St Patricks Day is round the corner so it is a chance to celebrate all things from the Emerald Isle. Generally regarded as the person who bought Christianity to Ireland, St Patrick is venerated around the world and is the Patron Saint of places as far afield as Nigeria and Puerto Rico.
But who is the man behind the foam hats and parties full of stout? Here we delve a little into the history of the man who we (well, should) remember on March 17th.
Before you read about St Patrick, it has to be said that the history of Britain before the 1500s is very sketchy with little or no written historical references surviving the reformation and dissolution of the monasteries imposed by Henry VIII.
It was in these institutions that 99.9% of writings were made and stored. This means there is a lot of conjecture and deductions made by historians when writing about someone like St Patrick who lived around 410AD – 460AD.
Even the dates of his birth and death were estimated using references in his letters about other events.
St Patricks Britain
Born in Britannia towards the end of the Roman occupation St Patrick was raised in a land of Druids and Pagans.
It is thought he was the son of a minor Roman Officer and a deacon so religion played a large part in his early life. It is not known exactly where St Patrick was born, but it is generally accepted to be in the Lowlands of Scotland, or Wales. The name of the village, Banna Vemta Burniae, has survived but its location has not!
This was a turbulent period in British history with the Roman Empire, and all the law and order it bought with it, was slowly dismantling itself and retracting back towards Rome. With Britannia being on the edge of the empire, the effects were more pronounced.
This left a vacuum of power and lawlessness, especially in the north and west of Britain, with raids into Britannia from Irish slave traders commonplace.
Slavery and an Epiphany
In his memoirs, St Patrick wrote that when he was about 16 years old, Irish pirates captured him and took him to Ireland to be sold as a slave.
Here, he spent his teenage life tending sheep and it was during this bleak period that St Patrick found his faith and turned to God.
St Patrick was in captivity until he was around 20. He wrote that God spoke to him in a dream and told him to make his way to the coast where he found some sailors who took him back to Britain.
He did not make it home straight away and it is thought he spent another short spell in captivity and nearly died through starvation before finally being reunited with his family.
He wrote in his memoirs that he felt his slavery was a punishment for his lack of faith and so he turned with vigour to religion.
This, he felt, gave him the strength to get through the hardships he faced writing “the love of God… grew in me more and more… I felt no hurt from the snow or ice or rain”
Man on a Mission
St Patrick described in his memoirs a vision, saying “I saw a man coming as it were from Ireland carrying many letters… He gave me one of them… I heard the voice of those very people… and they cried out, as with one voice “we appeal to you… to come and walk among us”.
This prompted his studies into priesthood and it is generally accepted St Patrick spent some years in Europe studying under St Germanus, the Bishop of Auxerre. After some years, St Germanus ordained St Patrick a Bishop and sent him to Ireland as a missionary to convert the country to the gospel.
St Patrick arrived to start his mission on March 25 433AD. It is here the legends begin.
St Patrick met with a chieftain of one of the local druid tribes. This meeting did not go well – after 400 years of religious and political persecution by the Roman Empire, Druids were not the most trusting of Christian Missionaries. Legend states the Chieftain tried to kill St Patrick.
A little time later St Patrick converted the tribal leader who then allowed him to preach the gospel throughout Ireland.
St Patrick converted thousands of people and even started to build churches throughout the country – it is he who started to use Shamrocks to describe the Holy Trinity, a symbol still massively important in Irish culture.
Eventually, after 40 years of travelling and living in absolute poverty, facing death and starvation many times, St Patrick (who had by this time converted the whole of Ireland), died on March 17 461AD at Saul – fittingly this is the place he built the first Irish church.
His grave is marked with a granite stone in Down Cathedral, Downpatrick.
Legacy and Patronages
St Patrick’s work has left a mark in all corners of the globe. An innocuous son of a soldier and deacon, was sold into slavery, who then made it his life work to preach the gospel, is now recognised as the patron saint of Ireland, Nigeria, Montserrat, Missouri, New York and Boston (USA), Rolla, Loiza (Puerto Rico), Murcia (Spain) and Melbourne (Australia). He is also the Patron Saint of Engineers.
Known as the “Apostle of Ireland” he is venerated in all branches of Christianity.
So, this Sunday 17 March, take a minute to think about the man who made it possible for you to wear a massive foam hat in public and not to care about doing it.
Oh, and he banished snakes from Ireland too!