Everyone knows about St. Patrick. Or, rather, everyone thinks they know about St. Patrick. He was Irish, right? And he drove the snakes out of Ireland? And he has something to do with…green beer?
That’s the problem. We think that we know a lot about something or somebody, but when it comes down to it, we’re actually at a loss. But never mind! Here are five things that we do know about St. Patrick:
1. St. Patrick wasn’t Irish. His parents were Roman citizens probably living in what is now Scotland (which was part of the Roman Empire in 385 AD when Patrick was born). But when he was 16, Irish raiders captured Patrick and took him to Ireland.
2. St. Patrick was a slave. The raiders who captured Patrick sold him into slavery in Ireland where he tended sheep on Slemish Mountain in County Antrim. After hearing God’s voice in a dream, he escaped to England when he was 22 and spent the next 12 years in a French monastery. He went back to Ireland voluntarily to introduce its people to Christianity.
3. St. Patrick didn’t drive any snakes out of Ireland. Ireland’s climate is too cold for snakes to thrive there; this particular legend is probably to be seen as a metaphor for the saint driving pagan beliefs out of Ireland.
4. St. Patrick’s color is blue. Most of us associate him with green, but contemporary depictions show him wearing blue vestments. (Ireland gets a lot of rain and has especially lush green countryside, so people later called it the Emerald Isle.)
5. St. Patrick’s name wasn’t Patrick. His birth name was Maewyn Succat; he took the name Patrick when he was ordained to the priesthood.
Here’s a little more of the story…
During his six-year captivity, Patrick clung to his religion—most of Roman Britain was Christian by the time he was born—and also became fluent in Irish. God appeared to him in a dream and told him to make his way to the coast where he could get on a ship heading for England. From there he went on to France where he became a priest and later a bishop.
Patrick was sent another dream in which the people of Ireland were calling out to him to come and walk among them once more, and so he returned to the land of his captivity and for the next 40 years traveled throughout Ireland preaching the Gospel. Eventually churches were built all over the country thanks to his hard work.
So why are there so many legends about St. Patrick? Partly because there weren’t a lot of people who could read and write, and so stories got told verbally—and we all know how stories get distorted on the third, fourth… or 20th telling!
Also Patrick’s time was a time of metaphor. People used concrete examples to tell about abstract concepts. So instead of trying to talk about an abstract concept that the practice of pagan religions was eradicated, people talked about something that they could visualize—snakes.
Here’s something interesting about the conversion of Ireland—and, indeed, of Great Britain as a whole. When missionaries went out to preach the Gospel throughout Europe, there was often violence. Many people didn’t want to be converted, and so they killed the missionaries. But that didn’t happen in Britain. There was no “red martyrdom,” and yet the islands became Christian. What was the difference?
St. Patrick and others like him didn’t walk into people’s homes, villages, castles, and tell them what to do. The missionaries to Celtic lands were all far more gentle and more subtle. They didn’t tell the people that their beliefs were wrong; what they said was that their beliefs were incomplete. They took celebrations and rituals that the people already enjoyed and gently introduced a Christian perspective to them, knowing that with time it was the Christian interpretation that would prevail. A good example of this is the “conversion” of a pagan goddess, Brigantia, into the cult of the Christian St. Brigid.
The legend of St. Patrick’s fire is another example of the saint embracing the local custom. The Hill of Slane just outside Dublin was the stage: the High King of Laoghaire held a feast during which he would light the first fire in the land at the royal center of the Hill of Tara. The king looked up only to see that Patrick had already lit a fire as well—one that couldn’t be extinguished. Lighting a fire might not be a Christian ritual, but St. Patrick adopted it as a symbol that the people recognized and expected of their religion.
That story is told in one of our newest children’s books, Patrick and the Fire. Why not introduce your child now to the legend of this popular saint?
by Jeannette de Beauvoir