that God was telling him to go back to Ireland. This he did, taking the message of Christianity with him. Here he brought the faith to many who had never heard it and personally baptised many thousands of people. This religious unheaval was naturally not without upheaval: many times he was captured by village chiefs and Druid Kings for upsetting the status quo.

Irish Shamrock

Fiction

That is pretty much all the concrete facts we know about Saint Patrick. The rest is much more shadowy and owes its basis much more to myth and folklore than it does to actual history.

For instance, biologists tend to agree that it is unlikely that Patrick drove out the snakes because it was unlikely that there were snakes in Ireland in the first place. It is possible that the myth developed after the conversion of most of the population of Ireland to Roman Catholicism as a way of analogising Patrick ‘driving out’ pagan religion from the country.

On a related note, it is interesting to note that Irish folklore also suggests that at the end of the world, when Christ returns to judge the nations, Ireland will be unique in being judged by St Patrick as opposed to Jesus.

It is also fascinating to note that St Patrick is not technically a saint in that he has never been formally cannonised (the process of being made saint) by the Pope. This is because for the first 1000 years canonisation was done by the local Catholic churches in each country.

Interesting fact

Books written by the church talking about the lives of the saints are called Hagiographies. These are often interesting, and hard to believe, accounts of their actions and feats, and are intended as much for personal devotion on the part of the reader as historical accuracy. This makes working out the true story of saints’ lives quite tricky to understand!

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