Except for the Virgin Mary, no other saint is as well known or inspires more devotion than Saint Patrick. At least in the parts of the world where emigrants from Ireland have settled, and the Irish diaspora is spread far and wide. Despite this, no biographical description of Patrick contains many certain details, and in fact legend and contradiction tend to overshadow the historical Patrick. Scholar Thomas F. O’Rahilly even contends that there were two Patricks whose life stories were intertwined.
What we know about Patrick that may be true:
- He was born in Britain of mixed Briton/Roman ancestry sometime around 415 (or maybe 387).
- Irish raiders captured him and forced him into slavery as a shepherd when he was a teenager.
- In his early 20’s, Patrick escaped from slavery and returned to Britain and reunited with his family.
- Having drawn closer to God during his enslavement, Patrick entered the priesthood and would eventually be ordained bishop and sent on a mission to Ireland.
- Patrick returned to Ireland around 433. While not the first person to teach Christianity to the Irish, his mission would have lasting impact and he converted many Irish.
- He wrote two texts that survive to this day, the Confessio and Epistola.
- He died on March 17, probably in 493 (or maybe 461).
Things that probably are not true about Patrick:
- Snakes were never indigenous to Ireland, so St. Patrick did not need to remove them. The story works on a symbolic level if you see the snake as the devil, as in the serpent in the Garden of Eden.
- Patrick probably never used a three-leaf clover as a model of the three-in-one nature of the Holy Trinity, although it is a wonderful simile and the shamrock is a lasting and powerful symbol.
What’s important about Patrick, whether man or myth, is the lessons of humility and courage that have incredible durability. My own relationship with Patrick begins with celebrating St. Patrick’s Day by attending the parade and all the great qualities of being Irish-American. Later in life I experience a more spiritual aspect of Patrick whether it be by praying in the Cathedral of St. Patrick or visiting places in Ireland where he walked. Last year I read the Confessio during Lent. I expect St. Patrick will continue to guide me throughout my life.
There is more on St. Patrick at Saint of the Day, Catholic Online, and Catholic Encyclopedia. Busted Halo offers Six Things You Should Know About St. Patrick. There is also a lovely reflection on St. Patrick at Flos Carmelli. It’s worthwhile to read and learn more about St. Patrick.