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Saint Patrick

March 16, 2014

The story of Saint Patrick, one of the most beloved of all saints, is a strange mixture of history and legend. Patrick was born into a wealthy family in England about 385 A.D. His father was a deacon from a Roman family of high social standing. His mother was a close relative of Martin of Tours. Patrick’s grandfather was a priest in the Catholic Church.

As a youth, Patrick had little interest in Christianity or in education. Neither was forced upon him, but later in life deficits in these areas would become a source of embarrassment for him. In the early 440s he wrote in his Confessions, “I blush and fear exceedingly to reveal my lack of education.”

When Patrick was sixteen years old, Irish pirates captured and sold him into slavery in Ireland. Patrick worked as a shepherd for his master, a Druid high priest in the religion of the ancient Celts.

In time Patrick came to view his enslavement as a test of his faith. During his six years of captivity, he became devoted to Christianity through constant prayer. He explained in his Confessions that the Lord had mercy on his youth and ignorance and gave him the opportunity to be forgiven of his sins and to be converted to Christianity.

At the age of twenty-two, Patrick had a dream, encouraging him to escape from Ireland. In that dream, the voice of God promised that he would find the way back to his homeland in England. Patrick began this journey by walking across Ireland to the coast where he convinced sailors to let him board their ship. After three days of sailing, he and the crew abandoned the ship in France and wandered, lost, for twenty-eight days—covering 200 miles in the process. At last, Patrick was reunited with his family in England.

Patrick recounts another vision he had a few years after returning home:

I saw a man coming, as it were from Ireland. His name was Victoricus, and he carried many letters, and he gave me one of them. I read the heading: “The Voice of the Irish.” As I began the letter, I imagined in that moment that I heard the voice of those very people who were near the wood of Foclut, which is beside the western sea—and they cried out, as with one voice: “We appeal to you, holy servant boy, to come and walk among us.”

Interpreting this vision as a call from God, Patrick became determined to free the Irish from paganism by converting them to Christianity.  He never lost sight of that vision.

As a free man, Patrick traveled to Auxerre, France, where he studied and entered the priesthood under the guidance of the missionary St. Germain. In 431, Pope Celestine consecrated Patrick as Bishop of the Irish and dispatched him to Ireland to spread the gospel.

There Patrick met with hostile resistance.  Legally, he was without protection.  He wrote that he was, on one occasion, beaten, robbed of all he had, and put in chains.  Patrick wondered if, perhaps, execution awaited him.

Regardless of that reception, it is said that Patrick converted the entire country of Ireland in less than thirty years. Through his preaching he convinced Druid priests and peasants alike that they would become “the people of the Lord and the children of God” by accepting Christianity.

Interestingly, Ireland had very few Christian martyrs. The willingness of the Irish people to accept Christianity was due in large part to Patrick’s familiarity with their culture and Celtic religion. The genius of Patrick’s approach was to mesh the symbols of Christianity with those of their ancient religion. The Celtic cross, for example, combines the most recognizable sign of the passion of Christ with the circle of life central to the fertility religion of the Celts.

According to legend Patrick used the three-leafed shamrock to teach the Irish the Christian doctrine of the Holy Trinity. Its green color and the number three were already considered sacred in ancient Celtic religion. Prominent in ancient Ireland was the belief in the Triple Goddesses named Brigid, Ériu, and Morrigan.

The Gaelic word seamrog means little clover. Most botanists affirm that white clover is the original, authentic shamrock. In the Upstate of South Carolina, white clover grows wild in many lawns. This same white clover plant is the plant that Patrick used to illustrate three persons in one God (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.) For this reason, shamrocks are a central symbol for St Patrick’s Day.

According to legend, Patrick is also credited with banishing all snakes from the Emerald Isle into the North Atlantic Ocean. The tale holds that during a forty-day fast, he was taking a stroll on a hilltop near the sea when he encountered the snakes. The forty days Jesus spent in the wilderness where he was tempted by Satan come to mind.

All biological and archaeological evidence suggests, however, that Ireland never had snakes after the ice age. Author Betty Rhodes has suggested that the snakes Patrick banished actually referred to the serpent symbolism of the Druids. Druid priests often wore tattoos of snakes on their arms.

In time Patrick brought Christian structures to Ireland by electing Church officials, creating councils, founding monasteries, and organizing the country into dioceses.

Though he was never formally canonized by a Roman Pope, Patrick is on the List of Saints and has been declared a Saint in Heaven by many Catholic churches. Saint Patrick is also venerated in the Eastern Orthodox Church.

Patrick founded his first church in a barn at Saul, which was donated to him by a local chieftain.  Many believe that Patrick died at Saul but was buried alongside St. Brigid and St. Columba at Down Cathedral in Downpatrick, County Down. Nearby on the crest of a hill is a statue of him with bronze panels showing scenes from his life.

The year of Patrick’s death is uncertain. Many scholars ascribe a date of 493, making Patrick 107 years old when he died. This improbability has led some historians to suggest a two-Patrick theory, the idea that two different people by the same name carried out the ministry ascribed to Patrick.

Saint Patrick’s Day is observed on March 17, the date of his death.  In the dioceses of Ireland, it is a holy day of obligation; outside of Ireland, it can be a celebration of Irish heritage.

March 17 usually falls during the season of Lent. For more than 1,000 years, the Irish have observed St. Patrick’s Day as a religious holiday. Traditionally on St. Patrick’s Day, Irish families would attend church in the morning and celebrate later. On Saint Patty’s Day, many folks enjoy a meal of corned beef, cabbage, and Irish potatoes. Others imbibe green beer and Irish whiskey until they see leprechauns. All of these customs celebrate the feast day of a Celtic Christian saint.

I have traced my family tree to the MacNeil clan, which originated in Celtic Ireland.  These kinfolk migrated to Scotland and then returned to Northern Ireland during the Irish Plantation. My American ancestors were Scots-Irish.

The notion that Saint Patrick initiated the custom of pinching folks who fail to wear green on March 17, the day he died, is silly.

Still, on Saint Patrick’s Day I plan to wear green, just to be sure.

Kirk H. Neely
© March 2014
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