It’s easy to forget that St. Patrick was a living, breathing person before he became better known as a Day and a Parade. Few people know much about him as a regular guy, so this seems like a good opportunity to take a look back through the ancient mists of time at who exactly he was.
Born as the unpronounceable Patricius Daorbae – he didn’t acquire the nickname “Saint” until later in his life – he was the son of wealthy Briton parents. The exact year of his birth is unknown, with some speculation putting his lifespan from 340 to 460 A.D., though most now believe he couldn’t have survived to be 120 with the pre-socialized healthcare system of ancient Britain. Although his father was a Christian deacon, it has been suggested that he took on the role for tax reasons rather than because he believed in anything in particular. That is actually true.
After a relatively uneventful childhood knocking around Wales and doing all the things that other Welsh children did at the time (trying to sacrifice each other, etc.), Patrick was taken captive at age 16 by a group of Irish raiders who had attacked his family’s estate. In a process strikingly similar to today’s NFL draft, Patrick was selected and transported back to Ireland where he spent six years in captivity, eventually becoming a first-team all-state herdsman.
Despite his skill in the position, he wasn’t particularly happy. He was constantly outdoors and away from people, lonely and afraid, and morbidly scared of sheep. It was at this time that he turned to religion for solace, becoming a devout Christian and dreaming of converting the Irish people to Christianity. Only later would he realize how convenient it would’ve been to actually learn the Irish language, which would come in handy in his eventual attempts at converting them.
Patrick escaped from his captors after a voice, which he believed to be God’s, spoke to him in a dream and told him it was time to leave Ireland (at least that’s what he thought “baa baa” meant in Irish). He walked more than 200 miles from where he was held in County Mayo – later scholars believe he may have taken a cab – to the Irish coast where he found a boat that was able to transport him back to Britain. Back in the land of his birth, he had a second revelation from an angel who told him in a dream to return to Ireland as a missionary. Longing to be through with the back and forth across the Irish Sea, he began a religious study that lasted 15 years before his ordination as a priest and his return to the Emerald Isle.
Already somewhat familiar with the Irish culture, Patrick chose to incorporate traditional ritual into his lessons of Christianity instead of attempting to eradicate native Irish beliefs. Since the Irish were used to honoring their pagan gods with fire, Patrick suggested the same method of celebration be used for Easter, and only later introduced them to the concept of the Bunny. They also viewed the sun as a powerful symbol so he grafted it onto a cross. Purists back in Rome probably would’ve had a fit if they’d known about all this accommodation, which probably inspired Patrick to develop his theology of “don’t ask, don’t tell.”
Surprisingly little is known about the details of his ministry. No link can be made between Patrick and any specific church. The Irish monastery system evolved after his time, as did the model of the church that Patrick had tried to establish. It is known that he had a way with the ladies, converting many wealthy women to Christianity, including some who became nuns.
His position as a foreigner was not an easy one. His refusal to accept gifts and protection from the powerful left him outside the normal ties of kinship, fosterage and affinity, and without whatever that was, he was sometimes beaten, robbed and put in chains. The Druids offered their impression of how Patrick and other Christian missionaries were seen by those hostile to them:
Across the sea will come Adze-head, crazed in the head,
His cloak with hole for the head, his stick bent in the head.
He will chant impieties from a table in the front of his house;
All his people will answer: “so be it, so be it.”
(Sounds a little like a mashup between James Joyce and Bono.)
Patrick is believed to have died some time in the 460’s, coincidentally enough on March 17, which is now celebrated as his day.
Modern scholars debate whether in fact there may have been more than one individual who became tied into the legend that became St. Patrick. According to the so-called “Two Patricks Theory,” many of the traditions later attached to St. Patrick were originally ascribed to Palladius, a deacon from Gaul who was sent to Ireland by the Pope. Additional early missionary work was done by Auxilius, Secundius and Iserninus, so there may actually have been close to a six-pack of Patricks, which would somehow be appropriate.
That might explain how he was able to spend so much time not understanding the Irish language while still mixing in the job of driving the snakes from Ireland (talk about multi-tasking). This story, perhaps the best known of the Patrick legends, may have been symbolic, since post-glacial Ireland never had snakes. Because of the serpent symbolism of the Druids, it may in fact represent the expulsion of pagan beliefs. He was also known to carry an ashwood walking stick that he would thrust into the ground wherever he was evangelizing, and supposedly his message took so long to get through to the people that the stick had taken root by the time he was done. I’ve sat through enough Christian sermons in my time to believe this legend might actually be true.
Patrick is said to be buried at Down Cathedral in Downpatrick, County Down, which seems appropriate for such a downer of a guy. He shares a graveyard with St. Brigid of Kildare and St. Columba, who are also considered patron saints of Ireland. All will be covered by a thick carpet of green, green grass to celebrate tomorrow’s holiday.