Because of St. Patrick pilgrims walk to the top of Croagh Patrick, some even barefoot, saying the Stations of the Cross; the devout go on a three-day silent retreat to Station Island in Loch Derg at St. Patrick's Purgatory; and St. Patrick Day (March 17th) was a welcome break from fasting during Lent - celebrated with parades in every town, with loads of treats and drowning the shamrock in green beer. These traditions are, however, late(r) inventions, and have nothing to do with the historical Patrick.
In St. Patrick's own writings he comes across as a man of simple steady faith, humble, hard-working
and courageous. He possessed a deep love of God and never lost his sense of
amazement at his calling to convert Ireland.
Patrick was born about the end of the 4th century and died on March 17th 493, being 122 years old. According to his Confession, he grew up in Bannavem Taburniæ (or Bannaventa Berniae) most likely on the west coast of Britain; his father was "Calphrann," a deacon in the local Celtic Christian church and his grand-father, "Potitus," a Priest.
It was a time of tumult: the hordes of Goths and barbarians from Northern Europe began hammering at the door of Rome. Rome summoned its soldiers home from Britain. This was the signal for Irish raiders to harass the well-stocked towns of the Romans in Britain. On one of these raids, Patrick was kidnapped by pirates. He was taken to north-east Ireland, known as "Dalriada," and sold as a slave to herd sheep and pigs for a local Druid (pagan) priest. While herding pigs, he had much time to ponder the many Bible verses his Christian father taught him. They led him to trust Christ as his Saviour. In his Confession he wrote, “At 16 ... in a strange land the Lord opened my unbelieving eyes and I was converted.”
During his years of slavery, he was known as “Holy Boy” because
he was always praying and talking about his Saviour. Romans 8:28 says, “All things work together for good to those who love God, to
those who are called according to His purpose.” He alluded to this verse in his Confession when he wrote, “Whatever happens to
me, whether pleasant or distasteful, I accept, giving thanks to God who never
After about six years in captivity, Patrick heard a voice saying "a ship is waiting" to take him home. He soon escaped and walked several days until he reached the coast where he found a ship and a captain willing to take him on, after some persuasion. After three days at sea they reached Britain where, following several adventures, he was reunited with his family.
God called him to return to Ireland some 20 years later, “to dwell in the midst of barbarians ... for the love of God.” He faced many hardships "daily I expect murder, fraud, or captivity, or whatever it may be;" for the sake of "the Gospel and its promises" so that "a great multitude and throng might be caught for God". "For I am much God’s debtor, who gave me such great grace that many people were reborn in God through me". During his 29 years as a missionary (from 432-461 AD), Patrick baptized over 120,000 Irish, and established at least 300 churches (the Four Annals even mention 600 Churches) in which the Saviour God was owned, the Word of God was preached and the triune God was worshiped.
Two genuine writings of Saint Patrick are in existence today. These writings have become public only during the 19th century. One is "The Confession", an autobiography of Saint Patrick near the end of his life. Another is "A letter to Coroticus", containing a fierce complaint against Coroticus who had raided a number of Patrick’s converts.
A third writing, not from Patrick's hand, but closely connected with him, is "The Hymn," written in ancient Irish, and also known as "The Breastplate". Another old hymn on St Patrick is written by a certain Secundinus. All we know historically and accurately must come from these sources! There are three sayings attributed to Saint Patrick, but scholars doubt whether any or all are really from Patrick. The Annals of the Four Masters, compiled from many sources in the 17th century, is an important Irish history book and contains also information on St Patrick
From the seventh century legends about St. Patrick begin to flourish. Politics, of course, enters the story of Patrick. When the O'Neills, who controlled Tara in the seventh century, wanted the king of Tara to be the High King, St. Patrick's connection to Tara was promoted - there is no historic proof for this. When Malachi of Armagh wanted to increase the powers of bishops, he conformed the Irish Church to the practices of Rome and promoted St Patrick (reputedly buried near Armagh), claiming his authority from "additional" traditions around St. Patrick.
It is a folk tale that Patrick banished the snakes. The absence of snakes in Ireland is already mentioned in the third century by the Roman Solinius. Snakes being commonly associated with Satan, sin and evil since the Garden of Eden, this tale may have arisen as a metaphor of his single-handed effort to drive the idol-worshiping Druid cult out of Ireland.
St. Patrick's popularity stimulated the creativity of the seanchaithe: St. Patrick used the shamrock to teach the Trinity (a seventh century innovation); St. Patrick has Jesus' assurance that Jesus will judge the Irish and that Patrick will sit with Him (also seventh century).
Croagh Patrick is the holiest mountain in Ireland, near Westport in county Mayo. Sometime around 800 AD the name of Patrick was imposed on Croagh Patrick. The pilgrimage to Croagh Patrick takes place on the last Sunday (Reek Sunday) in July. In pre-Christian times, that was when there was a great harvest festival in honour of the idol Lugh - Lughnasadh is still celebrated on August 1st.
That Patrick is a saint is no myth, although he has never been canonized by the Roman Catholic Church. When the Roman Catholic Church established the first list of "Saints" (the first one canonized by the Church was Ulrich, in 993), Patrick was already on it.
But is that how one becomes a saint? According to the Bible, sainthood is not attained by what others think of us or by miracles we performed, but by who we own as our Saviour. Six letters written by St. Paul are addressed directly “to the saints.” He was not writing to dead people, but to all those who believe that: “By grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast” (Ephesians 2:8).
Patrick did not become a saint because of his good deeds in Ireland, but because of what he came to believe while still a slave boy in that country. He served God, not to obtain salvation, but because he was already saved and wanted to share his faith out of love for his Saviour.
If Saint Patrick were alive today, he would tell you to pay less attention to all the folk tales and more to the truth about him--that the Bible led a 16 year-old slave boy to his Saviour, who then became a missionary to share his Saviour with the people of Ireland. He would also tell you to stop trying to save yourself through your own efforts, and instead save yourself by trusting as your Saviour the One who died for your sins.
If you would like to know more about the Saviour of souls and the Maker of saints, write to us and ask for information!